The Shocking Truth: A Review of the Milgram Inspired Play “Please Continue”
Science and theater aren’t exactly typical bedfellows. After all, many people nowadays consider science to be something incredibly cold and emotionless, completely concerned with boring facts. Who would want to watch a play about a biologist testing the effects of different colored lights on plant growth? However, when an experiment ventures into the depths of human nature, the opportunities for drama are enormous. Frank Basloe and William Carden of Ensemble Studio Theatre clearly saw this potential when they crafted “Please Continue,” a slightly fictionalized play revolving around the infamous Milgram experiments.
The play consists of two interspersed storylines, both dealing with Yale students, which occurred within a year of each other in real life. In the central storyline, a professor named Stanley Milgram convinces an eager student named James Sanders to run an experiment to see how much pain students will inflict upon their fellows at the orders of an authority figure. The experiment goes as follows: the subject is told to test another person’s memory of certain pairs of words. Every time the person makes a mistake, the subject is required to deliver a shock, increasing the voltage each time. The person who is learning the word pairs, who is actually an actor who isn’t even hooked up to the shock generator, screams louder with every successive shock, eventually yelling that he wants to get out. If the subject doesn’t want to continue delivering shocks, the experimenter is supposed to respond with a verbal prod such as “please continue” or “the experiment requires that you continue” until he continues delivering shocks. The play depicts the subject’s oscillations between morality and obedience so powerfully that it is almost painful for the audience to watch.
In the other storyline, uneasy student Francis Dunleavy talks to Reverend Coffin to deal with his guilt for succumbing to peer pressure and taking part in a gang rape at Yale. He recalls that he didn’t want to do it, but fellow students kept chanting his name until he obeyed. Francis contemplates turning himself over to the police, but Reverend Coffin convinces him to seek something beyond punishment: atonement. Though neither the reverend nor the play explain what this atonement consists of, Francis is spurred to examine his guilt in greater depth.
By juxtaposing these two unconnected incidents, the play highlights what the two have in common. Francis Dunleavy inflicted pain upon someone else in the thralls of obedience, just like Milgram’s subjects. He, like all those involved in the Milgram experiments, is left to grapple with the terrible knowledge that good people can do monstrous things when responding to social pressures. In a similar way, films sometimes juxtapose shots of unrelated events to highlight a unifying intellectual idea. For example, in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, the movie cuts from a shot of a moving flock of sheep to a shot of a crowd of people exiting a subway. The message is that the people, like the sheep, have no will of their own and are merely being shepherded from one place to another.
However, Francis Dunleavy and the subjects of Milgram’s experiment are not the only characters in the play to succumb blind obedience. The play ironically points out that James Sanders, who is running the experiment, is also obeying orders to cause others pain. In running the experiment, he forces students to follow his orders, refusing to let them leave even though they tremble, moan, and dig their nails into their skin from the stress. Since Sanders cannot debrief the students (lest they tell other students and ruin the experiment), the subjects are left crippled with guilt because they believe they tortured their fellow student. And why is he inflicting all this pain on innocent people? Because he needs to obey his professor, Milgram. Reverend Coffin too has obeyed orders which ran against his morality. When he was in the army, he watched as Russian men joyously thanked the American army for their kindness, knowing full well that the next day, the Russians would be sent back to Russia to their deaths. Since he was in the army, he was required to obey. Milgram, discussing his motive for constructing the experiment, mentions that, as a Jew, he always wondered how so many ordinary German soldiers obeyed commands to send the Jews to the gas chambers. The play provides more than enough side stories to prove that obedience plays a powerful role throughout human existence, outside of the artificial world of Milgram’s experiment.
The most underwhelming part of the play was the ending. The audience expects the two storylines of the play to connect in a meaningful way. Personally, I predicted that Francis, the repentant rapist, would sign up for Professor Milgram’s experiment. The experiment would give him a second chance, in which he would refuse to obey orders against his moral compass and he would rescue the “captive” student. This hypothetical ending would have been uplifting, because it would have declared that there is great good in humanity.
Similarly, one of the final sequences in The Dark Knight utilizes a social experiment to give humanity a chance to redeem itself. In that sequence, the joker, who believes that humanity is, at its core, evil and selfish, rigs two ferries with explosives and tells the passengers that they must blow up the other ferry if they would like to survive. If neither ferry detonates the other, both boats will explode. The Joker believes that one of the groups will use the detonator. However, despite the Joker’s hypothesis, neither boat activates the detonator. The people on the boats overcome the experiment’s pessimistic outlook and declare that humanity, at its core, is good and selfless.
However, the play does not have a similar “faith in humanity” ending. Francis never really gets a chance to show that people can be stronger than social pressures. As a matter of fact, in the entire play, we don’t even see the people who decided to walk away from the experiment before giving the learner the final shock. The two storylines of the play only converge halfheartedly in the final scene, in which James Sanders, the student experimenter, drinks tea with Francis and his girlfriend. Why didn’t the play connect the two stories in a more powerful way? The play was not really bound by history in this regard, because, though there was an actual sexual abuse scandal at Yale, the specific character of Francis was an invention of the playwright. Thus, they could have placed Francis in the experiment if they really wanted to.
The reason “Please Continue” chose not to use the ending I was thinking of, or any other uplifting ending, is because it would have sugarcoated the terrible thrust of the Milgram experiments. Unlike drama, science doesn’t care about individual heroes. After all, Francis acting heroic would not change the fact that, in the first round of the experiment, sixty-five percent of the test subjects actually gave the learner the full 450 volt shocks! The play stays true to the spirit of science because, instead of distracting the audience with a dramatic depiction of a lone heroic act, the play leaves both the characters and the audience wrestling with the moral implications of a very real dark side of human nature.