Ether Dome at Hartford Stage

By Marlene S. Gaylinn

Inventors, scientists, medical professionals, and fans of the TV program “Secrets of the Dead,” would find this play about the early use of anesthesia quite interesting. However, theatergoers who enjoy plays with emotional impact may have to make accommodations because playwright, Elizabeth Egloff, has taken on an overwhelming assignment.

The program notes state that former Hartford Stage director, Michael Wilson, who returned to direct this cast of fine actors, gave Egloff this task. His object was to present a play depicting a significant, Hartford resident. In his pursuit, Horace Wells, a dentist whose statue stands in Hartford’s Bushnell Park, inspired Wilson. Wells’ claim to fame was a contribution he made towards the development of ether. He began to use anesthesia for his patients, but was given no credit for it -- mainly, because he dropped out of the medical arena after a disappointing demonstration of its use as a pain-killer. His former student, William Morton, stole his idea and was able to promote it successfully. Newspaper clippings about Wells and how his discovery led to the development of ether are nicely displayed in Hartford Stage’s upstairs lobby.

It seems that in her pursuit of a viable theme for the play, Egloff lost her focus -- because several men were involved in the discovery. The dentist, Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen) who initially demonstrated the use of anesthesia as a pain killer, his former dental student, William Morton (Tom Patterson) who promoted the idea, and surgeons, Charles T. Jackson (William Youmans) and John C. Warren (Richmond Hoxie) who further developed the use of anesthesia in the operating room, were all involved. In one way or another, all of these men contributed towards the invention and use of ether and each one had a claim to fame and fortune. Therefore the play, which has two intermissions and is almost three hours long, is not about one particular man and his great disappointment at not being recognized, but a documentary about patent rights, greed and medical ethics that took place during the 1840’s.

Some might say that these same arguments continue to this day. It’s one thing to have a new idea -- and another thing to present it successfully and receive a patent. And, after all this effort, it is difficult to protect yourself when someone steals your idea, simply makes a slight change, and is able to promote and get credit for it.

On This Subject: Dr. Henry Walden, who happened to be my great uncle, was also a dentist and a prolific inventor. He held numerous patents -- among them the first American monoplane, plus, other improvements in aviation. His exhibit and awards can be seen in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. A model of his early, heart and lung machine is displayed at the Roosevelt Airfield Museum in Long Island -- where Walden (one of the “Early Birds” -- or first 100 fliers) demonstrated his early planes. My uncle would have loved this play. Like Wells, his inventions were absorbed by the more powerful and influential -- in his case, the large airlines. Had
Henry Walden been a better businessman, you would certainly recognize his name today -- which only proves that under the “Ether Dome” or inconstant light, fame and fortune can be fickle. To clarify this statement: Ether Dome refers to the Massachusetts General Hospital’s old, operating room which had a dome window that issued natural light during surgery. One could say this dome might also signify the inconsistent light that fell upon scientific advancement.

Plays to Oct 5
Tickets: 860 527 5151
This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” September/October 2014


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