Dr Doolittle may have wanted to talk to the animals, but in the 1960s NASA was determined to make them speak English. In a spectacular act of hubris, the agency had decided that if any aliens came to earth, we should attempt to communicate with them in the manner of an aristocrat abroad – slowly, loudly and in perfect English.
Breach Theatre’s production Tank explores the dark and dubious experiments of John C. Lilly and Margaret Howe (Now Margaret Howe Lovatt) carried out in their specially adapted laboratory on the paradise Caribbean island of St Thomas. Working with three dolphins – Peter, Pam and Sissy – Lilly and Howe spent years teaching them to recreate the sounds and sense of human speech. Oh, and giving them LSD just to see what happens...
The play uses readings of verbatim transcripts from the training sessions and clever sound manipulation to capture the frustrating interactions between the scientists and their aquatic subjects. Are the dolphins really learning to count or to convey meaning, or are the scientists just hearing what they want to hear in the clicks and whistles?
This question is explored in more unsettling detail as Howe’s most audacious experiment unfolds. She grows frustrated with the short daily training sessions, and feels that a dolphin might learn more if she lives with them in their world one on one, “as a mother teaches a child”. Part of the lab is flooded, and Howe and Peter – her favourite subject – are put together for three months, night and day.
By this point Peter is an adolescent, becoming sexually mature and aggressive. After withstanding several violent attacks, Howe realises that the only way to subdue the animal is to masturbate him. Played as an uncomfortably erotic scene between two half-clothed performers – one clad only in swimming trunks and a latex mask – we’re asked whether this is a love story unfolding between a woman and a dolphin, or are we just seeing what we want to see? (KA)
Tank is on at 10.30 in the Pleasance Jack Dome until August 20th. Wheelchair Access, Level Access, Hearing Loop - https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/tank
Mavericks of the Mind – John C. Lilly: http://www.mavericksofthemind.com/lilly-int.htm
John Lilly’s paper on the use of LSD in dolphins: http://www.psymon.com/psychedelia/articles/lilly.htm
Review of The Girl Who Talked To Dolphins, a documentary about Margaret Howe: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10860676/The-woman-who-lived-in-sin-with-a-dolphin.html
The Guardian, 'The Dolphin Who Loved Me': https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/08/the-dolphin-who-loved-me
4 bizarre experiments that should never be repeated, including Lilly and Howe’s dolphin work: http://mentalfloss.com/article/26483/4-bizarre-experiments-should-never-be-repeated