Stinkpioneer is about the chemical warfare from the trenches in World War I...and more
Stinkpioneer, currently playing at the Drayton Arms Theatre, explores a seldom discussed yet profoundly distressing aspect of World War I: chemical warfare. The script articulately situates us within this murky chapter of history, serving as a poignant reminder of the atrocities of war. The First World War marked the introduction of large-scale chemical warfare, a grim game-changer that escalated the casualties to an unprecedented scale. With chlorine, mustard gas, and phosgene introducing a horrifyingly new dimension to battlefields, it indeed became a case of scientific ingenuity harnessed for devastating purposes.
Despite being the only person on stage, Stinkpioneer's writer and solitary performer James Boyd brings an entire era to life
The protagonist of the story is James Franck, the German physicist and Nobel laureate. The story is narrated from his point of view and is inspired by his life. James Boyd, the maestro behind 'Stinkpioneer' and its solitary performer, delivers an incredibly versatile and mesmerising performance as Franck.
Through his multiple personas, each meticulously crafted and compellingly distinct, Boyd exhibits a brilliant aptitude for facial expression and body language, his every gesture and posture serving to augment his narration and breathe life into his varied characters. His performance never once feels like a monotonous recitation of history. Instead, it's as if he were a time-traveller, having lived through these grim episodes and returning to recount his haunting experiences.
Stinkpioneer and the Battlefield of the Mind
But what sets Stinkpioneer apart is the exploration of inner conflict, particularly the ongoing struggle between morality and ego. We witness Franck grappling with the subjectivity of morality. He is torn between duty and humanity, between external validation from society and internal conscientiousness, between deferring to authority and asserting independence.
We see in Franck’s mentor and superior, Fritz Haber, the ambivalence of the modern scientist who has been praised as a benefactor of mankind and, at the same time, accused of being a war criminal. Indeed, Haber was recognised with the highest honour in his field, the Novel Prize for Chemistry, in 1918, only a few years before his protégé Franck would win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1925.
Franck's character embodies a pretty common human quandary, caught between the cacophony of his conscience and the seductive whispers of his ego. On one hand, his inner voice ceaselessly echoes the sentiments of empathy, cautioning him against his destructive actions. It attempts to appeal to his inherent goodness, urging him to retreat from this path of destruction. Yet, on the other hand, his ego basks in the intellectual stimulation he receives, the challenge that dares him to push his abilities to the brink, to tap into his latent potential and deliver for a superior (Haber) who sets a high standard and who simply won’t tolerate or appreciate mediocrity. It revels in the accolades showered upon his intellect and his contributions. Franck is ensnared in the exhilarating but dangerous dance of recognition and affirmation, each step taken with precision and brilliance, each performance boosting his ego but tearing at his conscience.
At its heart, Stinkpioneer is a gripping exploration of how we are shaped not only by what we stand to gain but also by what we risk losing
Adding another layer to Franck's conflict is the irreversible nature of the power, responsibility, and respect bestowed upon him. Once given, these intangible rewards cannot be retracted without leaving an indelible void. The concept of Prospect Theory - which suggests that losses are felt more deeply than equivalent gains - is in play here. Franck's experience of power and intellectual appreciation, once removed, plunges him into a psychological loss greater than the initial joy he experienced. In essence, he becomes an empty vessel, the vacuum left by the retraction of respect and power gnawing at him more painfully than if he had never tasted them at all. This absence amplifies the feeling of emptiness, making the loss more palpable. Consequently, Franck's actions are influenced not just by his personal moral compass and ego, but also by the looming fear of loss and the debilitating emptiness that follows. It's a gripping exploration of how our decisions are shaped not only by what we stand to gain but also by what we risk losing.
The only sticking point of the play was that despite the intimate setting of the Drayton Arms Theatre, Boyd was inaudible at times, sometimes even reducing his voice to a whisper.
In summary, Stinkpioneer is a fascinating exploration of a grim facet of our past, brought to life by the captivating performance of James Boyd. It pushes the audience to ponder the true cost of war and the inner conflicts it brews. It's not just a play about a forgotten chapter of World War One; it's a stark reminder of the darker recesses of human potential and the constant struggle between morality and ego.
Watched June 2023 at the Drayton Arms Theatre, London