Frank Basloe on Obedience, Shocks, Learning, Stanley Milgram, Yale in the 1960s and PLEASE CONTINUE

Previews begin this week for this year's EST/Sloan Mainstage production, PLEASE CONTINUE, a new play by Frank Basloe about psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous “obedience” experiments, directed by EST's Artistic Director, William Carden. Basloe’s play focuses on the very first pilot studies Milgram supervised as a young assistant professor of social psychology at Yale University in the fall of 1960. In these early studies Milgram explored with undergraduates the methodology and procedures he would later use in 1961 with New Haven residents in the experiments that made him famous. 

In these experiments the subject thinks he is testing the effect of punishment on learning. The subject is instructed to give a “learner” a shock every time he gets an answer to a word test wrong, and to increase the intensity of the shocks with each wrong answer. The shocks, however, are not real and the “learner” is faking being shocked. What the experiment is really testing is how obedient the subject will be in pursuing the goal of the experiment: will he continue to administer shocks even as the “learner” screams louder and louder in pain?

We first interviewed Frank Basloe in 2014 when PLEASE CONTINUE had a Roughcut Production as part of the 2013-2014 First Light Festival. Now we had more questions. 

How did you first become interested in Stanley Milgram’s experiments?

Many people had that experience in a college or high school psychology course where they were shown Milgram’s Obedience video, but I first stumbled upon them about fifteen years ago in an article (I can’t even recall which publication).  With my curiosity piqued I watched the videos of the experiment and was definitely taken with the visceral quality of what Milgram had set up – it’s extraordinarily powerful viewing. However, I really became interested as I read more about how he devised the various conditions and went about setting it all up.  As a dramatists myself, I have great appreciation for how carefully he calibrated the entire "narrative" from the script to the casting to the set. 

PLEASE CONTINUE has two well-known historical figures in the play: the psychologist Stanley Milgram and William Sloane Coffin, who was chaplain at Yale at the time the play takes place. What kind of research did you do to create these characters? How closely do you think they resemble the actual persons? Are any of the other characters in the play based on actual people?

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Originally the play focused on Stanley Milgram and as part of my research I did speak with students who knew him at Yale, colleagues of his, and his biographer, and made some trips to the Milgram Archives at Yale.  William Sloane Coffin slipped into the play in later drafts and is based on the individual I gleaned from his biography and sermons.  Both of the characters are fairly true to the essence of Milgram and Coffin and the events they were grappling with at this point in their careers (one a young professor; the other a young chaplain), but they are still very much characters of my own creation.  The two Yale students running the Obedience experiments in the play are loosely inspired by the two undergraduates who did just that in the fall of 1960.

In PLEASE CONTINUE you don’t just tell the story of the Milgram experiments. You also have a parallel story concerning questions of responsibility, guilt and punishment that involves a group of college students abusing a young girl. Why did you decide to intertwine these two stories?

As I researched the Milgram portion of the play, I came upon this scandal which took place at Yale at approximately the same time, with twenty students being suspended from school (coincidentally the same number of students that participated in the pilot obedience experiments portrayed in the play). In pouring through the Yale Daily News from that period I read a student opinion piece in which the writer, in commenting on the scandal and its aftermath, basically wrote that “if just one of the students involved had said ‘no, this is wrong,’ this whole thing could have been stopped.”  For me that had great resonance with what Milgram was trying to demonstrate with his experiments on the very same campus.

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You set your play on the Yale campus at the time the actual experiments took place. How much do you think the issues in the play are part of the fabric of that time? Of Yale? Do you think the outcome of the Milgram experiments would be different if they were conducted today?

The play takes place primarily in the fall of 1960 as the Nixon/Kennedy election is taking place. I think that was definitely a transitional period in the U.S. with the move from Eisenhower to Kennedy.  It’s also around this time that Adolf Eichmann is captured and tried in Jerusalem and Hannah Arendt famously covers it for The New Yorker (which became her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil). All these events will be tied very closely with Milgram by the time press coverage of the experiments comes out in 1963. 

Milgram had originally planned to just do the main experiments with Yale students (the pilot experiments in the play were done with students), but due to his grant funding being delayed until the summer he was forced to recruit volunteers from New Haven (he also came to think that maybe Yale students were inclined to be a little too obedient).  I do think having the experiments on the Yale campus in a Yale interaction laboratory created a certain “sanctioned” expectation for the people from the community who were participating. Whether the effect on the outcomes was significant I don’t know – there are those who believe the experiments tell us something about human behavior and others who think it’s all about situation.  I sit pretty squarely on the fence. As for what the outcome would be like today, I sadly doubt the compliance percentage would be all that different. 

What I like about PLEASE CONTINUE is how you examine the impact of the Milgram experiments on the people conducting them, both the “learner” (the guy the subject thinks is getting shocked) and the experimenter. Who do you think were more troubled by the results? Do you know whether the experiments had any long-term impact on the subjects? The learners? The experimenters?

An Australian psychologist, Gina Perry, published an interesting book in 2012, Behind the Shock Machine. She actually tracked down a number of the participants in the experiments and there were many subjects who were powerfully impacted by what they had done.  Though I’d previously been led to believe that Milgram was debriefing his subjects in a responsible manner, this book makes it clear that it was generally not done in all that timely a fashion, if at all. 

PLEASE CONTINUE had a workshop production almost exactly two years ago as part of the 2013-2014 First Light Festival. How has the play changed since?

Much of the play is the same structurally, but we did remove one character which led to some shifting of scenes. In the interim between the workshop and the upcoming production a lot of the rewriting has focused on deepening the connections between the two storylines which run parallel to one another during the course of the play.

Milgram was a very controversial figure in his day. Have your feelings or opinion about him changed during the writing of your play?

I went into my research a great admirer of his work and that hasn’t changed. I think the situation he created with the obedience experiments is extraordinary (in particular given how young he was). I do have questions about what they really show us in the end, but I appreciate his ambition and willingness to attempt to grapple with such a complex issue.

Peter Sarsgaard recently played Milgram in the 2015 movie Experimenter, written and directed by Michael Almereyda in cooperation with Milgram's widow Sasha. Have you seen the movie? What did you think? How does it differ in its storyline and depiction of Milgram from PLEASE CONTINUE?

I did see Experimenter and loved both Sarsgaard’s portrayal and the film’s depiction of Milgram and his work; I thought it was creatively told in a manner worthy of Milgram and what he achieved. While the film did spend a lot of time focusing on the Obedience experiments it didn’t touch on the pilot work that was done in the Fall of 1960. PLEASE CONTINUE looks specifically at the ambitious and prodigious, 27-year-old Stanley Milgram, in his very first post after getting his PhD and in the early stages of developing the work for which he would become best known.

What do you think the significance of the Milgram experiments is for us today?

I believe that anyone who watches the video of the experiments has a moment where they contemplate what they would have done if they sat in that chair and were asked to press those switches.  I think if you’re honest with yourself that thought does creep in. For me, no matter what your opinion is of the validity of Milgram’s data, the situation, etc., that creeping thought makes them significant.

Preview performances of PLEASE CONTINUE begin Wednesday, February 3 at 7 PM and continue through Sunday, February 28.