Obedience, Shocks, and Learning: Frank Basloe talks about PLEASE CONTINUE, his new play about Stanley Milgram’s controversial experiments

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2523","attributes":{"alt":"Frank Basloe","class":"media-image","height":"186","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 279px; height: 186px; margin: 10px; float: right;","title":"Frank Basloe (Photo by Ian Forester)","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"279"}}]]This week The EST/Sloan First Light Festival is showcasing the Roughcut Workshop of 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 experiments Milgram conducted as a young professor at Yale University in the fall of 1960.

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 interviewed playwright Frank Basloe this week about PLEASE CONTINUE:

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

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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 experiment 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?

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2525","attributes":{"alt":"William Sloane Coffin c. 1968","class":"media-image","height":"442","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 260px; margin: 10px; float: right; height: 373px;","title":"William Sloane Coffin c. 1968","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"308"}}]]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 very loosely inspired by the two students 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 a number of students being suspended from school.  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.

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?

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2526","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"150","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 200px; height: 150px; margin: 10px; float: left;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"200"}}]]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 US 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.  

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?

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2527","attributes":{"alt":"The Milgram Experiment ad for volunteers","class":"media-image","height":"700","style":"line-height: 1.538em; width: 224px; height: 350px; margin: 10px; float: right;","title":"The Milgram Experiment ad for volunteers","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"448"}}]]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. 

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.

Performances of PLEASE CONTINUE begin Thursday, February 6 at 7 PM and continue through Sunday, February 9.

Watch a documentary about Stanley Milgram's May 1962 "obedience" experiments with 40 adult males from the New Haven area (please refresh the page if you don't see the video):