Ether Dome by Huntington Theatre Will Be Anything But Numb
Getting a tooth pulled without anesthesia—hilarious, right? Not in real life, of course.
But on stage in a new show, Ether Dome, the Huntington Theatre Company offers a dramatic—and oftentimes comedic—interpretation of a true story revolving around this very issue. The show is set in 1846 at Massachusetts General Hospital, where ether is first discovered as an anesthetic. The play explores “the ecstasy of pain, the sweetness of relief, and the hysteria that erupts when healthcare becomes big business.”
The medical thriller will have different effects on different people—while some will lean forward in curiosity, others will cringe and recoil at a few graphic scenes, such as the removal of a tumor from a man’s neck.
Ether—that’s the compound (C2H5)2O for you chemists out there—isn’t used much these days, but its role in revolutionizing surgery is still a highly regarded one. After its discovery, a lot more people were willing to undergo surgeries because the a solution to the pain problem had been discovered.
The main characters in Ether Dome are dentist Horace Wells and his protege William Morton. Wells was the one who felt great guilt over causing his patients pain and started giving his patients laughing gas to help them get through their medical procedures. Morton—call him the risk-taker—was the one who substituted laughing gas with ether.
“[Morton] had no scientific background whatsoever, but he had the nerve to risk the patient’s life and just do it,” says Ether Dome writer Elizabeth Egloff. Much of the play is centered around this conflict of who deserves credit for the discovery.
Wells, who never got credit for the discovery of ether, started “experimenting” with chloroform. In one instance, after getting high off the stuff, Wells went cuckoo in New York and threw sulfuric acid on a couple prostitutes. He was arrested, committed, and after coming to his senses, killed himself. Some say he was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Morton, meanwhile, is still credited today for being the one who discovered the anesthetic effects of inhaling ether. He patented it as “letheon,” pissing off his then-cohorts at Mass General. Later in life, Morton was riding in a carriage around Central Park with his wife when he hopped out and ran into the lake “to cool off.” Turns out he had had a stroke, which he ultimately died from.
The title of the play, Ether Dome, comes from the surgery space at Mass General where the anesthesia process was first demonstrated. Today, Ether Dome is a teaching amphitheater and historic landmark, and Mass General still celebrates Ether Day every year on October 16 to congratulate employees for their years of service to the hospital. The public can visit Ether Dome at 55 Fruit Street free of admission, and you can also see a monument commemorating the discovery in the Public Garden.
Controversy, gore, comedy, and a Massachusetts medical history lesson to boot? Ether Dome sounds like the perfect play to check out this All Hallows’ Eve. Just leave the sulfuric acid at home.
Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Ether Dome—written by Elizabeth Egloff and directed by Michael Wilson—opens Friday, October 17, and runs through November 23 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. Learn more at huntingtontheatre.org.