The Harry Harlow Project


Presented by Adelaide Festival Centre and mobilestates
Reviewed Wednesday 24th August 2011

Venue: Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Season: 6pm Thurs 25th, 8:30pm Fri 16th, 6pm Sat 27th 2011
Duration: 60min
Tickets: adult $30/conc $26/students $25/Green Room $19.95/groups 6+ $27
Bookings: BASS 131 241 or

Part of the inSPACE Mini Festival of New Performances.

American psychologist, Harry Frederick Harlow (1905-1981), is the subject of this play, in particular his studies between 1957 and 1963 into maternal separation and social isolation using rhesus monkeys. The Nature of Love was the title of his report on his findings, given in 1958 to the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. His research methods were controversial and his findings where disputed. Today his work would be considered highly unethical and he is considered to be the catalyst for the rise of the animal rights movement.

Writer and performer, James Saunders, plays Harlow and begins by reciting the first few sentences of that report. We find him in a small, clinically white room with only a bed, desk, chair and television. Over the next hour Harlow describes his work, his life and his relationships with others. Harlow's work began by taking baby monkeys away from their mothers and putting them with a wire frame model that offered food and another covered in terry towelling. The 'cloth mother' experiments showed that the baby monkeys preferred the cloth mother to the wire model, only going to it to get food. The rest of the time they would go to the cloth mother for comfort.

Current thinking about child rearing at that time said that children should not be given too much maternal contact as they might grow up weak and lacking in independence. Mothers were told to let their babies cry and not to rush to hold them. His experiments went further, removing the cloth mother to see what happened. He showed that monkeys deprived of physical contact developed more slowly than those who had a cloth mother to cling to as well as having social difficulties when put with other monkeys after a long isolation with just the wire mother for comfort and company.

Harlow then went much further, looking at how partial and total isolation could induce depression and psychoses, using what he called the 'pit of despair'. Another of his pieces of equipment he referred to as the 'rape cage'. His experiments were brutal and sadistic but, to him and his students, they were merely scientific studies, a means to an end. Interestingly, Harlow suffered from depression so had a vested personal interest in studying it. His death was from Parkinson's disease.

Under the acute direction of Brian Lipson, who also designed the stark set, Saunders recounts Harlow's coldly conducted experiments, as well as letting know about his personal life, including changing his surname from Israel to Harlow to avoid any limitations that might have been placed on his work and advancement due to anti-Semitic feelings that were strong at that time. In spite of what his original name suggested, he was not Jewish.

With all of the evidence before him about the importance of parental contact and the problems of isolation, based on his own work, it is surprising that he spent so little time with his first wife and two children that she divorced him because he put all of his time into his work. We also hear from his biographer, Deborah Blum, who fills in a few gaps, and from his son.

The darkness of the subject matter is made more so by juxtaposing against the lightness of the set, and composer, Kelly Ryall's, often disturbing music complements the subject matter. Martin Coutts provides the videos which show the monkeys and equipment that are referred to by Harlow as he tells of his work. Although the modern security cameras are a little out of place, the effect created when they are used, with the images projected on the back wall and with Saunders interacting with his own image, make it worth the slight intrusion of the 21st Century.

Then, it was research, today it would be deemed to be cruelty to animals in its worst from, and those of a sensitive nature might find some of the content disturbing. That said, this is a powerful and moving work about a man who spent his life turning around the prevailing ideas on child rearing that had, until that time, being doing more harm than good. His research methods, in hindsight, are hideous but, at that time, not uncommon.

Saunders gives a marvellous performance as Harlow, telling us a great deal about the man behind the research, his failings,insecurities and difficulties with his relationships. Try to catch a performance as this production closes on Saturday.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

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