Cabaret meets medicine in new collaboration

In the 19th century, singers and public speakers used an ‘ammoniaphone’ to inhale a noxious mixture of hydrogen peroxide, ammonia and peppermint oil, in the misguided belief that it would improve their voices.

This urban legend, along with other superstitions of Victorian science, was brought to life through a cabaret, circus and storytelling event earlier this month.

The Curiosity Cabaret is the world’s first cabaret show presented in the style of a medical lecture, inspired by the famed Renaissance ‘cabinets of curiosity’. The event is part of a new collaboration that brings cabaret and circus artists together with academics.

The brainchild of medical doctor and circus performer Clive Selwyn, this month’s performance paired a history of science professor with circus performers and storytellers. Together, they studied bizarre avenues of Victorian medicine and science to inspire their acts.

‘I wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between science and circus,’ Dr Selwyn told IAM. ‘These are my two passions, and the history of medicine is such an incredibly rich of source of information that it’s an ideal subject to base a cabaret on.’

Dr Clive Selwyn
Dr Clive Selwyn

The show took place in Britain’s oldest surviving operating theatre at London Bridge from 2-7 December, under the theme of ‘The Science and History of Voice in the 19th Century’.

Dr Anna Maerker, senior lecturer in history of medicine at King’s College London, created a document containing lectures, drawings, photographs and music manuscripts that the show’s cast then drew on for inspiration.

‘Everything you see in the show has its foundation in science, and our aim is to educate as well as to entertain,’ continued Dr Selwyn. ‘Therefore, close attention to detail has been incredibly important. This meant lots of extensive research being required from all of the cast members.’

The Curiosity Cabaret
The Curiosity Cabaret

In addition to the ammoniaphone, other odd superstitions covered during The Curiosity Cabaret included German physiologist Johannes Müller’s reported use of parts of human corpses (plus his wife’s piano) to study voice production. Joseph Faber produced a similar-looking but artificial machine for public display, and his device allegedly had the ability to sing God Save The Queen.

This inaugural vocal-themed event was the first in what will be a series of ‘medical cabarets’, lectures and demonstrations taking place this year. ‘The next one, probably in May or June, will explore different areas,’ said Dr Selwyn. ‘The science of dreams, balance, sex … who knows? I’m currently in discussions with another academic.’