Kevin Lapin

The Subtle Body

…A dyspeptic British doctor on an all-noodle diet,

…a Chinese cookbook author looking for an international publisher,

…a British wife discovering multiple marriages, and

…a Chinese translator at the heart of it all.

—It’s an 18th century love rectangle, where everyone must confront a foreign interpretation of the human heart.

Meet John Floyer, eccentric, dyspeptic, and idealistic–sometimes to the point of delusion. His work to date, A History of Cold Bathing, Both Ancient and Modern hasn’t won him much renown, so he’s off to China to make his name. There, he “discovers” pulse diagnosis–nevermind the Chinese have known about it for centuries.

Floyer doesn’t fully understand the practice, but he’s willing to publish it–especially if can cement his place in the Academy of Sciences and keeps his creditors from repossessing his bathing tub. Along with him is his wife, Charlotte, a whip-smart woman with no outlet for her passions–until she meets her husband’s Chinese translator Wang Ming. Soon everyone’s trying to sort out new interpretations of the human heart…

The Subtle Body is an historical comedy with contemporary resonance. It tells the story of 18th-century British doctor John Floyer and his wife, Charlotte, who travel to China to research Chinese medicine. In China, Floyer encounters Dr. Zhang, a doctor successfully performing the traditional Chinese medical practice of pulse-diagnosis. In pulse-diagnosis not one, but six pulses are felt in the wrist to diagnose illnesses as complex as liver cirrhosis and cancer. Floyer is at a loss to prove how the Chinese practice works using Western reasoning and the scientific method; as far as he’s concerned, there’s only one pulse, and it comes from the heart.

Meanwhile, his wife Charlotte must also confront a new interpretation of the human heart. During the course of her husband’s research, she falls in love with his Chinese translator, Wang Ming. When the already married Ming asks Charlotte to join his household as his second wife (an accepted tradition in historic China), she is forced to reconsider her views of love and marriage, and come to a deeper understanding of her culture and herself. The play follows the couple’s attempts to reconcile these conflicts, and how one of them eventually fails, and one succeeds.

The Subtle Body explores how we create links and bridges with other cultures and whether we can ever truly move beyond our own culture to understand another. With rapid globalization and the explosive economic development of China, the Western and the Eastern historical ways of seeing the world offer not just points of contrast, but opportunities for mutual collaboration and growth. But such opportunities require self-knowledge, trust, and the willingness to understand one another. The Subtle Body considers these contemporary necessities through a historical comedy.


Selected Bibliography of John Floyer:

Psychrolousia. Or, the History of Cold Bathing: Both Ancient and Modern. in Two Parts. the First, Written by Sir John Floyer, … the Second, Treating … Cold Baths. … by Dr. Edward Baynard. Nabu Press, 2010.

Medicina gerocomica: Or, The Galenic art of preserving old men’s healths (Aging and old age). Arno Press, 1979.

The physician’s pulse-watch; or, an essay to explain the old art of feeling the pulse, and to improve it by the help of a pulse-watch. In three parts. … By Sir John Floyer, … Gale ECCO, 2010.

A treatise of the asthma. Divided into four parts. In the first is given a history of the fits, … The third edition, corrected. Gale ECCO, 2010.


Further Reading:

The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine, By Shigehisa Kuriyama. Zone Books, 1999.

A Brief History of Medicine: From Hippocrates’ Four Humours to Crick and Watson’s Double Helix, by Paul Strathern. Carroll and Graf. 2005.

Written and researched by Megan Campisi with the help of Sarah Chase from the Brooklyn Acupuncture Project (interview) and Dr. Zhang from Fudan Hospital, Shanghai (interview).

Special thanks to: Grant Zhong (translation), Michael Liebenluft (direction), Takenouchi (design), Alec Duffy & Jack, Kevin Thorsen (research), Elena Yeo of 3rd Culture Theatre in Shanghai, Kurt Parker (graphics), Trilok Fusion Arts Center, Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center.

This show is a co-production of Gold No Trade and Mud/Bone Collective.

The Mud/Bone Collective and The Subtle Body are made possible through generous support from NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and New York State Council on the Arts.