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Drama: Human Error (Winter 2021)

Starting points for research in drama

Human Error


Madelyn and Keenan are NPR-listening, latte-sipping blue-staters who are planning a family. Or they were, anyway, until the fertility clinic screwed up and accidentally implanted their fertilized embryo in another uterus — a uterus belonging to a small-government churchgoing NRA cardholder. Can these ideologically hostile couples make it together through nine months of gestation without killing each other?



Basic History and Facts

Ohio is the 35th largest state by size, but 7th largest by population. In the past several decades, politically is has become an important swing state and has been won by both Democrat and Republican presidential candidates (in the 2004 election Bush won the popular vote by less than 120,000 votes and is accounted for why he won the election). Ohio is traditionally a large commercial state and is the home of large manufacture plants that have been largely driven by a large amount of natural coal deposits and access to copious quantities of iron ore from Minnesota (easily shipped to Ohio via the Great Lakes). With this combination, Ohio has been a leader in steel production and steel-manufactured goods which historically was an important economic driver for the state. However, in the latter part of the 20th century, with consumers wanting more goods that were cheaper and less durable, the steel-based economy in Ohio quickly nosedived and the state faced significant economic issues until the state government helped create pathways for new industries and commercial sectors to emerge in the 80s and 90s. Additional information can be found at the Ohio article from the WorldMark Encyclopedia of the States .

Sylvania, Ohio, where the play is set, is a small city (less than 20,000 residents) outside of Toledo. It is located on the Ohio-Michigan border. The population is overwhelmingly white (92.4% according to the 2010 census) with African Americans making up less than 3% of the city's population. Jim and Heather's lake house is almost certainly on Lake Erie (one of the Great Lakes), which is roughly 10 miles away.

Ohio State and U of Michigan rivalry

College football in most of this country is a way of life, and that's certainly true in Ohio. No matter where people went to college, the majority of Ohio residents will be fans of The Ohio State University (see this interesting map and article on NCAA college football fans from the New York Times: The rivalry between Ohio State and University of Michigan has been "official" since at least 1897 when the two universities' football teams met for the first time. It is one of the longest continual rivalries as they have played annually since 1918 in a match titled "The Game" (which is almost indicative of how important this is to the fans, as it's literally called THE GAME, as opposed to the other games that are played throughout the season). It has been ranked as the greatest college sports rivalry at different times and by different venues, perhaps most importantly by ESPN.

Streaming Video

  • The Great Lakes - explore the natural glory and splendor of Lake Erie (where the lake house is located) and its fellow Great Lakes
  • Discover Sylvania - a short video from the Sylvania Chamber of Commerce to learn more and see the small city


In Vitro Fertilization and Freezing Embryos

The Mayo Clinic provides good and accessible information to better understand In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). The highlights:

  • IVF is used to help a woman become pregnant if she has had serious issues with natural or less intrusive fertility treatments.It's also sometimes used to help prevent specific genetic problems.
  • Process: Mature eggs are harvested from the ovaries and are then fertilized with sperm in a lab. The IVF process normally will take about three weeks. The embryo can then be implanted in the same woman or in a gestational carrier (i.e., another woman who will carry the embryo to birth).
  • "Extra" embryos: Because IVF is a very intrusive procedure, doctors will almost always create more embryos than they believe are needed for a woman to have the number of children she desires. During implantation, a doctor will normally implant more than one embryo because they will not all attach and continue to develop. A woman will still typically have more embryos than are needed for a course of IVF and she can choose to have them frozen for the future, donate them to another couple who needs embryos, donate them to a research facility, or discard them.
  • Freezing: Some embryos will be damaged during the freezing or thawing process, but if that doesn't occur, there is no known limit on the length of time that an embryo will still be viable. There is at least one known case where an embryo was stored for more than twenty years, implanted, and then successfully grew into a healthy baby.

Making Grace: A documentary following a lesbian couple who go through the in vitro process (as well as many other issues surrounding pregnancy and the birthing procedure).

60 Minutes: A Surplus of Embryos: A fairly short segment originally broadcast on 60 Minutes that examines the ethics of long-term embryo storage and what happens to them when parents don't or no longer want them.

Tonglen Meditation

In Human Error, Madelynn intends on using "tanglen" (which is probably an error on the part of the playwright, and actually intended to be spelled as "tonglen") meditation as part of her birthing plan to avoid/ignore pain. It is a breathing practice that anyone can attempt. It is accomplished by thinking of people you want to help and/or are suffering when you breathe in. This brings the suffering into yourself, but it is quickly internally transformed into healing, relief, and compassion on the exhale. 

Where does the supposed pain relief for Madelynn come into play? If done correctly, practitioners believe that they become synchronized with other who are suffering and that by healing the other's pain they will also heal their own similar pain. Additional information can be found at the following sites:

Research Institutes and Think Tanks

A research institute is a group of scientists, scholars, etc. who work on a similar topic to advance the understanding of a particular topic. They are generally focused on science (particularly applied, but also theoretical), but there are some that are also focused on social sciences. Most research institutes are funded by higher education, and frequently account for a large amount of research funding that an institution receives, or by the government. Staff in these institutes will normally publish their findings through peer-reviewed, scholarly journals and--in the case of the hard sciences--hold patents to discoveries and inventions that their work has created.

A think tank is a group of scholars, etc. who are funded by one or more groups to create white papers (i.e., scholarship that isn't generally published through traditional periodical or monograph channels) on a particular subject. Think tanks are normally funded by government, scholarly, or philanthropic efforts. They generally work to think through issues and problems in order to help inform public policies. Think tanks are partisan, and pretty much follow the political leanings of their funding sources.


The idea of working in a research institute or think tank could certainly seem like an easy or fun job (i.e., "just sitting around" p.18) to someone like Jim who owns a small business and is probably fairly busy with hands-on tasks. Working in a research institute is also about as far from the experience of Jim as one could possibly get.

Mixing Politics

There are several different adages about friendship and politics not mixing well. Anyone who is on social media has almost certainly been exposed to political diatribes from someone who has different political leaning from them. This poses the question, can people with different political leanings actually be friends? Rather than attempt to answer this question, let's explore some of the deeper reasons surrounding this issue.

It might be helpful to understand a bit of the different mindset between conservatives and liberals. According to a sociological study done by Yale scholars (as reported in this Washington Times article), part of the major difference between being conservative and liberal is how physically safe and secure a person feels. When Republicans (i.e., conservatives) were asked to first imagine that they were either 1.) invincible or 2.) had the ability to fly, and then were questioned about their feelings related to various social issues like gay rights, immigration, etc.. Those who were asked to imagine that they were invincible answered the questions much more in line with Democrats (i.e., liberals) than those Republicans who were asked to imagine that they could fly.

When looking at the actual interactions between people with differing political views, a great article by Iyengar and Westwood really strikes to the heart of the issue of WHY there is so much animosity. It's a fairly natural human reaction to ascribe negative feelings to the outgroup (i.e., people who are not in your group, no matter what that group might be) as opposed to those in your ingroup, and this most certainly applies to political affiliation. Social scientists believe that this has become more volatile in part due to the negative campaigning done by candidates against the opposing party. Their series of studies demonstrated that political affiliation was more polarizing than race--which is typically considered to be the most polarizing category in the US--when people made various decisions (both implicit and explicit). While this study demonstrated that bias was strongly exhibited by both conservatives and liberals, their literature mentions that traditionally this bias is more strongly exhibited by conservatives (i.e., Republicans tend to be more biased against non-Republicans than Democrats tend to be against non-Democrats).

In the context of this play, it's easy to see how these two couples of differing political affiliations and social leanings, might have a difficult time becoming close. Not only do they have the horrible situation of the embryo mix-up, but they then need to attempt to overcome the major differences in their beliefs and way of life. I found it interesting that (at least my reading of the play) leads me to believe that liberal Madelynn is much more judgemental than conservative Heather. Heather in particular, is very open to learning and being non-judgemental with her embrace of Madelynn's yoga practice (even though her church had previously frowned on it). Both men, liberal Keenan and conservative Jim, are generally much more to understanding "the other."