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Recently, I saw Portland Stage Company’s world premier production of Gregory Hischak’s “The Center of Gravity.” The play is a re-imagining of the invention of the airplane.
Wilbur and Orville Wright grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where they ran first a print shop and then a bicycle shop. They never married. Wilbur, the older brother, died in 1912, at the age of 45, of typhoid fever. Orville was born in 1871 and lived to the age of 76. They are credited with inventing the airplane.
The fundamental challenge was to overcome gravity using thrust and lift, and to fly under control without crashing. Several of the brothers’ competitors believed that the key to flight was power. Some focused their efforts on building bigger engines.
The Wrights developed an effective drive train consisting of a lightweight, aluminum-block engine to be their power source, and an extremely efficient (for its day) laminated wood propeller. Together, these generated an enviable amount of thrust.
The Wrights tested their flying machine at Kill Devil Hills, a set of dunes near Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks, a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina. At the time, it was a relatively inaccessible and secluded place, with a good, steady breeze, well-suited for conducting experiments in flight.
The brothers also tested scale models in a wind tunnel back home in Dayton. As a result, they discovered an error in the coefficient used to calculate air pressure and the lifting power of various wing shapes. They used their understanding to create more effective, relatively narrow, cambered wings for their craft.
The Wright’s most decisive advantage in the race to be the first to fly may have been their belief that control was more important than power. They developed a system to control their plane’s motion in three axes: a front elevator to control pitch, or the tendency of a plane’s nose to move up and down; wing warping to control roll, or the tendency of a plane to roll to one side along the axis of its fuselage; and a rear rudder to control yaw, or the tendency of a plane to skew left or right of its horizontal direction of travel.
On Dec. 17, 1902, Orville flew “The Flyer” for 12 seconds for 120 feet. But the brothers had trouble getting recognized for their achievement. The press, the U.S. government, and Europeans were slow to give them credit. To this day, there are those who argue that the brothers were not the first to fly and that others before and after them were.
Hischak makes a few big changes in the brothers’ story. The biggest is that the brothers weren’t the first to fly, that they never pulled it all together and got aloft.
The second change is to imagine that both brothers were in love with the same beautiful, intelligent woman, and that she helped them solve some of the technical problems inhibiting them in their effort to fly. This character, named Margot, marries the younger, level-headed Orville over the ebullient Wilbur, whom Hischak kills in a test flight.
The play is presented as a non-linear collage of vignettes from the brothers’ lives: their growing up together, competing with each other, annoying each other, inspiring each other, loving each other and Margot, building and testing their flying machines.
The set is minimalist with only a ramp, a ladder, a rug, a bed, a couch, and a model airplane suspended from above.
The actors’ performances are uniformly terrific.
In the process, the play explores themes such as who gets credit for accomplishment. Those who deserve it, whose efforts produce the achievement, or those who promote themselves and attract attention? Is any one person really the inventor of anything, or are all human achievements the culmination of group efforts, and inventors just lucky ones in the right place at the right time?
The play questions the value of accuracy and inaccuracy, truth and fiction. Accurate information may facilitate progress, while inaccurate information may obstruct it. But mistakes, misconceptions, failures, and distortions can be entertaining and provocative, if not inspiring, enlightening, and instrumental to achievement.
That’s what I call great art. We’ve got it here in Portland. At Portland Stage and other venues. It’s part of what makes this a great little city.
Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.