A Night at the Museum
A Night at the Museum
Carl Djerassi's new play takes the audience to Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. By examining the scientific discovery that the "Youth from Mt. Madgalene" sculpture was created during the Renaissance, not under the Romans, the famous scientist-turned playwright raises some fundamental questions about the true nature of beauty. - By Karin Hanta
Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum is the setting for Carl Djerassi's play Phallacy. The plot is based on a real occurrence: In 1986, a chemical analysis of the bronze statue "Youth from Mt. Magdalene," thought to be a Roman original, revealed that the artwork was actually a Renaissance copy. A bitter argument between Kurt Gschwantler, art historian and director of the museum's antiquities collection, and Alfred Vendl and Bernhard Pichler, a team of chemists from the Universität für Angewandte Kunst, ensued.

Even though 1400 years had been ripped off the sculpture, further art history research suggested that it was actually a copy of the Roman original that had been discovered on Mt. Magdalene in Carinthia and then shipped to the Habsburg court in Spain in the 1500s. On stage, two actors portray the lead chemist and art historian. With a good deal of humor, they argue the points of whether inflation automatically diminishes the art historical merit of the sculpture or the viewer's pleasure in its beauty.

The play highlights the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the scientist (represented by Rex) versus the art historian (Regina) as they examine the age of an art object from widely different perspectives: esthetic connoisseurship versus cold material analysis. On April 19, 2007, there will be a reading of Phallacy and a talkback session with the author at the Austrian Cultural Forum.

From May 15 to June 10, New York's Cherry Lane Theatre will present a full production of the play with various matinee discussions with the author and the two chemists, Dr. Vendl and Dr. Pichler. On May 16, Dr. Djerassi and other panelists will take the stage to discuss the topic "Falling in Love with Hypothesis."

On May 19, Dr. Djerassi and Drs. Vendl and Pichler will discuss "The How-tos of Dating Art."

On May 20, Dr. Djerassi and other panelists will discuss the topic of "Bringing Science to the Stage." All talkback sessions will follow the 3 p.m. performance.

Carl Djerassi is an authority both in the field of science and art. After being expelled from Austria in 1938, he emigrated to the United States and received his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1945 from the University of Wisconsin.

In 1951, his group at Syntex in Mexico City was the first one to synthesize a steroid oral contraceptive. For this feat, he received the National Medal of Science as well as numerous other awards, including twenty honorary doctorates. This milestone discovery triggered the development of the birth control pill. Mr. Djerassi was appointed professor of chemistry at Stanford University in 1960 and became emeritus in 2002. While successfully marketing the application of his scientific discoveries at the Syntex and Zoecon corporations, he also started collecting works by Paul Klee in the mid 1960s.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has held rotating exhibitions of selections from his Klee collection since 1984 and a substantial portion of that collection will pass to that museum upon his death. To support emerging as well as accomplished artists in the field of literature, visual arts, music, dance and performing arts, Carl Djerassi also founded the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California in 1979 in memory of his daughter Pamela, a painter and poet, who had committed suicide the previous year.

In 1986, Dr. Djerassi's career took an about-face. He first started publishing poems and short stories. Since then, his creative production has been unstoppable. Five novels, two autobiographies, a memoir, and a collection of essays followed. All but one of his five novels (Cantor's Dilemma; The Bourbaki Gambit; Marx, Deceased; Menachem's Seed; and NO) follow the science-in-fiction genre (not to be confused with science fiction), which makes science accessible to readers and allows for the illustration and discussion of ethical dilemmas.

Since 1997, Mr. Djerassi has focused on writing plays with an initial focus on "science-in-theater." From antiquity to the Middle Ages, dialogues were once the accepted form for scientists to argue their points. Carl Djerassi has thus gone back to the roots of dramatic art.

He has also gone back to his geographical roots. In 2004, the Austrian Government offered Austrian citizenship to Carl Djerassi and his wife Diane Middlebrook, professor emerita of English at Stanford. The Austrian Postal Services also issued a stamp in Carl Djerassi's honor. It shows the face of the self-described "intellectual polygamist" entirely composed of microscopic steroid structures.

As a token of reconciliation with his former home country, Carl Djerassi set Phallacy in Vienna, the city of his birth. In 2004, he donated a sculpture by kinetic artist George Rickey entitled "Four Lines Oblique" to the Albertina Museum, where it is now permanently exhibited just outside the Museum on the "Bastei." A special German performance of Phallacy under the title Phallstricke (also the title under which the German Broadcasting Corporation, WDR, broadcast the play) was performed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna on November 23, 2006. What better site for a homecoming than the world-class museum across the Ring the Imperial Palace!

Carl Djerassi talks about Phallacy and his homecoming in the following dialogue:

KH: Professor Djerassi, can you briefly describe your emotional return to Austria. What made you reconcile with the country?

CD: I had only been back to Vienna a few times after World War II. As you know, the country took a long time to deal with its Nazi past. After World War II, I went to an international conference in Vienna in the late 1950s, but official Austrian scientific circles didn't really invite me back for decades. It was not until my fiction was translated into German in the early 1990s that I received an official invitation. And then it was the literati, not the scientists.

In 1999, my first play, An Immaculate Misconception premiered under the title Unbefleckt and was directed by Isabella Gregor at the Jugendstiltheater am Steinhof. Interestingly, I had picked the Viennese Art Nouveau theater in the Steinhof mental institution as the site of an important erotic chapter in my third novel, Menachem's Seed. The fact that An Immaculate Misconception was performed at the Jugendstiltheater meant quite a lot of me. Shortly thereafter, Carl Aigner, the director of Kunsthalle Krems, asked me whether I would lend a large part of my Klee collection to his museum for a summer exhibition. I think that that event and his efforts were instrumental in causing the Austrian government to offer me Austrian citizenship.

KH: Why did you decide to bequest the George Rickey sculpture Four Lines Oblique to the Albertina?

CD: I attended the inauguration of the newly renovated Albertina Museum in 2003 and was greatly impressed by the high level of sophistication of all the opening speeches and the overall quality of the renovation. When I went outside on the balcony, I realized that the only sculpture present was that of Archduke Albert. It was a little windy, and I thought a kinetic work of art would fit nicely in these surroundings. I really appreciated the fact that a government would invest 100 million euros in the renovation of a museum while other governments decided to go to war...

Incidentally, my wife and I had already given one Rickey sculpture to the city of San Francisco, which stands next to City Hall, and two other sculptures by the British sculptors Bill Woodrow and David Nash to the British Library in London. When the Albertina sculpture was unveiled, the plaque says exactly the same thing as the Austrian stamp issued in my honor: A gift from Carl Djerassi: Born in 1923, exiled in 1938, reconciled in 2004.

KH: You are in good company. In 2003, the Austrian Postal Services also issued a stamp in Arnold Schwarzeneggers honor.

CD: (laughs) I didn't know that! I only know about Jewish personalities on Austrian stamps since that was the title of a stamp exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Vienna in 2004, which also included "my" stamp even though it had not yet been officially released. They also included Johann Strauss because he had a Jewish grandfather. So unless Arnold Schwarzenegger had a Jewish grandfather, I wouldn't know about it ...

KH: The Austrian postal services also issued a stamp with an image of "The Youth from Mt. Magdalene," the subject of your play Phallacy. That happened in 1968 before it was known that the sculpture in Vienna was a Renaissance copy. In your play, you pit a chemist against an art historian to ruminate about two opposing methods of investigation: those of hard and exact science, and of art history, on the other, which is more open to interpretations. Where you ever inclined to take sides?

CD: I didn't want to be a referee. Otherwise, I would have lost my authorial freedom. No one wins in my play. Both the scientist and the art historian are self-centered and get too absorbed in their own hypotheses. Even though the statue is robbed of 1,400 years, the analysis only proves that this particular sculpture is not the original. Subsequent research has shown that the original was dug up on Mt. Magdalene near Klagenfurt in 1502 and then shipped to Spain. In my play, I ask what the difference between having a cast and the original is. By the way, the sculpture is still in the Antiquities Collection of the Kunsthistorische Museum, but now bears a sign that it is a copy. It does not say, however, that it was a chemist who made the initial discovery.

KH: Did you have any contact with the real chemist and art historian that waged a battle over the statue?

CD: They all came to the opening of the play at the Kunsthistorisches Museum last November. The two chemists, Professors Vendl and Pichler, whom I portray as professor Rex and his assistant Otto in my play, will also come to the matinee talkback sessions at the Cherry Lane Theater on May 19. I also met the art historian, Dr. Gdschwantler, who in my play is a female director, at the performance in November at the Kunsthistorische Museum. I believe that until then, the chemists and art historians had still not mended fences. But at the dinner after my play, I learned that they were planning to have a drink together just like my characters at the end of Phallacy.

KH: Whats in the title Phallacy?

CD: First of all, it deals with the dictionary definitions of fallacy: "Guile, trickery, deception, erroneousness" and the like. But since the phallus of the sculpture also plays an important role in my plot, I changed the spelling. It also is supposed to refer to the male scientist's cocksure attitude - in other words, a tongue-in-cheek reference to many male members of my scientific tribe.

KH: In an article, you mentioned that you toned down the scientific content of your plays. How do you strike a balance between wanting to illustrate the ethic dilemmas that come with scientific discoveries and entertaining the audience?

CD: I started out as a scientist who wished to use the stage for partially didactic purposes. I have now passed beyond that stage to become a playwright who also happens to be a scientist. I am particularly interested that my plays are being read and not just seen on the stage. If the science prevents the audience from doing so, I am now prepared to compromise. My preceding play Ego has no science in it whatsoever. The science in Phallacy is mostly about the behavioral practices of scientists rather than the actual science. My last play Taboos, which opened in 2006 in London and in German translation in Graz, talks about the social consequences of in vitro fertilization techniques rather than about the scientific discovery itself. From that standpoint it is very different from my first play, An Immaculate Misconception, which deals with reproductive science.

KH: Do you still have a didactic agenda?

CD: As a scientist, am not ashamed to admit that. To be amusing is not my sole purpose. If a theater says no to science-in-theater plays, then to hell with them.

KH: You have also found that science-in-theater plays work very well in the classroom. What are some of your experiences?

CD: I have had very good experiences in Europe, where the Deutsche Theaterverlag publishes dozens of plays for different age groups. Two of my pedagogic plays for classrooms have been published by them and have been performed at Austrian and German high schools and also at some American universities. It is always great to engage in discussions with the students after the performances.

KH: You have written a great deal about reproductive science, both academically and in your novels and plays. What goes on in your mind when you hear that some U.S. legislators are trying to introduce bills that would ban all contraceptives as abortifacients?

CD: It's discouraging and terrible. You cannot legislate that. Making contraception and abortion illegal will simply stimulate medical tourism. All you do in the process is to discriminate against people who cannot afford medical tourism. If a woman wants to have an abortion she is not going to care whether it is illegal or not. That's how thousands of women died before Roe v. Wade. What we have to do is to make abortions unnecessary, not illegal.

My play Taboos, which will premiere in New York in 2008, centers around the whole reproductive debate in the U.S. It is set in two places, San Francisco and Mississippi. There are two couples, two lesbian partners in San Francisco and a fundamentalist husband and wife in Mississippi. In the beginning, you think I would be taking the side of the San Francisco liberals and not of the fundamentalists. I do consider the Christian fundamentalist movement in the United States a potentially dangerous one, because its members are convinced of their righteousness and grant others no alternative opinions. But I do not pooh-pooh or ignore them. I don't think you can convince either side of the other's opinions. You will be surprised at the compromise I come up with in Taboos. It is basically a prescription for a modus vivendi for both groups in a heterogeneous country. Thankfully, we do not yet have a theocracy in the United States. Reproduction and sex are personal matters. What we have to agree upon is that other people don't have a place in our bedroom.

KH: Thank you for the interview.