Published in AMERICAN THEATRE,Vol. 24 (January 2007), pp. 96-103
WhenIs ‘Science on Stage’ Really Science?
Not very often, despite theclaims of a lively new book
By Carl Djerassi
Kirsten Shepherd-Barr’s Scienceon Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagenis a good read—it’s well-written and sophisticated but utterly biased.Bias is often interesting but always irritating. Webster’s defines it as “systematicerror introduced into sampling…by selecting or encouraging one outcome oranswer over others.” In the very first paragraph of her book, Shepherd-Barrproclaims that “for centuries, science and theatre have enjoyed a fruitfulintersection in the form of dramas that utilize scientific ideas or featurescientists at their center.” The full evidence for the first three centuriesencompassed by this bullish statement are a total of seven plays by BenJohnson, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Shadwell, Goethe and Ibsen, plus the sole 18th-centurycontestant, the hapless farce Three Hours after Marriage
But the dictionarydefinition of bias really raises its ugly head later on the same page, where itis claimed that the unprecedented success of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen
I attribute theproblem partly to the author’s peculiar definition of “science” and partly toher tendency to place this supposed science-on-stage explosion into the “half-full-and-rapidly-filling-glass”category. As an academic theoretician, unconcerned with the practicalities ofbringing a play text to a theatre-going public Shepherd-Barr is raising aquestion (What can science do for the stage?) that is wholly different from that offered by ascientist-turned-playwright who continually confronts the problem of bringing awork to the stage (What can the stage do for science?
Theroot of the contrast in our respective views is that from my perspective, theappearance of names such as Darwin, Einstein, Schrödinger, Tesla, Feynman orother scientific luminaries in the titles, or allusions to chaos theory orHeisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in a play, do not automatically define suchworks—whatever their intrinsic dramatic value—as“science-in-theatre” plays. There are canonical plays—admittedly few, butimportant ones, and written by famous playwrights—that have some scientificthemes, yet I would not categorize them as “science-in-theatre” but rather asplays with some scientific content. Four examples should suffice: Brecht’s Lifeof Galileo, Dürrenmatt’s The Physicistsand Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood
Brecht’s andDürrenmatt’s motivation was primarily to express their skepticism aboutscience, the actual science playing a minimal role. Brecht’s politics made himquestion any science that was not devoted to the service of the people, whileDürrenmatt, in expressing his fear of atomic and nuclear annihilation at theheight of the Cold War, put his Newton, Einstein and Möbius characters into aninsane asylum, which became his metaphor for the physicist’s world (ratherdifferent from Heinar Kipphardt’s docudrama In the Matter of J. RobertOppenheimer, which addressed similarconcerns about the atomic and nuclear bomb but did so in “science-in-theatre”terms). Galileo, of course,illuminates also the conflict between religion and science and the ultimatelyflawed natures of scientists and of men of the cloth.
Skepticism towardcontemporary science is not Stoppard’s motivation for introducing scientificconcepts into some of his plays. He has always shown a healthy curiosity forthe intellectual qualities of science, and like other non-scientist playwrightshas used science for metaphorical purposes. Yet I rather doubt that Stoppard’smotivation in writing Hapgood was toillustrate Einstein’s photoelectric effect or Heisenberg’s UncertaintyPrinciple, both of which are described at length by a physicist-turned spynamed Kerner. Rather Stoppard was writing a fiendishly clever whodunit—notan explication of 20th-century physics—and he was neither the first northe last to use Heisenberg’s physics as metaphor.
That leaves Arcadia
There are pure“science-in-theatre” plays where the play could not exist without thescience. The quintessential one is Frayn’s Copenhagen
Crossing theAtlantic: Two Canadian plays, Maureen Hunter’s Transit of Venus
And consider thedepiction of another Nobel Laureate, Richard Feynman, in American PeterParnell’s play QED. Many critics mightsee QED as “science-in-theatre,”but to me this virtual one-man play was mostly an entertaining farce—anexample par excellence
Thatbrings me to a first-class American play, Proof, which won the Pulitzer and is cited by Shepherd-Barr, along with Copenhagen
Indeed,Shepherd-Barr concedes that Proof is nota science play, but she nevertheless continues to flog it as such because ofits deserved commercial success. The same is true of the marvelous HumbleBoy by Charlotte Jones, which Shepherd-Barrlists as a major science play, then retreats with the remark that “there arejust a few passages of scientific explanation scattered throughout the play,with little attempt to integrate the ideas formally.”
Getting back toShepherd-Barr’s “half-full-and-rapidly-filling glass” prognosis for plays withscientific content, one must note that focusing simply on the number
I lost all faith thatthe play would ever be produced. It seemed to me that I was writing it for myown benefit, that no one ever would put on this incredibly abstract, remotepiece. Even if anyone did, the idea that anyone would come to see it neveroccurred to me… The way I came to this play was not first through science. Ihave no background in science at all. My background is in philosophy.
Since seriousplays with a science content—and especially “science-in-theatre”plays—also carry with them a pedagogic component (however carefullyhidden) and since they represent such a minute component of the dramaticliterature, it seems appropriate to consider other means of dissemination. Onewould be the availability of DVDs or videocassettes of such plays, butunfortunately, in contrast to movies, there is no meaningful public access forrenting or buying such audiovisuals. This leaves the reading public, and Iwould like to make a case that efforts to increase the public’s interest inreading science plays may pay some dividends. Published plays are usually cheapand short—two major commercial advantages—but most are published bytheatre publishers with limited distribution, minimal marketing and with nocoverage by book reviewers. Only theatrical smash hits (e.g., Arcadia
A similarexperience with the book publication of An Immaculate Misconception
Why should suchefforts for wider distribution be more appropriate for science plays than mostothers? If science in a play serves only the function of a metaphoric role—howeverelegant that metaphor may be—then the science per se is mostly tangential(as is the case in the majority of the 122 plays anointed by Shepherd-Barr asscience plays). But many science plays—and all “science-in-theatre”plays—also contain a substantial dose of informational content that inthis day and age of scientific illiteracy ought not be ignored.
Science isinherently dramatic—at least in the opinion of mostscientists—because it deals with the new and unexpected. But does itfollow that scientists are dramatic personae, or that science automaticallybecomes the stuff of drama?
To use the playformat solely as a novel way to transmit information is not just dangerous, itborders on theatrical infanticide, since it raises immediately the warning flagassociated with the charged term “didactic”—the sharpest stiletto in anydismissive review of a work of fiction or drama. People do not pick up a novelor go to the theatre to be educated, the professionals tell us—they go tobe entertained. But what Quintus Horatius Flaccus said some 2000 years ago inhis Ars Poetica (“Lectoremdelectando pariterque monendo,” whichtranslates as “delighting the reader at the same time as instructing him”) isalso true today. What is wrong with learning something while being entertained?In other words, why not use drama to smuggle (with a substantial does oftheatricality) important information generally not available on the stage intothe minds of a general public?
New York Times
REGINA: You’re saying that our sculpture could not be of Roman origin? Thatall Roman bronzes, without exception, had low nickel content?
REX: I’m saying it’s extremely unlikely. And that’s why I’m here. To tellyou…before informing anyone else…what additional chemical tests we carried outto prove our assumption—
REGINA: So, you’re just making an assumption?
REX: Well, no, because we carried out further tests—
REGINA: Nonetheless, these tests were all based on your assumption. Youassumed that the sculpture is a Renaissance work. That all the evidence in mybook…all 345 pages…is hogwash.
REX: Well…hogwash, no…I wouldn’t say that, not exactly hogwash—
REGINA: (Infuriated)You see, this is what I find so I infuriating. You slavishly follow the rulesof chemistry you learned as a student…lessons you now teach to your students…whowill then teach it to their students…rules promoted by art-hating boors, shielded from any sense of beauty by adense fog spread from ear to ear. You disembowel every vestige ofaesthetics…you ignore style, form, patina…in fact all connotativeaccompaniments. Someone really ought to prick that balloon of self-righteous…pompous…simplisticarrogance of yours.
REGINA: Is it really? And even if it is, then why doesn’t that teach youhumility…rather than arrogance? And why not recognize the importance of visualbeauty…a concept that barely exists in your chemical world.
I present thisexample as an illustration of how the realities of the current commercialtheatre—with its phobia towards any didactic tendencies inherent in“science-in-theatre” and the inverse relationship between a play’s scientificcontent and the likeliness of it being produced—have caused me to tonedown the scientific load of the plays I continue to write. Yet havingdemonstrated—at least to my personal satisfaction—that doses ofpedagogy in “science-in-theatre” are not necessarily the kiss of death in termsof engaging an audience, I have now undergone mitosis by shifting some of my“science-in-theatre” from the stage to the place where new pedagogy is bestsuited: the school classroom—a topic that is barely discussed in Scienceon Stage. But that is another story foranother venue.
So let me concludeby saying why I feel that Shepherd-Barr’s book has deserved this partialrebuttal rather than a conventional book review. According to Shepherd-Barr,her book should “help teachers design and implement courses on science plays.” Oneidiosyncratic view, focusing, as she does, largely on theatricality rather thancontent, is simply too limited for the intended readers of her book. Theydeserve to know more.
Carl Djerassi, professorof chemistry emeritus at Stanford University, is one of the few Americanscientists to have been awarded both the National Medal of Science (for thefirst synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive) as well as the National Medalof Technology. He is the author short stories, poetry and two autobiographies aswell as of five novels and eight plays.