Friday, November 23, 2001

A winning formula for the stage?

When a pair of eminent scientists write a play, then attract funding from some giants of industry, the result can be more didactic than artistic. Is this the way forward for theatre, asks Suzanne Lynch

Science and theatre are rarely juxtaposed, but Oxygen, a new play that is running in London until the beginning of next month, is trying to bring them together. The concept of science on stage is not entirely novel. Bertolt Brecht, Tom Stoppard and, most recently, Michael Frayn, in his acclaimed 1998 play Copenhagen, have all fused the two disciplines.

But Oxygen differs from its precursors, because its writers are eminent scientists. The academic credentials of the two authors, who wrote the play mostly through e-mail exchanges, are impeccable.

Roald Hoffman won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1981; Carl Djerassi invented the contraceptive pill. Neither is new to science writing. Both have written science-based poetry and fiction, and Oxygen represents the second play in what Djerassi calls his science-in-theatre trilogy. The first was the provocatively titled An Immaculate Misconception, from 1998, which dealt with male infertility.

Oxygen examines the problems facing a fictional committee aiming to award the first "retro-Nobel", for discoveries made before 1901, to mark this year's centenary of the prize. They decide to award it for the discovery of oxygen, and so return to the beginnings of the chemistry revolution, when three people - the Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier, the Swede Carl Wilhelm Scheele and the Englishman Joseph Priestley - working at roughly the same time, all claimed to have discovered the element that was to become fundamental to modern chemistry.

While the play poses questions about the nature of scientific discovery, it also draws parallels with today's academic climate, which it describes as "a race where being first counts for everything. If you're second, you might as well be last". Deploying multiple casting, the original and thought-provoking production alternates between the academic committee room of the computer age and the potions of the 18th-century laboratory.

For those averse to the prospect of literary-minded scientists straying from their professional camp, the play fails before it starts, but Djerassi insists it should be viewed on its own terms, "not as a metaphorical play but a factual one".

He is frank about its pedagogical function and believes drama is an excellent way of "smuggling really important ideas and concepts into the mind of a public which is generally not receptive to doing it through lectures, presentations or factual books".

But he stresses that his plays are ambiguous. "I do not want to provide an answer. I want to raise questions, and I want to challenge the audience to think about problems that they have not thought about because they feel that they don't understand science. I believe that they can understand it if it is presented well."

The play's educational agenda is a success. Curiously, the slightly stilted academic jargon of the dialogue enlightens rather than alienates, and Andy Jordan's production succeeds in recreating the famous experiments of the trio, which were so crucial to the development of modern science. Although Jordan collaborated with Djerassi on An Immaculate Misconception, his experience of directing science plays is minimal. "As outsiders, we have found it challenging getting to understand the world view of the scientist," he says. "The authors have helped, as has our own research. The chemistry in the play is very primitive - it's 18th-century chemistry, after all - but understanding that has challenged us as well."

The play isn't solely a vehicle for scientific didacticism, however. The role of women in society is a central theme, perhaps unsurprisingly, in light of the revolutionary impact Djerassi's invention has had.

"Testosterone has been a driving force in science, and now will we see oestrogen become that?" asks Djerassi. "What will be the consequences? All the rules in these areas were originally written by men, but now women are helping redefine those rules for the future."

In Oxygen, the work of the three scientists is introduced by their wives, whose relationships with their husbands range from subservient child-bearer to assertive collaborator - Madame Lavoisier helped her husband in his work. The Nobel committee of 2001 is chaired by a woman, the first female holder of the post, but she admits that having no children is a price she has to pay for professional success.

Djerassi also insists his play can be read as well as seen, an opinion evidently shared by Wiley-VCH, a science imprint, which took the unusual step of publishing the play before its London premiere. With a host of novels and plays on scientific subjects to his name, Djerassi now lectures to humanities students at Stanford University, in California, where he is a professor of chemistry. The growing interest in science in fiction and theatre reflects the growing propensity for interdisciplinary approaches to education in the United States.

The amalgamation of science and the humanities also seems to be a growing trend in Europe. Having premiered in Würzburg in September, Oxygen has been published in Germany alongside a selection of essays on science and theatre, for educational use. Britain seems to be following suit: the Royal Institution has bought 1,000 copies of the play to distribute in schools, and the London run of the play has been targeting school groups with matinees.

The play also suggests ways in which the domains of humanities and science can overlap. Despite their initial ignorance of the discipline of history, the three members of the Nobel committee are forced to swap the laboratory for the library in an attempt to elucidate the historical facts about the discovery of oxygen.

But Oxygen cannot escape the one perennial difference between science and the humanities: money. The list of sponsors for the production include such industrial giants as the Dow Chemical Company, Pfizer and the BOC Group. The play also benefits from the hefty financial backing of an American investment banker, who has swiftly acceded to the role of co-producer.

It is understandable, then, that some may resent what they see as a whimsical social experiment by scientists with a crusade to educate the scientifically illiterate masses, in an industry in which hundreds of plays by talented writers are rejected every year because of financial exigencies.

This is the problem. It is the science rather than the drama of Oxygen that has attracted funding.

The play is important, nevertheless, even if its significance resides more iits generic achievement than in its qualities as drama. It marks a bold attempt on the part of science to take its place in the world of the humanities - and to exploit the potential of theatre to bring scientific knowledge to a wider audience.

In this sense, Oxygen is an important stage in the move towards a more inclusive form of education and pays testimony to the power of theatre to open up the possibility of an interdisciplinary way of viewing the world.

Oxygen is at the Riverside Studios (00-44-20-82371111), London, until December 1st. It will be broadcast on the BBC World Service on December 1st and 2nd. Carl Djerassi's website is at