Art and science do battle


A play by Carl Djerassi
Andy Jordan Productions
World premiere at The New End Theatre, Hampstead, London
6 April to 14 May 2005
Reviewed by Lionel Milgrom

As it might imply, a leitmotiv of Carl Djerassi’s latest play Phallacyhinges on the male member. But Oh! Calcutta, this isn’t. The member inquestion is attached to a revered, supposedly Roman bronze statue, belonging toa prestigious Viennese museum. Trouble is, modern chemical analysis shows thestatue to be 1400 years younger: a Renaissance copy of a Roman original. Thisputs the reputations of the museum and art historian (who dated the statue), inserious jeopardy.

Thus, the scene is set for a titanic clash of egos: in the red corner,scientist and his certainty in chemical analysis; in the blue, art-historianwho, though rattled by the scientific evidence, is determined to prove it haslittle bearing on ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’; concepts no lowly scientist would everhope to comprehend.

This is another of the play’s leitmotivs – do the nickel contents ofparticular bronzes (used in dating them precisely) really detract from thestatue’s intrinsic worth as an art object? The clash of egos has ‘objectivity’reeling, as scientist and art historian go to any lengths to protect theirfavourite hypotheses.

To salvage her pride and some of her reputation, the art historian sets outto uncover evidence of the statue’s original Roman provenance (buried,supposedly, somewhere in Spain). Hearing this, the scientist decides to fakethe missing masterpiece by fabricating part of the statue’s bronze torso (withaforementioned ‘member’) in such a way as would fool the most exacting chemicalanalysis.

But there is one crucial difference: penises of the faked original andRenaissance copy dangle at slightly different angles! In her rush to proclaimit as genuine, the art historian misses the obvious. Djerassi’s point is clear:you don’t always need high-tech science to demonstrate the phallacies ofothers’ arguments.

This is gripping, intelligent theatre from Carl Djerassi; man of letters,and inventor of the contraceptive pill. An émigré to the US from his nativeAustria after the Nazi’s annexation of Austria, in 2004 the Austrian governmentoffered Djerassi back his citizenship. Set in modern-day Vienna, Djerassi’splay Phallacy is his reconciliatory response. 

lPlease note that, following its run at The New End Theatre, Phallacywill move to the King’s Head in Islington, London, UK, for a season runningfrom 17 May to 19 June 2005.