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 (ascribed to John Gay, but in fact written incollaboration with John Arbuthnot and Alexander Pope), which has nothing to dowith science and was staged only once during the succeeding 280 years.

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 has created a new phenomenon over the past decade through“a surge of new plays about science.” The supposed evidence is presented in thebook’s appendix, which lists 62 plays and musicals that have appeared since theCopenhagen premiere in 1998. Thisseems impressive until the skeptical reader discovers that nearly half of thesehave neither been performed nor published, and that the majority of the rest wereworkshop readings or single minor-venue stagings. And even among the smash hitsin the appendix, alongside the legitimate science play Breaking theCode (misattributed to Stephen Poliakoffrather than Hugh Whitemore), one discovers Angels in America: Tony Kushner, a “science playwright”? And the playa “science play,” because of AIDS?

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?). .My rebuttal will focus on a more realistic“half-empty” scenario. For me, as a playwright and scientist, the word“explosion” carries a rather different meaning. Is it just a momentary puff oran event with lasting consequences? And while my presentation will be bothpersonal and partly revisionist, I nevertheless share one objective withShepherd-Barr, namely a desire to make the scientific content of the moderntheatre grow and thrive.

            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 and Arcadia, all of which are covered in some detail by Shepherd-Barr.

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, asuperb play and an interesting transition between “science-in-theatre” and aplay simply containing some science. Arcadia has didactic sequences dealing with science, some ofthem rather long. I suspect that Stoppard’s motivation in these forays (discreetlycriticized in Shepherd-Barr’s book) was not to teach his theatre audience about,say, iterated algorithms; in fact, Arcadia has to do with nature and how we humans handle and mishandle it,understand and misunderstand it. The science is there because Stoppard decidedto write a play for which scientific concepts are useful and intellectuallyattractive metaphors. Attempt the experiment of removing the “pure” science in Arcadiawithout changing the overall play structureand plot—you’re left with a clever play about Byron, in which only verysophisticated viewers or readers would recognize the remaining underlyingscientific metaphors.

There are pure“science-in-theatre” plays where the play could not exist without thescience. The quintessential one is Frayn’s Copenhagen, which calls upon quantum mechanics and theuncertainty principle for much of the scintillating interplay betweenHeisenberg and Bohr, under the skeptical eye of Bohr’s wife. It is so wellknown and so thoroughly covered in Science on Stage that no further comment on my part is necessary.Another important science-in-theatre play by another prominent Britishplaywright is Poliakoff’s Blinded by the Sun, which attempts to illuminate through a theatricalversion of the chemical “cold fusion” debacle of the early 1990s some of theidiosyncratic aspects of a scientist’s drive for name recognition, as well asthe competitive aspects of a collegial enterprise. In France, Jean-NoĎlFenwick’s play Les Palmes de M. Schutz, dealing with Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium and playedin its entirety in a realistic stage replica of a laboratory, went far beyond asuccŹs d’estime to be turned intoa film. Neither of these two plays nor their authors are even listed in theindex of Science on Stage!

Crossing theAtlantic: Two Canadian plays, Maureen Hunter’s Transit of Venus and Vern Thiessen’s Einstein’s Gift, are first-class examples of recent successful“science-in-theatre” plays dealing, respectively, with historical astronomy andthe German chemist and Nobel laureate Fritz Haber. Considering thatShepherd-Barr dedicates six pages to Hallie Flanagan-Davis’s E =mc2(not performed for the past 40 years andunplayable because of the required 75 actors), why devote only one sentenceeach and no index entry for these two extraordinarily performable Canadianscience plays?

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 of a non-scientist author parodying for a dumbed-downaudience his view of the speech and behavior of scientists. While in real lifeFeynman did play bongo drums and pursue women, his enduring fame as an inspiredteacher and Nobel-winning physicist rested on other qualities. A review of QED in the scientific journal Nature put it succinctly: “We get 40 seconds of a Feynmandiagram scrawled on that blackboard as a gee-whiz illustration…Instead ofFeynman’s speed of comprehension we get frenetic, fussy movement.”

Thatbrings me to a first-class American play, Proof, which won the Pulitzer and is cited by Shepherd-Barr, along with Copenhagen, as evidence for her “explosion.” But Proof’s main concern is the interaction of a daughter withher deceased father, a mathematician. Is Proof “science-in-theatre”? I shall let the author, DavidAuburn, answer in his own words: “I don’t have any objection to how it’s beenlabeled. There’s almost no math in the play, so I’m pleased, in a way, thatI’ve fooled people” (from an interview in Dramatist magazine).

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 of plays with some science in the title or textwritten during the past 10 years without considering their performance historyis equivalent to counting the number of unpublished science book manuscripts that may have been writtenduring the same period but never read by anyone but the author’s pals. In thefinal analysis, a book is only a book after it has been published, and a playonly a play after it has been staged or otherwise made available to the public.And real success in the theatre generally refers to extensive runs on numerousstages, as was the case with Copenhagen and Proof. The fact isthat the number of such commercially produced plays is small, and there is noevidence that it is growing. If the experiment were feasible, I would offersubstantial odds that if Copenhagenhad been submitted to the Royal National Theatre (where it was first staged) orany other major theatre under an unknown playwright’s name, it would probablynot even have been read—it would certainly not have been produced. Evenas deservedly famous a playwright as Frayn had this to say in an interview abouthis own play:

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, Copenhagen) with real intellectual and literary content reach sales levels thatare of interest to standard book publishers. So let me present a personalexample to show that this need not always be the rule.

Oxygen, a play I wrote with the distinguished chemist andNobel laureate Roald Hoffmann, is without question a “science-in-theatre” play,dealing at it does with the discovery of oxygen and the centenary of the NobelPrize in 2001. While well known in scientific circles, our names meant nothingin the theatre world when we finished the first draft of Oxygen in late 1999. After half a dozen staged readings in2000, the play opened in 2001 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in California,the Mainfranken Theater in Würzburg, Germany, and the Riverside Studio Theatrein London. Since 2001, the play has been translated into nine other languagesand has had 33 independent productions as well as numerous staged readings orexcerpted performances—the majority in university theatres.

 So theatrically speaking, the“science-in-theatre” play Oxygen didbetter than the great majority of science plays written during the past 20years, though it clearly did not reach the commercial success of some of themajor plays described earlier. Yet in terms of distribution, our play has faredfar better than the vast majority of recent science plays. We convincedWiley—an important science publisher (rather than a conventional theatrepublisher)—that Oxygencould be considered a valuable book in the field of science history that justhappened to be written in all-dialogic form. That being true, why wait fortheatrical premieres to determine whether Oxygen was also a theatrical success before printing theplay text in book form—usually a sine qua non of theatre publishers? TheEnglish and German versions of Oxygen were released in print prior to its world premiere and reached a saleslevel of about 8,000 copies by the end of that first year. While such a figuremight seem piddling if judged by Stephen King or Danielle Steele standards, itis more than respectable if compared with the annual sales of most plays. Inthe subsequent two years, Oxygen alsoappeared in book form in seven other languages, with a commercial DVD beingdistributed by Educational Innovations, Inc. In addition,the BBC World Service and the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) broadcast radioversions of the play around the centenary of the Nobel Prize in December 2001.

A similarexperience with the book publication of An Immaculate Misconception and Calculus, the other two plays in my “science-in-theatre” trilogy, has convincedme that such a strategy is workable and of substantial scope. I would urgecommitted authors of serious science plays not to limit themselves solely toexposure in traditional and often not-all-too-welcoming theatrical venues, butto examine other literary paths whereby their play texts may reach a widerpublic.

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 critic Bruce Weber once wrote that “not all theatreaudiences are so conditioned by low-brow entertainment that they are preparedonly to have their senses tickled, but not their brains massaged.” In my two mostrecent plays written for the commercial theatre, Phallacy and Taboos, I have started to compromise by greatly reducing the scientificcontent, something that according to Shepherd-Barr even Stoppard foundnecessary to do with his Hapgood afterits initial appearance.

Phallacy, whichdeals with a historically accurate reattribution of a putative Roman bronze ina major European museum, ran for 10 weeks in two London theatres, and aManhattan premiere ) is scheduled at Cherry Lane Theatre for May 2007. Its focusis on the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the scientist (represented by thecharacter Rex) versus the art historian (Regina) as they examine the age of anart object from widely different perspectives: aesthetic and art historicalconnoisseurship opposed to cold material analysis. A brief excerpt from thebeginning of the play illustrates the tenor and nature of the conflict:


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.


REX: You may live to regret those words.


REGINA: (Still steaming) Transforming thewine of aesthetics into vinegar! How typical of you chemists. When chemistsdabble with art, the best that can be said is the results are unpredictable.


REX: Unpredictability is what science is all about…


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.