Cold logic is a dramatic asset

Science on Stage
June 16, 2006

Although it is impolitic to say so in polite company, science has enriched art much more than art has enriched science. Discussion of the interplay between science and art usually concentrates less on instances of art successfully influencing science than on examples of artists forging high-quality works out of the raw material of science. Many of these successes have been achieved on the stage.

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, senior lecturer in drama at Birmingham University, is an unabashed admirer of what she calls "science plays". She believes them to be the ideal literary forum for melding science and art, though it is never quite clear from her book why the novel or the poem is less effective. But although she is biased, we are swept along by her passion and enthusiasm.

Shepherd-Barr has sought to write a companion accessible to everyone interested in drama. She does not seek to be comprehensive, but it would be a harsh critic who accused her of omitting any of the significant "science plays", except, perhaps, for those by George Bernard Shaw, who always had a soft spot for revolutionary scientific ideas and forward-thinking engineers.

Science on Stage includes accurate summaries of science plays with assessments of their quality that range in tone from amiably laudatory to breathlessly eulogistic. The author hails David Auburn's Proof , a melodrama that implausibly weaves mathematics into its story, as a "great piece of theatre", to which "science plays generally are deeply indebted" - a judgment that is at best generous and at worst naive.

Shepherd-Barr is then hard pushed to give adequate praise to Tom Stoppard's incomparably more profound Arcadia , which seamlessly interweaves ideas from chaos theory, landscape gardening and Byron studies into an ingenious and compelling narrative. True to form, our author cannot bring herself to analyse in detail why this play works so well in comparison with Stoppard's previous stage play Hapgood , whose exploration of the parallels between quantum physics and espionage was dramatically calamitous.

But in the end, for Shepherd-Barr all roads in science drama lead to Copenhagen , Michael Frayn's reflections on the meeting between the quantum physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in September 1941. She admires this "phenomenally successful" drama so intensely that it sometimes threatens to exhaust even her compendious thesaurus of rapture.

When the drool is wiped away, we are left with a thoughtful appreciation of the play's clever use of form and content to probe what Frayn has called "the epistemology of intent". For the drama critics who complained that the play did not work on the stage, and for literal-minded historians who complained that Frayn was guilty of factual inaccuracies and naivety about Heisenberg, Shepherd-Barr predictably has little time but considerable compassion.

She is at her best in the final chapter when she considers "alternative science plays", which bring a new and perhaps braver theatricality to the genre. She has in mind plays such as Complicite's Mnemonic and John Barrow and Luca Ronconi's Infinities , dramas that give a stronger focus to science and less to character and conventional narrative. It would be pleasing to see theatres take more risks with this type of play.

Science on Stage is the best available companion to modern science plays.

It is, however, less successful as a work of comparative criticism than as a starry-eyed love letter to Frayn's most cerebral play.

Graham Farmelo is senior research fellow at the Science Museum, London.

Science on Stage: From Dr Faustus to Copenhagen

Author - Kirsten Shepherd-Barr
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 262
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 691 12150 8

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