Drama on a universal scale

September 15, 2000

Inspired by A Brief History of Time, Robin Hawdon brought to the stage modern science's conflict with religion. But his use of details from Stephen Hawking's life angered the physicist

From the start, the experience of God and Stephen Hawking has been the most extraordinary of my long career in the theatre. Writing and rehearsing the play, which examines issues raised in Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time, was utterly absorbing; the publicity surrounding it, fuelled by Hawking's much reported objection ("a gross invasion of my privacyI a stupid and worthless play") has been considerable. The audience response has been rapt and enthusiastic; the critical response has been mostly vitriolic.

Reviews have ranged from the dismissive ("struggles to make a satisfying whole of the contending elements" - The Independent), to the bemused ("baffling theories of Einstein, NewtonI even the Queen" - The Mail on Sunday) to the morally judgemental ("Hawdon had no right to write these scenes" - The Daily Telegraph). Yet the feedback Iand the company have received in the form of direct approaches, letters and requests for the published text has been unique in my experience. The reaction all round has been subjective and visceral.

The play was always going to be controversial. It was highly probable that the scientists, whose discoveries I am illustrating, would have much to criticise about my simplified interpretation; the theologians, whose long-held beliefs I am questioning, would be dismayed at my scepticism; the philosophers, onto whose hallowed territory I have stepped, would be dismissive of my inferences. For I am merely a layman who gazes in wonder at the esoteric pronouncements that have emanated throughout history from all three camps and who has difficulty discerning a comprehensible thread in any of it. My only defence lies in the degree of dissension that exists between the luminaries of all those callings themselves.

But laymen want to understand these things. They are curious about such concepts as relativity, the big bang, black holes and so on. They are aware that the expansion of knowledge about the world and the universe beyond it is far outstripping their limited experience and that this knowledge has implications for them and for future generations that they cannot begin to anticipate. It was to meet this hunger that Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time. It is why millions of copies have been sold - even if many of them have never been opened - and it is why I wanted to write the play.

When I read the book several years ago, it stirred the playwright's instincts in me more than most books have. When I looked further into the extraordinary circumstances of Hawking's life, those instincts got a stronger jolt. But it was not until I began seriously to contemplate the implications of recent scientific findings for traditional religious beliefs that I could see a conceivable way of dramatising the whole gigantic business. By putting God on stage and making him aware that his own identity is at stake right to the climax of the action, I was able to focus all the vital elements of the debate.

But if I was to explain on stage, however simplistically, the trends of scientific thinking in the modern era, I had to have a reasonably comprehensive grasp of them. In this, I was greatly helped by the fact that the success of Hawking's book had spawned a new body of literature from eminent physicists, cosmologists and biologists designed specifically for the non-scientist.

The challenge was how to explain it all in a dramatic context. Here I broke many of the traditional theatrical conventions - another factor some critics could not accept - by contriving that various characters (mostly played by God) address the audience directly in lecture mode.

The next question was whether I had the right to incorporate details of Hawking's life in the text. The playwright's problem is always how to bring dramatic shape and human relevance to his themes. In his remarkable and relatively well-documented life and career, I had a personal and heroic story around which to base the plot. His work was at the forefront of the factual matters I was describing, and his personal struggles with his scientific researches and with his illness made a dramatic analogy to the unfolding story of humanity's battles to attain knowledge and control of its destiny.

Nevertheless, I was aware as the writing progressed that, for parts of the play, I was treading on personal ground, and I was obliged to keep things as simplified and symbolic as possible. It is well known and has been recounted at some length by Hawking's ex-wife Jane in her autobiography that she is a devout Christian, whereas Hawking is at the very least an agnostic. This difference played a big part in their marriage, and it suited the purposes of the play as I was able to focus on that debate to illustrate the general theme while diverting attention from more intimate matters.

I am sad that Hawking has taken such strong objection to the text. Just as a non-physicist would have difficulty grasping the implications of one of Hawking's scientific treatises, so it must be difficult for a physicist to envisage the dramatic effect of a play from the cold printed text - especially when it involves himself. But in this era in which scientific advances appear to be seriously challenging some of society's long-held moral and intellectual maxims, Hawking's life and career has a vital relevance. The project have increased my fascination with the unfolding picture of our universe, which he has done so much to demystify.

God and Stephen Hawking plays at Derby until September 23, Sheffield from September 25, Richmond from October 2 and Guildford from October 9.

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