Science on stage, fully rehearsed

Behind the scenes at science plays: the writers, their intentions and what they achieve

May 15, 2014

Source: King’s College London

Show the workings: a recent London production of Copenhagen, which dramatises a meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg

Many different ways of putting science on stage – from a puppet opera about an 18th-century “freak” who ate cats to a workshop exploring “Circadian rhythms and light environments” – came under scrutiny at a recent academic conference that featured some of the leading exponents in a relatively small but growing field.

There are already two full-length books about the phenomenon of the “science play”: Kirsten Shepherd-Barr’s 2006 study, Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen, and, three years later, Eva-Sabine Zehelein’s Science: Dramatic: Science Plays in America and Great Britain, 1990-2007.

The University of Lincoln conference, Performing Science: Dialogues Across Cultures, set out to explore such plays and other kinds of science-based performance, bringing together academics, artists, actors and directors, including many “practitioners” who work within universities.

Papers and discussions were accompanied by performances and readings of work-in-progress, all designed to illuminate what we mean by science plays; whether they form a significant genre; whether they need to “enact” the science or just describe it; how they should be assessed; and their value for both research scientists and the wider public. Two of the best-known figures in the field took part in keynote sessions.

Michael Frayn’s 1998 play Copenhagen is widely regarded as a landmark example of a science play, although he saw it as “a play about how difficult it is to understand other people’s – and indeed one’s own – motivation” that used a particular scientific event to illuminate this theme.

Its production, Mr Frayn explained, had actually altered the historical record. The action focuses on the uncertainties surrounding the wartime meeting between the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and the German physicist Werner Heisenberg about atomic research. The success of the play had led many people to offer their own theories about what actually happened. Eventually, first the Bohr and then the Heisenberg families decided to release papers that called into question even the few facts on which everybody had hitherto agreed.

Similar themes were taken up at the conference by the nonagenarian Carl Djerassi, professor emeritus of chemistry at Stanford University – and the co-inventor of the birth control pill – who since retirement from being a scientist has recreated himself as a writer. Now a prolific dramatist, he has produced didactic plays explaining the basic facts – and often startling moral implications – of new reproductive technologies; plays examining historic turning points such as the discovery of oxygen; and plays trying to give audiences a realistic picture of scientific research.

Professor Djerassi has written that experience has taught him to “keep the science impeccable, but underplay it. Instead of telling what the characters do, emphasise how and why they did it.” His play Insufficiency, for example, dramatises “a non-tenured chemistry professor’s unsuccessful search for tenure” and the theme of “fashion in science” through the story of an expert in “the chemistry and physics of champagne and beer bubbles” whose colleagues consider his work trivial.

Actors performing in Insufficiency by Carl Djerassi

Spreading the word

As academics, argued Robert Marc Friedman, interdisciplinary professor of history of science at the University of Oslo, “our hard-won insights rarely reach more than the tiny international disciplinary community”. Partly in order to reach out, he had drawn on his book, The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science, to produce a spin-off one-act play about the physicist Lise Meitner and how her two main collaborators, Otto Hahn and Manne Siegbahn, took credit for her achievements. Although it had been widely acclaimed, “one of Siegbahn’s disciples” had “insisted that efforts to portray Meitner as a martyr were perpetrated by nothing less than feminists and Zionists. Maybe even terrorists.”

The “stories we tell of the past”, Professor Friedman continued, “can help shape the science of the future. I turn to theatre to construct such stories…Even after years of research on a topic or episode, I find many crucial questions remain unanswered. I find the process of writing and rewriting and rewriting a play itself a process of exploration and reflection. Although I might create characters informed by my historical knowledge and insight, they nevertheless take on their own lives saying and doing things that I had not anticipated.”

Yet there remained, in Professor Friedman’s view, considerable disagreement about the right standards for evaluating a play based on the history of science. Historians tended to “get hot under the collar as soon as they see factual detail and contextual understanding trampled underfoot”. Some scientists seemed “unable to accept that others than themselves might have something of importance to say about their enterprise”. Yet playwrights, on the other hand, often played fast and loose with the facts, “go[ing] through the motions of breathing life into historical figures on stage, only then to plead, when confronted with blatant misrepresentation, that in reality they are merely engaged in fiction”.

Beware intentions

Professor Friedman also raised a number of concerns. He was critical of scientists who “delight” in the attention given to their work by artists even when their plays “border on a trivialisation of science and the history of science”. He was equally wary of writers who find in science “a wealth of metaphor and imagery, while remaining ignorant of any deeper understanding of the subject”.

Other delegates questioned whether the movement to put science on stage was really driven by artistic concerns or by external factors. One noted that the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, set up in 1985, had proved “a catalyst for the whole movement” but suggested that the central goal was to “make the public more sympathetic to big spending on science”. Another described artistic practitioners within her university desperately searching for a scientist so they could try to secure funding for a joint project.

Professor Djerassi has also expressed scepticism about the hype surrounding science plays. Although Shepherd-Barr’s Science on Stage lists 62 examples since the premiere of Copenhagen, “nearly half of [them] have neither been performed nor published” and merely enjoyed “workshop readings or single minor-venue stagings”.

It was left to Professor Friedman to comment wryly on the gulf between the academic and theatrical worlds, recalling how plans for a production of his play Becoming Albert Einstein came to naught when the lead actor “ran off with a 40-year-younger woman to Thailand”. “That’s showbiz,” he said.

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