Autumn Books | Published:

Experimental theatre

Nature volume 443, pages 913914 (26 October 2006) | Download Citation


Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen


Princeton University Press: 2006. 271 pp. $29.95, £18.95 0691121508

Copenhagen (Michael Frayn, 1998), Proof (David Auburn, 2001), Wit (Margaret Edson, 1995), Arcadia (Tom Stoppard, 1994) and A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001): all recent winners of a Pulitzer, Tony, Olivier or Oscar, and all dramas about science and scientists. Along with the recent proliferation of television shows that feature science (the ubiquitous forensic-investigation series, for instance), these examples seem to give the lie to the Janus-faced cultural split between the humanities and sciences postulated famously by C. P. Snow in 1959. In the theatre, science is current, popular and topical. In the United States, for example, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, in a programme devoted to increasing public understanding of science and technology, devotes significant funds to encouraging artists and playwrights to create new works in the theatre using science themes, including financing productions as part of the First Light Festival in New York.

This intersection of research and performance is chronicled in Science on Stage by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr of the University of Birmingham, UK (I should disclose a connection here: Shepherd-Barr is the daughter of the Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd, my postdoctoral mentor). As she points out, it is not an entirely new phenomenon: an eye-opening appendix lists 122 plays that make central use of scientific subjects, beginning with Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (published posthumously in 1604) and Jonson's The Alchemist (1610), and covering a further four centuries of theatrical literature and performance. Shepherd-Barr describes, analyses and interprets a host of theatrical scripts and performances with science as their themes. She provides important historical context and lots of interesting insights, especially regarding the most recent plays.

Several interesting issues come up in this book. Science is becoming more public as it insinuates itself ever further into the lives of individuals and into decisions that we must make as a society. The theatre is perhaps the most public of the arts, the prototypical forum for the portrayal of ideas and the working-out of conflicts. It is the ideal forum for a meeting of the two cultures — a venue for the transformation of science, often deemed obscure and aloof, into personal drama. There are many commonalities: both science and the theatre are engaged in describing the world, and science, according to the dramatist Peter Brook, is the new mythology, the place to which people turn for answers. Science explores many of the eternal mysteries that have been the subject of theatre since the first performances: how we got here, what we're doing here, and where we're going.

Science themes appear in other art forms as well, but Shepherd-Barr points out that the theatre has been especially hospitable to science; in particular, more so than film, which as a medium can't seem to avoid turning science into fantasy. She maintains that for creative, thoughtful writers, science opens up new territories of rich material, beyond the stale melodramas of dysfunctional families, interpersonal soap-opera plots and psychological mysteries. In her most insightful comments she shows how the best science plays, Copenhagen or Arcadia for example, use the science they deal with — atomic structure and entropy respectively — within the structure of the play.


The book begins with an overview and an essay that tackles the interesting question of the basis for the current appeal of science plays. The middle chapters document plays in the various sciences, touching on physics, evolution, medicine and mathematics. Within them there are detailed analyses of Copenhagen and Arcadia as prime examples of successful plays that are both theatrically engaging and scientifically satisfying. These are especially enjoyable chapters and, although familiarity with the plays is not required for their appreciation, for anyone who has seen them it will be fun to have the performances brought back to life. These are not simply rehashes of reviews; instead, Shepherd-Barr uses the scripts and features of the productions to shed light on the difficulties and the opportunities that arise from turning science into theatre. Copenhagen, for instance, made some unprecedented demands on the actors with regard to the amount and difficulty of memorization required. Shepherd-Barr also discusses the particular problems that playwrights using science have in presenting exposition, and the inevitable tension between historical and scientific accuracy and dramatic demands.

Also considered here are scientists turned playwrights, the leading example being Carl Djerassi, emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University, California. His effort with Nobel-prizewinning chemist Roald Hoffman, Oxygen (2001), combines a wealth of scientific information in an engaging plot surrounding the discovery of the gas.

A final chapter looks at unconventional theatrical presentations, in particular collaborations involving both a scientist and a dramaturge or director. Examples include innovative productions by cosmologist John Barrow of Cambridge University, UK, and director Luca Ronconi (Infinities, 2002; see Nature 416, 585; 2002); dramatist Jean-François Peyret and neurobiologist Alain Prochiantz of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, France (Darwin Variations, 2004; see Nature 432, 445; 2004); and Peter Brook and neurologist Oliver Sacks (The Man Who, 1993). This is an especially lively portion of the book and leaves one, rightly, with the exciting idea that these productions are just the beginning. Appropriately, the embracing of scientific themes has motivated experimentation with theatrical form and content. The descriptions of these new performance pieces make one sorry to have missed any of them. Infinities and Darwin Variations, unaccountably, have never been translated or performed in English.

Who will read this book? Who should read it? Scientists, playwrights, directors, humanists. It is unquestionably a scholarly work, comprehensive, utilizing many sources, thoroughly referenced and heavily annotated. Parts of it read as if they are composed of essays that could stand alone, making it occasionally repetitive. On the other hand, it is a surprisingly breezy and entertaining read.

One could hope that this book might instigate university courses, perhaps taught jointly by professors in science and theatre departments. Such a course could be equally engaging to students in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, literature, drama, history — whoever heard of such a thing? As a working scientist I am left with only one question: why aren't there any science comedies?

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  1. Stuart Firestein is in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA.

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