Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Science on Stage: two views

Carl Djerassi has struck back at Kirsten Shepherd-Barr’s rather stinging critique of his plays in a review of Kirsten’s book Science on Stage in Physics Today. I think his comments are a little unfair; Carl has his own agenda of using theatre to smuggle some science into culture, which is a defensible aim but doesn’t acknowledge that the first question must be: is this good theatre? Or as Kirsten asks, does it have ‘theatricality’? Here is my own take on her book, published in the July issue of Nature Physics last year.

Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen
Kirsten Shepherd-Barr
Princeton University Press, 2006
Cloth $29.95
ISBN 0-691-12150-8
264 pages

Over the past decade or so, science has been on stage as never before. Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (1998), which dramatized the wartime meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, is perhaps the most celebrated example; but Tom Stoppard had been exploring scientific themes for some time in Hapgood (1988) and Arcadia (1993), while Margaret Edison’s Wit (1998) and David Auburn’s Proof (2001) were both Pulitzer prize-winning Broadway hits, the latter now also a Hollywood movie. There are plenty of other examples.

While this ‘culturization’ of science has largely been welcomed by scientists – it certainly suggests that theatre has a more sophisticated relationship with science than that typified by the ‘mad scientist’ of cinematic tradition – there has been a curious lack of insightful discussion of the trend. Faced with ‘difficult’ scientific concepts, theatre critics tend to seek recourse in bland clichés about ‘mind-boggling ideas’. Scientists, meanwhile, all too often betray an artistic conservatism by revealing that their idea of theatre is an entertaining night out watching a bunch of actors behind a proscenium arch.

Thank goodness, then, for Kirsten Shepherd-Barr’s book. It represents the first sustained, serious attempt that I have seen to engage with the questions posed by science in theatre. In particular, while there has been plenty of vague talk about pedagogical opportunities, about Snow’s two cultures and about whether the ‘facts are right’, Shepherd-Barr explores what matters most about ‘science plays’: how they work (or not) as theatre.

Despite the book’s subtitle, it does not really try to offer a comprehensive historical account of science in theatre. All the same, one can hardly approach the topic without acknowledging several landmark plays of the past that have had a strong scientific content. It is arguably stretching the point to include Marlowe’s Dr Faustus (c.1594), despite its alchemical content, since this retelling of a popular folk legend is largely a morality tale which can be understood fully only in the context of its times. But while that is equally true of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (c.1610), both plays are important in terms of the archetypes they helped establish for the dramatic scientist: as arrogant Promethean man and as wily charlatan. There are echoes of both in the doctors of Ibsen’s plays, for example.

More significant for the modern trend is Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo (1938/45) a far more nuanced look at the moral dilemmas that scientists face. Like Copenhagen, Galileo has drawn criticism from some scientists and science historians over the issue of historical accuracy. Some of these criticisms simply betray an infantile need to sustain Galileo as the heroic champion of rationalism in the face of church dogma. That is bad history too, but then, scientists are notorious (or should be) for their lack of real interest in history, as opposed to anecdote. Here Shepherd-Barr is admirably clear and patient, explaining that Copenhagen “takes history simply as material for creating theatre that does what art in general does: poses questions.”

Yet this is something scientists and historians seem to feel uncomfortable about. Writing about Copenhagen, historian Robert Marc Friedman has said “regardless of the playwright's intentions and even extreme care in creating his characters, audiences may leave the theatre with a wide range of impressions. In the case of the London production of Copenhagen on the evening that I attended, members of the audience with whom I spoke came away believing Bohr to be no better morally than Heisenberg; perhaps even less sympathetic. I am not sure, however, that this was the playwright's intention… I felt uncomfortable.” There is something chillingly Stalinist about this view of theatre and art. Should we also worry whether we have correctly divined the playwright’s “intentions” in Hamlet or King Lear?

Shepherd-Barr negotiates admirably around these lacunae between the worlds of science and art. Perhaps her key insight is that the most successful science plays are those that don’t just talk about their themes but embody them, as when the action of Arcadia reveals the thermodynamic unidirectionality of time. But most importantly, she reminds us that theatre is primarily not about words or ideas, but performance. That’s why theatre is so much stronger and more exciting a vehicle for dealing with scientific themes than film (which almost always does it miserably) or even literature. Good theatre, whatever its topic, doesn’t just engage but involves its audience: it is an experiment in which the presence of the observer is critical. Brecht pointed that out; but it is perhaps in theatre’s experimental forms, such as those pioneered by Jacques Lecoq and Peter Brook (who staged Oliver Sack’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in 1991) and exemplified in John Barrow and Luca Ronconi’s Infinities and Theatre de Complicite’s Mnemonic, that we see how much richer it can be than the remote, ponderous literalness of film. What could be more scientific-spirited than this experimental approach? When science has given us such extraordinary new perspectives on the world, surely theatre should be able to do more than simply show us people talking about it.

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