- Theatre Studies and Science
Since the late 1990s, an increasing number of scholars have taken notice of a fresh dialogue emerging between science and theatre. The two disciplines, often considered in opposition, are talking to each other in a new spirit of cooperation. The current discussion around science and theatre often focuses on the triumph of Michael Frayn's 1998 play, Copenhagen. In it, Frayn uses a sophisticated theatrical framework to engage complex theories from physics, presenting three possible versions of the final meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg alongside an exploration of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the theory of complementarity. The science in Copenhagen is clear and accurate while also being essential to the plot. The play received praise from theatre critics as well as the physics community. After Copenhagen's success, a slew of new plays about science began to appear. Peter Parnell examined the life of the physicist Richard Feynman in QED (2001). Israel Horovitz took on chemistry research in Promises.com (2001). Caryl Churchill addressed the ethics of cloning in A Number (2002). Even the renowned scientist Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the birth control pill, turned to writing plays about science: Oxygen, with Ronald Hoffman (2000), An Immaculate Conception (2001), Calculus (2003). By the turn of the century the science play proved an exciting new form of theatre that warranted attention.
To understand the exceptionality of this new relationship between science and theatre, one need only look to the second half of the last century for evidence of how far we've come. C.P. Snow in his 1959 lecture and book, Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, described an enormous "gap" between the sciences and the arts. This rift, according to Snow, thwarted any kind of sincere, mutual exchange. What Snow called for was a bridge between the "two cultures." Snow's call was not immediately answered. Instead, the propagation [End Page 49] of many anti-science, postmodernist philosophies in the last quarter of the twentieth century revealed a persistent divide. The "Sokol Hoax" serves as a prime example of this. In 1996, the physicist, Alan Sokol, wrote a bogus article linking quantum physics to certain postmodern philosophies. Sokol's "science" was false and nonsensical. The article was subsequently published in a leading cultural theory journal, Social Text. Sokol's admission of the hoax humiliated the journal's editors, who couldn't spot the "joke." What followed was a series of vitriolic exchanges between scholars of opposing academic camps. This hysterical moment in academic history made the distance between the two cultures seem wider than ever.
Now in the twenty-first century, as the arts and sciences are beginning to bridge their divide, an exciting new theatre study has appeared. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr's latest book, Science on Stage, takes as its subject the intersection of theatre and science. Recognizing what she calls the "millennial phenomenon" of Copenhagen, she sets out to define the science-play genre. Her definition focuses on theatrical material that engages "real" science in an accurate and comprehensive way. The science play is not about fantasy; it is not science fiction. To be a science play, actual scientific knowledge must be enacted on the stage. In a discussion of the genre that extends beyond the Copenhagen event. Shepherd-Barr identifies several pre-Copenhagen science plays. Stoppard's Arcadia, Dürrenmatt's The Physicists, Brecht's Life of Galileo, Ibsen's Enemy of the People, and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus are among a few of the many examples she gives of theatre's long conversation with science.
Science on Stage works within an undoubtedly Western history of science. This is a tradition with such key historical players as Galileo, Newton, Curie, Einstein. These "giants" of science find their way into many of the plays under discussion in this book. Galileo is portrayed by the likes of Brecht and Stoppard. Newton makes appearances in the work of Carl Djerassi and Dürrenmatt. Marie Curie is depicted complexly by Jean-Noël Fenwick. Einstein even appears singing and dancing in a 2002 musical by Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenbaum. To fully appreciate the scope of this...