Autumn books: experimental theatre

The fourth book in my Nature Autumn books series is a review of Science on Stage: from Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen, by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr. Nature‘s reviewer is Stuart Firestein.

"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."

If you don’t have a subscription or site-licence and want to read the whole review, drop me a note in the comments and I will provide instructions.

God of small things

I don’t usually read articles about religion, but the columnist I most admire, Richard Morrison, has done it again with an excellent article (link at foot of post).

"Faith is taking a bit of a bashing, isn’t it? The Muslim teacher’s “inappropriate” veil, the check-in attendant’s “offensive” cross, the “indoctrinating” tendency of faith schools: all these have been mercilessly kicked around in media circles. Plus the general inference from breathtakingly confident atheists such as Richard Dawkins that wars would end and the world’s most pressing problems be solved if only people would desist from being so primitive and religious.

Which puts me in an awkward position. I am what is oddly known as a “practising Christian”, though in my case practice seems to make increasingly imperfect. Still, I go to church, which puts me in a rather small minority among my colleagues in this irreverent trade. But until now I have never felt the slightest desire to write about my faith. First, it’s nobody else’s business. Secondly, I am a pretty selective sort of Christian, since I have absolutely no interest in pursuing the question of whether there’s life after death — or at least not until after I’m dead. And thirdly, flaunting one’s spiritual beliefs is not a very English thing to do."

Morrison admires the Church of England for its non-docrtinaire, tolerant position (or wooliness as it is often termed). He goes on to say that the media’s faith-bashing "will drive a wedge between Britain’s white majority, who are now largely non-religious, and its ethnic minorities, who mostly live in communities glued by a shared faith"; and also, that it means that "all religious activity gets tarred with the same brush — that, by constantly drawing attention to the evils occasionally inflicted in the name of God, we jeopardise the good things that faith communities do, and humiliate sincere, thoughtful believers. "

I highly recommend reading the complete article at the link. You can also post comments there.

Link: What the sneering legions of atheists need to remember – Comment – Times Online.