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."

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2 thoughts on “Autumn books: experimental theatre

  1. I must say, though I am a humanities person (and barely passed “Fundamental Math” in college, and only after taking it twice), I loved all of these plays. Of course, I also have a subscription to _Scientific American_ and I actually read the articles. When scientific ideas are written in a fashion explicable to laypeople, I am in heaven.
    By the way, another play that would fit in this category (at least, I think it would) is “Breaking the Code” about Alan Turing.

  2. Yes, I agree about “Breaking the Code – I saw it with Derek Jacobi, a very good play. It is probably included in the book.
    I also agree that it is more than possible to write and act about science in a comprehensible way to non-scientists — so long as the writer knows their subject and what they are trying to convey. So much of science “complication” is because the writer or conveyer doesn’t have a clear sense of what he/she is trying to convey.
    A good example of this is medicine – patients become world experts at the science of their condition. I have heard very eminent consultants get up at meetings and say that their patients know more about the scientific underpinning of their disease than the consultant her/himself. A little motivation goes a long way.

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