Newton's legacy sexed-up in Djerassi's play

Newton’s legacy sexed-up in Djerassi’s play

A play by Carl Djerassi
Andy Jordan Productions
New End theatre, Hampstead, UK
28 July - 28 August 2004
Reviewed by Katharine Sanderson

What better way to spend a hot summer’s evening than pondering the ethics surrounding the first publication of differential calculus theory?

Isaac Newton’s controversial arguments with Gottfried Leibniz over who was first to invent calculus are well known, but how come Newton finally got the glory?

Carl Djerassi (chemist-turned-playwright, and inventor of the contraceptive pill) has looked at this potentially seedy matter in his play, Calculus, the Andy Jordan Productions version of which recently played at the New End theatre in Hampstead, UK.

Basing a fictional story around non-fictional characters and possible events has allowed Djerassi to put his own spin on happenings that have never been fully understood. On the whole this leads to an entertaining scenario. We see playwright Colley Cibber (Michael Fenner, who also plays the part of Leibniz) discussing a theatrical version of the calculus debate with fellow playwright Sir John Vanburgh (David Gant, who also plays Newton), and then are given a condensed version of Vanburgh’s (fictional) play, with a few asides thrown in to remind us that we are watching a play within a play.

Gant’s Newton was wonderfully sinister and overplayed, and the company faced the challenge of performing in such a tiny theatre to great effect, wigs and all. Imaginative set designers had obviously had fun making use of the limited stage area.

The sexual scandal implied with the addition of a fictional female character seemed almost gratuitous and detracted from Djerassi’s main point: how did Newton get away with such an extreme manipulation of the 11 Royal Society fellows that approved his document claiming that he was first to discover ’the calculus’ (or, as Newton first called it, the theory of fluxions). It transpired that the addition of the fictional Lady Brasenose character was to provide the twist at the end of the story about the playwright Vanburgh’s source. A twist that seemed somewhat unnecessary.

A slightly forced ending and pointless sexual references aside, this effective play highlights some interesting queries about science, morality and egotism.

One is left wondering if bullies like Newton still exist and get away with it today?