Science on stage: from Dr Faustus to Copenhagen

Science on stage: from Dr Faustusto Copenhagen

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr 

Princeton, US: Princeton University Press  | 2006 | 271pp | ?18.95 (HB) | ISBN 0691121508 

Reviewed by Derry Jones

Mention science and theatre and a chemist might recall Oxygen  by Carl Djerassi. 

Oxygen, read and performed worldwide, was surpassed commercially by Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, which has spawned symposia and Frayn’s compelling philosophy book. Meeting in the afterlife, Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe and Werner Heisenberg try to recall their 1941 conversation in occupied Denmark, a transforming personal and historical occasion. The characters’ disparate recollections underline uncertainty in memory, the difficulty of observing the observed, and the analogy with particle uncertainty. 

Physics, physicists and mathematicians are represented more strongly than chemistry in science plays of recent decades. However, distinguished playwrights including Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, Stephen Poliakoff and Tom Stoppard have all turned science and research into drama. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr contends that recent plays revive a tradition from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus  and Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist, through Thomas Shadwell, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, George Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht. Continuity may be debatable but many scientists have been portrayed on stage from Galileo to Rosalind Franklin, and the upsurge is undeniable. She regards genuine science plays, like Timberlake Wertenbaker’s After Darwin, as bridging C P Snow’s Two Cultures gulf by providing a medium of interaction in which content and form are deliberately merged. Most theatre involves conflict, whether resolved or not, but modern science plays tend to be staged less formally and more provocatively, often cross-cutting times with more actor-audience interaction, as in John Barrow’s Infinities

Shepherd-Barr’s book will appeal both to chemists and theatregoers interested in an emerging dramatic genre.