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Eureka! Science Belongs On Stage

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A recent article in The Guardian made some interesting if harsh points about the canon of plays written about science and scientists. To summarize ungraciously: they generally suck.

Pardoning the great science plays, of course: Stoppard's Arcadia, Brecht's Galileo, Frayn's Copenhagen. A few others pass muster, but most "seem" to be poor plays in service of decent science.

I would say that the author's hypothesis is (even in his own words, and much like geocentricity) easy to disprove is you observe for long enough.

Scientists make for great heroes and great villains; great love stories and great mysteries. And the fact that science is fact does not intimidate those of us bound to fiction, but instead adds an earthiness (or cosmology) to our narrative. It adds reality to our stories, and adds story back into our reality.

Science is built for the stage. The very act of scientific discovery is one of the most dramatic in the human experience. Dramatic because it changes everything, and it can be made of nothing but silence. An epic thought still fits on a stage and in a human being. That can be giant drama. Those of us that got to see John Adam's gorgeous Doctor Atomic can advise thusly.

And you know what - scientists are people too. They fall in love, they contend, they rage, they bleed, they act stupid, they are betrayed by friends, they are the suavest in the room - I believe both J. Robert Oppenheimer and Marie Curie might have been all of the above.

There are many categories of science plays - plays about real scientists (A Disappearing Number, Copenhagen, QED), plays about fictional scientists but real science (Arcadia), plays just about scientific ideas (Theatre Complicite's Mnemonic, Barrow's Infinities), politics and science (Galileo, and Inherit The Wind), and plays about upcoming/predictive science that might or might not stay science-fiction (Frankenstein or RUR).

There are funny plays (Thiessen's Lenin's Embalmers), riveting true stories ( Doctor Atomic, Giron's Moving Bodies), intense portraits (Copenhagen), and wild theatrical rides (Mullin's Louis Slotin Sonata, Kreitzer's The Love Song of J Robert Oppenheimer). These and many more plays and productions are collected CUNY Graduate Center's wonderful database for the science-theatre community here.

The Sloan Foundation has done a great service to the stories of science and scientists with its consistent and generous granting programs (full disclosure, I've received Sloan support). It certainly has flooded the theatre scene with support that turns into plays with hard science (as opposed to medicine - Sloan's distinction) at their cores. However, with any excess there will be equal parts good and bad. So with more funding for certain kinds of plays (which eager playwrights lap up) you will see plenty to disappoint as well as inspire.

But disappointing theatre is not a science play problem. How many early-20's-white-kids-breaking-up plays must we suffer through before that well dries up? I digress. Back to world-changing idea-making.

The flaw with any play no matter its source material is that drama is about people, not ideas. You can have a play without ideas as long as you have people (not that I'd always go see a play without ideas), but you can't have it the other way around. We're watching people experience, take risks, make choices, try, fail, combat, converge, and collide. Ideas may fuel the people, but people and their crises fuel the drama.

When science plays do fail to be good plays it's usually because the scientific ideas subsume the desires, conflicts, and fierce wants of the people. The play gets too explanatory, obscure, pedantic, confusing, or just plain boring. But science is not built for boredom. It's built for amazement, commitment, and at the right moment, paradigm-rattling change. When crafted right, these elements should ignite a stage.

Science, like any theoretical idea, should lead to a deeper kind of play - a more layered, woven play where the science permeates the form of the play as well as the content. Arcadia is a play about thermodynamics and therefore time itself (see my friend Sean Carroll's excellent new book on this subject here) - so the form of Stoppard's play plays with this sense that time is irreversible by moving back and forth through history to uncover truths.

And for curious playwrights getting overwhelmed and excited by the science is easy to do. This stuff is fascinating. The ideas, the universal synthesis, the fundamental questions are grand, wide, and deep. Good science plays support that awe but prioritize the human heart.

Yes there will be more science plays. Just like there will be more art plays, history plays, music plays, mother-daughter plays, death plays, birth plays, drunken plays, sex plays. Let us always judge them for their merit as good plays, but let's not discount a whole library's worth of rich, risky, eureka-worthy drama.