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Science-in-theatre: a chemist attempts to translate

With a new play opening in London, Carl Djerassi continues to put science center-stage

Jennifer Rohn 30 March 2005

The prodigal son: Austria has welcomed back Djerassi with a postage stamp

Science-in-fiction is an effective way of smuggling serious topics of scientific behavior into the consciousness of the scientifically illiterate

Carl Djerassi, in real life, was quite a surprise. I knew he’d received his PhD in 1945, but when I did the math and compared it with his appearance, it just didn’t add up. True, his hair and beard were ermine-white, but his tanned face seemed marked more with character than age, and his faintly accented conversation was honed and unhesitating. Mid-fifties: that’s where I’d place him if I didn’t know better. And I wasn’t the only one: he told me when he thinks of men his age, he’s always surprised to recall that he’s one of them. It’s one of the reasons he doesn’t tend to celebrate his own birthdays.

I met chemist, novelist and playwright Djerassi on a cold sunny day in Cambridge, England last autumn to see revival performances of two of his science plays at the ADC Theatre and to chat about the role of science in fiction. He was impeccably dressed in a wool suit, cream-colored shirt and a jaunty patterned cravat. And he was kind and courteous, ushering me through doorways first, introducing me to various people at the theatre using my title of ‘Doctor’ – very Old-World. His left knee, fused from a skiing accident, didn’t stop him from moving at a normal brisk pace and lugging about a large rucksack which seemed to contain his entire literary life: copies of his plays in various languages, brochures about productions of his work going in multiple countries, and other tantalizing letters, books and packages all crammed in. Several times he asked me to ensure that he did not leave it behind.

A friend first introduced me to Carl Djerassi’s work in graduate school, when she lent me a book called Cantor’s Dilemma. (Actually, to be strictly honest, I’d had intimate encounters with some of his most famous work earlier – Djerassi is also the inventor of the oral contraceptive pill.) I had never read anything like it. The book detailed the sordid story of one Isadore Cantor, biochemist, in his quest to win the Nobel Prize. And it more or less accurately described my beloved world – experiments, test tubes, disgruntled graduate students, late nights in the lab, the ambitions and secret yearnings for success, the moments of breathtaking exhilaration and crushing disappointment. It was only then that the rather obvious had hit me: realistic books about scientists were extremely rare, practically non-existent.

Djerassi has called his particular genre "science-in-fiction" – in which everything mentioned could or does exist. On his web site (, he unapologetically reveals his pedagogical agenda:

"Several factors have always influenced the conduct of scientific research: the quality of the mentor-disciple relationship; trust in the reliability of scientific results; and like it or not, the drive for scientific priority. A more recent aspect of the scientific scene is society's recognition that women should play a much greater role in hitherto male-dominated disciplines. Topics such as these should be presented to a general public, but writing about them in specialized journals will not bridge the gulf between the two cultures. My bridge is a special literary genre, science-in-fiction, wherein I illuminate…the tribal culture of scientists, rather than dwelling on the science they do. The reception of…Cantor's Dilemma, which addresses these issues, convinced me that science-in-fiction is an effective way of smuggling serious topics of scientific behavior into the consciousness of the scientifically illiterate."

Djerassi was born in Vienna but relocated to the United States after the Nazis annexed Austria. In his adopted country, he became an award-winning chemist, first in industry and then as a professor at Stanford. But it was not until after his sixtieth birthday that he decided to became a novelist.

He revealed in one of our early email exchanges that getting his novels published was not easy at first, despite his fame as a pioneer of steroid contraception and an already respectable list of published poems, memoirs, essays and short stories. He found that resistance to the idea of science-in-fiction was rife amongst conventional literary agents and publishers. "I am not sure whether I would have started out," he said, "if I had known [this]".

After numerous rejections for Cantor’s Dilemma, the book was eventually published by Doubleday, and after some good write-ups, Penguin bought the paperback rights. But encountering further difficulties with subsequent novels, he dispensed with agents: "In the end, I found it more productive to do it on my own." He embarked on an alternative strategy: to persuade a small academic press to publish his subsequent novels in hardback. This approach worked; the University of Georgia Press agreed to print The Bourbaki Gambit (and a set number of subsequent science-in-fiction novels), and he was able to get good reviews and publicity for the books.

Years later and after "a very long struggle", Cantor’s Dilemma is on its seventeenth printing and has been translated into ten languages. Even after all that, the publishing world hasn't quite got its head around science-in-fiction. "I still find it necessary to point out its distinction from science fiction," he said, "and that the former is not a prescription for bestsellers but a real candidate for 'longsellers'."

More recently, Djerassi turned his hand to writing science-in-fiction plays. His first, Immaculate Misconception (1997), dealt with in vitro fertilization. Quite unusually, the play featured a video projection of real ICSI, or intracytoplasmic sperm injection (accompanied by somewhat informative dialogue between the two scientist characters acting out the procedure) to teach the audience about this technique. Despite its heavy material, the play was translated into eleven other languages and shown around the world. On his website, Djerassi says, "The vast majority of the public coming to my play will never have heard of ICSI, yet I can state unequivocally that…after having seen my play everyone will not only know what ICSI is, but will also be able to explain it. And if that claim is true, then this ‘science-in-theatre’ has indeed fulfilled a valuable pedagogic purpose." This education, he argues, is a necessary foundation for appreciating and questioning the ethics surrounding the technique.

But could Djerassi do as well with a topic that wasn’t as titillating as sexual reproduction? His next two science plays were grounded on more solidly academic subjects. Oxygen (2001), co-written with fellow chemist Roald Hoffmann, dealt with the dispute over the discovery of oxygen in the 18th century, and Calculus (2004) described another priority dispute, this time over the invention of differential calculus. The ADC Theatre was showing both plays the afternoon I went to meet Djerassi; while Oxygen was a full production, Calculus was billed as a "reading", with minimal props, costumes and rehearsal (in which the actors held scripts).

I liked the raw reading of Calculus better than the polished production of Oxygen. The former had better acting, and despite the minimal trappings (or perhaps because of them), it seemed more immediate. But it was illuminating to see the two performances back-to-back, as the parallel themes and strategies were thrown more sharply into relief.

Both plays revolve around competition and the question of priority: who did X first (with who doing X the best taking a firm second – as it always seems to do in Djerassi’s fictional worlds). If we proceed under the assumption that the fictionalized behavior of the various characters was inspired by Djerassi’s own direct experiences at the lab bench, I must say that I did not completely relate to the high melodrama. It could be a generational thing, times having changed a bit since Djerassi’s heyday. Being first is not as important now, I would argue, as being one of the first, as most clustered discoveries tend to be given equal weight. Also, given the population explosion in the global research community and the frenzied pace of discovery, so-called ‘scoops’ (the colloquial term for being on the losing side of the scientific publication race) are increasingly commonplace – and life goes on. I have not experienced the true bitterness depicted by the people in Djerassi’s plays; the scientists I’ve known have been more laid back about it all.

In addition to all this jostling at the finish line, both plays featured women characters who are vitally interested in the science but who are excluded because of their gender. In Calculus, the exclusion is literal: a lively, clever salon hostess who seems just as au fait as the men about the mathematics Newton and Leibniz are squabbling over is nonetheless unable to set foot into the male-only Royal Society; the wife of one of the arbiters of the dispute is reduced to begging her husband pitifully for scraps of information. And in Oxygen, the obviously clued-in wives of the three men vying for the role of oxygen’s first discoverer (Priestley, Scheele and Lavoisier) can only watch helplessly as their men fight it out. (One wife is "allowed" to assist her husband and make sketches of the experiments, and is cattishly envied by the other two). The best to which these interested women can aspire is the role of behind-the-scenes helpmate and emotional prop; they also plead for compromise and making peace (while the men are obsessed with the battle at hand).

These gender roles are all ancient history, right? But no – Oxygen has a parallel story-line set in the present day, in which a female scientist chairs a committee of bickering, childlike male colleagues entrusted with the task of awarding a "retro-Nobel" for oxygen’s true discoverer. Despite the fact that she is clearly powerful and competent, you sense that the men think of her mostly as bitch and/or sex object. She’s empowered in science but you never feel she’s considered an equal – the best she can hope for is grudging respect. I immediately recognized this duality, which probably holds true for many female scientists occupying top positions. And like the period women of both plays, the chairwoman spends a lot of time trying to make the men behave and not be quite so voraciously competitive: add ‘mother’ to her role along with bitch and sex kitten, then.

A third feature the two plays share is the general solution to a key problem inherent to all works of fiction dealing with science: how do you explain it without losing (or boring) your audience? Djerassi’s major strategy here was a classic: including an ignorant character who needs to be briefed in laymen’s terms. In Calculus, a foreign ambassador called in to help mediate the Newton v. Leibniz question serves this purpose. In Oxygen, the function is fulfilled by the royal court (in the past) and by the retro-Nobel committee (in the present), both of whom need to understand what the men have done to award a prize for the invention. Still, the modi operandi used to bring the ignorant parties up to speed were nevertheless original. The foreign ambassador (and the audience) is treated to a very amusing scene in which a scientist silently eats an entire apple at different speeds to demonstrate the principles underlying differential calculus. Not so amusing is the scene in Oxygen when Lavoisie and his wife put on a rather excruciating masked play to illustrate their theories about the humble gas; far more effective (and engaging) is when the retro-Nobel committee members each champion one of the three oxygen contenders and try to convince the others with short presentations. Argumentation is another strategy: the retro-Nobel committee members bicker; the oxygen triumvirate make snide remarks; Newton and Leibniv having a shouting match about mathematics, during which you can actually see the spittle fly.

It’s fascinating watching a play next to the playwright. You notice his every twitch, every reaction. During Oxygen, as a piano plays a simple minor-key interlude, he leans over to tell me that the music was specially composed in Cambridge for this production. After the bitch/sex object chairwomen tells her female colleague scathingly that the immature behavior her male colleagues is "the best argument for contraception" she’s ever heard, Djerassi nudges me and whispers, "Guess who wrote that bit!" He is the first to applaud at the end (the rest of us hesitate, unsure that the final speech is really final), and when I ask him who won the retro-Nobel vote, he replies that it depends on the version being staged. And sometimes he lets the audience decide!

The changeable nature of Djerassi’s works is a constant theme of the day’s running conversation. Cantor’s Dilemma started out as a short story whose protagonist went from being called "Cantor" to "Castor" then back to "Cantor" as Djerassi tried not to offend various contemporary scientists of the same name. As his books sometimes come out in Germany first, he can correct any deficiencies spotted by alert German critics for the English version. His plays also have various incarnations. That afternoon’s staging of Calculus, for example, contained an extra scene between Newton and Leibniz – which, in the play-within-a-play format, is represented as an extra scene that the fictional actors may or may not incorporate into the final version. This coming May, the Zurich Opera will stage a chamber opera version of Calculus, and Djerassi has adopted his play Immaculate Misconception to be used an interactive classroom tool.

Over dinner, we discuss how plays are different from novels. Recalling his reactions as he watched his own creations unfold on stage and come to life before him, I point out that with plays, the audience response does not occur privately as with books, but in a full house of laughing, applauding participants. As I get carried away on this tangent, he gently reminds me that when the actors fail or the production isn’t good, it can be much worse. Cappuchinos come; Djerassi spirits out a small plastic box from the ubiquitous rucksack and dispenses a few white pills. "What does a chemist take with his coffee?" I inquire curiously of this man of ultimate pill fame. The answer: Hermesetas, a Swiss sweetener.

On the late train milk-run back to London, joined by his producer, Andy Jordan, Djerassi wants to talk about sex. He tells us how much he enjoyed writing about orgasms from the female perspective for his novel Menachem’s Seed – when I ask him cheekily if he’d done any research, he replies unhesitatingly in the affirmative. And then there’s his latest play, Phallacy, which has its world premiere in London on April 6th at the New End Theatre. Although the program notes say it’s about the dispute between a male materials chemist and a female art historian over the dating of a bronze statue, if you’d only heard about it from Djerassi, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the main character was actually the statue’s penis. He amuses me and Jordan for several miles by relating some fascinating anecdotes about penises in art – depictions of the baby Christ fondling himself; how adult Christs never had an exposed male member; how several artists have depicted the dead Christ with an anatomically correct rigor-mortis erection underneath the loincloth; how in the Vatican museum, he was once shown box after box of marble penises, broken off of hundreds of statues for the sake of modesty. The ancient Greeks, he explained, gave "dainty" penises to their noblemen, and large penises to their servants or mythological louts. Marino Marini once made a statue with two penises, dainty or prodigious, that the owner could screw in as the mood permitted.

Aside from a meditation on the male member, Djerassi intended Phallacy to explore "the quirks and idiosyncrasies of art historian and scientist, when they examine the age of an art object from their grossly different perspectives: aesthetic and art historical connoisseurship versus cold material analysis." He adds, "I also wanted to explore the ramifications of a well known character fault that transcends the gulf been art scholar and scientist: falling in love with a favorite hypothesis and defending it against all comers and new evidence." And as a serious art collector himself, he is well situated to examine the aesthetic as well as the scientific side.

On a more personal note, nearly seventy years after the Austrian Anschluss, Austria has recently offered Djerassi citizenship, and is even issuing a postage stamp bearing his visage (pictured above). That Phallacy is set in his birth town of Vienna, Djerassi says, is an apt "token of reconciliation."

As the train rumbles through the darkness, Djerassi reveals several tantalizing ideas for science-in-fiction novels that never got written. When I ask whether these will ever see the light of day, he pauses before answering. "I’m not planning to stop writing plays and return to the novel any time soon. Only if I get bored of it."

Related links

Live in or near London? You can book tickets to Phallacy here; it’s showing from 6 April to 14 May 2005.

Brief descriptions and Amazon links for all of Djerassi’s science-in-fiction works can be found in the Lab Lit list.