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The fine print

Chemistry in Theatre: Insufficiency, Phallacy or Both

Jennifer Rohn 27 July 2012

Wider reactions: detail from the cover

The struggle of a scientist to get tenure, an all-too-familiar scenario in academia, is aptly portrayed

What are plays for, and how are they best experienced? A slim volume by chemist, novelist and playwright Carl Djerassi (Imperial College Press, 2012) examines these questions through an opening essay, and by two examples in the form of his plays. (One of these, Phallacy, has been reviewed by LabLit previously; the other, Insufficiency, is new.)

The essay’s agenda is first to convince us that plays do not have to be seen on stage to be appreciated, and second, that plays should be written with a view towards being read in text form – with plays about science being particularly suited for that medium. The first point, I think, is reasonable. Djerassi points out that a large number of plays, though performed only sporadically, have nevertheless become part of the canon of widely read literature: he cites works of Aristophanes, Shakespeare and others. The author also notes that most plays are performed infrequently, and some once or not at all, so reading their texts is the only way to experience them at all for most people. Appreciating a play through its text will expand the audience many times over, which can only be a good thing.

The second premise is more challenging, and can be encapsulated by this quote (emphasis mine):

Certain plays – and especially most of the recent science plays – have a didactic component even though many theatre professionals refuse to recognize it. These plays aim to illustrate through the unique medium of theatre – hitherto used only infrequently in science – what science or scientists are all about. To that extent, the best (in terms of significance and originality rather than just quality) merit [is] to be available to a broad audience, which is not necessarily a theatre audience, and to do so for years and decades, rather than just for a few days or weeks on a stage.

Given the above viewpoint, the author goes on to point out that since the reader of a play cannot see the gestures and expressions of the actors, plays intended to be read need to be written differently, by violating the “show, don’t tell” rule. Later, if the playwright is lucky enough to get his or her play performed, the play text can be revised for appreciation by a live audience. Meanwhile, having the text out there – even in self-published form – might draw in a readership that might one day entice a theatre company to take the script on.

As far as maximizing availability, I have no problem with the second premise. But is science as a topic truly a special case because it is inherently “didactic”? Can’t a play about science merely be a gripping human story? If you think about plays like Copenhagen, Arcadia and A Disappearing Number, the answer is surely yes. But if these are the exception rather than the rule, do we as a society want to encourage art that is at its heart intended to educate? Or would we rather advocate excellent art whose purpose is to touch the heart of the theatre-goer (with any education as a bonus, as is the case for works of art about any topic)?

Djerassi, for his part, has long been a champion of as many people as possible learning about science and scientists via plays and other forms of fiction. He therefore argues here that publishing a science play in book form is “the most realistic approach to overcoming the enormous resistance of commercial theatres to most plays dealing with science and especially with chemistry...”.

As someone who has written a number of science plays, Djerassi undoubtedly has direct experience with such antagonism, and he gives a few interesting examples from his own work. But what of the notion that works of theatre should be written specifically for a non-theatre audience, for educational purposes? It is tempting to wonder why someone who wants their story to be widely distributed in text form would not instead just write a short story or novel. Djerassi would likely argue that plays are better equipped for educational readings; it is possible that students who would have no patience with a full-length novel might find a shorter, participative format to be more accessible.

Djerassi calls adding extra “tell” cues into one’s screenplay a “compromise”, but is such compromise truly necessary? He cites Stoppard and Bennett as examples of playwrights who can bring plays to full life even on the printed page - presumably without resorting to “telling” instead of “showing” - who are able to do so because they are “masters of style and taste”. But shouldn’t only the best works, like these, be the ones that are staged and published – rewarding talent where it is due? Otherwise the world might become flooded with amateur efforts and the entire medium of theatre could be diluted. In other words, could one argue that perhaps the vast majority of plays that are seldom or never staged have reached that fate for a good reason? On the other hand, with best-selling novels increasingly coming from the ranks of "rediscovered" self-published books that failed initially to incite commercial interest, it's also clear that professionals do not always know what a popular audience truly wants until the experiment is performed.

I don’t know the right answer to these questions, and as such, the essay is an interesting one and its arguments deserve to be discussed. In this edition, the plays themselves are then presented as examples. (I won’t discuss Phallacy, since I reviewed its staged form earlier, except to say that I enjoyed it and found it original and funny). The new play, in nine scenes, is the tale of Jerzy, a Polish emigree chemist struggling to get tenure at a second-rate university in American; it involves the science of bubbles and an unexplained pair of deaths. Typically Djerassian in nature, it uses humorous, quick-paced dialogue and contains his usual theme of sexual politics. The struggle of a scientist to get tenure, an all-too-familiar scenario in academia, is aptly portrayed in the story. The “telling” cues that Djerassi puts in to help us picture the scene (explicit indications of dialogue beats, or descriptions such as Leo groans while nodding his head and pointing toward a chair by his desk) feel unobtrusive and do not detract from the reading. The trappings of chemistry are heavy at times (including an equation with several dozen variables) but the overall science is imparted in a way that a layperson could understand.

This edition is well worth a read for the essay alone, although Djerassi is of course not the first person to argue that plays should be read as well as staged. Writing in the Guardian in 2006, theatre critic Stanley Wells pointed out that Shakespeare’s contemporaries Heminges and Condell exhorted readers in their introduction to the First Folio: "Read him therefore, and again and again, and if then you do not like him, surely you are in manifest danger not to understand him."

Related informtaion:

Carl Djerassi will appear at Fiction Lab, the lab lit book club over which Jennifer Rohn presides, on 8 October at London's Royal Institution to talk about Chemistry In Theatre. All welcome, and a link for more information will follow shortly.

The play Insufficiency will premiere 20 September 2012 at the Riverside Theatre, London, and runs though 20 October.