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Keeping it in the family

Taboos (When Harriet Met Sally) by Carl Djerassi

Jennifer Rohn 26 February 2006

Taboos: a new play about assisted reproduction from the father of the Pill

The God fearin’ and Bible thumpin’ provide light relief

The flipside of contraception is reproductive technology, and chemist, novelist and playwright Carl Djerassi, inventor of the contraceptive pill, has increasingly focused his art and attention on the scientific means by which childless couples can use technology to conceive (read our profile of Djerassi here). In parallel, his plays have been moving away from pure ‘lab lit’ into more universal territory: the ethical problems caused by scientific advances.

Djerassi’s latest play, Taboos (subtitled When Harriet Met Sally) which premiered at London’s New End Theatre on 23 February, completes the transition from ‘lab lit’ (or ‘science-in-fiction’, as he prefers to call it) by focusing entirely on non-scientist characters. In this entertaining and thought-provoking play produced and directed by Andy Jordan, a lesbian couple, Harriet (Jane Perry) and Sally (Nicola Bryant) get broody and decide that Sally should avail herself of sperm donated by Harriet’s obliging brother Max (James Albrecht).

So far so good. But things become more complicated when Harriet finds she wants a baby too. A successful and therefore informed urologist, Harriet decides she is too old to chance the lottery of a turkey baster and instead settles on intercytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) as her modus operandi. But who will be the lucky ‘father’?

Enter Sally’s brother, Cameron (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor), a God-fearin’, Bible-thumpin’ Mississippian with an even more religious wife, Priscilla (Kathryn Akin). (The fearin’ and thumpin’ are excellently done, by the way, and provide much-needed light relief when the play grows tense, especially in the second half.) As luck would have it, they’ve been childless and desperately praying to rectify the situation for many long years. And the audience begins to get an inkling of where the whole thing is leading when Harriet convinces Cameron to donate some sperm over the homophobic Priscilla’s presumably dead body.

Harriet successfully gives birth to a healthy child, but not before giving Cameron one of the unused fertilized embryos left over from the ICSI procedure. Cameron doesn’t tell his wife the evil source but persuades Priscilla that God wouldn’t really mind if artificial means were used. The net result? Twins with four parents each – and a surprisingly emotional mess, which is resolved after a fashion by the play’s end.

Those curious about the play’s subtitle might wonder how much homage the playwright has given to the classic Rob Reiner film, but the only reference in evidence is one of Sally’s exasperated lines which riffs on Reiner’s mother’s famous line in the diner after Meg Ryan has just faked an orgasm.

Although I assumed that I fully grasped the conundrums that could arise from ICSI (for example, that Cameron could simultaneously be father and uncle twice over), I must admit that the full scope of the problem was not apparent until the play had run its course. We may think we are ethics-savvy in this day and age, especially if we are familiar with the technology in question, but the reality may be something else entirely. The bestowal of this awareness, in the end, is one of the best things about Taboos. And as the play suggests, more than scientists or politicians, it may be lawyers in the future who will have to wade in and sort out all the fuzzy and confusing nomenclature, rights and obligations of parenting in the modern genetic age.

Live in or near London? You can book tickets to Taboos here; it’s showing now until 2 April.