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Flaws and forgiveness

We talk to Anna Ziegler about Photograph 51

Jennifer Rohn 11 October 2015

Inspired: Anna Ziegler

I was drawn to the complications and contradictions of Rosalind Franklin's character, to the way that she was her own greatest obstacle

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present this interview with Anna Ziegler, whose play about scientist Rosalind Franklin – Photograph 51 – is currently playing in London’s West End.

What have been your greatest influences as a playwright?

I suppose other plays have been my greatest influence. Sometimes the experience of a play will open a door you didn’t know was closed. Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice is an example. I hadn’t known a play could be pure poetry like that. Conor McPherson’s The Weir rearranged what I felt I knew about dramatic structure. Recently, Hamilton has taught me so much about putting history on stage.

What made you want to write a play about Rosalind Franklin?

I was actually commissioned to write about her by a small theater outside of Washington DC. I was tasked with creating a play about Franklin, Rachel Carson and a biologist named Roger Young. After writing a draft, I saw clearly (as did the commissioning theater) that Franklin deserved her own play, and so I started over. Her story was so inherently dramatic and I was drawn to the complications and contradictions of her character, to the way that she was her own greatest obstacle.

Which references, or scientists, did you consult for the turn of events surrounding the discovery of DNA covered in the play?

I devoured Brenda Maddox’s Dark Lady of DNA and Jim Watson’s The Double Helix. I also read autobiographies by Crick and Wilkins. Along the way, as the play got produced more and more, scientists would be brought on to consult and offer advice. In this most recent iteration in London, Professor Brian Sutton of King’s College came to our first rehearsal and very helpfully pointed out a few areas that still needed clarification or correction. So hopefully at this point the science in the play is more or less accurate!

Does considering science in a play represent a strong departure for you as a playwright? Or does Photograph 51 contain themes that you’ve explored before?

Before Photograph 51 I hadn’t written a play that was about science but I had certainly written plays whose themes appear in Photograph 51 too. I’ve found that I’m drawn to stories that culminate in a character’s need for forgiveness. I’m drawn to stories about regret and about the fallibility of memory. I tend to write about people who are doing their best despite making mistakes – and all of this is true of Photograph 51 too. The fact of it having science as its backdrop doesn’t make it any different than any other play I’ve written, in the sense of it still being primarily about relationships and their complications, and our inability to undo or redo choices we’ve made.

Nicole Kidman is, on the face of it, much more glamorous than Rosalind Franklin, though she has been widely praised for her portrayal. Did you have any initial concerns about the casting?

No, I was thrilled about the casting! And glamorous actors and actresses are always playing characters less glamorous than they are. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be very many roles to choose from.

X-ray crystallography is an abstract technique, and writers often struggle with incorporating scientific detail. Was it difficult to include the appropriate level of scientific detail into the story without making it too complicated?

I could only write what I felt I could understand myself, and because my understanding is limited, the level of scientific detail in the play wasn’t going to get too terribly complicated.

Scientists are often portrayed as inhuman or superhuman in fiction, whereas the critics have pointed out to the great humanity of your characters in Photograph 51. Did you make a conscious effort to buck stereotypes?

I don’t think any writer sets out to create an inhuman character. So I suppose, in that sense, there was no conscious effort to buck stereotypes, but just to find the humanity inside every character. I’m glad that some feel I succeeded. I happen to think scientists tend to be juicy characters to write, because they are often very passionate about their work, and feel they have a real purpose in the world.

Some friends of the late Maurice Wilkins, whose character in the play is shown to ‘steal’ the eponymous photograph from Frankin’s desk drawer, have objected to this representation. How do you respond to this complaint?

In my view, Wilkins doesn’t steal the photograph from Franklin. I think my play makes clear that Franklin and Wilkins are in a partnership (if Wilkins is not, indeed, Franklin’s boss) and therefore he has a right to any work generated in their lab. Wilkins shares the photograph in a moment of pique, in the spirit of “isn’t my colleague’s work amazing? It’s such a shame we can’t work together properly.” He’s being quite respectful of her, in one sense. The mistake he makes in the play is not the sharing of the photograph, but his decision never to tell her that he did so; Watson and Crick share equally in this oversight.

I am frankly a bit surprised by the response of some to the portrayal of the Wilkins character, as I have great affection and sympathy for him. He has to work in an impossible environment and he’s doing the best he can. I would argue he comes across better than Rosalind does in the play! She’s the difficult one, after all. And contrary to what some have contended, the play isn’t putting forward an argument that Franklin should have won a Nobel for her work – she was not eligible for the prize, as she died years before the award was given to Crick, Wilkins and Watson in 1962, who rightly deserved it.

More generally, you – like many writers of fictionalized histories of famous scientists – have tweaked reality. How does such a fluidity help create the story you want to tell?

In the case of Photograph 51, slightly tweaking the chronology allowed the play to rise to a single dramatic climax. In reality Don Caspar, Rosalind Franklin’s American friend and colleague, didn’t arrive in London until after 1953, after the events of the play take place, but I wanted their friendship to be part of the story of the discovery of DNA’s structure, so we could see that what was missing in Rosalind’s life – a successful pairing – was also what she could not see when it came to the helix.

Would you write about scientists again in the future?

I have written about scientists since Photograph 51 and I hope to again. A play of mine opening in New York this February called Boy concerns itself with another true story, though this one is only very loosely based on its source. It’s about a boy in the 1970s who was raised as a girl after he lost his penis in an accident. He had no idea he was born a boy, so he was essentially a walking science experiment his entire childhood. The scientist behind the experiment was so convinced that we were blank slates at birth that he couldn’t see the obvious failure of his experiment right in front of him.

Who is your favorite scientist character in a work of fiction and why?

The Albert Einstein character in Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. I adore that book, in large part because it gives poetic, playful and emotional weight to (somewhat) scientific concepts. It forces readers to think about how different our lives would be if the world, if science, if time, behaved even just a bit differently. It’s essentially a story of what-ifs, and I love those.

Related information:

Photograph 51 is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre in London until 21 November 2015.