Science in Theatre/Theatre on Science – By Harry Lustig

 [In delighted anticipation of the revival-opening on Broadway next month of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia; and in recognition of the new CRC Guest Essay on Science and the Arts by Ashwin Vaidya, this Director’s Blog space is given over to a fascinating list compiled by Harry Lustig, professor of physics emeritus and provost emeritus, CUNY, and treasurer emeritus of the American Physical Society;  and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, university lecturer in modern drama, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford; and author of Science on stage: from Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen (Princeton UP, 2006).  The list was originally posted on the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of Americas LMDA ListServ by Cynthia SoRelle on September 3, 2010. — N.B.]  

Pre-nineteenth century
Aristophanes. Clouds. 423 BC. Aristophanes ridicules the work of the “rank pedants, those paleface, barefoot vagabonds in the academy, occupied with research in a variety of subjects, science among them.
Jonson, Ben. The Alchemist. (1610). Lampoons the practitioners of science (then mostly pseudoscience) as jargon-babbling rogues, and their willing dupes.
Marlowe, Christopher. Dr. Faustus. (1604). Features a scientist who strikes a bargain with the Devil and meets a horrible demise as a result of his lust for knowledge.
von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust (1808 [part 1]. 1831[part 2] ). A scientist and scholar has grown weary of his learning and aided by a powerful accomplice, regains his youth and pursues pleasure, with mixed consequences.
Shadwell, Thomas. The Virtuoso. (1676). The first drama in which a major character is clearly recognizable as a scientist. It is a devastating portrait and the demonstrations and explanations of the practice of science are caricatures.

Late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth Century
Andreyev, Leonid. To the Stars. (1907). An astronomer, who lives apart from society, is blind to the changing world around him, even as family members try to make him aware of what is happening.
Brecht, Bertolt. Life of Galilei. (1939; 1947). The first play to portray an actual scientist in a historical situation, Galileo is a hero in the first version, but, after Hiroshima, becomes retroactively an anti-hero in the second.
Capek, Karel. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1921) The devastating effect of robots on society.
Davis, Hallie Flanagan. E=mc2. (1948). Part allegory and part documentary, the play features a character called Atom and a Professor who explains the physics the audience needs to know.
Dürrenmatt, Friedrich. The Physicists.(1962). Warns of the apocalyptic results of modern physics put into the wrong hands, using the Möbius strip as a central image.
Golding, William. The Brass Butterfly, (1958).. Set in third century Rome, a scientist invents an explosive missile, a steamship, the pressure cooker and other dangerous technology far ahead of his time; but the wise emperor rejects these innovations and suggests that the scientist devote himself to gardening.
Gorki, Maxim. Children of the sun. (1905) Translation by Stephen Mulrine,1999.) About a chemist who is an idealist who wants to be left alone, is uninterested in the realities around him. and unsympathetic to the claim that since should serve society.
Ibsen, Henrik. An Enemy of the People. (1882) A doctor discovers dangerous bacteria in town spa waters, but instead of appreciation he meets the townspeople’s wrath as politics trumps science.
Kingsley, Sidney. Men in White. (1933) Prototypical Emergency Room drama that depicts a hospital and doctors treating patients.
Lawrence, Jerome and Robert E. Lee. Inherit the Wind. (1955) About the Scopes trial pitting Darwin’s theory of evolution against the Bible.
MacColl, Ewan. Uranium 235. (1952) A dynamic atomic-energy play
MacLeish, Archibald. Heracles (1965). The protagonist, a scientist at the zenith of his career, has just been awarded a Nobel Prize. The adulation pleases him but he is also aware of the futility and costs of contemporary scientific discovery
Morgan, Charles. The Burning Glass (1953) One of many post-atomic plays, in which the scientists is an individual who poses a grave threat to humanity, Here, a weather control machine would allow the sun’s radiation to be concentrated on any specific spot on earth.
Shaw, George Bernard. The Doctor’s Dilemma. (1906). Makes fun of a passel of medical charlatans, but also introduces concepts of biochemistry.
Zuckmayer, Carl. Das kalte Licht.. (1955) is loosely based on the story of the physicist Klaus Fuchs. The play does describe the development of the atomic bomb, but the author is more concerned with the political and nationalist pressure on the characters than with the science.

Contemporary Plays (1982 ff.)

(1) Dramas and Comedies
Auburn, David. Proof. (2000) A young, insecure, and somewhat enigmatic female mathematics student, and not her demented mathematical genius of a father, turns out to have solved a fiendishly difficult theorem.
Barrow, John. Infinities.. (2002). Five dramatic scenes about the concept of infinity, including the dispute between Cantor and Kronecker about its nature, a famous problem of Hilbert, and the vicissitudes of living forever.
Berger, Glen. Great Men of Science, nos. 21 and 22 (1998). Set in Paris 1793-4, during the Reign of Terror, it examines the ideals of the Enlightenment scientist when faced with political and social upheaval.
Brenton, Howard. The Genius (1982). A 1980 American Renaissance man, bright and brash, like Brecht’s Galileo, cannot deal with the moral dilemmas his work force him to confront.
Brook, Peter, and Estienne, Marie-Hélène The Man Who/L’homme qui. (2002) A “theatrical research” based on the Oliver Sacks story “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”
Burns, Elizabeth. Autodestruct: The Ultimate Cure for Cancer. (2001) A scientist clones his way to immortality, but at what price?
Clyman, Bob. The Secret Order. (1999-2000). About the pressures threatening to destroy a young scientist.
Churchill, Caryl. A Number. (2002) A father confronts three of his adult sons, two of whom are clones of the first. Churchill uses the scientific possibility of cloning to address the basic human question of where personality comes from, nature or nurture?
Congdon, Constance. No Mercy. (1994) About the first atomic bomb test and the men involved in the nuclear program.
Djerassi, Carl, and Hoffman Roald.. Oxygen. (2000) With scenes alternating between contemporary Sweden and 18th century France and England, the play asks, who should be awarded the first, fictional, “Retro-Nobel” prize for a scientific discovery before the 20th century?
Djerassi, Carl. An Immaculate Misconception. (2001) A play by the inventor of the birth control pill, about sex in the age of fertility treatments.
Edson, Margaret. Wit. (1999) Set in a hospital ward, the play depicts an uncompromising professor of metaphysical poetry who endures grueling treatments for ovarian cancer buttressed by her love of Donne’s Holy Sonnets and late-budding friendships she never had.
Fenwick, Jean-Noel (English adaptation by Ron Clark). Les Palmes de M. Schutz /Pierre and Marie. (2002).. In a small laboratory in Paris in the 1800’s, Pierre and Marie Curie discover uranium, radium, and love.
Frayn, Michael. Copenhagen. (1998; 2000). Reenacts three plausible versions of the 1941 visit of Werner Heisenberg to his mentor and friend Niels Bohr in Nazi-occupied Denmark.
Friedman, Robert Marc. Remembering Miss Meitner ((2002). The co-discoverer and explicator of nuclear fission confronts Otto Hahn, who could have helped her to receive a share of his Nobel prize, and Manne Siegbahn, who, while providing a refuge for her in his Swedish laboratory, did not provide her with any wherewithal for continuing her research.
Friel, Brian. Molly Sweeney. (1994) Based on neurologist Oliver Sacks’s short story about a blind woman given an operation and the surprising and painful consequences of gaining sight.
Frontczak, Susan Marie. Manya. (2002) One-woman show about Marie Curie.
Godfrey, Paul. The Blue Ball. (1995) About the space program.
Giron, Arthur. Moving Bodies (1999-2000). Dramatizes the biography and contributions of the great, idiosyncratic physicist Richard Feynman, including his role in the building of the atomic bomb and the explanation of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Gunderson, Lauren. Background (2002). The physicists Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman deduced the existence of Cosmic Background Radiation in 1948, but few observers looked for it and it was only found accidentally in 1965. Alpher’s life and lack of recognition and the history of cosmology are recounted going backwards in time, illuminating both.
Hampton, Christopher. The Talking Cure. (2002) About the relationship between Freud and Jung.
Hoar, Stuart. Rutherford. (2000) New play about Ernest Rutherford, the great physicist rom New Zealand . The play focuses on the enigma that was Rutherford, follows his obsession with science and probes his personal relationships with his wife Mary, daughter Eileen, and friend and colleague, the Russian, Kapitza.
Horovitz, Israel. (2003). Set in the world of research chemistry, this drama engages questions of love, integrity, promises and compromise.
Hunter, Maureen. Transit of Venus. (1992) In France at a time when society was rapidly expanding its knowledge of the earth and the cosmos, an ambitious astronomer and the women who love him exemplify the conflicting needs of men and women.
Johnson, Terry. Insignificance .(1982). Imagining a meeting between Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe DiMaggio in a hotel room.
Jones, Charlotte. Humble Boy. (2002) A neurotic fictional astrophysicist in a dysfunctional family tries to create a “theory of everything” out of string theory and general relativity.
Kipphardt, Heinar. In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer . (1964; trans. Ruth Speirs)… The play is largely based on the verbatim text of the 1954 hearings regarding Oppenheimer although in the closing speech is not what Oppenheimer said, but what the author wishes he had said.
Kopit, Arthur. Y2K. (1999). Deals with the threats to our privacy when computer hackers invade our lives via the Internet.
Landau, Tina. Space (2000) A New Age play about a professor of neuropsychiatry and part-time therapist and his three patients who claim to have been abducted by space aliens.
Mamet, David. The Water Engine. (1977). An inventor manages to remove the H from H2O and invents an engine that uses plain distilled water as fuel.
McGrath, Tom. Safe Delivery. (1999). Set at the cutting edge of medicine, the play makes the point that science and scientists are not as pure as we have been led to believe
Mac Low, Clarinda, Hannaham, James, and Barfield, Tanya. The Division of Memory. ( 2001) At the end of his life, an African-American research biologist reflects on his place in the twentieth century.
Martin, Steve. Picasso at the Lapin Agile. (1996) A farcical comedy that imagines a meeting between Picasso and Einstein in a café in Paris.
Mullin, Paul. Louis Slotin Sonata. (2001). A flamboyant and emotional treatment of a real accident caused by a real scientist at Los Alamos and an indictment of the scientists who built the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan.
Nachtmann, Rita. Thread of Life (2003) The role of Rosalind Franklin in the discovery of the structure of DNA.
Parnell, Peter. QED. (2001) concerns Richard Feynman, the celebrated (and sometimes self-celebrating) Nobel prize-winning physicist ; what we get in this almost one-man show – Feynman is impersonated by Alan Alda – is part biography and part physics lesson.
Poliakoff, Stephen. Blinded by the Sun. (1996) How the media affect modern scientific research.
Reingold, Jaquelyn, String Fever (2003). Applying th elusive rules of string theory to the conundrums of one woman’s love life.
Sherman, Jonathan Marc. Evolution. (2002) .A morality play about an academic studying Charles Darwin who is offered a job in the entertainment industry.
Simms, Willard. Einstein, A Stage Portrait. (1982?) A one-man show about Albert Einstein.
Smith, Anna Deavere. Untitled. (2000) One-woman show about doctors, patients and their narratives.
Speier, Susanna. Calabi Yau. (2002) A “string-theory comedy” in which New York subway workers try to build a particle accelerator in abandoned subway tunnels.
Stevenson, Shelagh. An Experiment with an Air Pump. (1999) About medical experimentation’s ethical dimensions.
Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. (1993) Chaos theory, landscape gardening and literary history in a country house in England, alternating contemporary with 18th-century scenes.
Stoppard, Tom. Hapgood. (1988) Spy games interwoven with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and other aspects of Quantum Mechanics.
Stoppard, Tom. Galileo. (1970) Unpublished play that challenges Brecht’s Galileo and was originally intended for performance in the London Planetarium; manuscript is in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.
Théâtre de Complicité. Mnemonic. (2000) About memory, connection, and evolution, with the Iceman as its starting point.
Wells, Matthew. Schrödinger’s Girlfriend. (2002) The eponymous author of the “Schrödinger’s Cat” paradox applies the lessons of quantum mechanics to a torrid love affair.
Wertenbaker, Timberlake. After Darwin. (1998) Two present day actors put on a play about Darwin and the captain of the Beagle and the action alternates between the present and the past, exploring the parallel between biological and social Darwinism.
Whittell, Crispin. Darwin in Malibu. (2003) Charles Darwin has wound up in a beach house overlooking the Pacific with a girl young enough to be his daughter. Believing that the heated debate about the Origin Of Species is far behind him, Darwin now finds guidance from tabloid horoscopes and trashy beach reading. But when his old friend Thomas Huxley washes up on the beach with the bishop of Oxford he finds himself entangled in a life and death comedy about God, science, love, loss and the sex life of barnacles.
Wilson, Lanford. The Mound Builders. (1986) Explores the world of archeology and how it relates to contemporary life.
Wilson, Lanford. Rain Dance. (2003) Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1945, on the eve of the birth of the atomic bomb. In the tranquil beauty of the desert, four individuals involved in the historic project count down to its inevitable conclusion. As the culmination of their work approaches, each wrestles with the weight of responsibility for an event that will change the world forever.

(2) Musicals and Operas
Biospheria. (2001). An opera by Steven Ausbury and Anthony Burr, based on aspects of the unsuccessful “environmentalist experiment at Biosphere 2, a 200 million dollar greenhouse erected north of Tucson in the early 1990’s.
Defenders of the Code. (1987) A musical by Theodora Skipitares. Covers everything from creation myths to theories of eugenics, and incorporates snippets of Plato’s Republic, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and Watson’s Double Helix into a collage.
Einstein on the Beach. (1976). Opera by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass.
Einstein’s Dreams (2002-2003) Music by Joshua Rosenblum, book by Joanne Sydney Lessner .Loosely based on the novel Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. A tone poem of ruminations on time and mortality in early 20th century Switzerland.
Imperfect Chemistry. (2000) A musical comedy by Albert M. Tapper and James Racheff. Two geneticists at a philanthropic laboratory are seduced into finding a cure for baldness.
Fermat’s Last Tango. (2000) Pythagoras, Newton, Euclid, and Gauss are characters in a mathematical musical by Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenblum
Galileo Galilei, (2003) A chamber opera by Philip Glass and Arnold Weinstein, with different concerns from Brecht’s play/
Quark Victory. (2000) A musical by Robert and Willie Reale in which a young girl journeys through a sub-atomic world occupied by dancing electrons and singing neutrinos.
Star Messengers. (2001) A quasi-opera by Paul Zimet and Ellen Meadow which shows Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler interacting with three harlequins from one of Galileo’s books.
The Ballad of Phineas P. Gage. (2002) In 1848 an iron rod passed through the head of Phineas P. Gage, and he survived. But how did he live? The work explores through puppetry, music and poetry this groundbreaking neurological case.
The Electric Sunshine Man. (1978) A musical about Thomas Edison. Music by John F. Wilson, words by Grace Hawthorne. Mainly for children.
The Oracle of Delphi. (2000) Script by Anne Gaud McKee, music by Christian Denisart, choreography by Markus Schmid. A pantomime about P.A.M. Dirac’s theoretical discovery of the positron and antimatter.
Three Tales. (2002) Steve Reich’s and Beryl Korotís’ multimedia collaboration, consisting of three sequences for live instrumentalists, singers, and video projection. A parable of man’s Faustian bargain with technology.

If there are omissions [and there probably are…] please let us know.

A special interdisciplinary “P.S.” from N.B. to my colleagues in Theatre, and anyone else.  I recently happened upon a four-decades-old essay by Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text “[‘De l’oeuvre au texte’] in his 1978 collection, Image-Music-Text; and on the first page of the essay, I read this [italics in original]:   “…[T]he interdisciplinarity which is today held up as the prime example in research cannot be accomplished by the simple confrontation of specialist branches of knowledge. Interdisciplinarity is not the calm of an easy security; it begins effectively (as opposed to the mere expression of a pious wish) when the solidarity of the old disciplines breaks down — perhaps even violently, via the jolts of fashion — in the interests of a new object and a new language neither of which has a place in the field of the sciences that were to be brought peacefully together, this unease in classification being precisely the point from which it is possible to diagnose a certain mutation.”

And now — upon reflection — I wonder if the theatre might be, after all, one of the most powerful arenas for interdisciplinarity.

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1 Comment »

  • Molly Rice says:

    Wonderful list, Neil. They all go on my reading list!

    This science/ theater relationship is very much a current impulse behind many new works as well. The Sloan/ EST (Ensemble Studio Theater) Grant is totally devoted to new plays about theater, and is currently presenting a collection of such plays:

    I’m working increasingly in this vein. Currently I’m co-writing the book for the musical FUTURITY, the brainchild of the Brooklyn-based indie-folk-pop band the Lisps; it’s very much in line with and in admiration of these interdisciplinary pursuits. It’s an atemporal intellectual love story between a young Civil War soldier and Ada Lovelace, the “Enchantress of Numbers” who worked with inventor Charles Babbage to develop and articulate the Difference Engine, the first computation machine and early ancestor of the modern computer. The piece skims upon the ideas of artificial intelligence, the Singularity and the Industrial Revolution. Can’t take credit for the original idea, but think it’s worth noticing that a band was inspired to make a work encompassing these far-flung concepts.

    The production team for its premiere will include a visual artist, a choreographer, a designer/ inventor and potentially students at MIT, as well as the band…complex crazy wonderful process. Broad-reaching partnerships– and it seems as if this music/ theater/ science conflation in the content of the play requires the discipline- spanning process of its construction and execution. Thus imaginings that spread beyond the limits of one’s art may in themselves promote new collaborations with fellow imaginers that hold insight beyond one’s scope. Art and science share the same imaginative blood. As Ada Lovelace (incidentally Lord Byron’s daughter) wrote so gorgeously:

    “…What is Imagination? We talk much of Imagination. We talk of Imagination of Poets, the Imagination of Artists &c; I am inclined to think that in general we don’t know very exactly what we are talking about. Imagination I think especially two fold.

    First: it is the Combining Faculty. It brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions, in new, original, endless, ever varying, Combinations. It seizes points in common, between subjects having no very apparent connexion, & hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition.

    Secondly: It conceives & brings into mental presences that which is far away, or invisible, or which in short does not exist within our physical & conscious cognizance. Hence is it especially the religious faculty; the ground-work of Faith. It is a God-like, a noble faculty. It renders earth tolerable (at least should do so); it teaches us to live, in the tone of the eternal.

    Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses. Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live.

    Mathematical Science shows what is. It is the language of the unseen relations between things. But to use & apply that language we must be able fully to appreciate, o feel, to seize, the unseen, the unconscious. Imagination too shows what is, the is that is beyond the senses. Hence she is or should be especially cultivated by the truly Scientific, -those who wish to enter into the worlds around us!”

    This science/ art relationship does indeed seem to be growing stronger in contemporary theater.

    Incidentally: Another interesting article on the “narrative strands” of architecture, music and text is Luciano Berio’s “Of Sound and Images”,


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