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Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr
Princeton University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Steve Abbott
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Science on Stage is an insightful, accessible account of the vibrant interdisciplinary movement currently taking place at the intersection of science and theater.

In 1998, Michael Frayn wrote Copenhagen, a play that explores the infamous World War II meeting between the great German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his mentor, Neils Bohr. The play was a critical success, winning a host of honors including the Tony award for Best Play in 2001. Frayn’s play came on the heels of a similar feat by Tom Stoppard. Stoppard’s Arcadia, first performed in 1993, which was in part inspired by the best-selling book Chaos, James Gleick’s popular account of the emerging fields of fractal geometry, non-linear dynamics and chaos theory. Although completely different in style and content, these two plays somewhat miraculously managed to incorporate a significant component of explicit scientific and mathematical material into both the content and the structure of the performance.

In the decade since Arcadia and Copenhagen, modern theater has witnessed a proliferation of new plays about science and mathematics. The subject matter of these scripts ranges from evolution (After Darwin, by Timberlake Wertenbaker) to fetal diagnostics (Experiment with an Airpump, by Shaleigh Stevenson) to chemistry (Einstein’s Gift, by Vern Thiessen) to mathematics (Proof, by David Auburn). Although one can find scores of articles and reviews that attempt to put into context some corner of this new genre of playwriting, Science on Stage is the “first full-length analysis of this interdisciplinary phenomenon we are conveniently, if not completely satisfactorily, calling ‘science plays’.” (page 1.)

Having explained where in the scholarly world Science on Stage makes its home, it’s time to say again that this is very satisfying read. The author, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, comes from the humanities side of the academic cultural divide. She is currently a member of the English department at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, but I can happily report that, unlike some contemporary literary and dramatic criticism I have encountered, Science on Stage is eminently readable and essentially jargon free. The opening chapter is a history of the interactions between science and theater, and the second chapter is an assessment of the state of contemporary drama with specific attention given to the question of why the time was ripe for playwrights to unearth this newfound vein of scientific source material.

Of the remaining chapters, one is devoted to plays about physics with a great deal of attention given over to the various theatrical responses to nuclear weapons and war. Frayn’s Copenhagen is, in some sense, the culmination of these efforts and Shepherd-Barr devotes an entire chapter to this masterpiece of science playwriting. A defining characteristic of modern science plays is the way scientific content is employed as an extended metaphor. “[These plays] literally enact the ideas that they engage.” (page 6.) Copenhagen, with its three actors orbiting around a sparse stage like subatomic particles may be the most vivid, and effective, example of this “scientific performativity” to date.

There is an excellent chapter on plays that engage the life sciences and another on medicine. Mathematics receives some special attention as well. The chapter on “Mathematics and Thermodynamics in Theater” includes in-depth analyses of Stoppard’s Arcadia, Proof by David Auburn (where, as Shepherd-Barr points out, the majority of the mathematics is kept backstage) and an interesting theatrical experiment called Infinities, written by cosmologist John Barrow. Barrow’s play was performed in an enormous warehouse in Italy where five thought experiments about infinity were simultaneously enacted for an audience that rotated through each of the five venues.

“Interdisciplinary” is a buzz word that can conjure up less than satisfying results when the integrity of one discipline is compromised by the agenda of another. Science theater has largely avoided this pitfall, providing a vibrant arena for an authentic exchange of ideas between the sciences and the humanities, and Science on Stage drives home the point that both sides have come away richer for the experience.

Steve Abbot is Professor of Mathematics at Middlebury College. He is the author of Understanding Analysis.

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