History of science on stage

History of science seems to get on stage a remarkable amount, considering that it’s all about stuff that’s darned difficult to understand, usually pretty undramatic in nature, and often presented elsewhere as untainted by personality and context. And, of course, considering that everyone still loves to go on about C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. Leaving aside, for the present at least, the question of whether the stage has served history of science well, I thought I would first try to create a list of all the history of science plays I have come across. I am sure there are many more, so please add them in the comments.

I might also point out that – back in the pre-parenting days – I have been known to tread the boards. I am still a member of the Tower Theatre Company and anticipate my return to the stage just as soon as I have some time… perhaps in a history of science role? In fact, if anyone is currently preparing a professional production and is looking for a female lead, I am ready and willing to ditch the child and day job ;-)

Tower Theatre production of A Winter's Tale, 2001 (yours truly 2nd from right)

Anyways: the big list of history of science plays, alphabetically by author. I note that Galileo and Newton are dramatic favourites, and also that several of the plays involve jumping between two time periods, for which I blame Tom Stoppard, who did it first, in this context, and best.

Craig Baxter, Let Newton Be! (2011) – three actors portraying different aspects of Newton, as well as various other characters, based entirely on Newton’s writings, contemporary correspondence and publications. [I saw a performance in Cambridge earlier this year, and wrote about it here.]

Craig Baxter, Like Confessing a Murder (2009) – a radio play about the theory of evolution and the relationship of Charles and Emma Darwin and Re:Design (2009) – about Darwin and Asa Gray. [I have not seen or heard either of these.]

Bertolt Brecht, Life of Galileo (1943) – about Galileo’s life and condemnation by the church, exploring the themes of science, dogmatism and oppression. There is science in there, but plenty of historical inaccuracies, which is churlish when we are talking about a classic of modern theatre! [I'm ashamed to say that I've neither seen nor read this.]

Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann, Oxygen: a Play in Two Acts (2001) – about the completing claims for priority in the discovery of oxygen by the Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier, Englishman Joseph Priestley and the less well-known Swede, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, as debated by a 2001 Nobel Prize committee. The action skips between the late 18th and early 21st centuries. [I saw this at the Riverside Studio Theatre in Hammersmith in 2001. I went on a trip with fellow PhD students from the London CHSTM, so of course we had a good night out. There was a fair amount of actual history and science covered, and some sense of the differing personalities and views of science from the three contenders. There are a lot of ideas presented so it's not surprising if some comes across as a little heavy-handed.]

Carl Djerassi and David Pinner, Newton’s Darkness: Two Dramatic Views (published 2003 – I don’t know if this has ever been performed) – the theme under discussion is Newton’s flaws, and that “a scientist’s ethics must not be divorced from scientific accomplishments”. It consists of two separate plays, focusing on the conflicts with Leibniz and with Hooke. [I bought a copy of this from the second hand department of the Gower Street Waterstones some time ago and have only really flicked through: lots of historic characters (Montague, Fatio, Catherine Barton, Lady Arbuthnot, Colley Cibber etc,) and slightly inconsistent use of Restoration-flavour language.]

Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (1998) – a three-hander set in Copenhagen in 1941, about theoretical physics and atomic weapons. It features Niels Bohr, Bohr’s wife Margrethe and Werner Heisenberg. [I've seen the excellent, but abbreviated, 2002 TV film version, but have never caught it on stage. There is more drama in the ethics surrounding nuclear weapons than the science per se, but it is a gripping, wordy and properly theatrical play.]

Kevin Hood, The Astronomer’s Garden (1988) – focusing on the rivalry and dislike between John Flamsteed, Astronomer Royal, and Edmond Halley. Flamsteed’s wife, Margaret, is a significant character. While solving the longitude problem, and presumably publishing Flamsteed’s observations, is the ostensible source of conflict, the blurb suggests that class, sex and ‘the real world they cannot catalogue’ are the true subjects of the play. [Not seen: on my shelf, not yet read!]

Shelagh Stephenson, An Experiment with an Air Pump (1998) – inspired by the famous Wright of Derby painting, the play is set in 1799 and 1999 and explores ideas about science, medicine and ethics, viz experiments on animals or human embryos. [I saw a Tower Theatre production in 2006. I wanted to like it, but the play struck me as a little clunky and didactic, making the characters cyphers that it was hard to engage with.]

Tom Stoppard, Arcadia (1993) – set in two time periods in an English country house, Regency and modern day, there is much discussion of mathematics, ideas about chaos, history, memory and literature (Byron is an unseen guest in the house). [I was lucky enough to see the original production in London with Rufus Sewell smouldering away as Septimus Hodge, and absolutely loved it. At the time I was doing full-time dance training and was a Guildhall drama exam. Although I was to start my undergraduate history degree later that year, I had no idea what history of science was.]

Nic Young, Trials of Galileo (2009) – a  one-man play, about, as you’d expect, science and religion, proof and faith, intellectual and spiritual salvation. [This was recently on in Edinburgh, and is performed by Tim Hardy, a friend of my mum's. She went to see it and much enjoyed it, and the reviews seem to have been positive too.]

These are the ones that come immediately to mind, though undoubtedly I’ll have a few pensées d’escalier and plenty of ‘how could you forget…!?’-type comments. (Let me point to the work of the BSHS Strolling Players, before I’m accused of ignoring ‘The Tables Turned‘.) A motley range of works, from high art to some rather pedestrian, from the West End to small performance spaces, and with all manner of attitudes to the historical sources.

33 thoughts on “History of science on stage

  1. Pingback: History of science on stage | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Hiya

    Just a few extras for your list :

    From the world of opera, Doctor Atomic definitely counts (and there’s an eclipse in Bluebeard’s Castle). Otherwise QED, an almost-monologue about Feynman, and Proof should be on the list.

  3. Great topic, Becky. Here are a few more:
    Georgina Ferry, Hidden Glory: Dorothy Hodgkin in her own words, 2010 (one-woman show)
    Robert Marc Friedman, Remembering Miss Meitner, 2001ish? (three-hander: Meitner, Frisch, Siegbahn, and the discovery of fission)
    Anna Ziegler, Photograph 51, 2008ish? (Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of the double helix)
    Hugh Whitemore, Breaking the Code, 1986 (Alan Turing: split time period again)

    Still haven’t had the chance to see any of them, alas…

      • Is this a good time to say Drinking Up Time at the British Science Festival Bradford Saturday 10 September (TOMORROW) details here or here FREE EVENT no need to pre-book AND IT’S IN A PUB (dear world, please come to my thing instead of the properly funded stuff)?

        Plugging aside, is it a good idea to draw a line between drama aimed at regular theatre-going audiences, and the kind of production you’re more likely to see programmed as part of a science festival, whose main aim is unapologetically to serve science (or in my case HoS) public engagement aims? Or is this distinction counterproductive?

      • Good plugging James!

        Yes, you’re right. I am focusing here on theatre aimed at non-specialists, and I don’t think it’s counter-productive to mark the distinction. I plan to write another post about ‘theatre’ and engagement in science/history of science. However, some of those I’ve listed do sit somewhere between both camps, especially when you note who funded or partnered with some of the productions, and where they have been performed. More analysis needed….

  4. Not strictly history of science but two of the main characters are “Isaac Newton” and “Albert Einstein”: Friedrich Dürrenmatt The Physicists (Die Physiker 1962)

  5. Well its billed as “the true story of a dazzling scientific discovery ” so I will run with it.

    Lord Monboddo the Musical.

    http://www.monboddo.com/

    Someone sent me the link way back when it was first on in Aberdeen. I am gutted to just find out it was staged in St Andrews for a few days very recently. I have a soft spot for lord M. and his life was a tragic one filled with plenty of drama.

    I would never have guessed his re-discovery would take this form.

      • Mine does not really fly as H.O.S history. Monboddo blured Aristotles notion of man and emphisised that humanity had the potential to acquire reason, it allowed him to suggest that the Orang Outang (modern chimp) had human intellellegence or as much as you could expect from a creature “living without civility and arts”.

        The Orang Outang had the same capacity as man for language. The play is making the old claim (that old devil called national pride) or certainly has in it’s p.r. that Lord Monboddo is the originator of Evolutionary theory. He is old school chain of being/ microcosm. His view that language was not god given but a product of culture and civil society went down in flames, big time much like his view on the Orang Outang.

        On the tragedy side he lost his wife and son and his daughter famed for her looks who Burn’s had an interest in also died before her time. On being informed of her death he is claimed a replying “let us turn instead to Aristotle”. Monboddo lived on alone to a ripe old age. A deeply humane old school gentleman with a very dry cutting wit.

        I rather love the old rogue

      • As you know, my definition of ‘science’ within history of science is broad. If it reflects views about nature that were really held and discussed in the past, then it’s fair game!

    • Are these not contemporary views of science, rather than history of science? If so, I’ll discount them for this exercise – there’s another whole post to be done about science in the theatre. Of course, some of these plays do both, with their dual time periods, and in many cases their view of past science says more about contemporary views than history, but one thing at a time!

    • Good to know. I wonder if it’s ever made any other venues – this links to my reply to James Sumner above about theatre as ‘engagement’ rather than aiming at general audiences. Which of these playwrights use theatre to put forward ideas about science (and history of science) and which use science to explore humanity, personality, society, ethics etc?

    • Many thanks for these – much to explore. I’ve decided to discount purely TV dramas for the moment, as there’s just too much there, especially if you widen the remit to dramatised documentaries and so on. Another list beckons….

    • Thanks! There was Craig Baxter’s Darwin plays listed above, which linked to the 2009 Darwin-fest. Any more? Darwin is now, I’d say, level pegging with Galileo and both overtaking Newton in terms of theatrical adaptation.

  6. Fascinating post! Glad to see Brecht’s Galileo in there – it’s a remarkable play, with much to say about the role of scientists in the past & present. Brecht also began a play called Life of Einstein but died before he could complete it. Brecht’s Galileo inspired a series of plays about physicists in Germany in the 1960s including Carl Zuckmayer’s Cold Light (1955), Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists (1962) & Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J Robert Oppenheimer (1964).
    Goethe’s Faust might be added to your list – it’s about both the history of science and contemporary science. And it’s also interesting for the 1932 revival staged by physicists at Copenhagen, showing its continued relevance…
    (I did a piece on it if you’re interested: http://www.peterdsmith.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/pd-smith-faust-and-the-physicists-pegs-77-no-2-2008.pdf )

    • I didn’t know about Brecht and Einstein – that would have been fascinating. Are there surviving manuscripts? Thanks very much for adding the German context and the link to your article. So much out there when you start digging (and asking!).

  7. Hi Becky
    I’m a bit late on this thread, but did you get The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes? I saw this at Wilton’s Music Hall a few years ago and was entranced. It’s mostly about science and ideologies, avoids the usual cliches, and the use of language is sublime.

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