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 ;-)
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.