In 1993, the Royal National Theatre in London opened Arcadia, a play by playwright Tom Stoppard, and highly praised by critics as one of the finest plays written by a contemporary playwright. Arcadia approaches a plethora of themes and subjects, notable ones being thermodynamics, computer algorithms and fractals – subjects primarily concerned with science and mathematics. The play also aims to explore the relationships between the past and the present, order and disorder and certainty and uncertainty, and in doing so, depicts how modes of interpretation change through time and amongst people. In 2006, Arcadia was declared by the Royal Institute of Great Britain as the greatest works of science fiction ever created.
is acclaimed plays like Arcadia and A Disappearing
Number – the latter a 2007 play
written and directed by Simon McBurney that inquired into the beauty of
mathematics and how it holds within its clutches, human destinies – that allow
us to observe and talk about the nature of science communication through
theatre and the transfer of ideas between these two fields.
Science and theatre are more entwined with one another than we can perceive. Their meeting ground may not be as extensive as the one in between science and poetry, but is nonetheless, present. Perhaps the most prominent of these similarities is the reliance of the both of them on the craft of interpretation. While science, as we’re all aware of, depends on the interpretation of data obtained from experiments, theatre plays often rely on interpretation of texts, books, movies and other plays. Scientific discoveries and theatre are open to interpretation by not only their creators, but also their, albeit vastly different, audiences. And it is within and through this interpretation that creativity flourishes. Scientists and playwrights alike, are allowed to explore the limits of their imagination with the ‘data’ they possess before they put the ingenious ideas down on paper. Furthermore, science, in all its forms of depiction – for example, posters and thesis defences – is theatrical in many ways. One cannot deny that while presenting his or her work of several arduous years, a scientist expresses passion and eloquence similar to that of a theatre actor.
common ground aside, how much closer can we possibly bring science and theatre?
Can we exploit theatrical devices and theatre to actually communicate science?
In a 2010 critique in The Guardian,
Alexis Soloski argued and concluded that science plus theatre equalled poor plays 
and that often, these plays were a drag to watch, as a result of the
dumbing down of scientific prose for easier understanding of the audience. It
may be possible, that, in an attempt to make sure the audience can keep up with
difficult scientific ideas, the beauty of scientific prose is lost and in turn,
the essence of the play itself.
there exist not a few, but several great plays that blend science into
themselves. Some eminent and renowned ones include George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), Bertolt
Bertrandt’s The Life Of Galileo (1937)
and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen
(1998). The present-day relevance of The Doctor’s Dilemma allows for it to be
re-staged again and again. Moreover, foundations such as the Alfred P. Sloan
Foundation encourage leading playwrights to explore scientific themes and
support theatres that commission, develop and promote plays with high quality
scientific content. The Arts Catalyst, based in Kings Cross
London, is a non-profit contemporary arts organisation that commissions and
produces transdisciplinary art and research and, in the words of co-founder
Nicola Triscott, aims to create more symbiotic relationships between the two
fields. The Nexus Theatre Company, established as recently as
2017, aspires to make new scientific ideas and information accessible to all.
a broader perspective then, it seems as though there are and have been
significant endeavours towards uniting science and theatre and increasing
engagement of scientists in theatre. But before a more fluid relationship is
established between science and theatre, several questions need to be
addressed, the most important of them being “How much science/S.T.E.M. does a
play have to contain before it becomes more about questioning the outreach and
life-altering effects of science?” Reflecting on the scientific plays mentioned
before, it is not difficult to observe a pattern – Life Of Galileo is not only about Galileo Galilei and his scientific
discoveries, but also about the dogmatism of the Catholic Church prevalent in
the 17th century and its blatant conflict with scientific theory; The Doctor’s Dilemma discusses the
constraints of limited medical resources and the complex ethical questions
doctors are faced with on a fairly regular basis; Copenhagen questions, through the meeting of Neils Bohr and Werner
Heisenberg in 1941, the ideas of nuclear power and the motives behind
constructing an atomic bomb. These plays contain as much scientific elements as
they do the social and economic implications of scientific development.
question of how much science one can possibly put into a 120-minute play also
presents a larger question – Is the amalgamation of science with any form of
art about communicating science through visually-appealing and user-friendly
modes or is it inclined towards sparking a conversation regarding the effects
of scientific advancements on humanity and its myriad cultures?
The answers to these questions cannot be procured objectively or immediately, and there isn’t one concrete answer. Perhaps the only way we will ever know if science will go on to become a recurring theme in theatre and other manifestations of art is through the one true procedure: experimentation.