To Science or Not To Science

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.

It 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.

But 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 [1] 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.

However, 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[2]. The Arts Catalyst, based in Kings Cross London, is a non-profit contemporary arts organisation that commissions and produces transdisciplinary art and research[3] and, in the words of co-founder Nicola Triscott, aims to create more symbiotic relationships between the two fields[4]. The Nexus Theatre Company, established as recently as 2017, aspires to make new scientific ideas and information accessible to all[5].

From 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.

The 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.

Ushashi Basu

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