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Uncomfortable Issues In 'Phallacy'

Carl Djerassi's play exposes bias among the dueling tribes of science and the humanities

by Rick Mullin
June 4, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 23


Face Off
Credit: Richard Termine
Djerassi's chemist, Stolzfuss (Simon Jones, left), and curator, Leitner-Opfermann (Lisa Harrow), meet in a battle of wills over the provenance of a statue.
Credit: Richard Termine
Djerassi's chemist, Stolzfuss (Simon Jones, left), and curator, Leitner-Opfermann (Lisa Harrow), meet in a battle of wills over the provenance of a statue.

THERE IS A POINT in history, at about the time that Thomas Hobbes and Isaac Newton walked the Earth, when the Western intellectual tradition came to a fork in the road. Science and math went left, and art and literature (the "humanities") went right. And along with science went society's standard for ascertaining the truth. Today, most people spend their lives on one or the other of two parallel intellectual tracks.

It is heartening, therefore, that several preeminent (older) chemists have recently made names for themselves in the arts. The best known of these may be Carl Djerassi, who became famous as one of the inventors of "the pill" in the 1950s but, since the 1980s, has turned to writing novels and plays. Djerassi and others—Cornell University's Roald Hoffmann, a poet and Greenwich Village cabaret impresario, comes to mind— seem to harken back to an earlier unified tradition of epistemology more prevalent in the life and mind of Thomas Aquinas.

Following a run in London, Djerassi's most recent play, "Phallacy," made its U.S. debut at New York City's Cherry Lane Theater in May. The play, running through June 10, pits a prominent chemist against a curator of an "important Austrian museum" in a battle over the provenance of a bronze statue at the center of both the museum's antiquities collection and the curator's career as an art historian. Djerassi based his play loosely on a recent reassessment of a statue in Austria.

The chemist in the play, a careerist himself, claims he has proven via thermal luminescence and other state-of-the-art chemical testing techniques that the statue is a Renaissance cast of the Roman original. Behind the overarching question of what this new information does to the value of the statue as a work of art is a pitched battle between the disciplines of chemistry and art history.

As an exposé of bias on both sides of the divide, Djerassi's play is itself wonderfully unbiased. The main characters, Regina Leitner-Opfermann, director of the department of antiquities at the museum, and Rex Stolzfuss, a chemist in charge of art conservation at an unnamed technical institution in Austria, are enantiomeric in their arrogance, deception of self and others, and fatal flaw of falling in love with theories and ideas.

Their battle of wills becomes believably brutal minutes into the play when a smug Stolzfuss visits Leitner-Opfermann's office to offer a preview of his findings before handing them to the museum administrators. The curator jumps on the chemist's mention of his work being based on assumptions. "When chemists dabble with art," Leitner-Opfermann says, "the best that can be said is the results are unpredictable." To which Stolzfuss replies that unpredictability is what science is all about. "Is it really?" the curator asks. "Then why doesn't that teach you humility rather than arrogance?"

The chemist fires back at the intuitive nature of the art historian's knowledge.

Djerassi sets up a wonderful foil to the main characters in their assistants, Otto Ellenbogen, a chemist, and Emma Finger, an assistant curator. The two of them stand at a precipice, not yet unquestioningly locked into their chosen career tracks. That they are also at an early stage of a love relationship makes for delightful sparring and brings an element of intrigue. Their relationship amounts to fraternizing with the enemy.

INTRIGUE AND SUBTERFUGE are employed cruelly by Stolzfuss and Ellenbogen at the expense of the arrogant and hypocritical Leitner-Opfermann as the two teams pick apart the bronze carcass.

Background on the metal cast member is given in series of intermezzo exchanges, set in 1576, between Don Juan of Austria, the illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V, and Don Juan's mother, Barbara Blomberg. These characters discuss the play's central issues of legitimacy, deception, and truth, as well as the history of the statue. Their four brief scenes are rather distracting in that they build a separate plot, which involves a lot of storytelling that diverts somewhat from the main drama.

Psychosexual as well as comic relief comes from Leitner-Opfermann's very personal relationship to the statue. This is characterized by her doting regard for the buttocks and knowledge of the exact measurements of body parts and the distances between them. Here she crosses the line into mathematics, noting that the number and pattern of whorls of the statue's hair invokes "the famous Fibonacci sequence," an ancient mathematical scheme dealing with recurrences. She is mocked by the chemists for daring to cross onto their turf.

Despite her concern for size and shape of the statue's every physical aspect, she turns a blind eye to the statue's penis. Her aversion is something other than prudishness, and enough is made of it to warrant a play on the word phallus in the play's title.

But the whole penis thing—"Phallacy" includes a slide show that features a Renaissance painting showing Saint Anne fondling the Christ child's penis—may be a bit much. A better title for the play might have something to do with reconciliation, which is a major theme in the arc of the relationship between the principal characters.

In an interview after a recent performance, however, Djerassi told C&EN he is not optimistic about any reconciliation between what he calls the academic and institutional "tribes" of science and the humanities, despite their common intellectual heritage. "Neither side is willing to put in the time," he said. "We are too monogamous in our thinking, and chemists may be the worst."

Djerassi added that chemists in their 30s would be uncomfortable discussing issues addressed in "Phallacy" with their colleagues. These issues may become more important later in their careers, however. "I've become more critical and introspective," he said.

Djerassi has also seen enough action on both sides of the fray to understand the standoff. At one point in the play, Djerassi, who has an important collection of paintings by the German expressionist Paul Klee, has Leitner-Opfermann relating the painter's response to a lecture on the theory of color by the chemist Wilhelm Ostwald: "Your scientific ideas just fetter us artists. They renounce the wealth of the soul. Thanks, but no thanks!"

Stolzfuss responds, "I'm into bronze ... not clay." ("Clay" is also the pronunciation of Klee's name.)

Those attending a performance of "Phallacy" in hopes of hearing about interesting science will likely be disappointed. There isn't much, and what there is of it is hardly out of the ordinary. The science buff can look forward, instead, to being challenged by the work of a science world luminary from the grand intellectual tradition—and to a fine theater experience. Djerassi, who, according to the best data available, is in his 83rd year, is creating the kind of art that many artists leave behind in their 20s.


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