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Physical Chemistry

The Drama Of Chemistry

by Rudy M. Baum
May 7, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 19

Carl Djerassi, whom I have known for nearly 30 years, recently had his publisher send me a copy of his latest book, “Chemistry in Theatre: Insufficiency, Phallacy or Both.” It is a slim volume that consists of a longish preface and two plays, “Insufficiency” and “Phallacy,” both of which involve chemists as major characters and chemistry as a source of the drama.

In his e-mail to me letting me know that the volume was on its way and expressing hope that C&EN might feature it somehow, Djerassi wrote: “1) In the long foreword to the book, I raise questions about science (especially chemistry) in theater, which I believe have not been asked before. I hope they will stimulate debate. 2) Next year, I shall be 90 years old and this may be my last or penultimate book, so obviously I am anxious to see it discussed in public.”

It is hard to believe that the dynamo who is Carl Djerassi will soon be 90 and is contemplating the end of his career. By the evidence of “Chemistry in Theatre,” his sharp intellect and creativity remain untouched by age.

One topic Djerassi muses on in the preface to “Chemistry in Theatre” is the value of reading plays as books as opposed to seeing them performed. He writes: “It is generally agreed that a play is a form of literature written by a playwright, usually consisting of scripted dialogue between characters, intended for theatrical performance rather than just reading. … Yet as I, the former research chemist and pedagogue, became preoccupied with this literary genre, I gradually reached the conclusion that for certain plays and playwrights—especially those dealing with science—the terminal part of the above definition at times needs to be reversed: intended for reading rather than just theatrical performance.” (Both “Insufficiency” and “Phallacy” have been or will be staged in commercial theaters.)

Though Djerassi acknowledges that most playwrights won’t share this conclusion, he argues that most plays are likely to reach a wider audience as books than as performances. He also maintains that some plays, especially those dealing with science, “have a didactic component even though many theater professionals refuse to recognize it.” These plays, he writes, “aim to illustrate through the unique medium of theater … what science or scientists are all about.” Such plays are more likely to achieve this didactic component as books, he maintains, than as performances.

As to plays that feature chemists, Djerassi writes, “I think that the fundamental problem with plays focusing on chemistry is that theater professionals—directors, dramaturges, reviewers—are threatened, if not actually terrified by the subject.” He points to a New York Times review of Alan Alda’s play “Radiance” that found the scientific work of Pierre and Marie Curie less interesting than Marie Curie’s adulterous affair (after Pierre’s death) with mathematician Paul Langevin. “In other words,” Djerassi writes, “give us adultery, but God forbid if the chemical protagonists of the play even dare to issue a sentence about chemistry.”

Having seen a performance of “Radiance,” which I thought was quite good, and having read similar lukewarm reviews of it, I share Djerassi’s exasperation with reviewers who find the drama of scientific discovery less than satisfyingly dramatic.

As to the plays “Insufficiency” and “Phallacy,” both are clever and enjoyable and illuminate aspects of the academic chemistry enterprise Djerassi knows so well. “Insufficiency” traces the travails of a brilliant and abrasive chemist in a mediocre chemistry department who specializes in the study of bubbles and whose inadequate publishing record results in him not receiving tenure.

In “Phallacy,” Djerassi explores the clash between artistic and scientific sensibilities in a dispute over the provenance of an exquisite statue. Djerassi is both a highly successful chemist and a serious collector of art. He is well acquainted with these two worlds, and he deftly captures the idiosyncrasies of their inhabitants.

“Chemistry in Theatre” is published by Imperial College Press in London and distributed worldwide by World Scientific Publishing.

Thanks for reading.


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