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C & E News

April 30, 2001
Volume 79, Number 18
CENEAR 79 18 pp. 34-36
ISSN 0009-2347


New play by Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann explores the nature of scientific discovery


Chemists attending the American Chemical Society meeting in San Diego earlier this month were treated to a rare delight--the world premiere of a play about chemistry and the behavior of scientists in their quest to be first. Titled "Oxygen," the play is the fruit of a unique collaboration between two world renowned chemists who are also prolific authors, Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann.

    IS THAT SO? From left, Priestley, Lavoisier, and Scheele debate a point.
The drama, eight performances from April 2 to 7 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, played to enthusiastic audiences. Several performances attracted large numbers of students, thanks to the generosity of the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation. Other funding for "Oxygen" was provided by the Alafi Family Foundation, ACS, and DuPont. Scripps Research Institute sponsored one of the performances.

"Oxygen" comes at a time when a number of other plays that meld art and science are in the public eye, notably "Copenhagen," "QED," and "Proof." That these plays have drawn enthusiastic crowds bodes well for "Oxygen," should it turn out to have a lengthier run in the future.

"Oxygen" has a relatively simple plot. In 1777, Joseph Priestley, 44; Antoine Lavoisier, 34; and Carl Wilhelm Scheele, 35, are in Stockholm at the invitation of King Gustav III to resolve the question: "Who discovered oxygen?" This encounter never took place in real life, but most other details in the play are based on historical fact. Priestley and Lavoisier are accompanied by their wives, Mary Priestley, 35, and Marie Anne Lavoisier, 19; Scheele, by Sara Margaretha Pohl, 26, his longtime companion who became his wife three days prior to his death. In these scenes, we learn a great deal about the three men, primarily through the women in their lives.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of the 21st century, the Nobel Committee for Chemistry is meeting to discuss the awarding of the first "Retro-Nobel Prize" as a way of marking the centenary of the first Nobel Prize in 1901. After some discussion, the committee decides to investigate the claims of Priestley, Lavoisier, and Scheele as the discoverer of oxygen. Each of the three men on the committee--Ulf Svanholm, Sune Kallstenius, and Bengt Hjalmarsson--is assigned one of the 18th-century chemists to research. The chairman of the committee, Astrid Rosenqvist, a theoretical chemist, is assisted by Ulla Zorn, a recorder for the proceedings who turns out to be a history Ph.D. candidate. Zorn's thesis, it emerges, is on women in the lives of some 18th-century chemists.

Two dramatic features distinguish this play, which was directed by Bryan Bevell. First, the play shifts back and forth between 1777 and the present. Shifting between time periods is not unusual in either historical or modern dramas. But in "Oxygen," five of the actors play double roles. In the San Diego production, Diane Addis played Mary Priestley and Rosenqvist, Jennifer Austin was Pohl and Zorn, Randall Dodge played Lavoisier and Hjalmarsson, Jeff Anthony Miller played Scheele and Kallstenius, and Lou Seitchik was Priestley and Svanholm. Only Erin Cronican had a single role, that of the central, flirtatious, intelligent, and enigmatic Madame Lavoisier. Costume changes are minimal and take place before the viewers' eyes in a seamless and believable way.

The set is also deceptively simple. On either side, spotlighted, stands a female mannequin dressed in 18th-century garb; at times in the drama, characters retreat to the mannequins to talk. On three screens at the back of the stage, historical photos are projected throughout the play. A long table is used by the Nobel Committee; a chalkboard behind it contains steroid molecules used in the synthesis of the first synthetic birth control pill, which of course is Djerassi's work. A coat rack in center stage holds the costumes.

    VITAL AIR Madame Lavoisier punctures the phlogiston theory in a play-within-a-play.
    THE WOMEN: At left, Madame Lavoisier has a few words with Priestley; below, Rosenqvist (left) and Zorn discuss matters related to the Nobel committee.
THE PLAY OPENS with a delightful scene in Stockholm in 1777 with the three women in a sauna. There we learn how the women met the men in their lives and how the women did or did not assist them in their life's work. Madame Lavoisier emerges as one of the central characters. In a brief monologue before a segue to the 21st century, Madame Lavoisier makes this statement, both enigmatic and foreshadowing: "I helped Antoine in the laboratory ... as in the salon. ... Yet I helped Antoine in ways he doesn't know about ... and never will." It's a clever device for engaging the viewer, and we later do learn what she means, so it is not a tease.

Among the issues covered in the play are: What constitutes a discovery? What motivates scientists in their work? What is the true product of science--knowledge or reputation? The playwrights explore these questions in both serious and humorous veins. The characters in both centuries are fully drawn, but especially so Madame Lavoisier.

In the sauna, Madame Lavoisier tells the women that "my husband told me something very useful. 'The product of science is knowledge ... but the product of scientists is reputation.' "

This central idea is carried into the scenes set in present-day Stockholm, in which Hjalmarsson and Svanholm discuss why Svanholm is angry with Kallstenius. It turns out that Svanholm was scooped on an important paper on new catalysts for oxygenated polymers by a group of scientists at Stanford University. He blames Kallstenius, a reviewer of the paper who is friends with the Stanford scientists, for sitting on the paper for two months before refereeing it and meanwhile alerting his "Stanford pals" to the development. There follows then this exchange:

Hjalmarsson: Are you sure?

Svanholm: Who else could have told them? He knows them ... all too well!

Hjalmarsson: In research ... simultaneous discovery occurs all the time.

Svanholm: Stop preaching to me!

Hjalmarsson: Ulf, calm down! Why not assume they found it by themselves?

Svanholm: Nonsense!

Hjalmarsson: You're obsessed by this. Let go.

Svanholm: Obsessed? We're always in a race where being first counts for everything. If you're second, you might as well be last. There's only a Gold Medal--in this case the Gibbs Medal--but no silver or bronze.

Hjalmarsson: I wouldn't blame Sune. He's too honest ... you just have to look at his face.

Svanholm: I think you're on his side. We all wear masks.

THE THEME of masks is carried throughout the play and occupies center stage during the play-within-a-play. The Lavoisiers decide to put on a "small entertainment, a masque" for the court, titled "The Victory of Vital Air over Phlogiston." In real life, the Lavoisiers actually performed such a play for their friends, but the play has been lost and nobody knows the text. In the Djerassi-Hoffmann masque, Madame Lavoisier dons a mask of a sunburst and plays the role of oxygen. Lavoisier dons a mask with a long nose and plays phlogiston. They speak in rhyme:

Madame Lavoisier (playing Oxygen):

My husband soon will show that much depends
On vital air--that he calls Oxygen.You boast that Phlogiston's the key to fire
And rust, but why not credit vital air?
Could it not feed the flames or lead to rust?
Combined with carbon, say, or iron, it must!
You claim that metal needs you but what for,
When charcoal coaxes Oxygen from ore?
Another point I feign cannot be true
Is your idea of rust. Surely, you knew
That metal grows in weight when thus decayed.
Yet you insist that nothing new is made!

Lavoisier (playing Phlogiston):
My dear ... Phlogiston might just be so light
That it is weightless. Could he still be right?

Madame Lavoisier:
Mon cher monsieur, you're speaking like an ass!
You know there's no such thing--negative mass?
A revolution is about to dawn
In chemistry, as Oxygen is born.
Phlogiston is a notion of the past,
Disproved and set aside, indeed surpassed.

There are many other scenes in which the playwrights explore topics that will be near and dear to the heart of scientists seeing or reading the play and to nonscientists who are interested in how the conduct of science progresses.

A particularly interesting exchange takes place among committee members as they are coming down to the final vote for awarding the Retro-Nobel:

Kallstenius: You aren't trying to lead us down a garden path by any chance ... are you?

Rosenqvist: Me ... an innocent theoretical chemist?

Kallstenius: Yes ... you. You're pushing for a consensus, when we should be making a tough choice: one winner only. Take the Literature Nobel. It's never shared!

Rosenqvist: But that's preposterous! It's comparing watermelons with ... peanuts!

Svanholm: I suppose literature is peanuts.

Kallstenius [infuriated]: I'm dead serious.

Svanholm: But so am I. You're ignoring two fundamental differences between literature and science. The literati don't worry about priority ... and if they'd had a retro in literature, it would've gone to Shakespeare or Dante or Cervantes ... or whoever ... but it wouldn't be shared. If Shakespeare had never lived, "King Lear" could never have been written. Without Dante, there would be no "Divine Comedy." Without Cervantes--

Kallstenius: Ulf, what's your point?

Svanholm: Simple! Consider oxygen. If Scheele or Priestley or Lavoisier had never lived, somebody would have discovered oxygen. The same with Newton and gravity, with Mendel and genetics--

Kallstenius: So why give a Nobel at all in your watermelon patch? If it would happen anyway, why worry who is first?

Svanholm: Because science is done by scientists ... not machines ... and scientists crave recognition.

"OXYGEN" MOVES along snappily to its inconclusive conclusion, which is part of its charm, but for some it will be frustrating. Still, this reporter found "Oxygen" to be a fine piece of theater, an opinion shared by many of the people interviewed by C&EN for this story. If there was one common complaint among these viewers, it is that a scene between Svanholm and Kallstenius in which they "bury the hatchet" by picking up the masks from the play-within-a-play seems contrived.

In the end, however, "Oxygen" reveals some fundamental truths about science, the process of doing science, and the behavior of scientists themselves. Its central theme--that the obsessive desire for recognition among scientists hasn't changed much in 200 years and is unlikely to change anytime in the near future--is well executed. It may make some people uncomfortable, and if it does, it would be good theater indeed.

For those who missed the performances in San Diego, "Oxygen" has just been published in a handsome, slim volume by Wiley-VCH. In addition, there are other opportunities to see the play. A London production directed by Andy Jordan will be held at the Royal Institution on Oct. 27, 28, and 29, and an official London premiere is set for Nov. 13–Dec. 2 at the Riverside Studios Theatre in Hammersmith. The BBC has recorded a radio adaptation as its "play of the week," which will be broadcast on Dec. 1 and 2 by BBC World Service, just before Nobel Week in Stockholm.

A staged reading of "Oxygen" in German will be held on Sept. 16 in Berlin in the historic Hörsaalruine der Charité during a science festival, and the German-language premiere, directed by Isabella Gregor, will debut on Sept. 23 at the Stadttheater in Würzburg in conjunction with the German Chemical Society meeting (Sept. 23–29) and continue through the theater's 2001–02 season.

A Tale Of Two Chemists

    THE PLAYWRIGHTS Djerassi (left) and Hoffmann used e-mail to write most of "Oxygen."
If there are two chemists who need no introduction, they are Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann. Both have been on the scientific and literary scene for some time.

But for the record, Djerassi is professor of chemistry at Stanford University and the author of five novels, a collection of short stories, a poetry chapbook, two autobiographies, and now two plays. Djerassi received the National Medal of Science for the first synthesis of a steroid contraceptive and the National Medal of Technology for novel approaches to insect control. He is also the founder of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, an artists' colony near San Francisco that so far has supported more than 1,100 working artists in various disciplines.

Hoffmann is Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University, and he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1981 with Kenichi Fukui. For the past dozen years, Hoffmann has also been pursuing a literary career and has authored three books of poetry, numerous essays, and three nonfiction books. He is also the presenter of a television course, "The World of Chemistry."

So how did these two distinguished chemists and old friends end up writing a play together? Hoffmann had long been intrigued with Madame Lavoisier and the discovery of oxygen and was discussing some of his research with a mutual friend of Djerassi's over a drink in September 1998. "I learned the story of the discovery of oxygen for my essay 'The Air of Revolution,' in 'Chemistry Imagined,' which I wrote around 1991 to '92, and had been obsessed ever since by Madame Lavoisier," Hoffmann says. He thought it might make an interesting film, book, or play, but told the friend: "I'm not a playwright." The friend suggested that Hoffmann talk to Djerassi, who had been successful in finding staging for his play "An Immaculate Misconception."

The two chemists met in New York City on Dec. 5 and 6, 1998. "Roald told me about his enormous attraction to the Madame Lavoisier figure," Djerassi recalls, "but I was more interested in dealing with the topic of a scientist's drive for priority." Eventually, they dealt with both.

Working in Djerassi's hotel room, they wrote a scene, which, Djerassi recalls, "was sort of a prologue with him and me as the principal figures, disclosing in dramatic form that we were writing about Priestley, since we were both Priestley Medalists. While corny and soon headed for the wastepaper basket, it showed us that we could have literary fun and cooperate at the same time." They then wrote a scene that started at the Nobel committee.

A few months later, in February 1999, Hoffmann came to San Francisco and they spent the entire day sketching the subject matter of the various scenes and characters. Djerassi then spent the summer in London where he worked full time on the play, and Hoffmann joined him in August for about 10 days. "But by that time," Djerassi says, "we had already started with much collaborative writing by e-mail." Djerassi then visited Hoffmann at Cornell in October 1999. They had a live reading there, which promptly sent them back to rewrite.

Subsequently, they revised and re-revised the play, with additional rehearsed readings in London and 10 workshop performances at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco in May 2000 under the direction of Andrea Gordon. The published version of the play is their 10th rewrite. Djerassi and Hoffmann are delighted that the play is available in book form, because they both see it as a useful learning tool in chemistry classes for majors and nonmajors.

For a production that will be aired on BBC Radio, the two wrote a 58-minute version with a different ending. In this production, 12 actors play the roles, since the listener will not have the visual cues the theatergoer enjoys. The new ending makes it clear to whom the Retro-Nobel Committee awarded the prize. To find out, you'll have to listen to BBC World Radio on Dec. 1 and 2.