The Niels Bohr Archive's History of Science Seminar, 19 November 1999.
Reflections of a historian of science
But why? Why do some playwrights bring history into the theatre? Why do some of them recreate historical figures and events on stage, only then to plea that they, in reality, are merely engaged with fiction? And historians – why do they get so hot under collar as soon as they see minutiae of detail trampled under foot? And scientists – why do they sometimes refuse to accept that others than themselves can say something cogent about the scientific enterprise? By what standards and by whose standards should we evaluate the quality of a drama based on history? If on the one hand dramatists are accused at times of not appreciating the craft of historical scholarship or the substance of natural science, then on the other hand, historians and scientists only rarely possess visual and theatrical literacy with which to judge the dramatic arts. What chance do we have? Can some awkward but still satisfying triangle be constructed connecting our three points of departure: drama, science, and history?
To what extent is it possible to consider drama as a means to diffuse insight into aspects of the scientific enterprise to a general public? To what extent can theatre be used as a vehicle for exploring the history of science? I will first offer some informal impressions on the general nature of historical drama and then turn to efforts to dramatize science history. (Referring to the title of the seminar, I assume I am to address the ’Beyond’, so although I have read and seen Michael Frayn’s fascinating and important play, Copenhagen, I will not comment on it now.)
Playwrights have been using the stuff of history from earliest times. Historical drama, in its many forms and variations, is of course a recognizable genre in western theatrical tradition. And yet the two, history and drama, are not necessarily compatible with respect to ends and means. As the Italian dramatist Pirandello noted, truth doesn’t have to be plausible, but fiction does. Or, drawing upon the earliest roots of drama, we might recall Aristotle’s observation that tragedy is more philosophical than is history. Thus, the historian at times must accept the chaotic and the contingent, the randomness and even the apparent meaninglessness of events and actions; the playwright, however, must work with a structured logic grounded in dramatic conventions. Indeed playwrights have been known to reject historical truths for the reason of their implausibility – on stage actual events might seem too contrived, villains too melodramatic. Instead, the constructed drama presents an artifact more plausible, more seemingly true, than the actual historical record. But how far dare the dramatist deviate from that record?
Even when the audience is well aware that the factual content of a history-based play is false, it may still find the play engrossing, urgent, and in touch with a deeper truth.
Should we agree with those who claim that sometimes playwrights necessarily have to depart from historical detail in order to provide accurate and engaging portrayals of underlying historical forces? Yet, on closer inspection we note that such plays seem to depict and probe not the social relations or political processes at the time of the subject but those of the dramatist. Schiller’s Don Carlos belongs to the late 18th century rather than the 16th; Shakespeare’s histories address the political realities of the 16th century and not those of previous eras. And closer to our subject matter, Brecht’s Galileo, which although open to any number of interpretations, is definitely not about the actual life and times of the play’s namesake. True, historians may write with the present and future in mind, still they necessarily seek understanding of from the relevant historical context using categories derived from that particular time and place.
Why use the names and events of history when the dramatist’s purpose is to illuminate a thesis or to provoke discussion? In his play, The Physicists, Friedrich Dürrenmatt frees himself from actual facts and personalities in order to mold a drama that playfully but forcefully raises questions related to ethical responsibility for research. He creates three fictional physicists in a madhouse who claim to be Newton, Einstein, and King Solomon. Are they mad or simply acting mad to ensure that the nuclear secrets they uncovered will remain out of the hands of those who might use them for evil? This is a fine piece of drama that engages both emotionally and intellectually, if I recall correctly after almost 30 years.
But – what if? Indeed - what if we choose to begin not with a story, but with history. What if we find the stuff of history so compelling, so electrifying, that we simply must try to shape it, mold it, pound it into workable dramatic form?
For professional historians of science, that which normally holds our interest may not at all be the stuff for drama. But I think it worthwhile for the historian to try to learn the craft of playwriting as well as other forms of communicating with a broad public. Even by just toying with such thoughts, we are forced to lift our noses out of pedantry, out of the latest academic fashions and quarrels, and consider just what in our work is truly important, beautiful, or moving for others. Drama may well reside in scientists’ social, moral, and professional dilemmas. How they struggled for recognition, for resources, for arriving at new findings, and for gaining acceptance for these.
If we choose theatre, we must accept a basic truth: Theatre cannot depict comprehensive narrative history and ought not to try. Still, theatrical drama can stimulate thought and raise questions. No medium can better convey the immediacy of emotions – and science entails not only cold logic but also hot passion. The need for dramatic action on stage to be restricted to single unities of time and space offers opportunities and limitations as compared to filmatic montage. Theatrical convention can be used to explore the complexity of a scientist’s emotional, intellectual, and moral make-up. The playwright’s skill, imagination, and intellectual grasp allow opening windows onto aspects of science history that can prod members of the audience to reflect or read further. The payoff might well be measured in the degree by which particular scientific events along with the persons linked with them can be transformed into public and dramatic property. Significant chapters in science history have a right to enter our cultural heritage and not remain merely the property of historians and scientists. A play such as Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, which although primarily concerned with the epistemological problem of what we actually can know of persons’ motives, has clearly brought significant chapters in the history of modern physics to the attention of many non-specialists. Is Frayn’s accomplishment a unique event in contemporary theatre, or might we see this play as an indication that, in principle, a well-crafted, intelligent drama working with the stuff of science history can win an audience? I would like to believe the latter is indeed the case; I would like to believe history of science and theatre can find mutually beneficial collaborations, not that I underestimate the magnitude of difficulties.
Allow me to share, very briefly, some thoughts on one possible further example -- I am currently writing a book entitled The Politics of Excellence that offers a history of the awarding Nobel physics and chemistry prizes. Based on years of research, I explore the history of why and how individuals and groups attempted, with varying degrees of success, to use the Nobel Prize for furthering specific scientific, cultural, and personal agendas. Excellence is ambiguous, even in science.
Dare I try to communicate some of the insights from this history to a general public through drama? It would be foolish to deviate too radically from the historical record as the topic is highly charged; moreover, much of the inherent interest entails bringing the audience into contact with that which purports to be the committees’ actual deliberations and decision making. The play that I have begun to conceptualize entails the question of awarding a prize to Einstein and the reception of his relativity theories. The main character is not Einstein, but Allvar Gullstrand, a name undoubtedly familiar to none of you.
Let me offer a taste of some of the raw ingredients even though the texture and structure of the drama is scarcely discernable in this synopsis:
Einstein never knew what he was up against. Following the 1919 British solar eclipse experiment, which claimed to have measured the bending of starlight by the sun as predicted by the general theory of relativity, Einstein became an international celebrity. Expectations rose both inside and outside the scientific community that Einstein would soon be called to Stockholm to receive a prize. A flood of nominations ensued. But the alleged "crucial experiment" for the theory did not convince any member of the Nobel physics committee. They, and others, remained doubtful whether the effects predicted by Einstein had indeed been observed; more to the point, the majority refused to be convinced. Relativity theory - special and general - seemed to entail a radical displacement in understanding physics. Einstein and his theory had quickly become associated with a number of radical ‘isms, which when coupled with the fall of Germany and the Bolshevik revolution seemed a further threat to the preexisting social and moral order. Among themselves some committee members agreed that Alfred Nobel did not have such speculative theories in mind.
Allvar Gullstrand took it upon himself to evaluate Einstein's contributions. He set out to disprove relativity and defuse its threat to traditional culture and values ("where is God in the fourth-dimension?"). Privately Gullstrand asserted that Einstein must never receive a prize, even if it was demanded by the entire world. And yet, most of the world's leading physicists indeed wanted just that.
In the meantime Einstein was waiting in Berlin. Who would blink first? In 1920 Charles Guillaume received the physics prize for his service to precision measurement, especially his discovery of anomalies in nickel steel alloys. One year later the committee and Academy voted to reserve the prize. Einstein, however, had other matters to consider: revolution and counter-revolution; hostility against his earlier refusal to support the German military juggernaut; and rising anti-Semitic attacks against him and relativity theory.
Should Gullstrand (and the committee) bow to international opinion? What would it mean for them, for the Academy, for Sweden to award Einstein? Should Einstein leave Berlin, abandon the Weimar Republic and the position several faithful colleagues worked to establish for him? In this little tale of two cities - Uppsala and Berlin - physics and the prizes can be seen as being part of broader social and cultural realities, caught between nationalist and internationalist visions for science. But this is also a tale of arrogance.
Gullstrand embodied the best and worst of his academic culture. He received the 1911 Nobel Prize for medicine/physiology for his work on the optics of the eye (naturally light, blindness, sight can be used in a literary manner here); the physics committee had planned the same but lost the race to bestow an award upon him. Gullstrand received every honor Uppsala and Sweden could bestow on a professor. He demanded as much of himself as of others: "a professor whose hands do not shake by the end of the academic year has not performed his duties properly." In a small, isolated but locally prestigious academic environment, arrogance, like mold in a damp cellar, tends to thrive. Gullstrand insisted on being elected to the Nobel physics committee as a representative for mathematical physics, yet he had no formal training. Arrogance prompted him to confront Einstein: to prove that relativity theory was of little significance. Gullstrand had earlier declared that each Nobel Prize can be considered a Swedish flag, displayed to be seen by the entire world. Who shall be deemed worthy to wear the blue and yellow?
In the Academy, as perhaps elsewhere, titles and authority sometimes, but not always, compensate for lack of expertise. Gullstrand had no trouble blocking Einstein, as few members of the Academy approved of relativity, but he could not prove Einstein wrong. Discussion in the Academy revealed humiliating gaps in Gullstrand's command of the physics as well as vehement prejudice in his evaluation.
In the end Gullstrand’s friend and colleague, C. W. Oseen, entered the picture and engineered a prize for Einstein for the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect (which was also a strategy to allow a prize for Niels Bohr). Einstein learned of the prize while en route to Japan. When he finally came to Sweden the following summer, he spoke in Gothenburg, not Stockholm; he presented a speech on relativity; and, unexpectedly, received the prize from the King, who came to Gothenburg to learn something about the controversial theory. Gullstrand retired from the committee several years later increasingly disabled by emotional and mental disorder.
To what extent this episode can be transformed into a captivating theatrical triangle linking drama, science, and history is my task; perhaps at some future date we might together judge the results. Thank you.
Robert Marc Friedman is professor of history of science at University of Oslo. He studied drama & theatre at New York University while taking his B.S. degree there in geophysics. He used his Johns Hopkins University doctoral dissertation on Vilhelm Bjerknes to write a screenplay for a one-hour dramatization, produced and broadcast by Norwegian State Broadcasting Corporation (1982). He has written under contract additional film treatments for science history docudramas. His publications include, Appropriating the Weather: Vilhelm Bjerknes and the Construction of a Modern Meteorology. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1989; The Expeditions of Harald Ulrik Sverdrup: Contexts for Shaping an Ocean Science. William E. and Mary B. Ritter Memorial Lecture, 29 October 1992. La Jolla, CA: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 1994; "Text, context, and quicksand: Method and understanding in studying the Nobel science prizes." Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences. 20 Nr. 1, 1989; "Americans as candidates for the Nobel prize: The Swedish perspective." The Michelson Era in American Science 1870-1930. Eds., Stanley Goldberg and Roger Stuewer. New York: American Institute of Physics, 1988. 272-287; and "The Nobel prizes and the invigoration of Swedish science: Some preliminary considerations." Solomon's House Revisited: The Organization and Institutionalization of Science. Ed., Tore Frängsmyr. Nobel Symposium 75. Canton, MA: Science History Publications & Nobel Foundation, 1990.
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