Any play about science or scientists has to get across the excitement and importance of its subject without turning into a lecture. How have writers have tackled this problem?by Olivia Judson / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
A disappearing number (Complicite, on tour) “I’m here to see Complicated,” said the schoolgirl in the queue at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal. “You mean Complicite,” the ticket seller corrected. But the schoolgirl’s mistake was prescient: Theatre de Complicite’s new production is complicated.
At its heart, A Disappearing Number is an account of the collaboration between the Indian genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and the English mathematician GH Hardy. Ramanujan’s story is a real-life fairy tale. Born in India in 1887, he taught himself mathematics. By the age of 25, he had developed some remarkable insights. But he was working as a clerk in the accounting section of the Madras Port Trust. He wrote to Hardy, who was then at Cambridge: “I have had no university education but I have undergone the ordinary school course… I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at mathematics… the results I get are termed by the local mathematicians as ‘startling.'” Hardy soon realised he was dealing with a genius, and arranged for Ramanujan to come to Cambridge. By the time Ramanujan died—aged only 32—he had compiled more than 3,000 theorems, some of which are now important in new kinds of mathematics, such as string theory.
Most of Ramanujan’s mathematics is out of reach of the average theatregoer. So the play’s problem is how to inject a sense of why his work matters and what it was about while accepting that the audience has not come for a lecture. This problem faces any theatrical treatment of science and scientists; indeed, it is the central problem of the genre.
Playwrights have found several ways of dealing with the conundrum. At one end of the spectrum are theatrical lectures. These are not plays in the traditional sense, although they can be dramatic, even thrilling. An example is Theatre of Science, which ran in London’s Soho Theatre a couple of years ago. The brainchild of Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, and Simon Singh, author of Fermat’s Last Theorem, this was a series of demonstrations that culminated in Singh climbing into a coffin-shaped wire mesh cage, which was then zapped with a million volts of electricity. How come he is alive today? Because the coffin served as a Faraday cage—the wire mesh conducted the electricity, and prevented it from reaching the person inside.
More usually, though, theatrical treatments…