Science on Stage vs. Science Fiction Theatre

copenhagenIt’s no secret that popular science has exploded when we see the amount of paperbacks, TV series and documentaries on the subject, and theatre is no exception. Copenhagen is by far the most notable example, having found success in the Tony Awards for winning Best Play in 2000. Before and after then, Science plays have made their way to the stage in abundance — most likely tapping in to the theatricality of the experiment, and by extension, science itself. Marcos Saturoy in his recent Guardian Article Science on Stage – from Profound Theories to West End Hits (August 2013) hits upon something quite interesting, and in a way that made me think about the boundaries between Science Theatre and Science Fiction:

 Science is storytelling about the world. It is like the best thriller or murder mystery. Ingredients such as the characters in a story are brought together and then often combined in an unexpected and surprising fashion. As an audience your attention is grabbed. You want to understand why. The scientist then unravels the mystery giving you the explanation to work out “whodunit”. The best science has that classic “ahah” moment when you suddenly get what’s going on. (Saturoy, 2013)

This on a surface level makes sense — the empirical nature of Science, Mystery and Thriller is about the act of revealing, of figuring out the solution — the very nature of these forms is indeed sparked off by a question. The hints are weaved in subtly (or not) from which the audience are hunter gatherer in their minds, piecing together the puzzle. The science often explored in these plays are what could be considered the QI-ification that popular science thrives on (a Popular UK show where bitesize facts are disseminated and discussed) and are the driving point to make us as the audience figure out and wonder how it works, how it was discovered, and what it could be used for. I argue that the use of wonder used is different to what is often described as the sensawunda (sense of wonder) that Science Fiction is known for.

In other words, Science Theatre is, in my mind at least, an epistemological form — maybe leaning towards Hard SF if we’re to link it to the genre in some way. The basis of the Science play is formed on a thought experiment but the dramatic subject is often drawn upon historical people and events. From Brecht’s Gallileo, we can see many plays based on Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg, regardless of how they are portrayed. Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (1982) plays upon this so well; Marilyn Monroe, Einstein, and Joe DiMaggio are fictionally depicted meeting in a Manhattan hotel room, displaying different sides to their media driven clichés; aware of their respective powers but also feeling at the mercy of them. Monroe explains the Theory of Relativity to Einstein in his hotel room by use of props — a flashlight and toy trains and a model of Charlie Chaplin — showing the multifaceted  nature of a character that we are maybe unaccustomed to (although there is much speculation as to the depth of the Monroe-Einstein interaction, but that’s for another day, perhaps). Copenhagen (2000) famously deals with the question: why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen? It is centred on the much speculated event that took place in 1941 where Heisenberg and Bohr met in Copenhagen — the play depicting the spirits of Heisenberg, Bohr, and his wife Margethe discussing this in hindsight.

There are of course science plays that do not focus on well known characters, but the fact remains that the scientific theory, event/context, and personality are dramatised and take centre stage — with all other elements being secondary.

Kristen Shepherd-Barr describes this in her book Science on Stage (2006):

Science plays have also traditionally shown an interest in depicting the conflicts inherent in scientific advancement, whether on the micro-level of interpersonal relationships or on the macro-level of clashing institutions and systems of belief. (p39)

She goes on to explain:

Finally, (science plays have)a concern with ‘real’ and substantive science over fantasy… a genuine familiarity with the ideas they are borrowing, a commitment to accuracy (p40)

I believe that SF Theatre is an ontological form — dealing with our ways of living in the world, our questions of being; how world views are formed and how this oblique form can inform us of our own reality. Cognitive Estrangement as coined by Darko Suvin depicts a scenario that appears both familiar and unfamiliar unlike that of Fantasy, whereby our imaginations are allowed to transport us entirely out of the world as we know it as an act of escapism. R.U.R (1920) by Karel Capek is an extrapolation, a thought experiment of the extents of capitalism, the dialect between master and slave. The focus is not on the science from which the robots are created, but how we view ourselves as humans, how we interact and develop in the midst of change. Pastoral (2013) by Thomas Eccleshare depicts a world where nature becomes resistant to man-made structures, wildlife encroach on our territory and upturn our commercial creations — we see our species exploited by those we have ourselves exploited since the dawn of time. Nothing’s the End of the World… until it’s the End of the World (2013) by Beckah Brundsetter does not emphasise on the technology used to create the cyborgs who interact with the human teenagers at their school, but more of the sociological aspect; how the barriers used for categorising them become blurred due to the learned nature of human behaviour and interaction. Science Theatre and SF Theatre have therefore elements in common as to be expected, but there is a shift in focus and by extension, the affect.

It is interesting how Science Theatre has boomed in popularity, whereas Science Fiction Theatre remains to be marginalised, reduced to mainly parody (franchises and fan culture) and adaptations (of film/literary greats as well as again franchises and… fan culture). These are all well and good — just the same that dessert and a main course go together — but I feel it’s time that Science Fiction Theatre comes into its own. Structures are held in place — many theatres are playing, performing, praising and accepting those that are blatantly Science Fiction Theatre; but are afraid to add that word “Fiction” into the equation in fear of a volatile reaction. There have been some events that I’ve been to where they express that “this is NOT Science Fiction Theatre” when it does seem to be the case. As Science Theatre has been defined, loved and celebrated — and we can see the divide between the two, would it not be fair to do the same to its neglected sibling?

As Shepherd-Barr sums up in Science on Stage,

The book makes a clear distinction between science and fantasy, a distinction that is often blurred or ignored in popular notions of what scientists do. Science fiction and fantasy plays lie beyond the scope of the current study and deserve more critical attention. (p14)

Wise words indeed.

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