Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum is the setting for Carl Djerassi's play Phallacy.
The plot is based on a real occurrence: In 1986, a chemical analysis of
the bronze statue "Youth from Mt. Magdalene," thought to be a Roman
original, revealed that the artwork was actually a Renaissance copy. A
bitter argument between Kurt Gschwantler, art historian and director of
the museum's antiquities collection, and Alfred Vendl and Bernhard
Pichler, a team of chemists from the Universität für Angewandte Kunst,
Even though 1400 years had been ripped off the
sculpture, further art history research suggested that it was actually
a copy of the Roman original that had been discovered on Mt. Magdalene
in Carinthia and then shipped to the Habsburg court in Spain in the
1500s. On stage, two actors portray the lead chemist and art historian.
With a good deal of humor, they argue the points of whether inflation
automatically diminishes the art historical merit of the sculpture or
the viewer's pleasure in its beauty.
The play highlights the
quirks and idiosyncrasies of the scientist (represented by Rex) versus
the art historian (Regina) as they examine the age of an art object
from widely different perspectives: esthetic connoisseurship versus
cold material analysis. On April 19, 2007, there will be a reading of Phallacy and a talkback session with the author at the Austrian Cultural Forum.
May 15 to June 10, New York's Cherry Lane Theatre will present a full
production of the play with various matinee discussions with the author
and the two chemists, Dr. Vendl and Dr. Pichler. On May 16, Dr.
Djerassi and other panelists will take the stage to discuss the topic
"Falling in Love with Hypothesis."
On May 19, Dr. Djerassi and Drs. Vendl and Pichler will discuss "The How-tos of Dating Art."
May 20, Dr. Djerassi and other panelists will discuss the topic of
"Bringing Science to the Stage." All talkback sessions will follow the
3 p.m. performance.
Carl Djerassi is an authority both in the
field of science and art. After being expelled from Austria in 1938, he
emigrated to the United States and received his Ph.D. in chemistry in
1945 from the University of Wisconsin.
In 1951, his group at
Syntex in Mexico City was the first one to synthesize a steroid oral
contraceptive. For this feat, he received the National Medal of Science
as well as numerous other awards, including twenty honorary doctorates.
This milestone discovery triggered the development of the birth control
pill. Mr. Djerassi was appointed professor of chemistry at Stanford
University in 1960 and became emeritus in 2002. While successfully
marketing the application of his scientific discoveries at the Syntex
and Zoecon corporations, he also started collecting works by Paul Klee
in the mid 1960s.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has
held rotating exhibitions of selections from his Klee collection since
1984 and a substantial portion of that collection will pass to that
museum upon his death. To support emerging as well as accomplished
artists in the field of literature, visual arts, music, dance and
performing arts, Carl Djerassi also founded the Djerassi Resident
Artists Program in Woodside, California in 1979 in memory of his
daughter Pamela, a painter and poet, who had committed suicide the
In 1986, Dr. Djerassi's career took an
about-face. He first started publishing poems and short stories. Since
then, his creative production has been unstoppable. Five novels, two
autobiographies, a memoir, and a collection of essays followed. All but
one of his five novels (Cantor's Dilemma; The Bourbaki Gambit; Marx, Deceased; Menachem's Seed; and NO)
follow the science-in-fiction genre (not to be confused with science
fiction), which makes science accessible to readers and allows for the
illustration and discussion of ethical dilemmas.
Since 1997, Mr.
Djerassi has focused on writing plays with an initial focus on
"science-in-theater." From antiquity to the Middle Ages, dialogues were
once the accepted form for scientists to argue their points. Carl
Djerassi has thus gone back to the roots of dramatic art.
also gone back to his geographical roots. In 2004, the Austrian
Government offered Austrian citizenship to Carl Djerassi and his wife
Diane Middlebrook, professor emerita of English at Stanford. The
Austrian Postal Services also issued a stamp in Carl Djerassi's honor.
It shows the face of the self-described "intellectual polygamist"
entirely composed of microscopic steroid structures.
As a token of reconciliation with his former home country, Carl Djerassi set Phallacy
in Vienna, the city of his birth. In 2004, he donated a sculpture by
kinetic artist George Rickey entitled "Four Lines Oblique" to the
Albertina Museum, where it is now permanently exhibited just outside
the Museum on the "Bastei." A special German performance of Phallacy under the title Phallstricke
(also the title under which the German Broadcasting Corporation, WDR,
broadcast the play) was performed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in
Vienna on November 23, 2006. What better site for a homecoming than the
world-class museum across the Ring the Imperial Palace!
Carl Djerassi talks about Phallacy and his homecoming in the following dialogue:
KH: Professor Djerassi, can you briefly describe your emotional return to Austria. What made you reconcile with the country?
I had only been back to Vienna a few times after World War II. As you
know, the country took a long time to deal with its Nazi past. After
World War II, I went to an international conference in Vienna in the
late 1950s, but official Austrian scientific circles didn't really
invite me back for decades. It was not until my fiction was translated
into German in the early 1990s that I received an official invitation.
And then it was the literati, not the scientists.
In 1999, my first play, An Immaculate Misconception premiered under the title Unbefleckt
and was directed by Isabella Gregor at the Jugendstiltheater am
Steinhof. Interestingly, I had picked the Viennese Art Nouveau theater
in the Steinhof mental institution as the site of an important erotic
chapter in my third novel, Menachem's Seed. The fact that An Immaculate Misconception
was performed at the Jugendstiltheater meant quite a lot of me. Shortly
thereafter, Carl Aigner, the director of Kunsthalle Krems, asked me
whether I would lend a large part of my Klee collection to his museum
for a summer exhibition. I think that that event and his efforts were
instrumental in causing the Austrian government to offer me Austrian
KH: Why did you decide to bequest the George Rickey sculpture Four Lines Oblique to the Albertina?
I attended the inauguration of the newly renovated Albertina Museum in
2003 and was greatly impressed by the high level of sophistication of
all the opening speeches and the overall quality of the renovation.
When I went outside on the balcony, I realized that the only sculpture
present was that of Archduke Albert. It was a little windy, and I
thought a kinetic work of art would fit nicely in these surroundings. I
really appreciated the fact that a government would invest 100 million
euros in the renovation of a museum while other governments decided to
go to war...
Incidentally, my wife and I had already given one
Rickey sculpture to the city of San Francisco, which stands next to
City Hall, and two other sculptures by the British sculptors Bill
Woodrow and David Nash to the British Library in London. When the
Albertina sculpture was unveiled, the plaque says exactly the same
thing as the Austrian stamp issued in my honor: A gift from Carl
Djerassi: Born in 1923, exiled in 1938, reconciled in 2004.
KH: You are in good company. In 2003, the Austrian Postal Services also issued a stamp in Arnold Schwarzeneggers honor.
(laughs) I didn't know that! I only know about Jewish personalities on
Austrian stamps since that was the title of a stamp exhibition at the
Jewish Museum in Vienna in 2004, which also included "my" stamp even
though it had not yet been officially released. They also included
Johann Strauss because he had a Jewish grandfather. So unless Arnold
Schwarzenegger had a Jewish grandfather, I wouldn't know about it ...
KH: The Austrian postal services also issued a stamp with an image of "The Youth from Mt. Magdalene," the subject of your play Phallacy.
That happened in 1968 before it was known that the sculpture in Vienna
was a Renaissance copy. In your play, you pit a chemist against an art
historian to ruminate about two opposing methods of investigation:
those of hard and exact science, and of art history, on the other,
which is more open to interpretations. Where you ever inclined to take
CD: I didn't want to be a referee. Otherwise, I would
have lost my authorial freedom. No one wins in my play. Both the
scientist and the art historian are self-centered and get too absorbed
in their own hypotheses. Even though the statue is robbed of 1,400
years, the analysis only proves that this particular sculpture is not
the original. Subsequent research has shown that the original was dug
up on Mt. Magdalene near Klagenfurt in 1502 and then shipped to Spain.
In my play, I ask what the difference between having a cast and the
original is. By the way, the sculpture is still in the Antiquities
Collection of the Kunsthistorische Museum, but now bears a sign that it
is a copy. It does not say, however, that it was a chemist who made the
KH: Did you have any contact with the real chemist and art historian that waged a battle over the statue?
They all came to the opening of the play at the Kunsthistorisches
Museum last November. The two chemists, Professors Vendl and Pichler,
whom I portray as professor Rex and his assistant Otto in my play, will
also come to the matinee talkback sessions at the Cherry Lane Theater
on May 19. I also met the art historian, Dr. Gdschwantler, who in my
play is a female director, at the performance in November at the
Kunsthistorische Museum. I believe that until then, the chemists and
art historians had still not mended fences. But at the dinner after my
play, I learned that they were planning to have a drink together just
like my characters at the end of Phallacy.
KH: Whats in the title Phallacy?
First of all, it deals with the dictionary definitions of fallacy:
"Guile, trickery, deception, erroneousness" and the like. But since the
phallus of the sculpture also plays an important role in my plot, I
changed the spelling. It also is supposed to refer to the male
scientist's cocksure attitude - in other words, a tongue-in-cheek
reference to many male members of my scientific tribe.
KH: In an
article, you mentioned that you toned down the scientific content of
your plays. How do you strike a balance between wanting to illustrate
the ethic dilemmas that come with scientific discoveries and
entertaining the audience?
CD: I started out as a scientist who
wished to use the stage for partially didactic purposes. I have now
passed beyond that stage to become a playwright who also happens to be
a scientist. I am particularly interested that my plays are being read
and not just seen on the stage. If the science prevents the audience
from doing so, I am now prepared to compromise. My preceding play Ego has no science in it whatsoever. The science in Phallacy is mostly about the behavioral practices of scientists rather than the actual science. My last play Taboos, which opened in 2006 in London and in German translation in Graz, talks about the social consequences of in vitro
fertilization techniques rather than about the scientific discovery
itself. From that standpoint it is very different from my first play, An Immaculate Misconception, which deals with reproductive science.
KH: Do you still have a didactic agenda?
As a scientist, am not ashamed to admit that. To be amusing is not my
sole purpose. If a theater says no to science-in-theater plays, then to
hell with them.
KH: You have also found that science-in-theater plays work very well in the classroom. What are some of your experiences?
I have had very good experiences in Europe, where the Deutsche
Theaterverlag publishes dozens of plays for different age groups. Two
of my pedagogic plays for classrooms have been published by them and
have been performed at Austrian and German high schools and also at
some American universities. It is always great to engage in discussions
with the students after the performances.
KH: You have written a
great deal about reproductive science, both academically and in your
novels and plays. What goes on in your mind when you hear that some
U.S. legislators are trying to introduce bills that would ban all
contraceptives as abortifacients?
CD: It's discouraging and
terrible. You cannot legislate that. Making contraception and abortion
illegal will simply stimulate medical tourism. All you do in the
process is to discriminate against people who cannot afford medical
tourism. If a woman wants to have an abortion she is not going to care
whether it is illegal or not. That's how thousands of women died before
Roe v. Wade. What we have to do is to make abortions unnecessary, not
My play Taboos, which will premiere in New York
in 2008, centers around the whole reproductive debate in the U.S. It is
set in two places, San Francisco and Mississippi. There are two
couples, two lesbian partners in San Francisco and a fundamentalist
husband and wife in Mississippi. In the beginning, you think I would be
taking the side of the San Francisco liberals and not of the
fundamentalists. I do consider the Christian fundamentalist movement in
the United States a potentially dangerous one, because its members are
convinced of their righteousness and grant others no alternative
opinions. But I do not pooh-pooh or ignore them. I don't think you can
convince either side of the other's opinions. You will be surprised at
the compromise I come up with in Taboos. It is basically a
prescription for a modus vivendi for both groups in a heterogeneous
country. Thankfully, we do not yet have a theocracy in the United
States. Reproduction and sex are personal matters. What we have to
agree upon is that other people don't have a place in our bedroom.
KH: Thank you for the interview.