Media reviews

Three chemists in search of a gas

Oxygen: a Play in 2 Acts

A play by Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann. Performances at Riverside Studios, London, UK, until Dec 1, 2001. Script: London: Wiley-VCH, 2001. Pp 128. £10.00 ISBN 3527304134.

In the past decade various books, such as Dava Sobel's Longitude or David Bodanis's E-mc2, have dealt with scientific themes and become bestsellers. There has also been a run on science as theatre. Among the first on stage were two atomic physicists, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, in Michael Frayn's superb Copenhagen. Now it is chemistry's turn in Oxygen, a play by distinguished chemists Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffman--Djerassi achieved the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive and Hoffman shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Their play humanises scientific methodology and poses important questions about the nature of discovery and scientists' motivation: "Our usual preoccupation with priority . . . the Nobel Syndrome: who did what first?" comments one character; "The product of science is knowledge . . . but the product of scientists is reputation," observes another.

Set in Stockholm, the action shifts between 2001 and 1771 where two plots unfold. The first story revolves around the Nobel Foundation's decision to award "retro-Nobels", for work done before the Prizes were established in 1901. The chairwoman, three cynical male members of the Chemistry Committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and a female graduate student, meet to devise a short list of candidates. They focus on the 18th century, because "people published less so we have less to read", and agree that the discoverer of oxygen should be honoured. But should the prize be awarded to Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Priestley, or Carl Wilhelm Scheele? In 1771, the protagonists and their wives argue their respective claims before Gustav III who, in the other plot, invites them to Stockholm so that he can reward the discoverer. The Swedish monarch, however, is vexed by the scientists' squabbling and declines to present a medal. The 21st-century committee does reach a decision, after each member has investigated the claims of one of the scientists in the archives. What they find there re-energises the committee members and, along the way, they resolve some of their own academic and romantic rivalries. More of the graduate student's hand is revealed as the action unfolds, and her research on women in the lives of 18th-century scientists proves pivotal. The result of the committee's secret ballot is not revealed, although Djerassi and Hoffmann provide a strong hint for the audience to interpret.

The play works very well. Much of the theatrical chemistry in the play results from skilful dual casting. The actors playing Lavoisier, Priestley, and Scheele also play the committee members who research their respective scientific careers, two centuries later. Similarly, the actresses playing Mrs Priestley and Fru Pohl (Scheele's housekeeper, later his wife) double-up as the successful chairwoman and clever graduate student, neatly illustrating the freedom women now have to achieve their potential, which was denied their 18th-century counterparts. The actress playing Mme Lavoisier takes a single role, reflecting the fact that only she among the wives assisted her husband with his experiments. Her ambition for Lavoisier's success apparently led her to mislead him regarding the progress made by the other two chemists. First, by withholding Scheele's letter to him of September, 1774, describing "fire air" and secondly, by incompletely translating what Priestley said about "dephlogisticated air" when he dined with the Lavoisiers in October, 1774.

What is critical, however, is that Lavoisier understood the importance of the discovery of oxygen, even if Scheele and Priestley undertook their experiments before he did his own. These two scientists sought to explain their observations in terms of phlogiston--the widely held theory of the essence that made materials burn and was released in the process--whereas Lavoisier postulated that oxygen was consumed and developed the concept of balanced equations in chemical reactions. "They knew not what they'd done . . . where oxygen would lead us", says Lavoisier. In the masque that they perform for Gustav III, Mme Lavoisier outrages the Priestleys and Scheeles by proclaiming:


"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."


"Discovery is complicated and one has to think whether finding the thing or understanding it is important", commented Hoffman on the play's content. "The wonderful thing about the theatre is that it lives in the production", he added, referring to the writers' interactions with the director and cast. "We're scientists discovering the processes of dramatic interpretation."

Colin Martin

32 Woodstock Road, London W4 1UF, UK