The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Faculty
From the issue dated May 2, 2003


Playing With Oxygen


Madison, Wis.

Carl Djerassi stands in a forest of mannequin torsos in the theater-department


AUDIO: from scene 9 of Oxygen, read by Carl Djerassi and Diane Middlebrook.

Requires Real One media player, available free. (To obtain the software, visit the Real Networks Web site, or click here to download the PC version, or here to download the Macintosh version.)
building here at the University of Wisconsin, surveying the scene with a scientist's keen eye for detail.

A professor emeritus of chemistry at Stanford University who played a pivotal role in creating the birth-control pill, Mr. Djerassi has come to watch rehearsals of a play about science that he wrote with Roald Hoffman, a chemist. He is eager to share his ideas with the student performers and faculty producers about how the play should look and sound.

Mr. Djerassi steps past the mannequins, which are used to construct costumes, to gaze at a row of design sketches for the 18th-century dresses and suits that will be worn by the actors in the play, Oxygen. The work explores the riddle of who deserves credit for discovering that element, and in the process also manages to take on several of science's sacred cows.

He asks Gail M. Brassard, the costume designer and an assistant professor of theater, to sign and give him one of the sketches when the production is over, as a souvenir. But which one? He lingers over a sketch of the dandy nobleman's garb that will be worn by the actor playing one of the discoverers of oxygen, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier.

Still, he says he would prefer a sketch of one of the women, because they are "so important" to his play. "But the peacock in me would probably say, 'Lavoisier.'"

Mr. Djerassi, 79, has long been comfortable in the spotlight. His own discovery in 1951 of a synthetic hormone that could be manufactured in pill form gave new freedom to millions of women and led to the sexual revolution, for which he has been both praised and scorned. He readily admits to having an enormous ego. "I'm a brutally honest person," he says.

And he believes that ego and ambition provide the fuel for scientific discoveries, which in turn bring positive benefits to society. But, he says, scientists too often mythologize themselves and their work as dispassionate and pure. He has written four plays and five novels (along with two autobiographies) to debunk that view, portraying researchers as all too human, and not always attractive. Like when they bicker for credit, allow cronyism into peer review, take advantage of their subordinates, and belittle the humanities and others outside their insular tribe.

He says his plays, though, are not just about "washing dirty lab coats in public," as some of his scientific colleagues have complained. He hopes that by engaging lay audiences in dramatic stories, they will better understand the role of scientific discovery in creating the landscape of modern life.

Indeed, Mr. Djerassi's works join a growing number of plays about science written in recent years. He calls his dramas "science in fiction" because he strives to describe science accurately, unlike science fiction, which he notes is usually speculative.

Oxygen uses the discovery of the gas as a case study of scientists' obsessive drive for recognition and the nature of discovery itself. Does the credit rightly belong to Joseph Priestly, an English minister and chemist who first published a scientific paper describing how to produce oxygen? Or to the humble Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish apothecary who isolated the gas a few years before Priestly but delayed announcing it? Or to the patrician Lavoisier, who first grasped correctly how oxygen interacted with other elements, an insight that led to the periodic table and modern chemistry, but followed Priestly's paper? The play, which is largely factual, invites the audience to reach its own conclusions.

Like most of his works, Oxygen reflects events in Mr. Djerassi's life. A rival research group that marketed the first birth-control pill in 1960 never credited his research group, which had already published the first paper and filed the first patent application showing how to synthesize an almost-identical hormone.

The play also explores one of his favorite topics, the unappreciated contributions of women to science. Lavoisier's wife played a key role in his work, and the story also fast-forwards to the present, where a woman is leading a "retro Nobel" committee responsible for deciding who discovered oxygen.

It is no coincidence that she spars with some of the chauvinist male committee members who resent her. Mr. Djerassi has had his own complicated relations with women. During a reading at a Madison bookstore on Valentine's Day in between rehearsals, Mr. Djerassi recounts how he took up creative writing in 1983. It was because his third and current wife, Diane W. Middlebrook, a biographer and professor emeritus of English at Stanford, had left him for another man. Wounded, he cranked out a ream of poems proclaiming his sorrow, which he now admits were "self-pitying, even narcissistic," but "therapeutic."

After the couple reunited, his writing shifted back to science. In 2001, he published Oxygen, the first play that Mr. Djerassi has written with a co-author, in this case Mr. Hoffman, a professor at Cornell University who is also a published poet. To ensure a harmonious collaboration, they negotiated a "prenuptial agreement," says Mr. Djerassi, in case they couldn't agree on how the play should go. But for the most part things went smoothly.

The topics in Oxygen were exciting if at first unfamiliar to the student actors at Madison. To prepare for the play, they got some special help during a separate, earlier visit from Mr. Hoffman, who knows a little about the topic of public recognition for discovery. It's not every day "that we have a master class with a Nobel Prize winner," says Patricia L. Gaborik, the assistant director and a doctoral student in theater. Mr. Hoffman, who shared the Nobel for chemistry in 1981, picked up chalk, went to a chalkboard, and sat the actors down for some Chemistry 101.

Wisconsin's invitation to Mr. Djerassi to attend rehearsals offered a homecoming of sorts: He completed his Ph.D. there in 1945, in only two years. He and his first wife often attended the theater there together.

For his return visit in February, he arrives at the theater building wearing a drama-crowd black turtleneck and gray slacks, having made his way past a steady parade of antiwar protesters outside. (Mr. Djerassi's own public opposition to the Vietnam War and support for the 1972 presidential candidacy of George McGovern landed him on President Richard M. Nixon's enemies' list. The list became public in 1973, shortly before the president personally awarded the National Medal of Science to an awkwardly smiling Mr. Djerassi for his role in the invention of the Pill.)

Surrounded by students and faculty members in the theater's construction workshop, Mr. Djerassi asks about almost every detail of the production. Like how high one wall of the set will be. And how the actors should recreate the pivotal, delicate scientific experiments about oxygen on stage in a way the audience can understand.

Students responsible for designing the set and props report that they are still working on that by taking what they call the "Cooking Channel approach." It would show some actual parts of the experiments and take license with others: A beaker of green fluid would turn clear to demonstrate a chemical reaction. "We're going to do these three experiments and basically flunk out of chemistry," jokes Brian Proball, a graduate student in scenic design.

The next day, Mr. Djerassi watches the actors rehearse, his arms folded. During breaks, he offers a few "trivial" recommendations, speaking in the silken accent of his native Vienna and punctuating every few words by clearing his throat. He chides the actors gently for not pronouncing foreign words and names consistently and correctly. "You're playing with Midwestern accents. ... There is no 'Madison pronunciation' of Pasteur. It's Pas-teur, wherever you are, at all times. ... I've realized 'Pasteur' is a very common word among scientists, but not among everyone."

In the end, though, Mr. Djerassi praises the actors' progress and promises to return for the play's opening in April. By then, the birth of the Madison production of Oxygen would be out of his control.

"My input is only to thank you," he tells them. "The exciting thing about writing plays compared to writing novels is that when a novel is finished, it's finished." But each production of a play brings a new interpretation, so "when a play is written, it only starts."
Section: The Faculty
Volume 49, Issue 34, Page A48