Classifying Science Plays

A few thoughts about classifying science plays

     Dramatists have long experimented with the lives and discoveries of scientists. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Jonson’s The Alchemist, Shadwell’s The Virtuoso, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma, Brecht’s Life of Galileo, Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind, and Durrenmatt’s The Physicists all examine some aspects of scientific content through drama. In the 1990’s playwrights Michael Frayn with Copenhagen and Tom Stoppard with Arcadia moved scientific content to the center of their dramatic works.  It is around this time the label “science plays” began to be attributed to these works.  The title serves as an umbrella term to describe a broad category of dramatic works that explore science, scientists and scientific content as a primary theme or through-line.  These works often delve into a wide range of scientific disciplines with mathematics, medicine, and technology being implied within the word “science.”  Although alternative labels have been offered by playwrights, scholars, and scientists such as “science-in-theater” to describe them, marketing directors and the theater critics find the term “science play” helpful in communicating the nature of these interdisciplinary works to audiences.  

     Science theater dramatizes scientific content and the lives of scientists within the theatrical event.  Science theater can dramatize a scientific theory; mirror a scientific idea within its structure; bring a scientist’s story to life; reveal ethical dilemmas arising from scientific discovery.  Science theater is also leading the movement to reclaim women’s contributions to the herstory of modern science.  At its best, science theater has the unique ability to awaken curiosity, dramatize complex scientific ideas, and illuminate human nature within the framework of a good story.  With many of these science theatre works the impulse in performance is to not lecture, but to share insights that awaken wonder and curiosity which lead to knowledge and understanding.  These works have taken many forms such as plays, musicals, operas, devised and immersive works, and performances.

-Denise Gillman-

Classification structure by Denise Gillman, Danielle Hartman and Shannon Farrow McNeely

Science Play/Theater Classification

  1. Dramatic work mirrors the scientific content 
  2. Dramatic work illuminates scientific content 
  3. Dramatic work reveals the scientific process or the work of scientist (s) 
  4. Dramatic work dramatizes the struggle narrative of a fictional and/or historical scientist (s) 
  5. Dramatic work portrays a moral or ethical dilemma or debate 
  6. Dramatic work references scientific content or a scientist (s) 

**Many science play/theater works explore more than one of these above classifications

Eva-Sabine Zehelein offers in her monograph, Science:  Dramatic Science Plays in America and Great Britain 1990-2007, a reflective and comprehensive taxonomy.  She proposes the following descriptions for the four science play types: 

(1) an accurate description and representation of the scientific idea or theme; 

(2) a realistic depiction of the tribal culture of the scientists; 

(3) a plot which is firmly rooted in the scientific topics and/or context; 

(4) and a didactic element where science might be intimated through the title, but is not a major factor within the play.  

  1. Playwrights wish to inform their audiences about “facts,” deliver the background knowledge first, and then ask questions, but without providing answers.  These plays comment more about the here and now, with a look toward the future, the potential development of scientific research, the respective consequences for society and the world at large and the way our lives will be lived, than about the past.
  2. (a) A general audience learns what characterizes the individual scientist and the scientists as a group, guides their thinking and behavior, makes them tick, or what constitutes the underlying fascination of the scientific endeavor.  The social & cultural influence of science comes to the fore, and the plays ask us to consider our attitudes and opinions.  (b) “History of Science in Theater” plays, looks back in time on actual historical events and real scientists, and asks about their role, representations, and media /mediated images.  The meta-dramatic discourse of history figures very prominently, and the plays confront the past to guide us into the future.
  3. “Science to Play With” is a category which encloses Arcadia, a play where the Science is used for-very intelligent and sophisticated metaphorical and symbolical levels of meaning with a plot where scientific themes are part of a larger metaphysical spiel.
  4. Science as Fig Leaf:  science or the name of a scientist in the title and/or plot, but the dramatic action is not focused on either and there is no symbolical or substantial metaphorical usage of science to be detected.”