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Science and Art go head-to-head

Review of Phallacy by Carl Djerassi

Jennifer Rohn 23 April 2005

The goods are anything but covered in Djerassi's latest play. Image courtesy of Its All Greek,

The art historian belittles the chemist’s obsession with facts, and the chemist deplores the art historian’s reliance on hunches and intuition...

A life-sized bronze statue of a naked boy, called Der Jüngling vorn Magdalensberg (The Youth from Magdalensberg), is currently on display in the Antiquities Collection of the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna. But as antiquities go, it is actually an imposter. The fact that its presence is tolerated, even revered as beautiful object amidst the bona fide Greek and Roman artifacts in the rest of the collection, makes it no less of an imposter. How did this strange situation come about?

The Museum first acquired the Youth in 1806, believing it to be a remarkably preserved Roman ideal sculpture from the first century BC that had been unearthed by peasants in 1502. This 16th century find was widely documented at the time; even the artist Albrecht Dürer is thought to have admired the statue’s comely curves when he was passing through on his way to Italy. History has it that a copy was made before the original was given to Ferdinand I, but somewhere in the shuffle of subsequent years, the original was lost and the Renaissance cast became generally known as the original. It was not until the 1980s that the shocking truth was revealed, when (in a classic example of the dangers of too much curiosity) the museum undertook chemical analysis to learn more about the techniques used to shape and cast the statue. (Ouch.)

Despite its charm, and its consolation-prize status as (according to the Kunsthistorische Museum’s website) "one of the earliest Renaissance cast copies of a large-scale antique bronze," one naturally assumes that the statue’s interest and value had been somewhat deflated by the lopping off of 1600 years of age.

This true story was the inspiration for Carl Djerassi’s latest play, Phallacy, which premiered at London’s New End Theatre on 7 April (read our profile of the playwright here). While Djerassi’s "science-in-fiction" plays normally feature disputes between scientists – often arcane ones surrounding the finer points of obscure discoveries – Phallacy departs from this by pitting scientists against art historians (and ultimately, Science vs. Art). This is a clever move, as such a topic will likely interest a wider audience.

In this fun, non-strenuous satire, a Viennese museum has enlisted the chemist Dr. Rex Stolzfuss (played by Jack Klaff) and his assistant Otto (Hamish Clark) to analyze the jewel of its Antiquities Collection: a bronze Youth (played by Der Jüngling vorn Magdalensberg itself, or at least by images and copies of it). The Youth is looked after by ambitious art historian Regina Leitner-Opfermann (the supreme Karen Archer, looking alarmingly like an Eighties man-hating feminist in lurid fuschia-colored tights), who has devoted her career to its care and study. Her prejudices against science are made clear during the opening scene, when she lectures a tour group about the physical properties of bronze: "Frankly, who cares? It’s all a bit dull if you don’t learn to what fantastically beautiful use this material can be put. You’ll hardly learn that in chemistry."

When brash Rex confronts Regina with his findings, namely that trace metal analysis reveals that the bronze is irrefutably Renaissance, she is not impressed. Instead, she accuses him of following "rules promoted by art-hating boors, shielded from any sense of beauty" – as if such rules could change the cold facts of the case. At that point, the audience’s sympathies lie wholly with the scientist; though the man may be enfuriatingly smug and melodramatic, the trace metals analysis is not likely to lie. Regina is therefore obviously irrational, making the score Science 1, Art nil.

What is interesting is how the audience’s allegiance begins to shift as the story unfolds. Regina, we find out in private conversation with another art historian, Emma (Lucy Liemann), actually had doubts about the Youth’s authenticity all along, but allowed herself to be blinded by her pet theory (a phenomenon all too common in science as well, and probably in every walk of life). We began to root for her when she hatches a plan to discover the true fate of the original statue, using the surprisingly systematic methodology of art history, to render the chemists’ discovery (and threatened publication) passé. Science 1, Art 1.

Yet during this grand clash, each camp behaves in a manner that they claim to abhor in the other. Regina belittles the chemists’ obsession with facts, yet at one point demonstrates that she knows by heart, to the nearest millimeter, every physical dimension of her beloved statue down to the distance between its pupils. Rex deplores the art historian’s reliance on hunches and intuition, yet in the end chooses to make his point by an elaborate prank instead of by relying on the scientific facts. (The prank does, however, involve a stupendous feat of chemical know-how: Science 2, Art 1.)

There is one element of Phallacy that protrudes somewhat, and that is the reoccurring theme of the statue’s penis. The chemists are bemused and irritated by Regina’s prudish failure to even mention the Youth’s genitalia during a lecture that dwells on everything else in loving detail, down to "the buttocks with their bivalve roundness" and the "perfect, almost delectable toes", and in the end, Regina is taken in by Rex’s cruel prank because of insufficient attention to it. The male characters revel in the penis while the females avoid it like schoolgirls. Wordplay about the penis crops up all over the dialogue, as when Regina tells Rex, "Someone really ought to prick that balloon of self-righteous…pompous…simplistic arrogance of yours", or when she accuses him of being "cocksure". Otto teases Emma by inciting her to recite as many synonyms for the word penis as she knows, whereas Emma unzips Otto’s trousers to score a point in an argument. And of course the title of the play makes it clear that the statue’s penis is a central character, as does the barcode slapped over it in the image, fig leaf style, on the playbill. Yet the reason for dwelling on the male member is never made transparent, and I overheard one audience speculate that the entire device might be a gimmick.

One of the classic problems of story-telling is how to get across essential information to the audience, and both the science and the art historical information in the play is clearly transmitted and convincing. The bulk of the hard work is immediately dispatched in Regina’s opening lecture, when she helpfully recites all the facts we need to know; it may be an unoriginal device, but it is efficient. Details are bolstered by the chemists’ need to explain their science to the art historians and vice versa, and visual projections are also frequently employed.

The Rex character is thoroughly convincing as a particular kind of scientist frequently found in America: middle-aged, arrogant, hearty and ready to steam-roller over any opposition in his path. He was a bit over-excitable, but then again, I’ve seen that in real labs. Hamish Clark’s Otto, on the other hand, was nearly indistinguishable from his hapless character Duncan on the BBC’s Monarch of the Glen except that he wasn’t wearing a kilt, and you probably wouldn’t catch Duncan rattling off phrases like "the energy dispersive X-ray microanalysis showing a nickel content much too high for a Roman bronze" in such a confident manner. Still, it struck me that Otto, in being more preoccupied with getting into Emma’s pants than with analyzing Renaissance alloys, was quite reminiscent of many younger postdocs today, to whom science is an enjoyable job but not necessarily the be-all and end-all of existence. In this respect, he is probably the most post-modern scientist character that Djerassi has yet produced.

As light relief from the often overblown travails of Academia, the play also features a period storyline (another reoccurring motif in Djerassi’s plays) that speculates about the disappearance of the original statue. The scenes, which are spare and very well acted by Lynette Edwards and Chris Brazier, serve to humanize the ultimate goals behind both academic disciplines in question, and to put their grandiose debate into perspective. They also bolster director Andy Jordan’s intriguing staging before the opening lines, when modern and historical characters swirl though the set in an oddly touching, timeless parade of museum-goers.

And the final score? With all conflicts tidily resolved and certain elements of the plot coming full circle, Science and Art ended the evening on a cozy draw.

Live in or near London? You can book tickets to Phallacy here; it’s showing now at the Kings Head Theatre in Islington until 19 June.