Roald Hoffmann

Los Angelos Times

Sunday, March 25, 2001
Experiments in Human Nature
'Oxygen,' written by two chemists, examines the personal conflicts at the heart of research.


In science, sometimes getting there first is as important as breathing itself.

As with many scientific endeavors, though, this statement may be open to dispute. Some scientists would say getting there first enjoys priority over breathing.

Science and air, sometimes hot, are integral ingredients of "Oxygen," a new play enjoying its world premiere at the San Diego Repertory Theatre starting April 2. Written by chemists Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann, "Oxygen" has the advantage of words written by noted scientists who are also experienced writers of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and a previous play.

The drama is heightened by just who these scientists are. Fifty years ago, Djerassi developed the first oral contraceptive, becoming well-known as the man who invented the Pill and winning the National Medal of Science in 1973. Hoffmann, a Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University, is the 1981 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry as well as a National Medal of Science winner. Together, they have written a play that not only examines the discovery of the air we breathe, but also studies the nature of human beings vying to breathe in the afterglow of peer and public adoration.

"There may be people who believe there was a time when scientists always behaved themselves, and that when they studied together, worked together, there were no arguments, no disputes," Hoffmann said in a phone interview from New York. "What we find in this work is that scientists were no different then than they were in the past, still playing out the same tensions and emotions."

"Oxygen" takes place in both 1777 and 2001. In the present, the Nobel committee is seeking to award the first Retro-Nobel, attempting to choose from among three scientists who each claimed to have discovered oxygen. The action switches to 1777, where a fictional meeting among the three scientists is presented. The scientists--English minister Joseph Priestley (Lou Seitchik), Antoine Laurent Lavoisier of France (Randall Dodge) and Swedish apothecary Carl Wilhelm Scheele (Jeff Anthony Miller)--all lay claim to the discovery of oxygen.

Largely through the words of the men's wives, particularly the intelligent and creative Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier (Erin Cronican), truths are revealed.

"We can't invent what women did not do,' Hoffmann said, "but she was a remarkable person who helped in the lab and became as close to being a scientist as a woman could then."

Djerassi, whose science has profoundly affected women, says he was interested in women as vital characters in "Oxygen" because women have now made significant inroads in two professional callings once dominated by men--science and religion.

"All the rules in these areas were originally written by men, but now women are helping redefine those rules for the future," Djerassi said in a phone interview from his office in Palo Alto. "I am completely intrigued by this. Testosterone has been a driving force in science, and now will we see estrogen become that? What will be the consequences? Powerful, I'm sure."

The actors featured in the modern scenes of "Oxygen" also play roles in the 1777 scenes.

"We wanted to show that scientific behavior hasn't changed, that the same obsessive desire for recognition was not uncommon more than 200 years ago," Djerassi said. "By having each actor appear in both eras, we make that alignment."

The alignment between the two playwrights is much more harmonious. Friends and colleagues for 25 years, the pair met at chemistry conferences over the years, and decided to write the play together because they knew of each other's love of nonscientific literature. They ensconced themselves in New York and San Francisco hotels to put together the piece, though they ended up writing and editing most of the play through voluminous e-mails.

"Roald took more of the romantic, historical perspective, and I was intrigued by the modern implications," Djerassi said. "There are very few people who actually know who discovered oxygen, and we felt a responsibility to not only share the information we discovered in dramatic, entertaining fashion, but also to be historically accurate. We were very careful, because we didn't want someone correcting us later, at the expense of the play's other benefits."

"Oxygen" was given a reading at a New York theater workshop, where it came to the attention of San Diego Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse, and the decision was made to stage the play during the same week as the American Chemical Society convention in San Diego. Bryan Bevell, former artistic director of the Fritz Theatre in San Diego, will direct. "Oxygen" will have a BBC Radio performance in the fall, followed by productions in London, Nantes, France, and Sweden.

"The melding of art and science is a fascinating concept," Woodhouse says. "Scientists struggle to identify the truth. This pursuit echoes the artist's struggle to identify beauty. Like scientists, we are always trying to capture the essence of different elements."

Woodhouse says he realized the potential of "Oxygen" after the favorable response the Rep had last year when staging the world premiere of "R. Buckminster Fuller: The History and Mystery of the Universe," a one-man show featuring the life and work of the maverick scientist.

* * *The world premiere of "Oxygen" comes at a time when other productions melding science and art are coming to the stage, such as Broadway's "Copenhagen," "QED" at the Mark Taper Forum and the Royal National Theatre's "Blinded by the Sun."

"The interest in science as popular culture became evident with the best-selling books by scientists in the last 10 to 15 years," Djerassi said. "People like Stephen Hawking and other very sophisticated scientists wrote about science for the general audience. The public had before seemed alternately interested and afraid of science, because it impinges on our lives in both positive and negative ways. But the interest is now very strong."

These plays--including "Oxygen"--humanize science, Hoffmann said.

"The detailed jargon remains inaccessible, but when you combine straightforward scientific talk with issues that humans feel and face every day, the language of science can become quite clear," he said. "Science can provide creative and spiritual satisfaction, much like art, music and literature, and people are interested when the emotions aroused by these disparate elements are combined."

"Oxygen" is the second play for Djerassi, following "An Immaculate Misconception," with characters in that play grappling with issues of conception. That play was seen at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and later in London, San Francisco and Vienna. Djerassi, a chemistry professor at Stanford, has written novels, short stories and two autobiographies dealing with different eras in his life. His next, "This Man's Pill: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Pill," will be published this summer by Oxford University Press.

Hoffmann is the author of several nonfiction books, many dealing with the marriage of science, literature and the arts.

Will "Oxygen" provide not only the truth for the fictional Nobel committee within, but also the key to a more harmonious and sharing scientific community in real life?

"Well, I like ambiguous endings," Djerassi admits. "We don't want to spoon-feed the audience, and besides, all interesting scientific and social problems are gray. If we can amuse and inspire curiosity, that would be wonderful. Sometimes, there are no real answers."*

* * *"OXYGEN," San Diego Repertory, Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego. Dates: Opens April 2 at 8 p.m. Runs Tuesday-Wednesday at 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. Closes April 7. Prices: $22-$38. Phone: (619) 544-1000. - - -

Dan Bennett Is a Freelance Writer Based in San Diego