The American Voice: Arts & Sciences


Jane: Why are you sitting in the almost dark
Alan: It’s the human condition Jane in case you haven’t noticed
– from This, by Melissa James Gibson

Few scholarly catchphrases have had as enduring a legacy as “The Two Cultures,” the term coined by C.P. Snow to describe what he perceived as a dangerous rift between science and literary life. A chemist and a novelist—himself a living model of these divergent cultures united—Snow stood before the academic community at the University of Cambridge in the Spring of 1959, and lamented that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups,” literary intellectuals and scientists, “between them a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” Though his accusing finger was pointed in both directions, the blame was largely placed with the literary set: “A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of, ‘Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?’ I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question—such as, ‘What do you mean by mass, or acceleration?’ which is the scientific equivalent of saying, ‘Can you read?’—not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.”

Being a guy who fancies himself at least moderately culturally literate, and who is embarrassed that 55 years later he can’t even fake his way through the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Snow’s point is well-taken. While the artist and the scientist take distinctly different approaches, there’s an undeniable intersection in their pursuit to better apprehend the mysteries of the world; but how to even begin if we’re only half-literate? Addressing the schism Snow articulated, about fifteen years ago the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation developed a nationwide theater program as part of their long-standing aim: “to build bridges between the two cultures of science and the humanities and to develop a common language so that they can better understand and speak to one another—and ultimately to grasp that they belong to a single common culture.” Sloan’s funding encourages stories that place the understanding of scientific principles into our daily lives. Resulting in dozens of new plays staged all across the country, Sloan’s program—of which Placebo is a commission—is well on its way to establishing a new dramatic genre.

Not that playwrights weren’t setting foot into scientific territory before the good people at Sloan came along. Chekhov and Schnitzler were both doctors, and Voltaire and Strindberg were no strangers to the lab. The story of playwriting has seen its share of scientific figures; to name just a few: Goethe’s Faust (1808) depicts God’s chosen human being—a scientist, naturally—seduced to strike an unholy bargain; Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (1921) introduced the word “robot” to the English language when he imagined a factory for the manufacture of artificial humans; Brecht’s The Life of Galileo (1943) chronicles the life of The Father of Modern Science; Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists (1962) satirizes man’s shaky ethics in the face of wartime technology; and Stoppard’s Arcadia (1993) weaves together a whopping number of principles from mathematics, physics, computer algorithms and thermodynamics, to construct a time-traveling, passionate story of man’s appetite for knowledge.

On one hand, Melissa James Gibson might seem like the world’s least likely candidate to write a play about science. Her collection of vigorously melancholy, brilliantly funny plays seem more interested in pursuing ambiguity and limbo—in the state of semi-enlightenment—than they are in finding answers. “What I was never able to express much to my regret,” one character in her play [sic] (2001) explains, “is that the mistake is precisely what is of Interest.” Melissa’s plays are less concerned with discovery than they are with the in-between state of being stalled and frayed, of inadvertently losing track. Set amidst the hallways and doorways of tiny neighboring Manhattan apartments, the aptly titled [sic] gives us three hyper-articulate, over-educated urbanites in their early thirties—just past any hope, as they are constantly aware, of being recognized as latent geniuses—who go to great measures to avoid inhabiting their own lives. And Suitcase (2004) probes the mind-state of restless nostalgia, focusing on two doctoral candidates who find hilariously elaborate means to distract themselves from dead-end dissertations and unsatisfying relationships. Her 2009 play This (which premiered at Playwrights Horizons) chronicles the messy, cloudy, self-destructive state of a forty-something grieving the death of her husband. And in her gorgeous, most recent play What Rhymes with America (2012), we see a man struggling to connect with his 16-year-old daughter—literally, through a closed apartment door—as both try to live as long as they can in the gasp of hope that comes before defeat.

On the other hand, though, Gibson strikes me as precisely the right playwright to take on Sloan’s mission to marry the pursuits of science and literature. In 2009, the British Science Council saw fit to propose an official definition for the word “science” for the first time in history, since Francis Bacon may-or-may-not have coined the word in the 16th century: “Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.” A connoisseur of existential awkwardness, Melissa James Gibson locates the foggiest aspects of ourselves, our doubts and deficiencies, and then athletically, gymnastically unearths the nuances she finds there in the attempt to better understand them. Her characters are hyper-articulate and intensely observant, compulsively parsing their experiences, searching for the words to describe what they least understand. Which is—in her plays—just about everything. In Suitcase, one character considers the nature of a sigh: “semi-verbal, semi-physical, sometimes signaling deflation, sometimes signaling deflation’s antithesis... strange antithetical beasts, sighs are.” Study of the natural and social world is reliant on empirical knowledge, which has proven essentially trustworthy over the centuries. But when it comes to studying what’s inside our minds—our murky, subjective experiences of the world—positivism flies out the window, and we look to artists. “Lives don’t behave. We are porous and susceptible beings,” Melissa said in a 2004 interview with The Brooklyn Rail, “and even when our intentions are definite we ineluctably veer. The veering is what interests me. I just feel such great affection for the evidence of our tragic, silly, smart and stupid selves.” 

It’s fitting that a playwright so committed to examining imprecision would choose, from a selection of potential ideas as expansive as “scientific thought,” to write about the placebo effect—one of medical science’s more baffling phenomena. In Melissa’s new play, Jonathan observes to Louise: “Seems like a hard thing to wrangle.” “What,” she asks. “Desire.” But it’s this very labor that Melissa returns to again and again; and it may be what ultimately, irreversibly links the arts and sciences. Struggling to understand is the human condition, and no one can accuse her of not noticing it.

Adam Greenfield
Director of New Play Development