Lucy Prebble’s latest play and a Barbican season on science and art show the barrier between the ‘two cultures’ is crumbling
This autumn a group of neuroscientists, medical students, doctors and psychiatrists got together at the University of Warwick to work out what we now know about the way the brain works. But they were not hunched over a pile of Cat scans, academic theses and medical notes. Instead they were looking at the theatrical work of Samuel Beckett. The great Irish playwright, some argued, understood and demonstrated patterns of human thought and emotion at a level of sophistication scientists have yet to reach.
With the success this month of The Effect, Lucy Prebble’s play about the effect of chemicals on the brain, and the announcement of a new season of performance and debate about art and neuroscience at the Barbican in 2013, it looks as if the long struggle to break down barriers between science and creativity has entered a new phase. Not only is it conceded that scientific discoveries are fertile artistic territory, but scientists are being increasingly open about the value of the arts when fresh perspectives are required.
“Our common sense is often our worst enemy,” said Marcus du Sautoy, the Oxford maths professor who will be appearing in the Barbican season. “After all, the discovery of anti-matter was only made because of the imagination of those scientists who said maybe there is something there when they kept coming up with all these strange negative solutions to their calculations.”
Audiences at The Effect, the National Theatre production starring Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill as participants in a trial for a new drug, are being treated to a nightly debate about the nature of love and how we can be sure of what we are feeling. Prebble, the playwright who made her name with Enron, takes as her starting point the medical testing of an antidepressant and launches into a wider discussion about the nature of perception and the value of sadness and depression as life experiences. As the human guinea pigs take bigger doses they start to fall in love, but they also have to question whether their emotions are merely a byproduct of dopamine.
Medical discoveries, even mistaken ones, have inspired poets and playwrights since the beginning of the written word, from the influential notion that four “humours” (choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic) determined character, to the more metaphorical use made of medicine by poets such as John Donne. So while Shakespeare had his “canker in the bud”, voguish words such as palsy, purge, apoplexy, ague and balm were used by Donne repeatedly to make his work sound cutting-edge.
With the arrival of the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung two centuries later came a whole new territory for writers, painters and poets to play in: the scientific analysis of the mind. Artist Salvador Dalí was endlessly excited by Freud’s work on dreams, while film-makers such as Alfred Hitchcock, who made the thrillers Spellbound and Marnie in response to Freud, were directly influenced by the clinical doctrines of psychiatry and psychology. Others, such as Beckett and Harold Pinter, took a more surreal approach to distilling the neurotic preoccupations of the characters they put on stage.
The work of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, in his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, prompted Michael Nyman to compose a chamber opera and inspired Peter Brook to adapt it for the stage in France in 1993.
And the relationship between psychiatry and the theatre has remained fruitful. In 1996 Stephen Poliakoff’s play Sweet Panic premiered in London. Revived more recently in the West End, it tells of a children’s psychiatrist whose life unravels as she examines three children who are suffering variations of contemporary neuroses. Bryony Lavery’s award-winning 1998 play Frozen looks at a doctor’s attempt to unravel the motivations of a child killer.
More recently still, greater understanding of conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome and autism have fed into literature and drama. This month the producers of the stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time announced it will transfer from the National Theatre to the West End after a sell-out run. It tells of a 15-year-old maths genius with Asperger’s and how he sets out to solve the mystery behind the death of a neighbour’s dog.
The Barbican’s new season, Wonder: Art & Science on the Brain, a collaboration with the Wellcome Trust, will put the relationship between the arts and neuroscience literally under the spotlight. Among the main attractions are an audio-visual lecture and “episodic concert” on the theme of consciousness with Du Sautoy, and a talk from the comedian Ruby Wax which gives an insight into her struggles with fame and depression.
Running from March to April 2013, the season will also feature films about neuroscience and mental health and a “theatrical 19th-century Parisian salon debating the big topics of 21st-century thought” for which participants will be kitted out in appropriate historic dress.
Launching the season, Nicholas Kenyon, the Barbican’s managing director, spoke of the enduring “two cultures of art and science” problem. The collaboration with the trust will, he hopes, allow “the riches of creativity and perception” to be seen afresh.
The very nature of the season has already broken down some barriers. The idea came out of a realisation that the decision of the British Neuroscience Association to hold a festival at the Barbican could be made mutually beneficial.
“We really wanted to give the public a sense of what is going on in the building as well as give the scientists a sense they are in an arts centre,” said Sean Gregory, the Barbican’s director of creative learning.
Perhaps one of the most outward-looking elements, Gregory believes, will be this year’s Barbican Box project, put together with the innovative theatre company Complicite due to the long-held interest in neuroscience of Simon McBurney, its artistic director. A battered suitcase, full of clues about a particular scientist and their discoveries, will be delivered to schools in surrounding London boroughs.
Du Sautoy, who has worked with McBurney in the past, said he is delighted to be part of a season aimed at bringing the “two cultures” together. “I have always been of the view that it is a false dichotomy, and one that is pretty much built-in by our education system unfortunately,” he said this weekend. “Scientists and writers and artists are often homing in on the same structures. When Keats wrote ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ I wonder whether the truth is that we call things beautiful because we recognise something useful in their structures.”
The professor admits there can be pitfalls to blurring the boundaries: for instance, when artists misrepresent science to create drama. But he argues that there is something “deep-rooted” driving both to attempt to understand the world. “Sometimes you find artists coming across structures that scientists are also finding. The composer Olivier Messiaen worked with 12-row tones without knowing science was looking at the same thing.”
Du Sautoy will be performing at the Barbican alongside James Holden, an electronic musician and DJ as well as an Oxford maths graduate. He will be using a specially commissioned soundtrack “to engender a higher state of consciousness in the audience”.
“It is what I have been interested in for the last 10 years,” said Holden, who has worked on the similarities between rhythmic musical traditions from Steve Reich to Tibetan drumming. “It is as likely to work as not that audience members will fall into a trance, but you never know.”
The Wellcome Trust was keen to become involved with the project because it would allow scientists and artists “to engage on an equal footing”, according to Dr Daniel Glaser, the trust’s head of special public engagement projects.
“Science is part of culture, but scientists are sometimes not very good about being reflexive, or reflective for that matter. They are not as good as artists usually are at talking about what they do, so it will be good to see them interacting.”
By the end of the Barbican season we may find that we intuitively knew more about the human brain than we ever thought we did. If not, then at least Beckett’s exhortation to artists to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” is compatible with the scientists’ empirical creed of trial and error.