Curtain Opens on New Play About Art and Science Art and science are squaring off in a new play, Phallacy, in which an art historian and a chemist dispute the age of a famous bronze sculpture. The playwright, the lead actor, and the chemist who inspired the work discuss the play, which premieres in the United States this week.
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Curtain Opens on New Play About Art and Science

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Curtain Opens on New Play About Art and Science

Curtain Opens on New Play About Art and Science

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. And for the rest of the hour, we're going to continue our discussion of art and science and the tension between the two, and a new play, "Phallacy." It's the newest play by scientist-turned-playwright Carl Djerassi. An art historian - this is what happens in the play, quite interesting - an art historian and a chemist clash over the age of a valuable bronze sculpture. The statue is - thought to date to Classical times, appears to be much younger, though, and tests done by the chemist show it to be a Renaissance cast and not a Roman original. Question here is, does that artistically make it a less precious work of art?

But the play is even more complex than just dating a piece of artwork. It exposes and explores the inner motivations of both the scientist and the art historian when they get to attach to their own theories. Playwright Carl Djerassi joins us today to talk about the play and the challenges of bringing science to the stage. We're also joined by the actor who portrays the chemist, Professor Rex Stolzfuss, and the real-life chemist whose work was the inspiration for the story.

So if you'd like to join us, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And if you'd like to see a little short clip of the video, we have a video, a little bit of the play, on our Web site. Surf over to our Web site at You can watch a little bit of "Phallacy," which Carl Djerassi reminds me is spelled with a P-H instead of a normal way of spelling fallacy.

Dr. Djerassi is professor emeritus of chemistry at Stanford. He joins us today in our Science Friday. Welcome back to the program.

Dr. CARL DJERASSI (Playwright, "Phallacy"; Professor Emeritus, Chemistry, Stanford University): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Also with me is Simon Jones. He's an actor and co-artistic director of The Actors Company Theatre in New York. He's the guy who plays Rex Stolzfuss in "Phallacy," and he's here in our Science Friday studios. Welcome to the program.

Mr. SIMON JONES (Actor, Professor Rex Stolzfuss; Co-Artistic Director, The Actors Company Theatre): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Alfred Vendl is a chemist at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and the real-life inspiration for the character of Rex in the play. He also joins us here in our studios. Welcome to the program.

Dr. ALFRED VENDL (Chemist, University of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria): Thank you.

FLATOW: Let me ask, Carl, tell us - tell us a fictionalized version of a true story - tell us how you came across the story and the play idea.

Dr. DJERASSI: Well, I came across the story on one of my frequent visits to Vienna, the city where I was born and now get back to very frequently, where I spoke to Alfred Vendl who's right here, who is a friend of mine, who is a chemist, professor of chemistry, and who studied here in the United States. And he started telling me a story one day of this fabulous sculpture that's in the Kuntshistorisches Museum in Vienna - one of the greatest museums in the world -and the fact that over 20 years ago, he was asked - he and his colleagues were asked to analyze it so that (unintelligible) just confirm again what people were absolutely convinced is one of the oldest Roman sculptures discovered in -found in the north of Italy.

And then, within - well, he'll tell you himself - but within days or weeks, they showed that it couldn't be that and it had to be a Renaissance cast. Now, there comes, of course, the question: is it a fake or not? What do you call a fake? It's really not that.

But I have to say, right away, today - tonight, at the premiere at the Cherry Lane Theater so I'm slightly averse - not totally so because I've seen some previews...

FLATOW: I thought the preview was excellent.

Dr. DJERASSI: It was marvelous.

FLATOW: You have nothing to be worried about.

Dr. DJERASSI: Marvelous, yeah. But see, you, in your program - you started it, the early one about van Gogh, of dissident questions like this - you're dealing with subject, and I'm interested in - really, all of my plays and also earlier novels - more about the behavioral characteristics of the people who work in these fields, the really tribal culture of scientists on one hand, in this case also art historians, perhaps even art collectors since I've been a collector for over 40 years, particularly of Paul Klee. And there's a wonderful line about Paul Klee in the play, which I won't give away, people have to hear it. I had to bring this in.

So I'm particularly interested in this, and I'm talking, of course, in part about my own tribe. I've been a scientist for 50 years, and the idea, for instance, of falling in love with a hypothesis - this is one of the wonderful experiences of a scientist and other creative people. I'm not talking about the scientists, but it's also a very dangerous one.

FLATOW: And this is one of the central themes...

Dr. DJERASSI: And that's one of the central themes...

FLATOW: ...of the play, is falling in love with yourself basically.

Dr. DJERASSI: Absolutely.


Dr. DJERASSI: Now - and then when your love object is questioned or your own love affair is questioned, you have two choices: you give in, or you defend it. And that's what I'm really talking about in this case.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. DJERASSI: Yeah. The other item that interests me very much is what happens, particularly in the case of a sculpture, because in a painting, you'd say, well, the copy of a painting is not exactly the same. A cast of a bronze is in many respects visually certainly a clone. Aesthetically, to the viewer, there is no difference. Yet what has happened by this wonderful sculpture now suddenly being declared to be 1,400 years younger? And that is another theme that really interests me.

But you have here the person - in the case of Alfred Vendl - you could say who could tell the (unintelligible) and my last comment was - struck me so much I decided to write a play about this. I've read, with typical chemists like me, felt outraged - and partly justifiably so - that even 20 years later after they've proved that this is not the authentic, original cast, they get relatively little credit by the museum people who come up with an alternative explanation - which are also biased, incidentally, and you get both of them, of course, in my play - without paying not much attention anymore to the chemist.

Now, the art historians, of course, felt violated that chemists stuck their nose into their own aesthetic world, so this conflict is one that interests me.

FLATOW: Let me move around the table. Dr. Vendl, did you feel that the character portrayed in the play was you was a good...

Dr. VENDL: Yeah, to a certain extent, yes. I mean, if you are the one - I mean, together with my colleague, Bernhard Pichler - to find out that this, well, very much honored statue is not as old as it was considered to be; and then you'd hear first the art historians denied completely that this could be true, that it was a recast; and after there were so many proofs and there was no escape from this theory from the fact; they tell you they had been - known this anyway for all the time, and all your work was not more but just proving and underlining what their suspicions were, then you get outraged. Yeah. And you have a lot of revenge ideas.

FLATOW: Well, let me play a little clip from the play. We're going to play a clip from the play with two of the main characters, Lisa Harrow and Simon Jones sitting on my right, who get into a little bit of a tiff at the beginning, arguing - Simon Jones playing the scientist - arguing about the scientific method as being valid in deciding the age of this artifact.

(Soundbite of play "Phallacy")

Mr. JONES: (As Professor Rex Stolzfuss) Your museum director came and asked if we would take a look at your sculpture.

Ms. LISA HARROW (Actress): (As ) Take a look?

Mr. JONES: Yes. We developed new chemical methods, lots of new, top-notch equipment. Well, there's nothing wrong with a museum commissioning a new approach to confirming the putative age of a sculpture.

Ms. HARROW: Putative?

Mr. JONES: Well, it's not an insult. More often than not, age is considered putative until it's confirmed.

FLATOW: I feel a little exasperation at the end. Sorry about - the sound wasn't a little better. Simon Jones, how did you find the character of the scientist? And I say that because in the play, you're described by Lisa Harrow as being, quote, "cock sure of yourself." You ask me, and you certainly have that character.

Mr. JONES: Oh, good. Oh, that's a relief.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Yes, that (unintelligible) biggest - being self-effacing as I naturally am.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Mr. JONES: That might have been the biggest challenge. It's a great thrill to have found myself sitting next to my real-life counterpart.

FLATOW: You have never met him before...

Mr. JONES: No.

FLATOW: ...haven't you?

Mr. JONES: I think they're almost similar except he has considerably more hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. VENDL: Well, he looks much more serious and like a professor than I do. (Unintelligible)

Mr. JONES: I think so. You're almost trendily dressed.

FLATOW: Were you directed about how to be a cocksure scientist? Did you have any idea what one was?

Mr. JONES: No, I don't think so. I'd (unintelligible) one who said, no, you've got to come on (unintelligible). We felt that, you know, if she could - Lisa's describing me that way, then they have to decide one way or the other, the audience, whether she's right or wrong. But what was interesting was to find myself totally involved in a world in which I knew - I have to confess, and I'm ashamed to admit it - very little, having been a English major myself, at Cambridge. So the world of chemistry has opened wide.

FLATOW: And did you - how did you decide how you would model your scientist? What kind of character that would...

Mr. JONES: Well, he can actually - Lisa Harrow's husband, Roger Payne, was a very good dinosaur...

FLATOW: The famous whale.

Mr. JONES: The famous whale scientist.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JONES: That's - from him, I learned that one carries - not in this case, I see it from Alfred - one's pencil in one's top pocket and - I guess no, I don't see that either there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I dropped my pocket protector today so...

Mr. JONES: Yes, yes. And there's no way you could describe Alfred as even shabbily dressed, so I think it might be said that I am a - well, perhaps an artist's idea of what a chemist looks like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right, Carl, you were talking about the play as about our own willingness, maybe our even inability, to step out outside of ourselves and consider other people's point of views, because we're so weighted to our own ideas. Do you find - did you find that? Is that true, in real life, how scientists operate?

Dr. DJERASSI: Well, of course, I can't totally generalize, but I would say the vast majority of cases that happens in your life. And it's in many respects a wonderful experience. Look, the equivalent of falling in love with a person...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. DJERASSI: You think you've discovered her - how do I say in this case - her for the first time, this idealized, wonderful feeling about her. And other people start telling you things about her that you don't like to hear, that is not consistent with your picture. But for quite a while - sometimes forever -you refuse to listen to it. At other cases, of course, you do do that. In the case of science as a protecting aspect of this here, because you're - in science, we're both very cooperative and we're brutally competitive. And our competitors are also our colleagues. And they, of course, set out to disprove our hypothesis, not out of nastiness.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. DJERASSI: But in an attempt to show that there are no alternative explanations. That keeps us honest. So even if you fall in love with a hypothesis which is not correct - look, you, I suspect, you must have had a program on cold fusion, for instance, just to use an example. Well, I think to this day, the original proponents of cold fusion who is now in their late 80s I think or 90s, probably still believe that.

FLATOW: Fleischmann's...

Dr. DJERASSI: Most people - Fleischmann-Pons - but most people don't anymore. And - but I think that character is an important one because it also drives us to excel. It drives us to prove our point. It is associated with ambition and name recognition, which is very important among scientists. And it is both the nourishment and the poison of our culture.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: If another, it's one thing to be criticized or even held to question by another chemist. But to be held to question by an art historian on the grounds of your chemistry, that is much more wounding, is it? This is much less professional.

Dr. DJERASSI: Well, but of course why...

Mr. JONES: It's another discipline.

Dr. DJERASSI: I picked one other thing, namely - and I also took the side of the art historian in this case here - namely the question, what does beauty mean? We use that word also in chemistry, but it means something very different. It is certainly not a descriptive quality, it's really a feeling.

And the way art historians talk about aesthetics, provenance, I mean, even what you just talked about, the brush stroke, visually rather than needing a computer. And the top-notch art historians take one look at something based on experience from thousands of years and tell you it can't be that. Why? Well, I feel it. I see it. And you have to - most of the time, they're actually right. Now the scientist wants to prove it as, you know, black and white.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. DJERASSI: And then once having proved it, it's one of your lines, you're interested in truth, rather than aesthetics.

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

Dr. DJERASSI: You're only interested in proving whether that sculpture is a Roman one or is a Renaissance, period. Then the art historian says, well, okay. Suppose the artist - why don't you worry about who cast it at that that time? Why did they do it? What happened with this ear? These are other aspects of it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. DJERASSI: And I think it's very important to indicate that we're really talking about no black and white, but with a gray situation for which there are no black and white answers, only gray ones.

FLATOW: Talking about art historians and science on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News - talking with Carl Djerassi, Alfred Vendl and also with Simon Jones. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's hear from Alfred Vendl. You had-the scientist modeled after, this was modeled after.

Dr. VENDL: Yeah, well, I mean, I just wanted to say some additional things. In this play also, the ingredients which would be necessary to have the chance to make a forgery that afterwards will be accepted, are very well pointed out. That is, you need an art historian with a theory, you know, and who seeks desperately for proving this theory. And then you need somebody who has skills to, in this case, make an object which would come up to the wishes of this art historian and having also the feeling of revenge, you know?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. VENDL: And one of the most outstanding cases in this field was the van Meegeren fakes of the Vermeers, which also, with the same ingredients in this case, Carl Djerassi also used these ingredients to show why it could go well, you know?

Dr. DJERASSI: You know, mine is a play, I want to emphasize this. I didn't try and illustrate exactly what happened. I purposely never interviewed the art historian because then I really would be forced into really writing a docudrama, and this is a play.

FLATOW: Well, let me ask Alfred. Did your story end with you dating the statue, or did it end up - you duking it out with the curators at the museum? Do you have a happy ending or...


(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. VENDL: Well, it's still - the statue is still in the Department of Antiquity, which is okay. I mean, one should not forget that it's already hard for a museum to lose such an object. But there is still some written lines which tell that due to the knowledge and the competence of the art historians, it was put into the time of Renaissance and that the material, scientific results just underline or prove these suspicions.

FLATOW: Now, I took - you met my daughter - I took my daughter Anna(ph) to the play with me to watch it. She's 19, very smart. And when we're done she said, "Dad, I don't understand the ending." I said, "What do you mean?" She says, "It's more about the people in the play than it is about the science of the play."

Dr. DJERASSI: Exactly.

FLATOW: I said, "You got it."

Dr. DJERASSI: You got it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DJERASSI: Exactly.

FLATOW: Exactly. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Joe in Tucson. Hi, Joe.

JOE (Caller): Yeah, hi, good morning.

FLATOW: Hi there.

JOE: This is Joe. And I am blessed to be married to an art historian. I am myself - am a scientist, work at a university. We're both university folks and had been married for a number of years. So through the years, some of these differences become more and more glaring in how we look at things. But I would like to say that I'm not sure I agree with the idea - not that I've heard it espoused clearly here - that art historians work at an emotive level and that what makes good art and bad art is emotional rather than logical.

Connoisseurship, as I've learned from my wife, is something that can be discussed rationally and logically, and making these logical references doesn't imply that the science is wrong and the art historian is not. I think there's logic used by both parties. Thank you for the comment.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling. Well, we're going to have to take a break and we'll come back and we'll talk about that comment. But I don't want to get anybody started and then have to interrupt where we're going. As I said, we're going to take a break, come back to talk lots more about "Phallacy" with the writer of "Phallacy," Carl Djerassi. Also the lead, the male lead in it, we have Simon Jones, and Alfred Vendl is the silent person on the other side of the world who's actually the subject of this play. An excellent play, it's playing here in New York for a couple of weeks. I suggest you get out and see it if you can. And we'll talk to Carl, see if it's heading out anywhere else that you can see it, so stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the new science play, "Phallacy," with my guests Simon Jones, co-artistic director of the Actors Company Theater in New York and the actor who portrays Professor Rex Stolzfuss in "Phallacy"; Alfred Vendl, chemist at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and inspiration for the character Professor Stolzfuss in "Phallacy"; and "Phallacy's" author, playwright Carl Djerassi, which opens in New York tonight. He's also professor emeritus of chemistry at Stanford University in Stanford, California. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Candace(ph)...

CANDACE (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: In Forest Grove, Oregon. Hi.

CANDACE: Hi, there. I'm a biologist myself, and I've always been highly amused by Eagle Investment and Pet Series and the damage that it can do. I'd love to ask Dr. Djerassi if he deliberately infused his play with a lot of humor to sort of waylay that problem and if he deliberately hired Simon Jones because of his exquisite comedy timing.

Dr. DJERASSI: Well, first of all...

FLATOW: Made a lot of people happy here.

Mr. JONES: I've been very happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DJERASSI: I have to say, I did not hire. I'm only the playwright...

CANDACE: Oh, only, yeah.

Dr. DJERASSI: So, the director, Elena Araoz, who is a marvelous director and has led me by the nose making all kinds of changes, killing all kinds of my wonderful darling - she is one who chose Lisa - Simon Jones, Lisa Harrow, and also Vince Nappo and Carrie Heitman, the four actors.

But, yes, my answer to your question is, I did this, and this isn't certainly why "Phallacy" is spelled with P-H and not with F. That already tells us something about even - you know, even the word "fallacious" can be spelled with P-H as well as F, and then it starts meaning something else. And I wanted to, as I do in virtually all my plays and novels, also want to point out the typical male characteristics in behavior of male-dominated disciplines, of which science, of course, one of the great ones, considering the fact that I am married to Diane Middlebrook, who was the former chair of the feminist studies program at Stanford.

You can well appreciate that I'm sensitized, even if I hadn't been that - now sensitized for the feelings of women, towards that kind of behavior. And I couldn't help but do emphasize this in there, on both sides of all four people that you have in there. I hope it is somewhat amusing where - I'm sorry that you're in Oregon.

CANDACE: Oh, my.

Dr. DJERASSI: My stepdaughter just flew...

CANDACE: I hope your play travels out here.

Dr. DJERASSI: My stepdaughter just arrived today from Oregon - she is an assistant professor in the University of Oregon - to come to the play. So you can still come. You know, incidentally, it won't just be playing for a couple of weeks, it will be playing for a month. And if it gets good reviews next week, it will be extended for another month.


Dr. DJERASSI: So this may be playing for - who knows - for years.

FLATOW: And it's in the Village. It's at a great little theater.

Dr. DJERASSI: Well, the Cherry Lane...

FLATOW: The Cherry Lane...

Dr. DJERASSI: ...It's a wonderful theater with a very wonderful tradition.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me get Simon on. She says you've done so much comedy.

Mr. JONES: Yes.

FLATOW: Was it a big change? Because there is a wonderful comedic note through the play.

Mr. JONES: There is, indeed, yes. Well, of course, I try do it to with this immense respect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: He has, of course, written some very funny things in it, and it is my duty to bring those up.

FLATOW: Candace, have any questions you want to ask Simon while we're still...

Mr. JONES: Yes, by all means.

CANDACE: Oh, I'm very sad that you didn't get to do the film version of "Hitchhiker," given that I know you from the radio and the movie version on BBC.

Mr. JONES: Oh, golly, you said just the right thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: I didn't even know the color of his dressing gown.

CANDACE: You have the safe version and you still crack me up, sir.

Mr. JONES: Well, that was years. The interesting thing - if I may do a little sidebar about radio...


Mr. JONES: that you can play the same character up to 28 years and still look the same.

FLATOW: And play it in your underwear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Well, we're all sitting around here in our underwear now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DJERASSI: Well, I might as well say it, this play, which has already been -it opened in London. So this is the American premiere, but not the world premiere. It's already been translated to German, and I converted it into a radio play, and it's already been broadcast last year by the West German Radio Corporation. And a wonderful title because, how do you translate "Phallacy," spelled with a P-H, into German?

FLATOW: How do you?

Dr. DJERASSI: And it is translated to what people - only the German-speaking ones - will understand is "Phallstricke," but again spelled with a P-H. And "Phallstricke" is sort of a trap (unintelligible). And in this case, of course, it's - a phallic trap, if you wish. So this worked very well. And as I said, this was broadcast already as a radio play in Germany. And it will be great if they did it here. NPR could do that. I can give it to you in English because I wrote it in English, and they translated it into German.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

CANDACE: Thank you.

FLATOW: Good luck.

CANDACE: Bye-bye.

Mr. JONES: Bye-bye.

FLATOW: You already have another play that's being brought - I think the L.A. Theaterworks is...

Dr. DJERASSI: On NPR, yes. That was my first play, "An Immaculate Misconception." This is my first play.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. DJERASSI: But, yes, L.A. Theaterworks did that. After the BBC first broadcast it on the World Service in German and Swedish and other radios, but the NPR did it in 2004.

FLATOW: And I think they're broadcasting it again next week...

Dr. DJERASSI: Are they?

FLATOW: In June.

Dr. DJERASSI: Oh, (unintelligible). But it's a play about reproduction.


Dr. DJERASSI: That was the first one of my science and one the...

FLATOW: You invented the pill.

Dr. DJERASSI: ...trilogy. Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DJERASSI: Well, yeah, but in this case it really was about the impending separation of sex and reproduction.

FLATOW: What made you decide to give up science and go into playwriting?

Dr. DJERASSI: Well, remember, having done 50 years of research, it isn't (unintelligible) but I want to lead another intellectual life. And in my 60s, I don't want to become a professional smuggler, which you are in a way...

FLATOW: Thank you.

Dr. DJERASSI: But you are obvious about it, namely people - you call it SCIENCE FRIDAY, they know what you're talking about.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. DJERASSI: I only want to talk about science, particularly scientific culture and behavior, to an audience that is afraid of it, not interested in it, but doesn't know anything about it. Instead of announcing that this is what it is, I say, come, come read this novel, or in this case, come to an amusing, interesting play, and when it's finished they actually will have learned something because I'm obsessively accurate about the type of facts that I use.

And that is - so they were - my first three plays were science and thriller trilogy. Actually, you had something about the second play, "Oxygen..."

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DJERASSI: ...that I wrote with Roald Hoffman, a world-famous chemist. And then my third one, which is - many expect the toughest one, which (unintelligible) is called "Calculus," and deals with a famous struggle between Newton and Leibniz, who invented this calculus. In other words, you don't learn math in it, but you certainly learn something about the behavioral characteristics of most important people.

Mr. JONES: I think how - you are doing an enormous favor, actually, to those of us who are, if not unnerved by science, certainly puzzled by it, those who've led a life entirely in the arts. I speak of myself. I recently received a paper from a cousin who's just been made professor of chemistry at the Missouri Valley College on nitric oxide, which was fascinating but I understood hardly a word of it. This play, you see, on the other hand, is now making me much more aware.

Dr. DJERASSI: I'd go much (unintelligible) than that.

Mr. JONES: I understood more about the paper when it arrived since I've done the play than I would have done beforehand.

Dr. DJERASSI: Simon, I can send you a novel of mine which is called "NO" and it's all about nitric oxide. There you are.

Mr. JONES: Ooh.

FLATOW: I think, what you said is right here. You actually commissioned a song called "Nitric Oxide Rap."

Dr. DJERASSI: A rap. We did it actually in your program.

FLATOW: I'd love to keep doing it. I need to get the rights from you to play that again.

Dr. DJERASSI: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I love that song. 1-800-998-255. In fact, you do a little bit of your own - you bring a past history in the play, the story that explains why the copy of the Roman sculpture was made in the 16th century, and it's sort of a peripheral, little story. You could -if I might be so bold - you could do without it in the play, but you obviously loved that little piece that is your own little part that's dear to your heart.

Dr. DJERASSI: Yes, of course. Then, I start to become the art historian.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DJERASSI: And I want to actually offer a plausible hypothesis, what happened, why he did it, and I did a lot of reading - it's typical of me in terms o - research - of Habsburg history, because the hypothesis is that the Spanish, the Austrian Habsburgs, made a cast and sent the original to the Spanish Habsburgs. The question is, which one, why, why was all this done. And I came up with an interesting hypothesis, which is undoubtedly wrong -well, wrong but you can't - you'll never prove it - but an interesting one because I'm bringing Don Juan of Austria.

And you'll think that Don Juan of Austria to be famous person in Austria. In fact, the vast majority of Austrians don't really know him. They only know him as a hero in the Battle of Lepanto, and he was really - belonged to the Spanish branch, but that's - brought history in there. And you're going to see something in display that - this is the one thing I really want to indicate, because I've seen the play in London, other places - and this is work that was done by two people, the costume designer, Victoria (unintelligible) and the projection is Katie Taka(ph), who graduate from the same college I did, Kenyon.

FLATOW: I know what you're...

Dr. DJERASSI: And this is an extraordinary, unique way of how two actors have to play a role...


Dr. DJERASSI: 2001 and then 1577 and how they change costume in two seconds.

FLATOW: It's amazing.

Dr. DJERASSI: We won't tell you how....

FLATOW: It's just...

Dr. DJERASSI: Brilliant design.

FLATOW: If I could say the most unique thing, it is, the most unique thing I've seen in the theater, I think, costume changes...

Dr. DJERASSI: And I was completely flabbergasted.

FLATOW: And I thought it was - I was wondering who did it. Was this you -whether this was you, this was the cast...

Dr. DJERASSI: No, I couldn't believe it when I saw - during the rehearsal, they described it, I said, I don't see how you can do it. When I went to the first tech rehearsal a week ago and I finally saw the beginning, you know, there were six computers there doing the tech rehearsal. I have come to a lot of rehearsals of theaters, I've never yet seen six - you know, this is a relatively small theatre where 20 people there, technical staff running around, all these cables with all these computers for that particular play.

It's really brilliantly done.

Mr. JONES: If any of them break down, I shall just stand there and recite limericks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, we've both seen it, Alfred. Three of us have seen it, you haven't seen it yet?

Dr. VENDL: No, not here, no. I've seen it in London and...

Dr. DJERASSI:: But it's totally different from their (unintelligible)

Dr. VENDL: Yes, I'm very curious.

Mr. JONES: I'd like to ask Alfred, if I might.


Mr. JONES: After the scarring experience of your research on the statue and the response and the others less of a footnote - which I - understand your goal -have you nonetheless continued this research with other items in other museums?

Dr. VENDL: Yeah, well, we have a Department of Archaeometry, which brings us, which my colleague Bernhard Pichler is leading, and that brings us, well, every week to cases, especially these archaeologists on archeological sites, you know, that is one of the main things we do.

Mr. JONES: Oh vital, I think, yeah.

FLATOW: Let's go to Eric in Portland. Hi, Eric.

ERIC (Caller): Hi, it's a big honor to be on this show. I was wondering, speaking of other issues and other museums, if you were aware of the controversy about the Messiah, the Stradivari, Antonio Stradivari violin that's it's in the Ashmolean Museum. There is this - it's been put forward that it is a fake made by Vuillaume who actually sold it and was the dealer in Paris that acquired the instrument from Italy.

And two teams of dendrochronologists have looked at that instrument. The first gentleman who said that it was a fake had the dendrochronologists look at it and say, this is tree rings, age of tree rings. You may actually (unintelligible) known piece of wood that had this certain proportion of tree rings, and that dates it. And this particular person said that it couldn't have been made when it was supposedly made.

And then the museum and other people - there's a lot of money and a lot of reputation at stake in this - they got a different set of dendrochronologists, and so it's still up in the air. I just wondered if anyone was aware of this issue because it's a big thing in the violin world. It has been for a long time. People are very, very upset or interested in it. Let's put it that way.

FLATOW: Well, I'll ask my (unintelligible) first I give him a breath to think about it. I'm Ira Plato. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR news.

Talking about history of art, art history, and science. Alfred, are you familiar with this violin?

Dr. VENDL: This violin?

FLATOW: This violin, no?

Dr. VENDL: Well, it's a very complicated area, I would say. But I just wanted to find out one thing, you know, it can also be the other way around. Just today, we were looking at the so-called Metropolitan House and the Metropolitan Museum, you know. The curator, the art historian, was quite sure 20 years ago that this was a fake, you know. And which means science, in this case, (unintelligible) in stating which was carried out at Washington University in St. Louis, they proved that it was genuine, that it was more than 2000 years old, so it can also be the other way around.

FLATOW: Simon?

Mr. JONES: No, I was just waving my finger in the air, thank God, yes, that's a very interesting point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: How interesting to see you (unintelligible) me out the way?


FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.

Dr. DJERASSI: If you have - I have nothing to add to the violin.


Dr. DJERASSI: But there's one comment about playwriting, because it was implied in your question, why did I move into playwriting. There's one thing that is completely unique to plays that you don't have in either books or in the film. When you - you, the playwright, finish a play, when you finish your book, it's finished. When someone accepts it as out, it's set in stone. And when someone made it film and it's out, you can't change anything in there.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DJERASSI: Unless you have millions to spend. A play is never finished, and each time, it is different. It is not that each time, a different production, a different director, different actors, even the same performance. It's not the same, the chemistry between the live audience and the actors is extraordinary.

Now, I've had the luck, perhaps, that my first two plays have been translated into 11 and 10 languages, respectively, and I've seen many different production because I'm still very curious, you know, I'm a new playwright at age 80 something. So, that's a wonderful experience and I can't - I know my life expectancy, I can at best be 120 years left.

FLATOW: You've got four or five plays left.

Dr. DJERASSI: Yeah, well, right now, I'm writing, the last ones every year. But that experience is absolutely extraordinary, because your baby - and you see what people do with that baby - and in a way, playwriting becomes a scientific process because playwriting, or any writing, is solitary, and yet playwriting, the eventual result, is completely collaborative. And you have actors, dramators(ph), directors, designers and so on, and they change that.

And their interpretation is if you're not in love with that play, but if you're willing to give it partly away and still know it's your own genes, but they dressed it up differently - this is absolutely unique. There's no other art form that has - with the powerful exception, of course, of opera, where in addition it can also sing - and I had this fantastic experience that my play, "Calculus," was converted into a chamber opera and actually was performed in the Zurich Opera a few times two years ago, and that was quite extraordinary.

FLATOW: So, you've got another play or two in yourself at least?

Dr. DJERASSI: Oh, I have to finished another one, yeah.

FLATOW: What's the name of that one?

Dr. DJERASSI: "Four Jews on Parnassus."

FLATOW: And is that coming to the New York, sir?

Dr. DJERASSI: Well, I mean, I actually was coming to New York next year, same theater as my preceding play, "Taboos."

FLATOW: Right, right.

Dr. DJERASSI: That deals with really the cultural aspects of the impending separation of sex and reproduction, so I'm open to any theater that wants to do my plays, I can tell you that.

FLATOW: Well, they're a wonderful play and I want to add...

Dr. DJERASSI: But you ought to talk about the Redshift Production.

FLATOW: We will talk about Redshift Productions. We're going to actually have the production company here in New York that brought your play to fruition here in this city. They specialize in science plays.

There's a new play that's coming out there called "Sea Change" that follows yours, and we're going to try to get to Roger Payne and Lisa Harrow Payne. And Roger Payne, the whale guy, everybody knows Roger Payne.

Dr. DJERASSI: And Lisa Harrow is a star, the star in my play.

FLATOW: Right, Shakespeare, and she's a Shakespearean actress, so we're going to have to say goodbye to all of you. Thank you, gentlemen for taking time to be with us today.

Alfred Vendl, Chemistry University of Applied Arts in Vienna and the inspiration for the character of Professor Rex Stolzfuss in "Phallacy"; Simon Jones, co-artistic director of the Actors Company Theater in New York and the actor who portrays Professor Rex there; and Carl Djerassi, playwright of "Phallacy," opens in New York tonight. Break a leg - is that what we're supposed to say?

Dr. DJERASSI: At the Cherry Lane field.

FLATOW: At the Cherry Lane. You're also professor emeritus of chemistry at Stanford University in Stanford, California. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. DJERASSI: Thanks, Ira.

Dr. VENDL: You're welcome.

FLATOW: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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