The uses and abuses of science in playwriting: a review of Hannah Moscovitch’s play Infinity
Hannah Moscovitch is an indie darling of Canadian theatre, and her Dora-winning play Infinity reaffirms her reputation as one of Canada’s brightest, most ambitious playwrights. If this sounds like the sort of detached praise one reads on a student report card, it’s partially because throughout my readings of Infinity I wrestled between admiration and annoyance at its rather academic cleverness. While ultimately it earns my letter of recommendation, Infinity sometimes feels like the dramatic equivalent of a class valedictorian’s graduation speech.
Premiered by Toronto’s Taragon Theatre in 2015, Infinity is a nonlinear story that sets out to tackle big issues—death, time, existence. However, it has little resemblance to European existentialist plays that these themes might bring to mind. Rather, it’s a story about a family of academics, two physicists and a composer, that shares much in common with more recent realist plays on mathematicians and physicists, including David Auburn’s Proof (2000), Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (1998), and Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy (2001), to which critics have already compared Infinity.
Carmen is a funny, caustic composer, Elliot a sentimental, but egotistical physics PhD candidate working on a “theory of everything.” He’s determined to prove definitively that time is an illusion. This preoccupation proves central to the play in different ways. Meeting her at a party early in Infinity, he wastes no time in trying to pick-up Carmen with lines such as, “I like musicians… they use a lot of time-keeping terminology.” (Moscovitch, 11; Act 1).
Somehow this sorry attempt at seduction works, and fast. The scene ends with love-making: “an escalation of sexuality, sexy, then: Transition.” (Moscovitch, 14; Act 1) The transition in question is a musical interlude, performed live by a violinist who acts as the play’s fourth character of sorts. Njo Kong Kie is the composer of the interlude, and his music, notated directly in the script, threads like a golden Fibonacci sequence throughout Infinity.
The next scene jumps abruptly into the future by twenty or so years—a change surely calculated to jar the audience’s sense of time. Carmen and Elliot have a daughter, Sarah-Jean, who’s gossiping in a monologue about her sexual escapades as a Harvard student: “[We’d] have some sex, and that’d be bracketed by doing mathematics on both sides… there was a lot of chalk in his pubic hair. I was nineteen years old at the time. He was thirty-six and married. He was also my teacher and married.” (Moscovitch, 15-16; Act 1). It seems like a flippant way of addressing a ‘problematic’ experience, as her college peers might put it, but the audience will likely already have a sense of the play’s feminist currents. Infinity is both a worldly drama about gender relations and a somewhat unworldly meditation on the nature of time that probes the connections between music, physics and the dramas of life.
Clearly, Infinity can’t be accused of being unambitious. However, before I say much more, I ought to confess a prejudice of mine. I’m increasingly sceptical of art about intellectuals or too narrowly about intellectual ideas. And Infinity’s three characters are all incredibly smart (and frequently very funny) academics who spend a good deal of their time on stage theorizing, even when they’re supposed to be wooing, fighting, and dying.
Being perhaps myself prone to theorizing at the wrong time, I want to defend my prejudice, which relates to what’s centrally at stake in Infinity and some of other ‘science-y’ contemporary plays it’s been compared to. Today, it’s all but taken for granted that art is always, in some sense, ideological. Two generations of postmodernist ‘unmasking’, in humanities departments and now so many Buzzfeed and VICE articles on pop culture, have contributed to this conviction. This conviction is partially a truism: of course it’s the case that art is guided by ideas—philosophical, scientific, political—about the world beyond the stage, and that such ideas are always fallible. Art cannot stand outside history; or if it ever does, as Walter Benjamin theologized, it can only be with the help of the divine, the Messianic. Thus from our secular or “postmodern” vantage point, the modernist call for an autonomous artistic sphere, untainted by the fallibility of historically-particular ethics and knowledge-claims, now seems quixotic. In any case, we know that if art denies its ideological content, critics and authorities will nevertheless assign it one: interpreting it as for or against the proletariat, the “other”, the nation, liberal decency, or Christian family values.
So, art can never entirely escape its historical horizon and the ideologies circulating within. Recognizing this is not the same thing, however, as urging art to prostrate itself as a mere soapbox for ideologies and fashionable ideas. When art stoops to this role it usually commits a “fatal error.” For the propaganda art of the 1930s, the fatal error in question was quite literal: the socialist realists and romantic hacks of the USSR and Third Reich exalted regimes that produced body counts of unrivalled, unfathomable proportions.
In more liberal milieus, artists of the early- and mid-twentieth century enjoyed relative independence from meddling authorities to experiment with automatic painting, self-reference, cubist abstraction, and other approaches tending to look inward at the artist and art itself. Yet even this work often still bears the stamp of the dominant ideas of the day— Freudianism, relativity, phenomenology. According to both conservative and socialist critics back then, the new modernist turn was, if anything, too intellectual, too enamoured with cold ideas, and in these senses too ideological, communicating little that could move the mass of “nonspecialists”. By the 1950s and 1960s, this trend of intellectualization led to a craze for physics and science in classical music—composers performed electronic music for the first time using newfangled computers and proudly compared themselves to revolutionary physicists. An especially radical example is the work of composer Iannis Xenakis. He pioneered a completely novel approach to composition that imported tools from specialized subfields of mathematics to organized sound and notes—despite no obvious natural connection between this math and the global traditions of music. The “fatal error” to this trend is that so much of the work it yielded ceases to be art in any way recognizable to all but a narrow crowd of specialists.
Back to Infinity. In his lively introduction to the play’s script, the famous physicist Lee Smolin, who consulted on the play, describes scientists and artists as“explorers of our common future” and pleads for a more open, friendly exchange between these two camps. (Smolin, vi). It comes off as a conciliatory remark after decades of the ‘science wars’ in academia, and Smolin also lauds Moscovitch for bucking the humanities’ postmodernist trend of knocking science and its practitioners. All fine sentiments. But what does this emphasis on the commonality between art and science mean, if anything, about the relationship between the subjective, social stuff of art and the objective, natural stuff of science? Does it suggest that the scientific method should by employed by playwrights and novelists in the fictional study of human nature, as some of the naturalist novelists of the 19th century believed?
I have no reason to think that either Smolin or Moscovitch really wish for science to colonize the arts and humanities. Still, there are key moments in Infinity’s narrative that run into the sort of dead-ends which art smitten with science often seems to propel towards. Thankfully, there are strong countervailing tendencies that help to keep the play going dramatically. It’s sometimes hilarious, its conclusion moving, and its nonlinear structure is elegantly crafted and apt. Its characters, despite their unworldly interests, are passionate and all-too-human. Njo’s melancholic score is sometimes a little out of step with the play’s fun, comedic aspects, but it highlights and enriches the story’s more tender moments wonderfully, such as the lovely, syncopated piece Music for Death that arrives at the end the first scene of act two.
Music for Death concludes what is arguably the most pivotal scene of Infinity. In the hospital after being diagnosed with brain cancer, Elliot, confronted bluntly with his own mortality, finally drops his belief that time is an illusion: “there is no formula of everything that exists outside of time […] my twister foam theory contains a contradiction that […] can only be resolved by declaring time to be really… real.” (Moscovitch, 73; Act 2.) It’s a moment akin to the climactic scene of Humble Boy, when Felix, another selfish 30-something physicist, employed at a top university and obsessed with a discovering a Theory of Everything, has his ‘eureka’ moment. He does so while witnessing the reconciliation of his parents, two polar opposites who come to stand respectively for the unreconciled fields of quantum mechanics and Einsteinian relativity. In both plays, it’s a confrontation with the essentials of human life – love and death – that prompts a revelation about the cosmos; a clever device for tying up dramatic loose threads that becomes rather less satisfying when you really think about it.
Though a Theory of Everything has a nicely holistic ring to it, this hypothetical theory unifying the physical sciences wouldn’t really be a theory of everything. It wouldn’t explain the tragic-comic nature of Man, leaving most of the fascinating and boring problems of the human condition untouched and unresolved. By the same token, it’s silly to think that life’s banalities and profundities – the fact that, apparently, opposites attract in love and that life is painfully short—shed much light on the deepest questions of physics except perhaps by analogy.
The reader may be amused that I would even consider interpreting the apparent connection in these plays between the personal and cosmological so literally. But once we realize this connection can be no more than analogous, the play’s climaxes seem a little less, well, climactic. Even as analogies they do not quite work dramatically, because they convey nothing more than the fact that the characters have had a scientific revelation, whose deep contents are basically kept private from the audience. This is partially because a play can only go so far in explaining highly complex scientific and mathematical concepts. But most of all it’s because the Theory of Everything remains an elusive object, the Holy Grail of science. So when our physicists have their revelations, the plays necessarily obfuscates about the revelations’ content. In Humble Boy, Felix simply mutters “Eureka!” and wanders off-stage to contemplate what we assume is a bold, new direction for his research, and that’s when this play’s glimmering thread suddenly cuts off: no more mention is made of the Theory of Everything. In Infinity, Elliot reels off some dense jargon, that most of us understand no more of than his tenuous grasp of an important idea, and announces his plan to “jot down some notes” before his imminent death. (Moscovitch, 74; Act 2). The Theory of Everything connotes unity and holism. Yet when it seems to flicker on in Infinity and Humble Boy, it leaves things feeling rather less resolved than I suspect its authors hoped. The move is understated rather than abrasive as in Xenakis’ relentlessly discordant use of physics and math. But beneath the pleasing metaphors we find the same unsatisfying scientific obscurity.
Like a Woody Allen movie, Infinity can also seem a little too smitten with how darn clever and intellectual its characters are. For instance, Moscovitch’ stage directions introduce one scene, in which Elliot is hard at work on physics problems, as “the middle of the night, when suicides peak and the best novels are being written on amphetamines.” (Moscovitch, 37; Act 1). Perhaps this clichéd image of manic genius is meant ironically, but I doubt it. Once again, however, there are interesting countervailing tendencies in Infinity that help to deflate its air of intellectual pretence. As though self-conscious that her play is inhabited by somewhat snobby intellectual types – the sort who, as in Carmen before meeting Elliot, dumps her fiancé after being admitted into Harvard because her working-class partner is “stupid”—Moscovitch chastises her characters for their pretences. The price of Elliot’s eureka moment, after all, is that he must relinquish his cherished conviction that time is unreal and face his own death. He’s no longer a God standing above time, but a mortal with barely enough time to grasp and articulate his new scientific revelations before he bites the dust. The long-suffering Carmen is compassionate and supportive at this stage—how could she not be? Although elsewhere Moscovitch’s female characters relish seeing their lovers’ arrogance impugned, and so do we. Early in their relationship, Carmen cast doubt on Elliot’s reliability as a father and husband, and he ends up nearly as self-indulgent as she predicted, prompting some delightful but bitter digs from Carmen. Daughter Sarah-Jean confronts an early boyfriend (the sort of poseur who puts “tick marks in Kafka when he approves of the turn of phrase”), about his porn habit. (Moscovitch, 49; Act 1). She recalls, “It didn’t make him any better that he watched vintage pornography from the seventies, with all the pubic hair. It wasn’t a highbrow hobby: it was pornography. I mean, he jerked off to it. Did he jerk off ironically?” (Moscovitch, 50; Act 1). These are among Infinity’s funniest, most natural moments, which, in contrast with some of Moscovitch’s other more topical and explicitly Jewish-themed shows, areabout as close as the show comes to getting political.
Infinity is a fine addition to the aforementioned genre of smart, humanistic plays about physicists and mathematicians that had its heyday around the turn of the Millennium. It has some of their same flaws and cerebral charms and belongs more, in spirit, to the comparatively untroubled moment, before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Global Recession, and Trump. If, like me, you spent your first years willingly reading serious literature and theatre at length in a humanities department where every text was filtered through the parallax perspectives of postmodern critical theory, you may find refreshing Infinity’s enthusiasm for science and its world of objectivism. You may feel the same way about its avoidance of the crude identity politics, inspired partially by such theory, that’s particularly in vogue in the arts right now: a kind of reactive agitprop in the age of Trump. But with the world staggering right now from one crisis to the next, a contemporary play about Ivy League intellectuals, their theories of time and struggles for authenticity, seems, well, a little untimely. It could be that Moscovitch, after writing so many sophisticated social-issues plays, wanted to try out a fresh and less politicized topic, a move for which a liberal reviewer like me shouldn’t punish her. Still, I’m also less convinced by the results artistically. In any case, I’m excited to learn about her most recent work, the Klezmer comedy-musical Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story (2017). Reviews suggest that as well as being wonderfully lewd and musically rich, it gracefully compels empathy towards immigrants at a moment when this is in tragically short supply. Like her character Elliot in Infinity, Moscovitch seems to be doing more, once again, to affirm her moment in time—troubled and needing as it is of smart, engaged voices like hers.
by Hannah Moscovitch
Playwrights Canada Press, Toronto, 2017, 96 pp., $17.95
Conrad Sweatman is an artist and arts administrator living in Winnipeg, who’s recently discovered the discreet pleasures of Winnipeg’s St James industrial district: air soft fights, go-karting, and Salisbury House.