Woman in a man’s world: on Anna Ziegler’s play about Rosalind Franklin

An uncredited composite image of Rosalind Franklin, from a French website

An uncredited composite image of Rosalind Franklin, from a French website

Most of us, if we encounter the names “Watson and Crick,” instantly think of them as the discoverers of the double helix. We might not recognize the name “Rosalind Franklin” at all, yet she made critical contributions, including an X-ray photograph, to the groundbreaking research on DNA. In fact, the fair thing might be to say that common perception is wrong and that the structure of DNA was deciphered, not by two people or even three, but by four: James Watson, Francis Crick, Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins (with whom Franklin worked, in a manner of speaking). But the paper announcing the discovery, published in Nature in 1953, was authored only by Watson and Crick[1], and the 1962 Nobel Prize for the discovery included Wilkins but not Franklin[2]. Early on, for a variety of reasons, she quite simply became the odd woman out. Watson, writing a highly personal account of the discovery in 1968, began to set the record straight but also added to the distortion: his book The Double Helix included her but in derisive terms. (An equal-opportunity offender, he was also critical of Crick, his own collaborator.) Nowadays, Franklin is better known, but the story of her work on the structure of DNA is still fascinating, complex, and marked with uncertainties and controversies. Considering that many professional fields are still dominated by men and that we must often speak separately of women film directors, women scientists, women playwrights, women executives, and so forth, Franklin’s tale continues to be relevant as well.

One of those who’s been working to bring Franklin to our attention is playwright Anna Ziegler, who, in 2008, took a commission from a theater in Maryland. The eventual result was a play about Franklin called Photograph 51, which has been staged more than a dozen times at theaters in the United States—it was performed by New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) in 2010—and once in Germany. The play is now enjoying a critically and commercially successful production in London, with no less a star than Nicole Kidman as Franklin.

Ziegler, responding to a few questions I sent by email, provided a handful of answers and pointed me to a valuable audio interview recently conducted by Heather Neill in London, which is posted on the TheatreVOICE website. Here’s some of what she had to say, including a few excerpts from that audio interview.

On the origins of the play:
It was commissioned from [Active Cultures Theatre,] a small theater outside Washington, D.C.… They commissioned me to write a play … about three female scientists. I had only heard of one of them, and it wasn’t Rosalind Franklin, I’m afraid to say. I did research into all three of them, I sort of gamely wrote this play about these three women whose lives didn’t really intersect, but in the process, I really discovered Rosalind and her story and felt very clearly that she deserved her own play.… I did ask them if I could revise the assignment a little bit, and luckily they said, “Sure,” and so I quickly rewrote the play. It was produced a month later at this tiny theater, where probably 100 people saw it.

On writing about science:
When I started writing it, I just thought, well, I don’t understand a lot of these concepts, so … whatever I put onstage will be simple enough that I can understand it.… [There’s something here that comes from] where science and art intersect. Watson and Crick knew that their model had to be right because it was so beautiful.

On the importance of Franklin’s Jewishness to her:
Rosalind’s Jewishness had mostly to do with family and tradition, from what I understand. It was important to her because it was important to her parents.

On the importance of that to Ziegler in writing the play:
As I am Jewish myself, I felt a bit more connected to her than I might otherwise have felt. In terms of the play itself, Rosalind’s Jewishness serves as another obstacle, one more thing that separates her from the men at King’s [College London] and makes her alien to them.

On Ziegler’s favorite moment in the play:
There is a moment when Rosalind is on a date—and she is not a woman given to showing her feelings or expressing her true desires—and her date, a scientist named Don Caspar, asks her what it is she wants from life. She then tells him in beautiful, honest specificity what she truly wants, only to reveal to the audience, a moment later, that what we heard was in her head and what she actually said was “I don’t know.”

On the prospects for a film version:
I’ve been working on a screenplay adaptation of the play, and it would be thrilling to see it come to life in that genre[3].

On what’s next for Ziegler:
Another play of mine, Boy, will open Off-Broadway in February 2016. My play The Last Match will premiere at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in February as well, and then go on to another production in Pittsburgh. I have a play opening in Washington, D.C., in June 2016 called Another Way Home.

Further reading

  • In a mid-September Guardian post, structural biologist Stephen Curry assessed the presentation of science in the play. While not intended as a review, Curry’s piece is more useful than some of the actual reviews in terms of conveying how the play works and what it’s about.
  • In August, Alexis Soloski wrote a feature on Ziegler for The New York Times discussing Photograph 51 and other works.
  • An acting edition of the play has been published by Dramatists Play Service, in both print and Kindle formats. A trade paperback from Oberon Books is out in England and will reportedly be published in the United States in the spring.

Notes

  1. That the paper was authored by Watson and Crick means that later citations refer only to them. This is entirely fair; they had completed the task of developing a plausible model for the structure of the DNA molecule, whereas Wilkins and Franklin, who were working independently of Watson and Crick towards the same goal, hadn’t yet reached it. Two things about the paper—a PDF of which can be found online here—strike me. One, the authors are listed in the now-familiar order, which isn’t alphabetical and which suggests a slight priority for Watson. That their names always come to our lips as “Watson and Crick” may be because it has a more appealing rhythm—poetics matters in things like this—but it has its foundation in their paper. Two, the contributions of the other English team in the race, now commonly recognized as crucial, are acknowledged but somewhat slightingly; the final paragraph mentions that the authors had been “stimulated” by the work of Wilkins, Franklin, et al. at King’s College London. At the risk of overelaborating, I should also point out that two supporting papers, one written by Wilson and one by Franklin, were published in the same issue of Nature. They can be found here and here; the latter includes the X-ray image to which Ziegler’s title refers.
  2. As a matter of history, this seems unfair, but it’s a result of the rules. Nobel Prizes are awarded only to the living, and Franklin died, of ovarian cancer, in 1958. What’s more, there would’ve been a problem had she lived, for the Nobel rules allow a maximum of three workers to share a prize. By the way, it appears that only Wilkins mentioned Franklin in his acceptance speech.
  3. On a web page for a 2011 World Science Festival panel discussion that followed an encore performance of EST’s production of the play, Ziegler’s participant bio says she was “recently awarded a grant from The Tribeca Film Festival and the Sloan Foundation to adapt the play into a screenplay; Rachel Weisz, Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel, and Audrey Rosenberg are attached as producers.” Though one assumes the grant was indeed given, anything beyond that has to be regarded, like everything else in the film world, as provisional.
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