You are here

Featured Research - Play Highlights Literary Career of Renowned Chemist, Carl Djerassi

parnassusklee.jpg

The 'four Jews' debate the meaning behind Paul Klee's painting.
Photo Credit: 
Jason Chuang, SiCa Photographer 2009-10

Play Highlights Literary Career of Renowned Chemist, Carl Djerassi

Carl Djerassi, emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford, is best known for his achievements in science; he was awarded a National Medal of Science for the first synthesis of the birth control pill, and he received a National Medal of Technology for contributing to the development of environmentally safe methods of insect control.

On Saturday, February 6th, 2010, a large audience, many familiar with Djerassi's work, gathered at the Pigott Theater not to applaud another scientific discovery, but to celebrate Djerassi’s impressive second career as a writer of plays and fiction. Djerassi, who came to Stanford in 1959, has been keeping busy outside of the lab over the last 20 years penning five novels, a collection of poetry, an autobiography, a memoir, and six plays, many of which explore the human side of scientists.

In 2008, Djerassi put the finishing touches on his latest work, Four Jews on Parnassus, the product of collaboration between Djerassi and his now late wife, biographer and Stanford professor emerita Diane Middlebrook. Unlike his other works, Djerassi chose to write Four Jews on Parnassus as a conversation, using only dialogue. “As a scientist, I am not allowed to use dialogue in my written discourse,” he explained to the Pigott Theater audience. He characterizes his book as a docudrama, a highly researched and accurate fictional work shedding light on the lives of four 20th century Jewish intellectuals: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Gershom Scholem, and Arnold Schoenberg.

American Premiere Explores History, Art and Identity

After sharing some more details about the writing of the book, Djerassi turned the stage over to the Stanford Drama Department, and the premiere American stage adaptation of Four Jews on Parnassus began. Stanford drama faculty members Rush Rehm and Kay Kostopolous, along with the rest of the talented cast, transformed Djerassi’s words into a performance that tests the limits of visual art. This would be the first time Carl Djerassi would see his material performed in such a way.

The setting was "Parnassus," an afterlife for the four Jewish thinkers. Rush Rehm strode on stage as Walter Benjamin, the sociologist and literary critic. There, he encountered musicologist Theodor Adorno, historian Gershom Scholem, and composer Arnold Schoenberg, the men with whom he would engage in the fascinating conversation featured in the performance. The discussions between the characters, referred to by Benjamin as his “first posthumous discourse,” gave the audience insight into their lives and deaths, focusing not on their impressive bodies of work, but rather on their feelings, beliefs, motivations, and idiosyncrasies.

Djerassi did not shy away from the negative aspects of the men’s lives. Perhaps the most passionate exchange of the show occurred between Walter Benjamin and his ex-wife, Dora Pollak, played by Kay Kostopolous, as the embattled couple argued over his adulterous affairs. The four characters spent a great deal of time arguing over art and music. Here the show demonstrated the power of multimedia. A projection screen hung behind them, morphing historical photographs with the actors’ faces.

As they heatedly debated the Jewish imagery in Paul Klee’s paintings, the screen displayed the works of art they referred to. Videos of musical performances by London soprano Loré Lixenberg also played on the projector, and towards the middle of the performance, Lixenberg herself stepped towards the stage from the back of the house, filling the theater with her gorgeous voice.

Drama Students Infuse Performance with Improvisation

The show was supplemented by a cluster of Stanford students, brightly dressed in neon pink sneakers and colorful prints that contrasted with the blacks and whites the denizens of Parnassus wore. Observers like the audience, they watched the four Jewish thinkers converse on stage, adding flavor to the discussion with their improvised comments.

The students offered up their own performance as well, a rap written by Erik Weiner, “A Painting by Klee called Angelus Novelus.” At this point, Schonberg nearly stormed off the stage, restrained by Adorno. Four Jews of Parnassus is no ordinary performance. It is the words of a chemist turned writer, brought to life through technology and the efforts of professional actors, including Stanford faculty and students. It takes four notable Jewish thinkers and artists and puts them together in the afterlife, allowing the audience to imagine what these influential men might have shared with one another.