Written and directed by David Byrne , produced and performed by the PIT Collective
As the curtain dropped on the closing night performance of the London-based PIT Collective's world premiere production performed throughout August at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so too ended the rare opportunity to witness a science communication creative, if not comical, success (of which I hope we see more). The PIT Collective's topical comedy entitled A Stroke of Genius bravely and uniquely informed its audience as its light-hearted plot turned on broad-sweeping bioethical issues involving genetic identity and reproductive choice. Although its spotlight has dimmed, its discussion remains relevant for those interested in science-based art and science education.
Deftly timed to premiere in the year of Charles Darwin's bicentenary, A Stroke of Genius proved to be a quirky and fun black comedy romp, exploring woman's opportunity to tinker with 'natural' selection by way of sperm donor selection in assisted reproductive technologies. The play tells the story of Dora Blake, a misfit rural British librarian who concocted an elaborate plan to have a genius 'designer' baby after finding historical inspiration from the true story of eccentric American millionaire Robert Klark Graham, founder of sperm bank known as the Repository for Germinal Choice. The media notoriously dubbed the clinic 'the Nobel sperm bank' because it provided women with Nobel Laureates' donated sperm from 1980 to 1999. The days of Nazi programmes implementing involuntary sterilisation and genocide to control a nation's reproductive future have cast a dark shadow on eugenics in history. However, A Stroke of Genius suggests that these issues linger within the modern context of genetics and reproductive technologies which, in a contemporary culture egocentrically obsessed with identity and perfectionism, could potentially permanently alter the course of Darwin's theories of natural selection and adaptation.
On the eve of 13 July 2009 London audience members packed into the Pleasance Theatre for a one-off preliminary performance to assist its final development stages. Writer and Director David Byrne has since informed BioNews that many changes were made before its Scottish debut. Although the play was still a work-in-progress, and had its narrative problems (reviewed below), there nonetheless was much to commend; not least that the project was developed into the kind of gutsy original production that we are sadly in short supply. Most writers and producers would shy away from a storyline that requires the audience to be provided with some background science knowledge.
Instead, the PIT Cooperative embraced this creative hurdle and the Charlie Hartill Special Reserve had the foresight to award the production the necessary funding to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Byrne ambitiously aimed to include relevant science in an accessible and interesting manner and consulted leading fertility expert Dr Alan Thornhill, Scientific Director at The Bridge Centre in London. The collaboration appears to have been fruitful as the show included pockets of information communicated in a light-hearted manner organic to the storyline. Memorably we learned about the popular 1920's eugenics movement, the IVF process and watched Dora glow with pride at how special she felt to have resulted from a sperm that beat millions of competitors to fertilise her mother's egg and create her. She is consoled that nature selected her over millions of potential others even if she is not socially well adapted to the world.
The story was wonderfully crafted through the use of a minimalist set littered with cardboard archive boxes in the Municipal Library of Last Editions where sensitive data records of individuals are presumably stored. Images were cleverly projected onto the boxes creating a magical shadow-box effect that served as an inventive and educational visual aid.
Byrne sourced unusual inspiration in the true life story of Doran Blake, Graham's Nobel sperm bank poster child extraordinaire. Dora's character is loosely based on Doran's mother, Afton, an intelligent socially awkward 40-year-old introvert who proudly paraded her genius 'superbaby' in the media. Leah Milne performed Dora in a highly stylised but endearing manner as she narrated the story retrospectively, reflecting on her life choices from beyond the grave. Graham founded the Nobel sperm bank in hopes of propagating geniuses and improving mankind, ultimately assisting 218 births from the Nobel sperm bank. Dora, in contrast, is inspired by Graham's concept for more selfish reasons. Dora's child was intended as an extension of her genetic identity albeit genetically enhanced. Her only known existence running the library is destined to extinction and must close. Dora decided a child will provide her with a new purpose in life and will literally allow her to have a home on benefits which she otherwise could not afford. Dora's reasons parody maternal motivations to have children challenging common preconceptions of childbirth as a selfless act.
Being socially inadequate and biologically too old to reproduce naturally, Dora contemplated her circumstances in terms of Darwin's theories of adaptation and likened her situation to the plight of the black versus white moths. The metaphor was explanatory and poetically pulled us into Dora's psyche. Beautiful white moths were for decades camouflaged from predators by pristine white city rooftops and populated the skies while the black moths were easy prey. Over time, city pollution darkened the roofs and the circumstances reversed the situation: the undesirable attribute that threatened the existence of the black moths became its asset for survival and they flourished. Dora resolved that fertility treatments render obsolete the laws of attraction that previously favoured beauty and charm in determining a woman's reproductive partner. She becomes convinced that using her misfit personal data research skills she could now conceive with a genetically desirable alpha male's stolen sperm (with the aid of a scientifically educated accomplice) thereby ensuring her genetic survival.
From blackmail to murder, Dora's ruthless plot unfolded as a spoof of the lengths some mothers will go to in order to have the best child. Dora manipulated her brother Mr. Product (played by Phil McDonnel), presumably the emotionally damaged product the social care services that raised him and will do anything for his beloved sister for later taking him back, to brutally murder the girlfriend of Ali, an orphan and Cambridge science student on summer holiday who frequented her bookshop. Dora targeted Ali (played by Ed Cobbold) as possessing the necessary scientific capability to perform the sperm retrieval and IVF technical processes to make her reproductive dream come true. She preyed upon his young grief-stricken vulnerabilities by offering him a sense of family he lacked and unconvincingly he forgoes Cambridge, stays and unwillingly assisted Dora. More confusingly is the added romantic element in their relationship perhaps hinting at an opportunity for voluntary sperm donation which Dora supposedly rebuked because she demanded genetic greatness and set her sights on a national hero. Using her personal data access she used blackmail to secure the hero's visit whilst on a book tour to her shop where he is drugged and his sperm stolen and Dora's daughter conceived.
What remains unclear is the end result of Dora's ruthless reproductive experiment. Byrne appeared to implausibly omit the possible interplay of environment (nurture) in shaping the resulting person and warping Dora's genetic expectation. Rather than learning that the genius daughter rebelled running with the wrong crowd, becoming a heroin addict and later marrying her rehab sponsor whilst making greeting cards for a living, Byrne chooses an ambiguous ending that seems to indicate Dora's plot was successful in manipulating her bloodline to be among the Darwinian fittest. Any hinted doubts are too subtle to ascertain their meaning. Rather mystifyingly Dora tells us that her daughter expressed her paternal DNA wonderfully and became a popular, bright lady who marries and has a family unaffected by her strange mother raising her. The audience palpably sensed that there was a greater ethical dilemma that should resonate from it all but was left wondering what that hinted debate precisely is.
The narrative seemed to suggest that the central theme is one of identity or perhaps more specifically- genetic identity but it was unclear what it was trying to satirically probe on this topic. Dora who repeatedly quoted that science is about the search for one's identity in the infinitesimally small indicated she had not been able to truly identify with her own daughter save a kindred musical appreciation. Like her mother and grandmother, the daughter is haunted by a tune from a music box inherited through the maternal generations. The play is evocatively scored throughout with music composed by Janet Overfield but equally haunting is not knowing what the play means by this ancestral music appreciation. No doubt the PIT revised its conclusion to a point of clear and darkly comic poignancy to suits this otherwise high-calibre theatre experience. Despite plot weaknesses, the production was skilful, the acting strong, the science effectively communicated with levity, the story interesting and, above all, it was good fun. A Stroke of Genius represents a successful collaboration between art and science of the variety that science communicators would be wise to encourage as an influential medium to engage the public, particularly in social aspects of important bioethical debate.
Find out more about the Repository for Germinal Choice in The Genius Factory: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank , by David Plotz (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA ); and find out about William Shockley (the only Nobel Laureate to have publicly donated to the Repository for Germinal Choice) in Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age , by Joel Shurkin (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA ).