Belately, I want to record a play seen at the headquarters of The Royal Society in London last month, Let Newton Be, written by Craig Baxter, but using only Isaac Newton’s own words. The play was interesting although the energy of the play sagged at times, particularly in the first half. The story only barely mentioned Newton’s interest in alchemy, and seemed to overlook his brutal, deadly campaigns against money forgers later in life (or did I nap through that scene?)
The play comprised three actors, two men and a woman, who played Newton at different ages – as a child, as a young-ish Cambridge academic, and as an old man. As a work of drama, the conceit worked well, although it was best when one of the actors was playing another person interacting with Newton (eg, Halley, and later Leibniz, who spoke in an amusing cod-German accent). Perhaps the real Newton was not sufficiently schizoid for three actors to play him, at least not when constrained to only use the man’s written words. As I have remarked before, Newton’s personality was all of a piece: it is only modern westerners who cannot imagine a religious motivation for activities such as scientific research, for example, or who find alchemy and calculus incoherent.
The performance was followed by a panel discussion by the Great and the Good – two historians and two scientists. One of the scientists was the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, who has subsequently won this year’s Templeton Prize for Science and Religion. The discussion was interesting, so it is a pity it was not recorded for posterity.
A review of another play about a member of the matherati, Kurt Godel, is here.