When a hopeful mother selects the donor of the sperm, or a fetus gestates in the womb of a surrogate, the designations “mother,” “father” and “parents” become more than a question of semantics. Indeed the re-examination of these primal roles potentially shakes the foundations of human society as it calls for the redefinition of “family.” 

A play opening Feb. 10 at Stanford‘s Cubberley Auditorium confronts this issue, along with the fundamentalist objections to such a separation of sex and reproduction. Taboos is written by Carl Djerassi, whose qualifications on this subject extend beyond his many plays, novels,  poems and essays: he is a chemist known by many as the Father of the Pill—a powerful progenitor.

Awarded the National Medal of Science for his role in synthesizing the first steroid oral contraceptive, and later the National Medal of Technology and a page full of other international scientific honors and honorary doctorates, Djerassi founded several successful biomedical corporations, and now at 88 is emeritus professor at Stanford University, currently teaching a seminar in a discipline he created: science-in-theater.

“In 1980, in my 60s, I decided to reinvent myself” Djerassi says in a telephone interview, “and move into another intellectual life.” The impetus was “the powerful and stupid motive of revenge: the woman with whom I was deeply in love left me—for a literati. So I decided to revenge myself by proving that I too could write.” 

In 1983, his first nonscientific publication appeared, a poem. Since then, he has written and published almost 250 works, including poems, essays, two autobiographies, five novels and eight plays. Djerassi’s most distinctive method is what he calls “science-in-fiction,” another genre he coined to describe fictional works whose central device is hinged in the world of science. Often autobiographical or based on “real” characters or situations thinly disguised, Djerassi sees his science-in-fiction works as “automythology. Whatever you write, you display yourself to the public. In the form of fiction I could hide things I couldn’t possibly put in an autobiography. With these novels, everything is true or plausible. I do not focus on what scientists do but rather the idiosyncratic behavior of scientists.”

“My topic, still, is reproduction: sex in the age of technological reproduction,” he continues. His first science-in-theater play, Immaculate Misconception, is still being performed, as is Oxygen, which he wrote with another chemist, and ICSI, “which is about what I consider the most important advance of in vitro fertilization. … ICSI is situated in the 1990s, when a few thousand babies were born that way. Now, at the time of Taboos, 300 to 400,000 babies have been born that way—this science has tremendous social implications.”

Taboos (subtitled When Harriet Met Sally) is situated in the gay and lesbian community of San Francisco. Hoping for a San Francisco venue at which to open this production, Djerassi found “a lack of interest in intellectual plays like this. … In London, where Taboos ran for six weeks, the Institute for Ideas took over an entire production for their members and had very vigorous intellectual debates.”

He continues, “I’ve been fortunate that so many different countries have been interested in publishing this work. In this context, I adapt and modify the play to the social and cultural milieu of that region. …  I show my students in Stanford scenes of Oxygen in English, Korean, Bulgarian, German. … It looks like four or five different plays: You can’t do that in any other art form.”

A collector, appreciator and supporter of the arts, Djerassi believes (as his character said in his play Phallacy) that “art is never necessary, but it just happens to be indispensable.”

Inventing genre and structure and upturning the norms of the writing establishment, Djerassi claims that he “is still a scientist.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he continues to be an inventor.

Following the Saturday matinee, a free panel discussion about the ethics and impact of the new “family” will be held in conjunction with the Stanford Medical School.

Thursday-Friday, 8pm, Saturday, 2 and 8pm (Feb 10-12)
Cubberley Auditorium, Stanford
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