What would Isaac Newton be like if he had been born a few centuries later? A new play "Isaac's Eye" reimagines Newton and his scientific rival Robert Hooke. Playwright Lucas Hnath and actors Haskell King and Michael Louis Serafin-Wells join Ira Flatow to talk about the play.
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IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Anyone who's taken a high school science class knows the name Isaac Newton. You remember this tale: He's sitting under a tree, an apple falls on his head, he figures out gravity, or so the story goes. Not really true.
Like that story, much of what we know of Newton seems to be a sort of two-dimensional, simplified version, probably because he lived so long ago. But what if we could pull Newton into the 21st century, modernize the language, spiff up the settings, make it contemporary? How might his personal and scientific struggles be seen today?
A new play now running at the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York does just that. It's called "Isaac's Eye," it's a part-fact, part-fiction, part-modern look at Newton's life. Joining me now to talk more about it are Lucas Hnath; he is the playwright and screenwriter. His play, "Isaac's Eye," is now running at the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
LUCAS HNATH: Thank you for having me.
FLATOW: Haskell King is the actor who plays Newton. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
HASKELL KING: Hi, thank you.
FLATOW: And Michael Louis Serafin-Wells plays Robert Hooke in the play. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
MICHAEL LOUIS SERAFIN-WELLS: Hi, thank you.
FLATOW: Well, we'll get into the interaction of this. The play is presented in partnership with the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation, which also supports science and arts programming on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Our number is 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to join in the conversation. Let me begin with you, Lucas. Why choose this? I'm sure you've been asked this a thousand times.
HNATH: Yeah, and the origin story does have something to do with NPR. I was actually listening to "The Leonard Lopate Show" on my walk home, and George Johnson was the guest, and George Johnson had written a book called "The 10 Most Beautiful Experiments."
And during the conversation, Johnson mentioned, just in passing, this story about Isaac Newton putting a needle behind his eye and using it to squish the eyeball. And that got my imagination started. And as I walked home, I imagined that happening onstage, and I imagined all the things that could happen while Newton is incapacitated. And I thought, well, that's got to be a play.
FLATOW: Sticking a needle in your eye is certainly something that will get your attention. And Haskell, you're the one who did it onstage.
KING: And really, Ira, that's what drew me to the part.
KING: I had no idea what else went on in the play, but (unintelligible) and Lucas came to me and said we have a play where you stick a needle in your eye, and I said I'm in.
FLATOW: And it's very effective because you watch people squirming in the audience.
KING: Yeah, I can see them out of my peripheral vision, and then I hear about it afterwards, and it's a pastime of ours afterward. The show, people tell me how certain audience members squirmed, putting their hands over their faces and such.
FLATOW: Lucas, one of the interesting parts of the play starts right at the beginning, where a narrator comes out and says: Not everything you see here is real. I mean, I've never seen very many plays - and I think a play of, you know, Richard Feynman or something, he doesn't come out and say hey, this is real, this is not real. Why did you think you needed to do that? It's theater, after all.
HNATH: Yeah, I had been writing a bunch of plays about famous people. I had written one about Anna Nicole Smith, I wrote one about the Clintons, and I would basically take a couple of details from these people's lives and use them to tell really stories about myself.
And I started wondering if that was right and if there's something wrong in doing that, whether or not there is just something egregiously narcissistic about imposing my own story onto these other people.
And so when I came to write this play, I had that debate raging in my mind and thought, well, I'll just come clean, and I'm going to say exactly what's true so I feel a little less guilty about making so much up.
FLATOW: And one of the things you make up is a meeting, a conflict between Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton.
FLATOW: And Michael Louis Serafin-Wells plays Robert Hooke. Did you know who he was before you got into this play?
SERAFIN-WELLS: We did a couple of workshops of this play, and I did not know who Hooke was prior to the first workshop.
FLATOW: Tell us - give us a thumbnail of who he was.
SERAFIN-WELLS: Well, there's been a lot of more stuff about him of late that's sort of an interesting nexus of how Lucas' play is happening, and more people are writing about him. I didn't want to read a huge amount, I didn't want to do a huge amount of research about Hooke because I wanted to be true to the play itself and Lucas's world of it.
But there's a really, really interesting part of Boris Johnson, the London mayor, has written a book about famous Londoners, and he described Hooke as the greater inventor you never heard of. And a lot of that stuff is in the play.
FLATOW: Hooke's Law.
SERAFIN-WELLS: Hooke's Law.
FLATOW: And it's interesting, you write - the stuff is written in a blackboard on the front of the play. I mentioned what is real, what is not real. And you say: This is the stuff that's real, and this is the stuff that's not real. If it's not on the blackboard, it really did not happen.
HNATH: It might be made up, I think is the line, so there's a little...
FLATOW: Haskell, you've played a lot of scientists, right?
KING: I've played a couple yeah, yeah, yeah.
FLATOW: Are you drawn to that, or...
KING: You know, I've just been lucky.
FLATOW: Tell us who else you've been.
KING: James Watson, who along with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA and the double-helix. And that was Linsay Firman, directed that play, as well, by Anna Zeigler. And yeah, they just - I don't think they wanted to use me, but I worked really hard on the audition material. And then after that, Linsay and I formed a relationship.
And I just - you know, James Watson, and doing James Watson and Isaac Newton were - the process was radically different, and that difference was really interesting in that James Watson is still alive, and there's plenty of archival footage to look at him and be very specific.
FLATOW: He sat in the very chair that you're sitting in right now. We've interviewed him many times here.
KING: He came to our opening.
FLATOW: Yeah, and I saw your performance of him as James Watson, and it was, as they say, spot on, in the business. It was terrific.
KING: Thank you.
FLATOW: I don't know how you got that down. Of course there's no way of knowing what Newton really was like, is there?
HNATH: No, there really - I mean, there are some reports that he was a difficult person to get along with. He - you know, toward the end of his life became one of the people who ran the mint and prided himself on how many counterfeiters he was able to have executed. So you sort of work backwards from information like that, and you sort of think, OK, what type of person is this? Probably somebody who enjoys vengeance a little bit.
FLATOW: It almost appears like you gave him a little bit of Asperger's syndrome in there.
HNATH: Yeah, I've heard that a lot, and I had actually heard that - I believe it's Simon Baron-Cohen has proposed that Newton might have had Asperger's. I didn't think about that when I was writing the play. Actually weirdly enough, I based a lot of his language and demeanor on myself.
One of the things that Newton says again and again in the play, his little catchphrase, he goes yay. And I do that all that time. I've stopped doing it now that the play has opened, but I was just - I was really in my head just writing myself onto the stage, and it turns out that that reads as having a little bit of Asperger's, which...
FLATOW: Haskell, did you know that when...
KING: Well, you know, yeah, there's that information floating around, but, you know, that's controversial, I mean because we don't really know. You know, some people like to say Einstein was as well. I think Baron-Cohen says that as well, but it's really hard to say.
FLATOW: What's very interesting about the arc of the play, in the arc of the play you really, you're really into the Newton character, but the Hooke character slowly becomes more evident and takes over a large part. And it's a surprise, it's welcome, but it's surprising, Michael, you don't really think of the reach that he has towards the end.
SERAFIN-WELLS: That's good. I think that's what we want. It's interesting too. I mean he does, you know, come out and speak to the audience.
SERAFIN-WELLS: Unlike Newton. And yeah, and he has quite a - Lucas has really created quite a trajectory for this character. I think - I'm glad that that reads - yeah.
FLATOW: Also there's a love triangle in it.
SERAFIN-WELLS: Yes, yes.
FLATOW: Which - was that woman real? Did she really exist?
KING: She was real, yeah.
HNATH: Catherine is real, and by some accounts Newton was close with her father, and her father actually gave Newton a number of books that he used to study in his young age. And yeah, some people propose that the two were close, but the love triangle is a total invention.
I seem incapable of writing a play that doesn't have a love triangle because it's good stuff.
SERAFIN-WELLS: It is good stuff.
KING: What he didn't include was that Newton beat up Catherine's brother.
FLATOW: Is that right?
KING: That's right, and...
FLATOW: I missed that part...
KING: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
FLATOW: Was that in the original?
KING: You know, Newton wrote very little about himself personally, but he - there's this thing called the Fitzwilliam Papers, and it's a very strange diary, which is basically a list of confessions, things like ate an apple on my day, things of that sort. And one of them was beating Arthur Storer.
FLATOW: How strange was it not to do this in period costume? You're all out there like you're dressed, like we're all dressed today: sneakers, jeans, things like that. Was that strange that you're not, you know, dressed...
SERAFIN-WELLS: No, I think that's a great thing, because it is - the way that you describe the introduction too, is who - how to bring these characters into the 21st century, and that's another thing. I think the costumers are fantastic, and that's Suzanne Chesney(ph), the great costume designer, and just the idea to try to, even if it's just subliminally, you look at these people, and you have a feeling of who they are in our world.
And, you know, then - and the way Lucas has written the dialogue, it's very contemporary, I mean although it's using all of these ideas of the time. I think that's really - that's one of the most interesting things about the play to me.
KING: Yeah. No, and I think also it serves to separate that era, giving us in a strange way more access to their relationships as people, and it kind of divorces them from those archetypes, those, you know, titans of science.
FLATOW: And the stage, I've been to that stage many times. I've never seen it absolutely bare to the brick. What's the point? What was the point, for our listeners?
HNATH: You know, I have found over the past couple of years that my plays all tend to be staged on stages that are almost completely empty, and I think there's a really practical reason why it's got to be that way, is because the language is really dense. And I need the audience to rely as much as possible on the language for information.
And when you have a lot of set dressing, a lot of clutter, that's also giving you information, and that's - it's easier to rely on the set and the dressing of the set for information than the language. The audience wants to rely on those visuals, and so by depriving them of the more easily identifiable objects onstage, I'm forcing them to really listen to the words.
FLATOW: There's a lot of language, a lot of interesting stuff in it. Lucas Hnath, Haskell King, Michael Louis Serafin-Wells. We'll be back talking more about "Isaac's Eye." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the play "Isaac's Eye," running at the Ensemble Studio Theater, and we're here with Haskell King, who plays Newton; Lucas Hnath, who is the playwright of the play, he's also a screenwriter; and Michael Louis Serafin-Wells is an actor, and he plays Robert Hooke.
Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Ogden, Utah. Don(ph) in Ogden, hi Don.
DON: Hi Ira, this is - I wanted to - I studied Isaac Newton under one of the great 20th-century scholars on Isaac Newton, Richard Westfall.
HNATH: Oh wow.
DON: And one of the people that Isaac Newton really took after was Leibniz because he came up with calculus at the same time as Newton, sort of like Hooke coming up with his theory of - starting to come up with his theory of universal gravitation. But Leibniz published at the same time as Newton, and Newton never forgave him for it. He kept him out of a lot of the most important work in that time.
So I was wondering if you had anything about Leibniz in your play.
HNATH: Yeah, there's a brief little mention of Leibniz in there. I don't want to necessarily give away how it comes out.
KING: No spoilers.
HNATH: But, you know...
SERAFIN-WELLS: Yeah, pretty much talked about it, right. I mean, as Don said, you know, he mentioned the calculus, but - I mean, that is - it's - there's a lot of debate about that anyway, right.
FLATOW: Yes, there's - it's...
SERAFIN-WELLS: I think there was - there was a guy who put forth a competition, a problem, and so a lot of mathematicians were sending in their solutions. And I know Newton received his, the problem, at like 4 p.m. on one day and solved it by 4 a.m. the next, and it had been - people had been trying to solve it for months. And Leibniz came out and said, well, no one could solve that without using my calculus. And yeah, that started...
FLATOW: Lucas, as a playwright, do you view these plays as teaching moments at all, to teach people about the characters or about calculus or any of that?
HNATH: I actually kind of in a way go out of my way not to view it that way because then you run the risk of the play turning into a kind of lecture, and for me the thing that's primarily on the top of my head is I have to figure out what each character needs at any given moment and what's standing in their way and what they're going to do that's going to be a really interesting to watch on stage in order to get what they want.
And I think we can learn a lot by watching that. I mean, in the course of watching Newton try to trump Robert in one of the play's more important scenes, we do learn a lot about Newton's work, but it's really about him trying to outdo Robert Hooke in that scene.
SERAFIN-WELLS: Yeah, all that information serves to further the dramatic arc of the scene.
KING: That's relating to what the caller said, too, just the competition between all of these men and their ambition and not only to try to outdo each other but also to kind of obliterate each other. And the humanity of that Lucas has really brought to the play, I think. That's an important part of it.
FLATOW: Your father is a mathematician, correct?
KING: My late father was a mathematician, yes he was.
FLATOW: Could you relate to anything that happened in your family?
KING: I could, but I must say that none of those genes were passed on to me.
FLATOW: They never are.
KING: They never are, strange, yeah.
FLATOW: But the central thing, a central part of the play, and I'm not giving any spoiler alert out here, is about putting a needle in Isaac Newton's eye, and it is - you're waiting for that moment. You're waiting, and you are so effective in building, all of you, in building that drama up to that point. Is he going to do it? Is he not going to do it? Can I watch him do it? You know, when you were in previews, did you watch the audience for their reaction?
SERAFIN-WELLS: I can because I'm behind him, and yeah, there are people, like there was a woman, you know, wrapping her face in a scarf. And yeah there are. As Haskell said, people just sort of like squirming and looking, you know, through their fingers and stuff like that, yeah.
KING: Well, I'm looking straight up at the ceiling, and one eye is very bleary. So - but I can see out of my peripheral vision people squirming.
HNATH: But I love having those types of moments in live theater. I think it's unfortunate that there aren't more moments like that, where...
SERAFIN-WELLS: More needles.
HNATH: Where yeah, you get - where there's sort of that feeling of repulsion at the same time as you feel bad for the guy. And it's also kind of funny, too. If I can have all those sort of conflicting emotions in one single moment in a play, then I'm happy. I feel like I've done something worthwhile.
SERAFIN-WELLS: You have.
FLATOW: But you also need a very intimate theater like this one is so that you actually can watch it happen. You're up in the second balcony, you know, and people are only an inch tall on the screen, or in the play.
HNATH: No that's definitely true, yeah.
KING: Yeah, that's not this production because as you said, the theater has been completely redone. They've moved the - tore out the walls, all the brick's exposed. And they moved the audience much closer. I mean, the first two rows are really essentially on the stage and in light. So we're up close and personal.
FLATOW: In previews, did you figure out that - what did you have to change when you first saw it and people reacting to it? Anything at all, or is it more or less...
SERAFIN-WELLS: There were some changes, yeah.
HNATH: I think there were here and there a couple of line changes, but it was mostly about tightening the pacing of the play and getting - figuring out where do those laugh lines come and how to - because when a laugh line comes in, it does kind of mess with the rhythm of the play. You have to make tweaks with respect that.
SERAFIN-WELLS: We tweaked some blocking.
KING: We did, yeah.
SERAFIN-WELLS: There were a couple of big blocking changes.
KING: That's true, that's true. It seems a long time ago.
HNATH: It does.
SERAFIN-WELLS: It does seem a long time ago.
FLATOW: This is - Michael, how do you make Hooke modern and more relatable because he's sort of an eccentric, to an extent, right?
SERAFIN-WELLS: That's hugely down to Lucas and writing this really interesting, great character with fantastic language. And this, you know, trajectory of his storyline, which is so surprising and interesting, it's largely down to the writing, I think. It's a delight to play. It's a great part.
FLATOW: And how much longer will it be running?
HNATH: Right now we're scheduled to run until the 24th unless we extend.
FLATOW: Any change that you'll be extended or go on the road or...
HNATH: We would love to. It remains to be seen.
FLATOW: Because that's the problem with - and we do a lot of science plays and, you know, theater, and they have a great run in New York, they have wonderful productions, and we try to give them the SCIENCE FRIDAY boost to get out there on the road because this is a play that a lot of people should be seeing.
SERAFIN-WELLS: Thank you.
HNATH: Well, thank you.
FLATOW: And I want to wish you luck with the play. And are you working on something new already?
HNATH: Yeah, I have a play in rehearsal right now called "Night, Night," it's a one-act that's premiering in the Humana Festival, and it's about astronauts. And actually I stole some stuff from SCIENCE FRIDAY's phone call with an astronaut segment for that play.
FLATOW: Is that right?
HNATH: I did, I did, I stole a little bit of something.
FLATOW: Astronauts? What's the idea?
HNATH: It's a play about three astronauts who go into space, and one of them is having serious problems with sleep deprivation. He's not getting any sleep. And so he's in danger of really messing up on this mission.
FLATOW: Now my spies tell me that your astronauts actually hang from the ceiling in this play.
HNATH: Yeah, the play is on wires. So they will be flying around and...
FLATOW: It must be very uncomfortable to be hanging while you're acting.
HNATH: I think it is. I think actually it requires an incredible amount of core strength to actually create that zero-G effect, but I've heard that my actors have been working their abs.
FLATOW: Working their abs off.
FLATOW: Well, good luck to you, Lucas.
HNATH: Thank you, thank you so much.
FLATOW: Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.
HNATH: Oh, it's a pleasure.
FLATOW: Lucas Hnath is a playwright and screenwriter of "Isaac's Eye." Also with us is Michael Louis Serafin-Wells, he plays Robert Hooke in the play; Haskell King plays Isaac Newton in "Isaac's Eye." Thanks for taking time to be with us today.
SERAFIN-WELLS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.