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Taking 'Taboos' Personally

September 25, 2008 By:
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Carl Djerassi

Who better to birth an organic play than a chemist -- especially one whose key co-creation of the Pill put many an expectant family in a celebratory state of birth daze?

Carl Djerassi is not dazzled by being center stage; he may, after all, have invented it. And the chemist who concocted the Catholic Church's worst churn of a nightmare and turned the '60s Summer of Love flower children into women and men for all seasons offers a pregnant pause when being called the father of the sexual revolution.

Baby, it's (not) you! "No," he says succinctly of manning the baby barricades, "that gives me too much credit."

But the credits are overflowing with accomplishments for this Austrian Jewish juggernaut whose bio segues from science to scintillating achievements in the arts, leapfrogging from the literary to the legendary.

It's a cascade of a career -- as scientist, business executive, inventor, academician and wide-ranging writer -- that has meant no topic is taboo for the protean and genuine genius whose talent nose no bounds: And, yes, he developed antihistamines.

Proscribed prescriptions for success? Nothing out of reach? Never. Until now: "Taboos," his roundelay of a romp in which the sexual revolution proves revolting to some and revealing to others, is now being played out on stage at the Soho Playhouse, in New York, where its intricacies of intrigue involve internecine insights and questions of incest when the question is asked: Which came first -- the egg or the donor?

It is all a sex-test of character in the chemist's new play: Fulminations on artificial insemination are synthesized into a stunning sendup; test-tube babies pass the test of Djerassi's literary wit, while ethics and ethos are bandied about in a script of crib notes.

The offspring of an Austrian Ashkenazi Jewish mother and Bulgarian Sephardic Jewish father, the soon-to-be 75-year-old one-man table of elements is never out of his element, seemingly whatever the field.

Emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University, he merits a long look as a playwright, produced as he has been all over the world, with "Taboos" taking on its U.S. premiere.

With its breathtaking take on medical breakthroughs and brittle breaks in human spirit, "Taboos" taps topics that would have Freud hiding for cover under his couch. Couched in modern-day language and its litany of woes, the play is fertile ground for Peter Pan-sexual fantasy as birth mothers and fathers are interconnected through an umbilical cord immersed in controversy.

Do we not have reason to lament what man has made of man if the man is made from his sister's egg and uncle's sperm? Words would fail even Wordsworth in such a scientific quandary that lacks poetic justice.

But they don't fail Djerassi, the National Medal of Science winner whose mettle rarely gets bent out of shape from shifting ethics; his autobiog -- The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas' Horse -- is an omnibus vehicle for the varied terrain he rambles over.

Brave New Worlds

His so-called "science-in-fiction" novels and "science-in-theater" plays are chemically balanced brave new worlds and words in a quirkily compiled bio that attests to his soulful status as scientific survivor. (Djerassi arrived in New York as a survivor of Nazi Austria.)

And if his C.V. sees its way to legendary status, he himself has no misconceptions about his own identity -- notwithstanding the success of his play "An Immaculate Misconception" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a decade ago.

How colorful he is as catalyst for change, but then, says the almost seemingly chimerical chemist, "I never give a black-and-white answer."

Why do that when your Bunsen burners burn so brightly with the spectrum of special effects? "My nature is to write to engage an audience," he says promisingly of the play on stage in Soho.

So, who does he want coming to his brand of brainstorming theater? "I want audiences to think of the answers, to provide their own answers."

Answer this, he is challenged: With all those who prescribe to his brilliance for his role in inventing the Pill, does Djerassi feel he has more of an impact post-production as a writer? Literally, is he more fecund the day after?

"What I do now," says the writer, "has a different impact, a different metamorphosis on the world from what I did as a scientist 40 to 50 years ago."

How ... Kafka-esque. But coping with eternal change is edifying for his id and ego. Which is why he considers his upcoming book, Four Jews on Parnassus -- in which a chamber quartet of quizzical Jews (Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, Gershom Scholem and Arnold Schönberg) play point and counterpoint, serenaded at first by Max Bruch's "Kol Nidrei" -- so important an accomplishment.

"It is the most sophisticated book I have ever written," which says a lot for a writer whose tomes toe the line of greatness and whose latest effort "deals with Jewish identity in a nonreligious sense."

On stage, to get a sense of "Taboos" is to understand a heritage hinged on herky-jerky jagged edges. Yes, he was "born to Jewish parents," but parents who would "then convert to Protestantism," only to change back when they realized the original conversion wasn't conversant with success. "When they realized it didn't help them, they reconverted to Judaism," with artist Marc Chagall as their witness.

What audiences witness these days off-Broadway is an off-and-running scientist/seer who is much more sophisticated in his playwriting than before, focusing "on the most important issues facing Western civilization today."

Born to be Wilde? His literary largess aligns with no others; Djerassi's is a voice all his own, with a rumble and roar of stentorian strength that proclaims, Veni, vidi, vici ... in vitro.

Putting the reproduction process under the microscope, he avers, is what makes his play a specimen of specific yet universal interest. But the lab rats on parade rat themselves out every 28 days: The creator of the Pill finds so many afraid of the lessons of aural sex, unwilling to learn from the education so available everywhere.

"It is a disaster," he says of the "U.S. having the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the world."

If the born-again couple in the play bares witness to the truth, will they condone or condemn the coitus so interruptus by scientists these days? Is "Taboos" a winner-take-all allegory? "No one wins in my play," says the Israel Wolf Prize-winner for his quantum leaps in chemistry.

If he uncovers anything, Djerassi has unearthed the shaky grounds which propelled him out of Austria, quakes that rattle still. "My Jewish identity is clearly buried," he says of the entombed time bomb of the past.

"American Jews really do not know how traumatized German and Austrian Jewish refugees were" from the onslaught of the Nazis and their goose-stepping heels of hell. "It is very different from emigration, feeling like an immigrant, when you get kicked out of your country."

Djerassi is on solid footing now, in theater, in science -- in control, looking forward to a future wearing his talents blatantly, openly, without fear of being tackled by the terrible tyranny of taboos.

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