On Saturday I was in Cambridge, with the Cambridge Science Festival in full flow. I was there to be a panelist for an event called Can You Make A Difference? but during the afternoon I also took in the play Let Newton Be!, written by Craig Baxter and put on by the Menagerie Theatre Company in the lovely surroundings of Downing College and its Howard Theatre. Now, since representations of Newton are right up my street, it seems only sensible that I should share some comments.
The play was performed by three actors, each of whom portrayed different aspects of Newton as well as various other characters, including Newton’s college roommate, Halley, Leibniz and others. To quote from the play’s blurb online:
Using only the words of Newton, and those of his contemporaries, we see him as farm boy genius, secretive scholar and wiley politician. Above all, here is Newton as a human being – unique, comical, and relentlessly driven by his own curiosity.
So, there were three Newtons with two functions. On the one hand, they represented Newton at different ages: the young Newton, ‘Isack’, was played by a woman (Kate Malyon), the middle-aged ‘Newton’ (William Finkenrath) and the established ‘Sir Isaac’ (David Meyer). On the other hand, they were intended to reveal different aspects of his personality: wonder, idealism and passion; dedication to work and the life of the scholar; and the public figure, mindful of his reputation. Because of this dual function, this had the effect of identifying particular traits or interests with different periods of Newton’s life, despite the fact that the three Newton’s were also speaking to each other as a means of depicting internal tensions and varying motives.
Apart from the introductory scene, the play was straightforwardly chronological. This, in theory, allowed the audience to understand that, for example, the young Newton could act as a sort of conscience to the old Newton, a reminder of his original interests and intentions. However, the words spoken – which came from Newton’s published works, letters to, from and about him and the biographical writings and notes collected by John Conduitt and William Stukeley (all available at the Newton Project here) – were not chronologically faithful. For those very familar with the sources, this became a little confusing and distracting – I’ll admit that I am not a typical audience member, but it did seem a little odd to have the mature speculations of the Queries in Opticks voiced by young ‘Isack’. It also, of course, obscured the fact that the early stories were recollections of the aged Newton, or old acquaintences of the now-famous man, rather than records of the boy himself.
Baxter’s Newton – as Patricia Fara pointed out in a discussion after the play – was, of course, a 21st-century Newton. The playwright was, in the tendency I reflected on in my post on Newton and alchemy, particularly interested in ‘revealing’ Newton as a man obsessed with alchemy and religion, often to the exclusion of his more obviously ‘scientific’ interests. Likewise, he presents what we would expect in terms of an analysis of a complex individual that reveals conflicts and angst – and we do expect our geniuses to be properly tortured, caught between grappling with life and being granted ecstatic glimpses of Truth. This is in obvious contrast to some earlier versions of Newton that preferred to depict him as an exemplar of virtues like patience, calmness and humility. One of my favourite parts of the play threw out a series of quotes from the early accounts of Newton, by friends and enemies, that completely contradicted each other: meek and mild? impatient of contradiction? We know which version we think more likely today! Certainly, it was good to have the net spread wide in terms of Newton’s work and to see a bit of real theology (Arius got a name check, and trinities were a theme for the whole production), some genuine quotes from alchemical manuscripts and an introduction to the philosophical discussions with Leibniz (actually in Samuel Bentley’s words, not Newton’s), as well as a brief guide to optics, fluxions and universal gravitation.
Fara was, as her book on Newton might suggest, particularly pleased that the play avoided the obvious myths and quotes. There were no shoulders of giants, no uneaten chicken, no boys on the seashore before oceans of truth, and no apple. However, in my view, removing these older tropes made the way for the kind of modern myth of genius outlined above. While Fara, and probably everyone in the audience, was glad that this was not the kind of play that tried to dramatise scientific work in made-up conversations, which can too easily seem contrived, the decision to have three actors who were principally versions of Newton made the brief appearances of other characters more or less disappear. Newton was, therefore, and as always, left as a man and his mind alone together.
Baxter admitted that his three Newtons were a means of dealing with the problem that we have all been left by the biographical accounts – how to account for the transformation of “the solitary, silent, thinking lad” into the Master of the Mint and the President of the Royal Society. His means of dealing with this problem only exacerbated it. The answer to Newton’s transformation has to be in his relationships with other people: friends, patrons and followers. Likewise, we need to understand their motivations in befriending, supporting and generally dealing with someone who was, surely, a fairly difficult man. Halley appeared, but only to be more or less ignored by Newton. The Earl of Halifax was mentioned as having got Newton the job at the Mint, but we are given no understanding of why he did this and whether he knew Newton personally. Fatio de Duillier did not appear at all, and nor did family members or young acolytes. These people and others were responsible for encouraging Newton and perhaps for making him desire a public life. Likewise there must have been more than the achievement of Principia to make them think that Newton would be an asset in London. Instead we are left with Newton, alone with his various selves, and are none the wiser as to how the scholar who wants to be left alone with his studies was transformed into the London gent whose conversation, just occasionally, passed close to wit.