Streams

A Number

Monday, December 06, 2004

When Dolly the sheep was cloned in Britain in 1999, it seemed human cloning might be right around the corner. After the media frenzy died down, British playwright Caryl Churchill decided to explore what it might be like to live as a clone. WNYC's Judith Kampfner recently took scientific experts to New York Theater Workshop in lower Manhattan to see the new play, which is chillingly titled "A Number."

Kampfner There is no white coated scientist on stage. Playwright Caryl Churchill is imagining that human cloning can happen in a recognizable world - this is not science fiction . She has written an intense one hour play which is essentially a family drama. It begins deceptively like a sitcom. The stage is bare except for a brown leather couch and a lamp. Sam Shepard who has not been on the NY stage for thirty years plays a harassed father. Dallas Roberts plays his middle aged son. There’s a bit of an atmosphere. We discover that the dad has just shared some sobering information with his son. Turns out that he took the boy when he was 4 years old to have him cloned.. Right now Dallas as Son no 1 the original is trying to process this news.

Play Son This copy they grew of me .. it worked out all right? Father: there were failures of course, inevitable Son: dead ones. Father: in the test tubes the dishes I was told they didn’t’ all…..

Kampfner The father won’t explain exactly how the cloning was done. From a scraping is all he says. And then somehow …it all starts to work in test tubes…. The scientific techniques are vague. But that is the prerogative of the playwright who is exploring science through art says journalist Faith McLellan who writes for the medical journal The Lancet

Faith McLellan The play is not about how one becomes a clone.. because when we come to see the play the deed is done but I do think what we are doing is in a larger sense ….. looking at the real human anguish.. the play is a warning flagging all kinds of dire consequences involved in this technology.

Kampfner Caryl Churchill writes moral apocryphal plays about the toughest issues in contemporary life but she is poetic rather than polemical . She has been compared to Samuel Beckett. Both are deeply pessimistic but also deeply psychological. This play is called “A Number”. We all feel a number instead of a person at times, you don’t have to be a clone to understand that says Rob Marchesani who’s a psychoanalyst

Rob Marchesani She’s talking about what it must feel like to be a number, this is much more than about cloning, this about human relationships, what it feels like to be a child with a father who does not connect and the effects of trauma. They are doomed.

Kampfner The dynamics of a family conflict are at the forefront of this play says Marchesani. The father grudgingly explains that the boys’ mother committed suicide when he was very small.. After that the father tried to raise the child but the boy had behavior problems .So the father gave him away. But not before he had a baby cloned from the toddler. Now Son no 1 feels abandoned, rejected and in addition there’s a sense of self loathing as he thinks about the crude way his tissue was stolen from him and replicated. He lashes out at his dad…

Dallas Roberts from the play Can we talk about what you did.. you sent me away and had this other one made from some bit of my body - not a limb, they clearly didn’t take a limb like a starfish and. chopped through like a worm and grow the other.. a speck yes because we’re talking that microscope world of giant blobs and globs and they take this painless scrape this specky little cells of me and kept that and you threw the rest of me away.…

Kampfner The story as it unfolds becomes even more shocking . The father claims he has only recently discovered that that in fact multiple copies were made illegally. Way back then that scientist must have gone mad and let the genie out of the bottle. Permission was only given for one copy. Sam Shepard relates all of this so wryly that there is welcome laughter from the audience.

Play Son: You made an effort…Father: I did and for that money you’d think I’d get exclusive Son: they ripped you off father yes one was the deal…son: what did you expect?

Kampfner So at the age of forty the son now learns that there are countless copies of him who are five years younger walking around. Who knows how many exactly? There are a number the father says dismissively..Science writer Faith McLellan says there’s a rational justification for what he did.

Faith McLellan The father represents the scientific view, he wanted a copy, the technology was available, it got out of hand, now he is reactive, he is interested in the consequences, he needs lawyers.

Kampfner. The more clones, the more money there is to be made in a law suit – the father’s imagination runs wild. He is figuring on millions per copy But the father’s character changes over the course of the play. Art Caplan head of bio ethics at the University of Pennyslvania has a brilliant twist on the story..

Art Caplan My take on the father is that he is the scientist. If you watch how the play evolved, you’l see him interviewing his sons , he is curious, he is collecting data from his offspring.

Kampfner And they are different. Dallas Roberts plays each son and it is an acting tour de force. He has a costume change for each one and he gives each subtle nuances of gesture and movement so that we can tell them apart.. Faith Mclellan says the fact that the cloned men are not mere numbers indicates hope for the future. It suggests that environment and upbringing would have an impact even on clones

Faith McLellan Personhood cannot be reduced to the sum of genetics. Son one is anguished, son 2 is not sure of the root of the questions; son 3 is not really concerned about himself as a person. Each son is anguished about who he is and where he came from. Each is untethered.

Kampfner The play is unsettling because it unearths in us a deep rooted terror of anonymity . .Cloning may be in the future but audiences are pushed to think about timeless issues - the struggle for attention in a family of rival siblings, or the fear of identity theft, or of being a cog in a corporate machine. Or even those deeply existential issues which if you are lucky you get to think about in a darkened theater . Like the question of of who am I? And am I in any way original?

For WNYC I’m JK

The New York theater workshop

The medical newspaper The Lancet

National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis

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