Professor Lee Silver collaborates on a provocative play

One day in 1994, soon after Lee Silver, a professor of molecular biology and public affairs, lectured on the genetic similarity of chimpanzees and humans and the theoretical possibility of producing a hybrid chimp-human, a student who had heard him speak came to his office with an astonishing idea for a thesis project. She proposed being impregnated with the sperm of a chimpanzee, following the development of the chimp-human hybrid, aborting near the end of the pregnancy, and writing up the experiment for her senior thesis. Would Silver be her adviser, she asked?

Silver was speechless.

That incident became the spark for a play Silver co-wrote with a New York actor and playwright, Jeremy Kareken. The play begins with a fictionalized account of that thesis proposal — as a junior at an elite university resembling Princeton suggests impregnating herself with chimp sperm. Silver collaborated with Kareken throughout the scriptwriting process after winning the 2006 Two-Headed Challenge contest, co-sponsored by the Guthrie Theater and the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, which supports development of a play written by a playwright and a collaborator outside the theater world. Two staged readings of their play, The Sweet, Sweet Motherhood, were held in July. Kareken and Silver are revising the script, and their agent is shopping it around to producers.

Silver and Kareken met two years ago when Silver gave a presentation to members of the Sloan Foundation, which is interested in bringing scientific ideas into the theater, and 30 playwrights, including Kareken.

The Sweet, Sweet Motherhood has two characters — the student, Shelley (think Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein), and the professor, Henry Stein (think FrankenSTEIN). Shelley has no qualms about using her body to get ahead in the competitive field of academic science. Stein tries to reason with her. Eventually, against his advice, she gets pregnant by having a single sperm injected into an egg.

When the play is produced, an animated PowerPoint presentation will run in the background, providing a visual representation of some of the central scientific themes, such as the similarity of human and chimp DNA sequences, says Silver.

The play asks, “What does it mean to be human?” says Silver, by looking at whether a chimp-human hybrid would be a human or a chimp and examining the genetic similarity between the two species. “This is a very threatening question because of the Judeo-Christian idea that human beings as a species are absolutely distinct from all other species,” he says.

The play looks at the ambiguous relationship between a female student and a male professor — particularly the intense relationship that can develop as a student works with her thesis adviser and can come to view him as a potential lover or father figure. The issue of abortion — and whether to call a fetus “a baby” — also surfaces.

“We took every taboo subject and played with it. It’s a very anti-PC play,” says Silver, who deals with some of the issues raised in the play in his course “Human Genetics, Reproduction, and Public Policy.”

The incident that sparked the play is recorded in his latest book, Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life (2006).

The co-author of the play has requested the insertion of a "spoiler alert" in advance of the following paragraph.

The real Princeton student did not proceed with the thesis. In the play, the outcome of Shelley’s experiment is not clear-cut. The Sweet, Sweet Motherhood leaves unanswered questions — whether she got pregnant with a chimp sperm or human sperm, and whether she has “the baby.”

“The play raises a number of ethical and philosophical questions,” Silver says, “but [it] doesn’t provide any easy answers.” However, Silver does hope that people will come away with a deeper understanding of the scientific issues raised, so that they are better able to make up their own minds.