Telling the stories of women overlooked by history has become a popular genre of literature, theater, and film. Photograph 51, a 2008 drama by award-winning playwright Anna Ziegler, falls within a subcategory of this genre: bringing to light the untold stories of women whose contributions to science have been forgotten. This play, focusing on a few key years in the life and work of British chemist Rosalind Franklin—whose microscopic photographs were crucial to discovering the double-helix structure of DNA—is in the midst of a revelatory run at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, directed by fellow playwright and BTG associate director David Auburn
In Ziegler’s telling, Rosalind Franklin had been fascinated with patterns even as a child; had excelled in math and science as a student; and had established herself as an expert in crystallography by the time she joined the lab of Maurice Wilkins at King’s College in London in 1951. She had left a position in Paris for a fellowship at King’s to run studies on X-ray diffraction of proteins and lipids, but she was reassigned, and when Wilkins welcomes her as his assistant, the foundational conflict in their relationship is set in stone.
Franklin expects to be treated with professionalism. She balks when Wilkins greets her as a subordinate, and she bristles when he says they will call her “Rosy.” She repeatedly asserts she would like to be called Dr. Franklin (a request that all the men in her professional sphere ignore), and when Wilkins acknowledges that they have gotten off on the wrong foot, she suggests they get a fresh start by having lunch together. But Wilkins seems dumbfounded by this suggestion; he takes his lunch at the dining hall, which excludes women, and he offers no alternative that would enable them to bond over a meal. Once more, Franklin takes offense.
Not only does Franklin contend with being a woman in a very male field; she’s also the only Jew in this very chummy, plummy gentile world. There’s a quick flash of antisemitism at the mention of Wilkins’s work on the Manhattan Project, with the suggestion that Jews should show some gratitude.
By no means is Franklin easy to get along with. She is direct, blunt, and entirely focused on her work. She’s a perfectionist, perhaps (in this play, if not in reality) because her father did not support her pursuit of a career in science—she recounts him telling her that if she does become a scientist, she must never be wrong.
Apparently, none of the male scientists in her sphere ever received this fatherly advice; her colleagues make hypotheses, they publish theories, they build models, and they are often wrong… .and then they get back to the work—no harm done. But if a woman’s theory is wrong, it’s a major blow: What else would you expect from a woman? And so Franklin toils to find hard evidence, rather than drawing conclusions from the groundbreaking images of DNA that she has produced through innovation and persistence.
Ziegler’s characterization of Franklin, in tandem with Rebecca Brookehser’s deft, affecting portrayal, suggests she might be “on the spectrum,” given her inability to read social cues. But Franklin is surrounded by a cadre of men who seem less interested in her work and mental prowess and more focused on her physical attributes and personality. She doesn’t make friends in the London academic community, but she does form a functional—if testy— working relationship with her long-suffering, research assistant, doctoral student Ray Gosling, empathetically portrayed by Brandon Dial. Her relationship with Wilkins, on the other hand, degenerates to dysfunctional after he takes credit for her work, and Gosling assumes the awkward position of go-between.
She also has contentious relationships with the soon-to-be-famous Cambridge team racing to model DNA: James Watson and Francis Crick, who eventually win the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the double-helix structure, using Franklin’s images to develop their thesis. Watson, a brash American (effectively portrayed as a misogynistic, full-of-himself genius and total jerk by Allen Tedder), is particularly obnoxious in all their encounters, but he and Crick (played as a more subtle misogynist in a old-boys network manner by Christian Coulson) spout sexist notions, like a pair of science nerds who scorn women for rebuffing their advances. There’s more than a bit of locker-room conversation.
There is one man in Franklin’s life with whom she would welcome a deeper, more personal connection. As a PhD candidate at Yale studying the tobacco mosaic virus, Don Caspar writes to her requesting some images, expressing his admiration for her work. They develop a cordial epistolary relationship and after he earns his doctorate, he joins her team at King’s College. In a clever callback, we see their relationship deepening when, at a dinner party with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, he calls her “Rosy” and the other men jump to correct him, eyebrows raised.
In one of the most poignant scenes, Caspar and Franklin go out for dinner. She notes that she’s not sure if it’s a date because she has never been on a date. When he asks her what she yearns for, she dreamily goes through a list of longings, including (twice) “to be kissed,” but it’s only in her mind; her characteristically terse reply gives him no insight into her feelings. We want her to let her guard down and express her emotions, but it’s not in her nature; Caspar (in a pitch-perfect turn by Shaun Anthony) will not be her knight in shining armor. And still the greatest heartbreak is yet to come.
The play is cleverly structured with the men in Franklin’s professional sphere telling her story in overlapping and sometimes slightly contentious narrative interludes. The stage is designed such that during these interludes, the men stand on a slight rise behind the circular space where the action unfolds, a nifty bit of scenic design by Bill Clarke. In the beginning, it’s confusing, as we haven’t yet met the characters, but this narrative device effectively fills in the historical details and keeps the story moving at a good clip. It also reinforces why Franklin is a minor figure in the annals of science: while she’s solely focused on finding answers, the men are also seeking fame and fortune, and history is a matter of—as they sing in Hamilton—“who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” To wit, in his memoir, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Watson characterized Franklin as uncooperative, unattractive, and incompetent.
Franklin only speaks for herself at the end of the play in a touching scene with Wilkins, in which we are given to believe that Wilkins regrets his role in the diminishment of Franklin’s accomplishments and reputation. He recalls a conversation with Franklin about her attending a performance of “A Winter’s Tale,” and with this call back, Ziegler seems to be drawing a parallel between Shakespeare’s play and Wilkins’ dismissive treatment of Franklin. But even in the nether realm of the narrative, Franklin remains a hard-edged realist. Unlike the statue of Hermione, Rosalind—who died at 37 of ovarian cancer—will not come back to life and Wilkins (David Adkins doing yeoman’s work in perhaps the most difficult role, given the character’s shifting sentiments and inability to communicate with Franklin) will not be granted forgiveness. As director, Auburn deftly brings out the subtleties in the action and the nuances of the characters.
At the start of the play, Franklin’s first line is “This is what it was like. We made the invisible visible.” By writing Photograph 51, this is exactly what Ziegler has done. The author unveiled the life of a brilliant woman whose accomplishments have been obscured by history. It’s a heartbreaking tale touchingly told, expertly acted, and resonant—a beautiful tribute to the life and work of Rosalind Franklin, forgotten no more.
Photograph 51 runs at Berkshire Theater Group’s Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, Massachusetts through July 1.