A Needle in Isaac Newton’s Eye


Friday, March 01, 2013

Most plays about historical events and figures take liberties with the facts — you probably couldn’t write a good play if you didn’t. Audiences, though, can be distracted by wondering ‘was that bit really true?’ Lucas Hnath’s new play about Isaac Newton handles the problem in a unique way: every fact introduced in the play is written on a wall, in chalk, by a narrator character. Everything else, is invention.

Isaac’s Eye itself is based on a factual mystery: a strange reference in Newton’s diary to sticking a needle behind his eye, presumably as an experiment on optics. Nothing else about the experiment is known. “My goal was to create a moment where he decides to do this test, and it needs to be a moment where he’s willing to risk a lot,” Hnath tells Kurt Andersen. “The most obvious one was that Robert Hooke” — then the most famous scientist in Britain, a brilliant polymath with accomplishments over a wide range of fields — “was really critical of Newton’s writings on optics. When Hooke criticized those works, pretty soon after, Newton had a nervous breakdown.”

The page from Isaac Newton’s notebookThe page from
Isaac Newton’s notebook
(© Cambridge University Library)

Some have made a suggestion that the focused, asocial Newton may have had Asperger’s syndrome. Hnath tried to avoid that explicit characterization. “I tried to fill in a lot of the gaps by basing the character on myself, which is a strange thing to admit to. I think you could actually look at the play and change his occupation to playwright, and change the Royal Society to the MacArthur genius grant, and you have it there: the desire to get to this position in one’s career where you can ostensibly do whatever you want.”

Hnath won’t reveal the stagecraft by which actor Haskell King, who plays Newton, appears to have a needle stuck in his eye for several long minutes of the play, other than to call it “very difficult.”

Isaac’s Eye is running at Ensemble Studio Theater in New York. Our segment includes scenes performed by Jeff Biehl, Haskell King, and Michael Louis Serafin-Wells.


Comments [3]

Dana Higginbotham from Florida

This guy is genuis. Who knows what his inspirtion is...you have to look at all the plays he wrote to even try to guess the answer to that mystery.

Mar. 03 2013 08:09 PM
rodhill from Dallas, Texas

Under "don't bother with the facts": Newton's father died before he was born, so he wouldn't have been likely to threaten to "burn his parents' house down." Maybe somebody else's house, though.

Under "the rest of the story": Hooke had been a credit troll while Newton was working out his theory of gravity in "Principia Mathematica," published in 1686. In fact, Robert Hooke died in 1703 while Newton was president of the Royal Society, and Newton was still so offended at Hooke's claims of credit for that theory, that Newton took the only portrait of Hooke (that had been hanging in the Royal Society's offices) and had it burned! To this day, there isn't an authentic portrait of the man left on earth.

Mar. 03 2013 08:06 PM
dave koslow

good piece, but one niggling point. He may have heard the Newton story as a segment on Lopate, but it was from RadioLab, and would have been presented as such. Since yer all one big family, hows about giving the shout out to those who deserve it? RadioLab brings excellent production value to their content, hell, it was this guys inspiration. I do like Leonard Lopate's show,but this is like crediting the Huffington Post...Give Jad and Robert their props, huh?

Mar. 03 2013 05:31 PM

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