Robert Lyons on Émile Zola, Claude Bernard, science, playwriting, and ZOLA’S LABORATORY

 Robert Lyons (Photo by Andrea Reese)

Robert Lyons (Photo by Andrea Reese)

On Monday, February 26, the EST/Sloan Project, as part of the 2018 First Light Festival, will present the first public reading of ZOLA’S LABORATORY, the saucy new play by Robert Lyons imagining the problems the young Émile Zola faced in introducing Naturalism to the French theater. Zola based many of his ideas on the scientific principles of the famed French physiologist and vivisectionist Claude Bernard and Lyons brings Bernard on stage (along with his anti-vivisectionist wife) to illuminate how ideas about art, science, and life clashed at the time. Hear more from the playwright.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

How did you come to write ZOLA’S LABORATORY?

 Caricature by André Gill of naturalist novelist Émile Zola using a chamber pot to make a distasteful stew of ram's horn, devil's head and women's legs (1882). What is that dripping from his quill?

Caricature by André Gill of naturalist novelist Émile Zola using a chamber pot to make a distasteful stew of ram's horn, devil's head and women's legs (1882). What is that dripping from his quill?

I forget what I was reading, but there was a footnote about Émile Zola being influenced by scientist Claude Bernard in developing his theories of Naturalism.  And I thought that's kind of interesting. And then I went down the rabbit hole. 

ZOLA’S LABORATORY brings together two giants of nineteenth-century French culture: the novelist, playwright and activist Émile Zola, in his early thirties, and the 60-year-old path-breaking physiologist Claude Bernard, one of the first to use blind experiments to insure scientific objectivity. Did they actually know one another? Did they get along?

They did not know each other personally.  Émile openly quotes Bernard so he clearly knew of him.  But the story in my play is completely made up. 

The Zola we meet in your play is not the one we remember from Paul Muni’s acclaimed performance in The Life of Émile Zola (1937) where he is bravely accusing the president of the French Republic of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair. That all comes some 25 years later. In your play, Zola and Bernard are quite funny and the action is quite racy. Were they really that funny? What kind of research did you do to write the play?  

 Left, Émile Zola in 1970. Right, Paul Muni as Zola in The Life of Émile Zola (1937).

Left, Émile Zola in 1970. Right, Paul Muni as Zola in The Life of Émile Zola (1937).

Although I did a lot of research about their ideas, the characters as presented in my play are completely made up by me.  Rather than thinking of this as a historically accurate play, you should think of it as a rigorously researched clash of ideas.  At some point I came across the argument that Bernard would be appalled by Zola's idea of applying the scientific method to literature and the stage.  And so I concocted a scenario to bring that idea into sharp relief!  This Zola is the way I imagine him as an ambitious upstart. There is zero attempt to be historically accurate! 

You’ve created no less than three plays that adapted works of Dostoevsky (The Possessed, The Fever, and The Idiot) so you’re clearly at home in nineteenth century Europe. How is writing about nineteenth-century France different from writing about nineteenth-century Russia?

In the case of adapting Dostoevsky, I was much more committed to bringing his ideas and stories to the stage.  With ZOLA’S LABORATORY I researched the ideas, but completely made up the plot. 

Zola is famous for saying Nulles dies sine linea (“No day without a line”). Do you subscribe to that philosophy? Is that what drew you to him?

I wish I wrote a line every day!  But in spite of the fact that my play basically makes fun of both Zola and Bernard, I actually have tremendous respect for both men.  They were both serious thinkers and I find that inspiring. 

 The Lesson of Claude Bernard or Session at the Vivisection Laboratory by Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1889)

The Lesson of Claude Bernard or Session at the Vivisection Laboratory by Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1889)

You’ve been engaged in so many aspects of the theater over the past 30 or so years: playwright, director, founder of New Ohio Theatre and its artistic director. How does the EST/Sloan play development process differ from that of other companies you’ve been involved with? Is it hard to restrain yourself to being just the playwright this time or is it a relief?

A total relief!  I love all the roles I play in the theatre, but my favorite is playwright. 

Perhaps the time you’ve spent mining the past can help you predict the future? One hundred years from now someone will surely be writing a play about the intersection of science and theater in the two-thousand-teens. What will that be about?

Dark matter. 

What’s next for Robert Lyons?

I'm currently experimenting with extreme short forms and digging for the deep causes behind our current political realities. 

The 2018 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from February 5 through April 6 and features readings and workshop productions of eight new plays. The festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year. 

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