Frontiers of choice

by Heidi Thorsen on 03/08/11 at 2:06 pm

Taboos Explores the Implications of Modern Science on Reproduction

“A play is never finished,” stated scientist-turned-playwright Carl Djerassi in the wake of Stanford’s staging of his play Taboos, directed by Rush Rehm.  With this statement, Djerassi simultaneously highlights a central theme of Taboos and a unique characteristic of art that explains his marriage of science and drama: choice. The play, an examination of alternate methods of sexual reproduction in an age of technological reproducibility, made its west coast premiere in Stanford’s Cubberley Auditorium February 10th to 12th, co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute.

Taboos relates the story of two couples: Harriet and Sally, a lesbian couple in San Francisco, and Cameron and Priscilla, a fundamentalist Christian couple from the South.  The couples, linked by siblings Sally and Cameron, find themselves faced with unprecedented choices involving reproductive options—from the old-fashioned artificial insemination via an undersized “turkey baster” to the highly sophisticated technology of intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI).  Harriet and Sally are able to have children with remarkable success due to modern approaches to reproduction. Ironically, Cameron and Priscilla look on with deep envy and disapproval as they struggle obstinately to become fertile by ‘natural’ means.  Both couples are ultimately able to have the children they wish for—three sons, in total—with the help of modern technologies and intrafamilial sperm and egg donations.

Taboos incidentally addresses many controversial ideas through its story, including the rights of LGBTQ individuals and the conflict between science and religion.  Nevertheless, the driving goal behind Taboos is not solely to make or raise arguments, but to convey information—to enfranchise women by presenting choices that most women aren’t even aware they have.  While the plot of Taboos relies on the dichotomy of the lesbian couple and the fundamentalist couple, the spirit of Taboos foreshadows an era in which women can freeze eggs at a young age and thus extend their range of fertility.  Taboos seeks to educate the next generation of women about the widening spectrum of choice created by new reproductive technologies, such as ICSI, as well as their moral challenges.

Harriet, Sally, Cameron, and Priscilla live in a world in which uncles who are sperm donors could also be considered fathers, and same-sex partners grapple with the insufficiency of titles such as ‘father’ to describe the role of the non-birth mother.  In other words, they live in a world of language that simplifies gender into a dichotomized choice.  Taboos reveals how the authority of limited language to prescribe human choices needs to change.

Playwright Carl Djerassi

However, Taboos also acknowledges a complicated scenario in which sex can be chosen through the specificity of reproductive technology.  One of the characters, Harriet, consciously chooses to have a male child.  This decision might be regarded much more critically in the context of a patriarchal Chinese society.  What are the extreme implications of technological reproduction?  Djerassi chooses not to address them on a political level but rather on a personal level—the level that potentially applies to members of his audience.  Djerassi does not want to portray technological reproduction as an extreme exception, but rather as an impending norm.


The educational component of the show is emphasized in this production through the location of the performance.  Cubberley Auditorium, not a traditional theater space, is also the center of Stanford’s School of Education.  Despite the virtual absence of a backstage, the Stanford production makes optimal use of the space through the use of projections, which string together the diverse locations of the story and serve as a subtle reminder of the lecture hall.

Bearing in mind the central theme of choice, it is not surprising that Djerassi has latched onto the world of art, especially drama, as a means of scientific expression.  Dialogue, which presents issues from an external point of view and deals equally with perspectives in time and space, leaves immense room for choosing interpretations.  The audience is constantly creating counterfactuals of what might happen next.  Even in the end of Taboos the audience is uncertain of the next step for these characters—whether the parallel couples will reconcile with one another or remain at odds because of complex issues of kin.  Djerassi himself has tinkered with the play and seen it evolve through numerous productions in London, New York City, and several cities in Austria and Bulgaria.  As Djerassi stated, “a play is never finished”—not for the audience and not for the playwright.  Taboos successfully achieves the status of a play that does not terminate, but rather opens up more questions and, most importantly, a greater understanding of the broad range of choices that women and men will have to make in an age of technological reproduction.


Heid Thorsen is an undergraduate student in the Drama Department at Stanford. She is part of the Clayman Institute student writing team, reporting on gender topics at Stanford.

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