Ross Peter Nelson is the writer of Tycho’s Fool, one of the Fifth Annual New Works Festival finalists. A staged reading of the play will be presented at Gulfshore Playhouse on September 7th at 8 P.M.
My play, Tycho’s Fool, began when I learned that the 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe was going to be exhumed in 2012. A sample of his mustache hair tested in 1996 had shown toxic levels of mercury, and the investigators wanted access to his body to determine if he had been poisoned.
I was already fond of Tycho. For one thing, we both share a Scandinavian heritage, and for another, how can you not love a guy with a metal nose and a pet moose? Plus, one of my playwriting heroes is Tom Stoppard. Maybe writing about Tycho would let me mix drama and science the way he had in his masterpiece, Arcadia. ˆ(n.b., I have no delusions that I even come close to measuring up to Stoppard.)
The question about how Tycho’s life had ended suggested an obvious framing device for the play: a murder mystery. The problem was, until the investigation was finished, I didn’t know how the play would end. As I researched, however, that issue receded, because I became less concerned with his death, and more interested in his life.
While much has been written about his work as a scientist, when I dug deeper, I found out about his jester/dwarf; about the trouble he endured because Kirsten, the love of his life, was not born to a noble family; how a spy infiltrated Uraniborg (his island observatory) in an attempt to steal his work; his relationship to Shakespeare (Hamlet’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstierne were Tycho’s cousins); and how he had to flee Denmark and join the Imperial Court in Prague.
There was so much to tell, and I wanted to cram as much in as possible rather than simply focusing on the (possible) poisoning. I also wanted to put his science in context, and tell the story in a way that wasn’t purely historical, with actors in Renaissance doublets, hose, and codpieces.
I chose to structure the story from the viewpoint of an extraterrestrial cabaret, who piece together the elements of Tycho’s life via small skits they create. As such, there is identity-swapping, time dilation, and other sorts of mischief being made. My goal at the festival is to see if that can be wedged into a coherent story without completely confusing the audience.
Once I finally learned the results of the tests on Tycho’s body, it seemed to me that it fit well with the arc of his life. Tycho’s most lasting scientific contribution was his precise and detailed records of the positions of planets and stars, in particular, the observations of Mars that led Johannes Kepler to later formulate the laws of planetary motion.
In an era when science included alchemy and astrology, and questioning the wisdom of the ancients was dangerous, Tycho followed the data. He remained true to his observations, and if he was sometimes wrong, he was wrong for the right reason: if data and the theory didn’t match, the theory had to be discarded.
I’m grateful to Gulfshore Playhouse for allowing me to share the story of this remarkable scientist and the parallels between his time and ours.