Ada and the Engine
Ada and the Engine is a play about Ada Lovelace, written by the US’s most produced living playwright, Lauren Gunderson. Although Lauren is not well known in the UK, ElevenOne Theatre are great fans: we produced her play Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight to ecstatic audience reception as part of our 2014 science season. When Helen and I set up ElevenOne, we decided that we were going to produce plays that were brilliant, challenging … and less well-known.
Both of Lauren’s plays that we’ve premiered in the UK are masterful pieces of storytelling. They get to the heart of the humans in the story, and do an outstanding job of communicating the intellectual processes, without being either overly geeky or dumbing down the story.
Ahead of our show opening in Oxford later this month, we spoke to Lauren (@LalaTellsAStory) about the process she goes through to choose the characters she writes about, how she stays true to the histories, but most of all, how she brings life to history.
Ada is a character made for storytelling because of her complexity, drive, hubris, secrets, and brilliance. Hers is an amazing story for me personally to tell because of the convergence of art and science that swirls around her history. Her father was the great poet Lord Byron, her mother was a mathematician; the company she kept included the greatest minds in England. She was a visionary, a rebel, a feminist before feminism, and a woman of passion and skill. She’s also deeply flawed and broken. That makes her a great human to build a story around.
A play is always about people not facts, so this play had to go deep into the desires and dreams of Ada and her friend Charles Babbage. This needed to be balanced by their technical ideas and achievements. Thus, their science and engineering becomes a metaphor for their hearts. The closer they get to realizing their Analytical Engine, the closer they could be to consummating their strange love story. But as history tells us, their engine is never built in their lifetimes. That led me to a story about a kind of love that doesn’t have an easy category, just like Ada’s wild ideas and Charles’s stubborn visions. In the end, it’s about soul mates that don’t quite fit in their time. I love this. Bittersweet and surprising.
I also loved writing about Charles Babbage because of the feminist example he sets. Instead of rebuffing a pretty young debutante, he listened to her and welcomed her ideas. How many wise men of science today would do that?
The most fun I had while researching was visiting the Computer History Museum out here in Palo Alto, CA where they have a working full-scale model of Babbage’s Difference Engine (his calculator). They actually run it once a day out there and it’s a sight to see. It’s as tall as a bus and about 10 feet long. The clanging and clacking when it’s calculating is mesmerizing.
Charles Babbage Difference Engine — Computer History Museum Video
Ada’s story seems like a ripe comparative for today, which is why her story makes such good drama. Women have it harder in STEM fields (in most fields if we’re honest). They are treated differently, paid unequally, judged by standards men aren’t, and on and on. This makes their struggle greater and thus their story more compelling. There’s more to fight against, more to prove, more to defy. But also, I hope this particular story also reveals that smart women can be more than just smart. They can be sexual, emotional, funny, and loving. They don’t have to be perfect and they won’t always succeed. Men get to be complex but women so often have to be pure (all brain or all heart). That’s ridiculous. Women can change the world and also love deeply, desire fully, and break the mold daily.
Scientists and mathematicians should be satisfied with the technical elements of the play as I’ve had several consultants and scientific audience members approve. It’s a steep edge to walk ensuring that the maths and tech are accurate while not overwhelming a non-scientific audience. The real fun of this comes when dramatizing the moments of discovery and the eureka moments. Those moments are thrilling to whomever is watching because it’s about revelation and excitement, not technical knowledge. There are a few of those in Ada and I thrill while watching the audience experience them together.
Ada and the Engine is being performed in Oxford, September 19-23
Mike Taylor, Head of Metrics Development and Producer, ElevenOne Theatre and Lauren Gunderson, Playwright