No GCSE education is complete without mandatory reading of plays deemed to be “literary classics,” such a part of the cultural landscape that they make their way into everyday conversations. But far more plays and books slip beneath the waves, increasingly forgotten and out of print. Occasionally one might surface here or there, a reference in an almost-forgotten school textbook, or plucked from obscurity as old texts are scanned onto the Internet.
I came across one of these plays a few months ago, though to be honest I can hardly remember how I found it. Probably looking for something to do with outer space, all of a sudden seeing this gem pop up, with a fantastically whimsical title: “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.”
As far as forgotten plays go, this one was quite successful in its time. First appearing in 1964, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1971. This puts it in the same company as “Death of Salesman” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, both well known even now.
The true focus of the play might be the dysfunctional family at the heart of the story, but I’m far more taken by the eponymous science project. One of the characters, Tillie, is raising radioactivity-treated Marigold seeds for her school science fair. Can anything be more 60s? This was just the era for radiation, both a terrifying abstract fear and a futuristic magic bullet to solve all our problems.
From the 1950s onwards, irradiated seeds became increasingly common. New varieties of fruits and vegetables were developed by screening mutated seeds for valuable changes. One of the most well known varieties developed this way is the Rio Star Grapefruit, developed in 1985. Though, the “Golden Promise” barley developed in the 60s in the UK might be even more useful. With its stunted height and improved malting properties, the barley has a loyal following amongst beer and whisky brewers.
Seeds were even sent into space, in the hopes that high doses of cosmic radiation would produce even more novel and remarkable mutations. This carries on today, with mutation breeding a key part in crop development from small research labs through to large-scale commercial seed companies.
At the time, this had reached such a level in the public consciousness that irradiated seeds featured in a Pulitzer-prize winning play. And yet today many of use are mostly or wholly unaware of the role radiation has played in developing many of the fruits and vegetables we see in supermarkets everyday. It’s funny to think that a plot device in a near-forgotten play presaged a now-common means for developing new foods. Who knows if this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play will have nearly as much to say about the future of farming!
Featured Image by Nicolas Raymond