Photograph 51

Table of Contents

  • Character Notes
  • Essay 1 : ‘Photograph 51 criticises single-minded ambition as shallow and destructive.’ To what extent do you agree?
  • Essay 2 : ‘In Photograph 51, Anna Ziegler reveals the central importance of collaboration to major scientific achievements.’ Discuss.
  • Essay 3 : “She simply didn’t stand out, I suppose.” What does Ziegler argue prevented Rosalind Franklin from “standing out” in history?
  • Essay 4 : ‘Photograph 51 demonstrates that a place in history can only be won through sacrifice.’ To what extent do you agree?
  • Essay 5 : How does Photograph 51 synthesise art and science?
  • Essay 6:‘James Watson and Francis Crick are the villains of Photograph 51.’ Discuss.
  • Essay 7 : ‘Or born a man.’ To what extent is Photograph 51 a play about gender?
  • Essay 8 : Discuss the role of memory in Photograph 51.


  1. This is the first point of dispute which gives rise to a rift in communication between the two protagonists. Their misunderstanding deepens as both consistently have a clash of opinions and investigative methodologies.
  2. Her profusions of independence and uncompromising solitary work ethic affronts the men she works with. Ziegler employs her as a foil to the multitude of women in that period who are typecast as domestic and sexualised symbols. Rosalind persistently challenges such preconceived notions as she is anything but.
  3. Her isolation is testament to both her social ineptness and being the sole woman of their facility. Ziegler is possibly articulating the costs of striking out as a woman in a men’s world. In this period, few women work in science, and when they do, they frequently face discrimination. Sexism doesn`t merely reflect cultural norms but becomes a tool for oppressing Rosalind in the competition to determine the structure of DNA.
  4. Ziegler illustrates how Rosalind’s bullheadedness and insistence of working alone is ultimately her undoing. The concept of collaboration manifests as expeditious and productive.
  5. Eventually, the men win the acclaim of the discovery, reinforcing themes of gender roles. Nonetheless, as the results are derived from unethical means, their commendation is a double-edged sword as it also crystallises their underhanded approach to this ground-breaking revelation.
  6. Curiously mirroring the death of another famous female scientist before her, Rosalind’s untimely death raises questions about the invaluable nature of scientific research. Unlike Marie Curie, Rosalind’s dead set adherence to her quest does not produce revolutionary aftereffects for her. The dramatic irony induces bittersweet feelings regarding her life’s work.


  1. Rosalind: We were so powerful…We could see everything, really see it – except, sometimes, what was right in front of us.

Her words act as a foreshadowing of the upcoming tragedy by lieu of Ziegler’s dramatic irony in which her life’s work is stolen by her male colleagues in the field. The situational irony of her words asserting that they were “powerful” and “could see everything” is a sore reminder of life’s missed opportunities.

  1. Rosalind: In my mind were patterns of the tiniest repeating structures.

Rosalind’s flashback to her childhood allows us privy into the internal workings of her mind even at a tender age. It attests to her methodical and structured approach that she later hones in her work. Furthermore, it also reveals her fascination with “repeating structures” like that of DNA, demonstrating her affinity with its mystery.

  1. Rosalind: And when I told my father I wanted to become a scientist, he said, “Ah, I see.” … Then he said “No.”

Rosalind’s father remains an influential figure in her life. Despite his initial lack of support for her dreams, his urging that she could not get anything wrong endures as an indelible memory for her. Through this, Ziegler also illustrates the prominence male figures hold in general, be it for society or in the lives of individuals.

  1. Caspar: A field in which the possibilities were … well, they were endless. In which the promise of personal and professional fulfillment was tangible.

Caspar’s aside addresses the members of the audience, offering us glimpses of hope at the conception of the play towards the uncovering of life’s greatest secrets. Furthermore, by utilising such a literary device, Caspar appears more personable to the audience, bolstering more benign views towards him.

  1. (Letter from Rosalind to Wilkins. Ending off with ‘Dr Rosalind Franklin’. He answers her with ‘Dear Miss Franklin’)

This early scene encapsulates the strained relationship that Rosalind and Wilkins share over the entirety of the play. Her constant efforts to be acknowledged as a fellow doctoral researcher is consistently dismissed by Wilkins, whether unconsciously or not. His sheer lack of regard for her title reflects possibly misogynistic views which inevitably downplay female achievement, marginalising their contributions to science altogether.

  1. (conversation between Wilkins and Rosalind. The former is delegating tasks to the latter.)

In this instance, Wilkins’ domineering chauvinism is illuminated through his overly-detailed explanation of expectations on Rosalind and delegation of her tasks. He simply assumes that, although a fellow researcher, there is a need to further ‘educate’ her on the intricacies of their work as females might fail to grasp the gravity of the issue.

  1. Rosalind: I work best when I work alone.

Her insistence on “work(ing) alone” is one of the many which she makes throughout the drama. It reflects her strongheadedness and strict adherence to her preferred methods of working.

  1. Watson: She was meant to be Wilkins’ assistant, and therein lay the problem. She misunderstood the terms. And after that, the rest was inevitable. The race lost right there. In a single moment.

Watson continues Ziegler’s style of breaking the fourth wall, breaking the linear narrative in order to foreshadow later events, where “a single moment” equates to a “race lost”. These comparisons draw our attention to the tragedy of the play where Rosalind’s discovery is interrupted and subsequently stolen by her colleagues. Watson here insinuates that a contributing factor would be the clash of opinions between Rosalind and Wilkins, which led to a lack of trust between the two.

  1. (Tension between Wilkins and Rosalind about nuclear and the Jews. Wilkins: you lot never do seem to approve of it. Rosalind: You’re absolutely right that the Jews should be in a more grateful frame of mind these days.)

The bitter and sarcastic comments thrown back and forth between the two only serve to deepen the gulf between them. This episode underscores Wilkins’ tactlessness and underlying racism in addressing the Jews as “you lot”. Rosalind’s resentment is also emphasised.

  1. Wilkins: All right, Rosy

Rosalind: My name is Rosalind. But you can call me Miss Franklin. Everyone else does.

Wilkins: Fine.

Rosalind: Of course I’d prefer Dr. Franklin but that doesn’t seem to be done here, does it, Mr. Wilkins?

Wilkins: Dr. Wilkins.

Wilkins’ deliberate use of ‘Rosy’ as a nickname for Rosalind displays imprudence on his part as their relationship is not an amicable one at this point. In his bid to appear friendly, his plan backfires and he instead manifests himself as a thoughtless individual. Furthermore, his double standards are amplified when Ziegler presents him taking offence at being addressed as “Mr. Wilkins” as he corrects this in the following lines. Rosalind’s blatant challenge of his practices act as a reminder to the audience of the discriminatory reception she has received at King’s. It inclines the audience to give thought to issues of gender as an inequitable matter.

  1. Wilkins: It’s for men only.

Wilkins’ intentional exclusion of Rosalind at King’s is vividly featured here as he chooses to spend his lunch break in a space in which she is prohibited from entering. Not only does this showcase his pettiness in regards to their earlier disagreement, it also highlights his staunch belief that there is nothing partisan about a men’s only room. Ziegler simultaneously wields this incident as a critique on the institutionalised misogyny that occurred during the 1950s.

  1. Gosling: Wilkins is fine. Between you and me he’s a bit of a stiff … And he works hard. You know, no wife to go home to, no children. He devotes himself completely.

Gosling’s confidential exchange with Rosalind sheds more light on Wilkins and the sheer lack of emotional ties he has. The repetition of the word “no” negates his family life, inciting possible pity from the audience in terms of his sacrifices for his profession. The fact that he “devotes himself completely” to his career also remains as a redeeming factor about him, humanising Wilkins as a vulnerable man.

  1. Rosalind: I’m glad that on my first day here you didn’t take a break from your daily routine to accompany me somewhere I was permitted to dine.

Her caustic / acerbic remark leaves no qualms about the resentment she feels upon Wilkins’ ungracious exeunt from their previous conversation. Sarcasm continues to be one of the hallmarks of her exchange with her male colleagues, branding her as a difficult and acrimonious female.

  1. (Allusion of The Winter’s Tale)

Wilkins and Rosalind share a moment reminiscing about an alluded play, The Winter’s Tale. Ziegler punctuates the main narrative with this allusion to mirror the tragic demise of the heroines in both plays. Wilkins’ ironic observation that “in Shakespeare’s version the heroine survives” is cruelly heartwrenching as we are invited to consider misfortune that lies before our current heroine, Rosalind.

Mirrors: Both female protagonists are misunderstood throughout the plays despite their efforts in gaining recognition from the men in their lives. Both women also remain faithful to their initial love – science for Rosalind and Leontes for Hermione. Both experience marginalisation at the hands of men in power. Both are betrayed in spite of their intentions of goodwill. Ultimately, both die alone under particularly dismal circumstances.

  1. (Talking about the humidity in the camera)

Wilkins: Hm. I suppose we need to fix that problem, don’t we.

Rosalind: (Taking umbrage.) Yes. I suppose we do.

Rosalind takes offense at Wilkins’ careless remark as she knows that ultimately even though their work and discovery is regarded as collaborative effort, she would have to bear the brunt of settling the ostensible problems faced.

  1. Lights shift. (Right after moment before.)

Ziegler employs lights to indicate a change in scene and mood. This allows the audience to focus on the next scene as one that occurs outside the timeline of the one before.

  1. (Written correspondence between Rosalind and Caspar.)

Letter writing is symbolic in P51 as it is through these actions in which Ziegler presents a softer version of our female protagonist. Also, it is of paramount value that the only possible friend Rosalind has in this play is Caspar, the man she encounters who does not appear to have any prejudice towards her. In their correspondence, both continue to uphold courtesy.

  1. (Phone conversation between Rosalind and Gosling whilst on her trip to Switzerland.)

Rosalind: I think one sees something new each time one looks at truly beautiful things.

Although Rosalind initially responds to Caspar’s earlier profusions of beauty in a guarded and professional manner, this line shows otherwise. Whilst on holiday, she uses the same words Caspar wrote, revealing the impact that his words had on her.

  1. Rosalind moves into a beam of light.

For her work, she is willing to go the extra mile. She does not think twice about exposing herself to fatal radiation. In hindsight, we can only guess if this was after her discovery of her cancer. Nevertheless, her passionate spirit is epitomised in this serendipitous moment.

  1. Gosling: I just don’t want to … (To the audience.) I was going to say “endanger myself” but I didn’t.

Gosling echoes the voices of reason in his aside to the audience. His statement of honesty is strikingly contrasted to Rosalind’s dismissive attitude towards her own safety in comparison to scientific achievement.

  1. Watson: I’m 22. I already have my doctorate.

Watson’s bold assertions / declarations about himself present him as a self-absorbed and egoistical character. Although bright, his social communication leaves much to be desired and he is drenched in a negative light by Ziegler.

  1. Watson: He said the worst thing is that it eradicates curiosity, because it solves everything. So in my house there was no God. Which meant I needed to go looking for my own set of instructions for life.

Like Rosalind, Watson holds his father’s words of advice during his youth in a firm grip. His negation of God foreshadows his disdain towards any higher ethical power. There is no surprise to his unscrupulous methods of attaining Rosalind’s pictures of DNA as he is fuelled only by his desire to win at the ‘race’.

  1. Watson: The biggest secret? The gene, of course. It’s all I can think of. All I see. And I want in on it. … I’ve gotta get in the race, Wilkins.

The brevity of his sentences illumine his urgency towards getting ahead of others in his field. His repetition of ‘I’ attests to his selfish focus on himself and his own goals, dismissive towards the needs and wants of others. Furthermore, his view that there is a ‘race’ sheds light on the pressures facing those in science to make groundbreaking discoveries.

  1. (Prolepsis / flashforward between Watson and Wilkins)

The prolepsis between two foreshadow the eventual ‘winner’ at uncovering DNA’s structure.

  1. (Gosling’s interjection as a way to break the linear narrative.)

In some ways, Gosling’s interjections act as comic relief. He lightens the mood of the play.

  1. Wilkins: May I see it?

Rosalind: What?

Wilkins: Your work.

Rosalind: Why?

Wilkins: We’re partners, aren’t we, Miss Franklin?


Aren’t we?

Rosalind: Yes we are. (p31)

The awkward pause between the two attest to the uncomfortable nature of their relationship. Rosalind’s hesitancy in responding in kind belies their remoteness. There is dramatic irony in their pairing as, although supposed “partners”, we know that the two were never really in any partnership throughout the entire play.

  1. Wilkins: how can we get anything done if she’s constantly making me feel as though I’m impolite to her? No, worse – offensive. (p32)

In a complaint to his colleagues, Wilkins bemoans the fact that there is a sore lack of collaboration between himself and Rosalind. As this difficulty continues to plague him, his sensitive nature is underscored. Furthermore, the audience is also conveyed the importance of Rosalind to Wilkins. Teamwork and collaboration continues to be illuminated as an overarching theme in P51.

  1. Wilkins: All I’ve been is kind to her… Kindness always works with women, Gosling. I’m a trifle concerned for you if you didn’t know that.

Gosling: Noticing the chocolates. Dr. Wilkins, you shouldn’t have. (p33)

Situational irony is pronounced in this happenstance where Wilkins assumes to understand how to placate women. However, his track record with his past relationships show this to be untrue. Instead, it is the unassuming Gosling who notes immediately the error of gifting Rosalind chocolates.

  1. Rosalind: We’re not here to have a relationship (p34)

Her acerbic assertion and reminder of their professional civility serves to pour a bucket of cold water over Wilkins, embarrassing him in the process. Ziegler declares that he turns “red” at her offhand comment. Our female protagonist’s cool demeanour is congruent with the insurmountable barriers she erects in her interactions with her male colleagues.

  1. (Repetition of the word “cold” to describe Wilkin’s ex-wife. See character notes. P34)
  2. Gosling: And then…then Wilkins gave a lecture and referenced “his” DNA work. … He announced, to great applause, that all the X-ray patterns he’d made indicated a clear central x, a helix. (p35)

In a miscalculated move, Wilkins steps on Rosalind’s toes by inadvertently / unwittingly claiming her work as his. This remains another clear exhibition of his social dimwittedness on account of his later realisations of his reprehensible actions.

  1. Rosalind: I was told – before I came to King’s – that I would be in charge of X-ray diffraction. (p36)

Ziegler highlights one of the first misunderstandings the two had upon meeting. The theme of storytelling is emphasised as one that may not be fully credible on account of the fact that every individual might have different perceptions towards what is true. Over the entirety of the theatrical piece, the audience never knows if Rosalind was really sent as a co-researcher or an assistant to King’s. Although we might be more partial to the first idea, the lack of clear evidence reveals the need of guesswork and hypothesis; mirroring the characters uncovering of the DNA mystery.

  1. Rosalind: I simply don’t understand why you would state something, why you would tell a crowd of people, no less, that something is true when it’s not. (p36)

Rosalind’s disgust is made apparent. Although this statement alludes to Wilkins’ behaviour, her reprimand can similarly be used to berate the actions of Watson and Crick as well. In particular, Watson acts as a foil to her steady, meticulous character with his restless, driven manner. Unfortunately, Ziegler, through their juxtaposition, draws attention to how those who behave like Watson might ultimately gain their reward in the “unfair” race of life.

  1. (Casper’s personification of DNA as humans AND repetition of “her place in history” p37-38)

Casper utilises sexual imagery to personify DNA which simultaneously illuminates Rosalind’s fastidiousness, being able to make meaning out of the confusing mess. Furthermore, the repetition of “her place in history” by three different male characters hones in on its significance.

  1. Crick: And so Rosalind did her work. Or tried to. Painstakingly. Paying attention to every detail. Every discrepancy.

Watson: … Rosalind didn’t hypothesise the way Crick and I did; she proved things… well for one thing it isn’t fast. (p39)

Ziegler employs many instances of her characters breaking the fourth wall in order to provide the audience with a layered experience of storytelling. It is of significance that this storytelling role is usually allocated to the male figures of P51.

Rosalind’s stagnancy is directly juxtaposed with the rapid pace of Watson and Crick in ground covered as she “didn’t hypothesise” and chose instead to “(prove) things”.

  1. Watson: Wilkins got lonely. (p40)

Loneliness is another extensive idea propagated in P51. Many characters are compelled to dive into a plethora of things due to their loneliness. For Wilkins, although he objects to speculation that he was “lonely”, is shown to seek company when he is rejected by Rosalind. Most notably, his self-absorption unwittingly led him to seek solace in Watson and Crick, which ended up to be the undoing of Rosalind’s hard work.

  1. (Wilkins asks Crick on his progress but Watson jumps in to switch the focus to Wilkins himself, even urging Crick to do so. P40)

Watson is revealed as a wily and cunning character. Although the youngest scientist, he is quick-witted and adept in catching Watson at his vulnerable moments to gather more information about their findings.

  1. Watson: she could possibly be attractive if she took even the mildest interest in her clothes. (p42)

Completely disregarding Rosalind’s presentation, Watson and Crick indulge in reducing her to an object, openly assessing and evaluating her aesthetics. The male psyche of scaling a woman according to her beauty is reflected here.

  1. Watson: There’s nothing gentle, nothing remotely tender about her. She’s a cipher where a woman should be. That said, she’s not fat. (p43)

Once again, Watson comments on Rosalind’s femininity, or rather, her lack of. The repetition of “nothing”, coupled with the metaphor “cipher”, stresses on the inadequacy of her femaleness. Women are cast as overwhelmingly alluring and subservient, a stereotype which Rosalind challenges on all fronts.

  1. Wilkins: Then perhaps you should return to your country, where theft and burglary are upheld as virtues. (p44)
  2. (first mention of photograph 51. P45)

This is the first glance the audience gets at the actual prop which gave the play its titular namesake. This scene is certainly one of significance. A sense of awe is palpable, bolstered by the tones of wonderment apparent in both Gosling and Rosalind. The repetition of “photograph 51” in the following lines serve to act as rhythmic caesuras of significance.

  1. Rosalind reminiscing father’s words: “you must never be wrong. In one instance, you could lose all you’ve achieved”

But it was in that moment that, without realising it, a kind of fear set in, a dread

around the edges of my convictions, like a hovering dusk no lamplighter ever truly

dispels. (p46)

In this moment, our female protagonist admits the internalised “fear” that has “set in” her towards ever being “wrong”. She places her father’s words on a pedestal, upholding it as truth she must grasp on to. The audience is thus better able to comprehend her subsequent decision to delve deeper into her work, insistent on her methodology of proving and checking constantly.

  1. She opens a drawer and files it away. P46

This act is of paramount value as it represents her deliberate choice in stowing away the truth – an act of fear of being wrong in her subsequent postulations.

  1. Rosalind: (slowly.) I take a leap of faith every day, Maurice, just by walking

through that door in the morning. I take a leap of faith that it’ll all be worth it, that it will all ultimately mean something. (p48)

Here, Rosalind’s comment can be linked to her experience as a female scientist. She explains that she has always required “faith” that her work is meaningful and that “it’ll all be worth it”. Her tone carries something close to desperation in her assertions of what she holds on to. This line of thinking is drastically disparate from Wilkins’ experience as a scientist in a male-dominated field.

  1. (continuation from above quote)

Wilkins: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Rosalind: No, you wouldn’t. (p48)

Their differences are never clearer. Rosalind’s intentional word choice of “wouldn’t” instead of “don’t” underlyingly emphasises the rift between the two. Gender remains a marginalising element in a highly patriarchal institution.

  1. Wilkins: Life is and always has been unfair. That is its enduring hallmark. (p48)

In a momentary loss of restraint, Wilkins berates life as he is reminded of his broken relationship with his ex-wife. The audience are compelled to feel for him, despite his faults. This is mirrored in Rosalind’s later comments on Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, in which she sympathises with him regardless of his deficiencies.

  1. Wilkins: There can be no room for error. No room for ..humanity, really. That’s what you leave out of your equations, Miss Franklin. (p49)

Wilkins’ spiteful remark hits the nail on the head as Rosalind attempts to conceal her thoughts and feelings under a blanket of stoic detachedness and fortitude. The repetition of “no” negates the calculation of human error in Rosalind.

This is ironic as we later see how she succumbs to her humanity, in the form of ovarian cancer, which ultimately leads to her losing in the “race”.

  1. (Rosalind’s letter to Caspar. P49)

She speaks at length about the way they are now to be addressed, as Drs, revealing this to be essential to her although she later corrects herself by stating that “one can’t focus on such things”.

  1. (Prolepsis OR aside by Crick. Possibly more of the former. P50)

Crick’s prolepsis allows him to air his thoughts about their success in hindsight, declaring that “none of us really knew what we were searching for”, that success was “illusory” and “elusive”. This chilling thought resounds with the audience as the play draws to a close. It does appear to be the case that every individual has divergent goals and meaning derived from those goals. His statement that it might exist “only in our conception of it” is profound.

Despite supposed success in winning a Nobel prize, Wilkins states that “it wasn’t” the finest moment of his life, considering what he has lost. Similarly, Crick remains deeply affected by Odile’s estrangement, continuing to feel “tired” in life. Whereas, Rosalind, despite her death and inability to make the final discovery, is able to declare that “we all won” considering the benefit to the world.

  1. (Watson’s first interaction with Rosalind. P51-53)

Watson’s impropriety and impudence is on full display as it tries to siphon information off Rosalind. His character is cemented as an egotistical and self-absorbed one in his intrusion to her working space.

  1. (Wilkins and Watson trading comments about Rosalind. P54)

Consistently, the men seek solace in one another by licking their wounds from being rejected by the female figures in their lives. This sharing represents another episode of alienation of Rosalind by the men.

  1. (Wilkins, in the heat of the moment, lets Watson take a look at photograph

After looking at it for some time, Watson decides to leave just then. P55)

This is another crucial moment in the drama. The empathic pause as Watson studies the photo is not lost on the audience especially in his hurried way of making his exeunt. This is the pivotal point where dramatic irony is at its climax and the tables have turned in Watson and Crick’s favour.

  1. Wilkins: I’m starting to think there might come a point in life after which one can’t really begin again. (p59)

The idea of restarting seems to come up at different points in Ziegler’s drama. Nonetheless, at this point, Wilkins is bemoaning / lamenting the lonely emptiness in his life which lacks female companionship.

  1. (Watson continues to choose moments of weakness and distraction for Wilkins to question him on Rosalind’s work. P60.)
  2. Wilkins: Look, if I’d known you were going to do another, I wouldn’t have… (p62)

Although Wilkins’ thoughtless actions may incite anger in the audience, this line reveals his sheer imperceptivity / obtuseness which could possibly be a redeeming factor in garnering our forgiveness.

  1. Watson: There was no “we” where you were concerned. That was the problem. (p63)

Watson’s prolepsis shines the spotlight on to teamwork once again. Ziegler possibly uses their example to comment on the benefit that collaboration brings in a field of competition and undercutting.

  1. Caspar: Rosalind didn’t know she should be in a hurry. Neither of us knew. (p63)

Caspar chimes into the role of storytelling, elucidating Rosalind’s total lack of awareness on account of her exclusion by the male colleagues. Here, the idea of time running out takes on a dual meaning in a later show of dramatic irony. Not only is Watson and Crick embarking on uncovering the mystery of DNA at breakneck speed, Rosalind holds a ticking time bomb as well.

  1. Rosalind: (Taking offence) What’s happened? You got your degree and somehow I lost mine? (p63)

Her belligerence makes no exceptions, even taking umbrage at Casper for failing to address her in a non-professional manner.

  1. Crick: He’s in love with her. (Look at the whole conversation between Crick and Watson and under what conditions it happens. P66)

Other places of evidence: p56 “unhappily” “Wilkins looks on, stunned.” P57 His journey was fine, so shall we? … I think work is the reason why we’re all here, isn’t it? Isn’t it, Miss Franklin. P67 “Wilkins is watching them” She doesn’t like being called Rosy. R: I don’t mind it. P68 “with unconcealed glee

  1. Gosling: For a moment, everything stopped. Different ways our lives could go hovered in the air around us. (p71)

Ziegler provides us with another instance in how the play could have had a vastly different ending. Were Wilkins and Rosalind to have stayed up talking, they could have possibly reached a conclusion before their competitors or even established unity between themselves. Either one would have a huge impact on the result of the play.

  1. (Watson and Crick figuring out the details of the DNA structure.)

Wilkins: Like a team. A successful team. (p71)

Although rather unlikeable characters, their synergy is undeniable as each play a role  in contributing to the unravelling of the mystery. Wilkins plays the sorry role of commentator here, ironic as he never got to enjoy being a team with Rosalind.

  1. Rosalind: To be honest I’m not sure anymore how terribly valuable my time is…Or maybe I haven’t been…allotting it to the right things. I don’t know. (p72)

We gain a glimpse of the brooding thoughts haunting her in her moment of honesty with Caspar. This is the first time where she admits her uncertainty in knowing how to proceed. Furthermore, in hindsight of her cancer, we better understand that she could have been projecting the possible happiness she could have enjoyed had she focused on other pursuits contrary to her work.

  1. Caspar: I think the things we want but can’t have are probably the things that define us (p73)

This is a startling truth that Ziegler highlights and it encourages the audience to ponder and ruminate not only upon the yearnings of the many characters but also their own desires and hopes.

  1. Gosling: There’s no science that can explain it. Loneliness. (p74)

The spotlight is shone on “loneliness” once again, allowing the audience to conceptualise how it has affected the various characters in the play.

  1. Rosalind looks down at her hand in his. The moment of possibility lingers. Then a strange look comes over her face. …She clutches her stomach. (p74)

Ziegler’s stage directions reveal the hidden feelings buried by Rosalind, in which she ponders the possibility of beginning a new life with Caspar. Unfortunately, tragic irony plays its trump card in dealing her ovarian cancer. Cancer is symbolic as it represents a ticking time bomb in the “race” to discover the “secret of life”. Compellingly enough, Rosalind contracts cancer of her ovaries, said to be related to a different kind of “secret of life”. In addition, tragic irony is accentuated in the unravelling of this truth right at the moment of possibility with Caspar. The audience is left appalled for her.

  1. (Ziegler showing two vastly different discoveries at once. P75)

2 discoveries: a) DNA structure b) Rosalind’s cancer

  1. (Wilkins struggling to pen the letter to Rosalind but settling on addressing her as “Dr. Franklin” p76)

Wilkins finally addresses her the way she wants to in this letter to her. He continues to hold on to hopes of her return yet struggling to convey words of any importance. His social ineptitude shines through once more.

  1. Watson: But wasn’t it worth it? Now we’ll never be forgotten. (p77)
  2. Rosalind: We lose. In the end, we lose. The work is never finished and in the meantime our bodies wind down (p78)

Work remains incredibly essential to Rosalind. Even on her deathbed, she refuses to submit to her illness, choosing to escape to finish up on any work she might have. A frisson of helplessness is echoed in her desperate repetition of “lose”, articulating that she is fighting a losing battle against time. With everything else at a standstill, she chooses to immerse herself in work to find purpose.

  1. Wilkins: But we lost.

Rosalind: Lost? No…we all won. The world won, didn’t it? (p79)

Although initially saddened by her sheer lack of time, there are moments of clarity in which she chooses to view things from a larger perspective, chiming that “the world won”. This is congruent with her moral integrity in perceiving science as a big step forward for mankind rather than as a “race”.

  1. Rosalind: So then why didn’t I get those days? Who decided I shouldn’t get those days? Didn’t I deserve them? (p80)

Tragic irony resounds as Rosalind makes allusions to someone deciding her fate. These lines reveal that she is still struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of Watson and Crick’s announcement.

  1. (Suggestions from the male scientists. P80)

In this scene, the female voice is silenced by the droning suggestions made by the male scientists, suggesting that they know better of what she could do. These lines end off with how if only she’d been “born a man”. This is contrasted against Watson’s earlier profusions of being born at this momentous time. Not only was it imperative to be born at a special time, gender eventuated as a major deciding factor in this field as well and the regard that came with it.

  1. (Wilkins breaking down at Gosling’s asides about Rosalind’s eulogies. The former insists on beginning again.)

Caspar: It’s the tricky thing about time, and memory. I tell my grandchildren: whole worlds of things we wish had happened are as real in our heads as what actually did occur. (p81)

Wilkins’ grief is apparent, refusing to face up to the fact that Rosalind has passed on. Intriguingly, he reimagines her alive, able to hold a conversation with him – a show of starting over with her. However, Ziegler provides a hint that this Rosalind is merely a construct from his memory. The audience’s sympathies are evoked and possibly poured out on Wilkins in observing how he manages his melancholy and mourning.

  1. Allusions to the play The Winter’s Tale

Some impt lines

Rosalind: And when Hermione died, even though it was Leontes’ fault, I felt for him. I truly did.

Wilkins: I love that Hermione wasn’t really dead. That she comes back.

Rosalind: (Sympathetically) No, Maurice. She doesn’t. Not really.

Rosalind: Hope. They all project it. Leontes projects life where there is none, so he can be forgiven. (p82-83)

Here, Ziegler gives us an inkling of how Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale mirrors Photograph 51 by projecting a conversation held by Wilkins and Rosalind. Just as Leontes had probably imagined a revived Hermione, Rosalind was conveying to Wilkins that she was his reimagined heroine too, a mere figment of his subconscious. She also hones in onto the crux which Wilkins is agonising over: he never got to apologise properly to Rosalind and receive a form of forgiveness from her. He also never got to communicate his feelings to her properly.

  1. Rosalind: There must come a point in life when you realise you can’t begin again. (p83)

Rosalind’s convicted tone reminds Wilkins that he needs to move on. One of the flaws he struggles with is his inability to pick up the pieces and make progress as he clutches onto the past.

Character Notes


  1. The glimpses we get into her life reveal her to be precocious and familiar with being “always right”. This culminated in her dogged determination to constantly find proof for the findings she has.
  2. Her uprightness also shines through her dedication to her work which she regards as “a leap of faith that it’ll all be worth it” (p48). Her consistent profusions of getting “work” done reveals her unswerving drive, a largely redeeming quality relating to scientific progress.
  3. Apart from her being depreciated / devalued as a woman in the male-dominated sphere of science, Rosalind’s experienced alienation is also a result of the aberrant and cutthroat conditions under which she works. The underlying ambitions proliferated by her colleagues waylay her efforts in uncovering the mystery of DNA.

Extra: Under a culture of competition, a healthy social environment is sacrificed as scientists contend for recognition. Such entails their “work” becoming a contest for credit rather than a collaboration for the greater good.

  1. In a picture of situational irony, Rosalind’s “meticulous” nature ends up as her own undoing as her stress for irrefutable proof is intercepted by Crick and Watson’s eagerness to reveal what they know. Unlike the proverbial Tortoise, the Hare has won the race against time in this instance.
  2. Ziegler humanises Rosalind by allowing the latter’s burgeoning relationship take centre stage for moments at a time. By dint of Caspar’s characterisation, the audience is privy to her internal monologue where she reveals she desires “to be a child again” and “feel important”. The inclusion of stage directions – “the moment of possibility lingers” – further accentuates this binary of emotions which Rosalind manages to stow away. The tragic irony pertinent in this scene leads the audience to contemplate the notion of time and purpose, where inclinations may sometimes have to be sacrificed in order for other yearnings to flourish.


  1. (a) Cumulatively, these instances portray Wilkins as one who has deeply ingrained / entrenched prejudices which he embodies in his responses to the people around him. This is crucial as he is characterised as a stereotypically chauvinistic white male, incapable of empathising with others. His resulting lack of connections with his peers and broken relationship with his ex-wife makes this evident. Just as his bigotry has excluded Rosalind in this male-dominated world, Ziegler hinges upon this to showcase the impossibilities that lie before women were they to be repressed by men.

(b) Wilkins is exhibited as an imperceptive and rather dense individual in his interactions with others as shown by his repeated social faux pas. He appears rather oblivious about his faults. Yet, Ziegler absolves him from condemnation by revealing the many lengths he goes to in order to reconcile with Rosalind over the entirety of the play. His entreaties include buying “chocolates”, recurrent supplications to collaborate and reflections on his behaviour subsequently. Relationship-building is thus illuminated to be a two-way endeavour that does not rest upon an individual alone.

  1. Wilkins’ interactions with women are also highlighted as wanting / deficient. Such miscommunication is most apparent with Rosalind in which he makes many prejudiced surmises regarding her behaviour. The audience can observe how he is deeply affected by constantly feeling as if he is “offensive” to her. Another instance is his obvious discomfort with answering her questions about his potentially “cold” ex-wife. The repetition of “cold” suggests its severity and we are compelled to sympathise with him as such “cold(ness)” is reinforced through Rosalind once again.
  2. Gosling’s confidential remark about Wilkins being “stiff” is revealing of the fact of his eccentricities. It foreshadows the later conversations the latter has with his scientific compatriots where he is unable to be flexible in social situations and tends to take things at face value.
  3. Wilkins remorse is demonstrated in this example and the audience is compelled to ruminate upon how this revelation is two-pronged. Firstly, it highlights how he has a conscience and realises his involvement in causing Rosalind’s eventual failure. On the other hand, it also reinforces notions of his dimness in realising the gravity of his actions by openly sharing about research findings with the very people who had tried to trump them before.
  4. The letter to Rosalind acts as a symbol of reconciliation where he first addresses her the way she wants and this helps set the tone for their later exchange in which “something passes between them”. Ziegler’s inclusion of these stage directions sheds light on the shift in their relationship, the possibility of amicability. This represents a change in both protagonists. Possibly, Ziegler is articulating how the work that once consumed and infringed upon their every bearing now loses its significance as they ponder other relatively more essential elements to


  1. Watson’s very demeanour is telling of his pompousness and bullishness. No pretence is made about his single-minded goal of uncovering a groundbreaking truth that would seal his name in the annals of science. Ziegler characterises him as the quintessential millennial, hungry to establish his name and amass power and recognition.
  2. The audience is made aware of his many preconceived beliefs regarding women and other people groups. His degradation of females as mere objects to be visually described, initially typecasting Rosalind as “overweight” on account of her apparently overbearing attitude reveals his imbibed sexism and narrow-mindedness. Upon actually meeting her, he perpetuates such objectification by mentioning her “glasses” and “hair”, conceding “she could possibly be attractive”. The sheer fact that he blatantly ignores the work that she is engaging with paints a poignant picture of the male gaze which undermines the value of women in society.
  3. Watson’s intrusion into Rosalind’s office is a physical portrayal of his invasion into her research findings and mirrors his unethical means of obtaining information. Whilst the latter retains her integrity by refusing to tap onto the resources he offers, their juxtaposition inclines the audience to endorse Rosalind’s efforts and reject Watson as a character to be repulsed at.
  4. The work of Watson and Crick remains an indelible achievement that both casts them as revolutionary scientists and dishonourable colleagues willing to justify the ends with whatever means they feel compelled to take.


  1. In general, Crick is generally portrayed as a comparatively more reticent person to Watson. His entreaties to collaborate and share information are not as outrageous as Watson’s. Nonetheless, his compromising attitude also paints him as another victim of the sheer pressure scientists are under to produce avant-garde and novel discoveries.
  2. Watson’s assertions that Crick “ogles every other woman who crosses his path” is not only left unrefuted by the man in question but instead, “much more” is emphasised. Such comments are symptomatic of ‘locker-room talk’, connotating degrading and dismissive views towards women.
  3. Ziegler underscores the opportunity costs of apparent success in the scientific field, using Crick as an instrument to convey the sacrifices of sleep and relationship for work. Crick’s lethargy encourages the audience to consider the drawbacks of achieving professionally, framing the unending rat race as a rather bittersweet one.


  1. Caspar’s minority status as a Jew places him in a similar boat to Rosalind where both feel marginalised albeit for different reasons. Nonetheless, being Jewish is a commonality they both share which also contributes to the two establishing a semblance of a relationship with each other.
  2. Caspar’s letters are an indication of his ardent respect and praise for Rosalind’s contributions to the scientific sphere. At the time of writing, he is the only male who acknowledges her before her gender or looks and Rosalind takes kindly to this by stating that “it’s nice to hear one isn’t alone”. Although their relationship is largely professional, the letter pave the way for deeper connections to form. Here, we get to observe how communication before judging one another can result in pleasant exchanges.
  3. Caspar’s first encounter with Rosalind reveals his tactfulness in communicating with women. Nonetheless, Crick’s aside informs us that the former, like any other male in the play, holds preconceived notions of what women, especially those academically inclined, should appear like. Through these male characters, Ziegler proliferates the prevalent ideas held by society towards women in particular fields of work.
  4. Ziegler allows the two to form a blossoming relationship where both develop mutual feelings of interest and attraction to reflect the inclinations one might feel towards seeking out a kindred spirit amidst the banalities of life. However, this hope is short-lived on account of the tragic irony that occurs which breaks them apart.


  1. Gosling is largely depicted as an omniscient narrator. His lines are usually given as asides, breaking the fourth wall to communicate with the audience to furnish us with information we would not otherwise be able to have access to.

Essay 1 : ‘Photograph 51 criticises single-minded ambition as shallow and destructive.’ To what extent do you agree?

Leave a Reply

error: Content is protected !!