In the age of DNA revelations, Maud Dromgoole tells the story of thousands fathered by a very few sperm donors
“Most prolific sperm donor of all time.“
There was this wonderful story about a foundling baby left in a church in Texas at Christmas time, placed in the crib where the doll of the infant Jesus had once been. Such a child brought up by strangers could hardly ever expect to discover his origins were it not for the advent of DNA testing. So science and DNA is revealing our biological origins.
Maud Dromgoole’s remarkable play deals with the little known story of “the Barton Brood”. In the 1940s Mary Barton and her husband Austrian Bertold Wiesner ran a fertility clinic at 33 Portland Place in London’s West End close to Harley Street to advise childless couples. The patients were told that they could be inseminated by sperm donated by various intelligent male friends of theirs who would remain anonymous. In 2012 the story broke in the press that Mary’s husband had fathered at least 600 of the babies.
For many years, medical students would donate sperm to be given anonymously and would have no idea that their identity could be discovered. It was made illegal for men to donate on anything other than a very limited scale because of the problems of half siblings meeting each other, and producing children of their own, with consequent genetic risks of inherited problems like Huntington’s Chorea.
Maud Dromgoole’s play has at least 36 characters played by two leading actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens. The design incorporates illuminated windows with the names of the two onstage, a clever device to clear up some of the likely confusion with such numerous roles.
The play opens with Kieran, brought up by a woman in Wales who was his adoptive mother. His father was Bertold Wiesner but his birth mother, having been through fertility treatment, was told by her husband to have the baby adopted. Defining his cornerstone as his family, Kieran says, “My cornerstone lies in no sex at all.” Kieran is obviously unusual in that most of the impregnated mothers kept their children. His special circumstances are revealed later in the play.
Maud Dromgoole’s play has explored all the coupling possibilities of children fathered by Bertold Wiesner from the discovery of half siblings through DNA links to half siblings being attracted to each other, unaware of the links. Unless their birth mother and her husband made them aware, very few would have knowledge of the circumstances of their conception.
If the question of Maud Dromgoole’s play is, “What is Family?” which is really just another way of asking about whether nature or nurture forms who we are and who we relate to, it is just a starting point. A group of fully formed adults discover that they have half siblings, whose only connection is genetic and maybe socio economic as the clinic would have been expensive.
I was adopted at six weeks old and regard the family who brought me up as my “real” family although I have also traced and met my birth father and mother and their children. We know that many adoptees were adopted into dysfunctional families where the dysfunction was attributed to childlessness and their consequent unhappiness have made them search for happier endings with their birth families, which may or may not be the case.
Most of “the Barton Brood” would have been unaware of any genetic irregularity, with, on their birth certificate, the name of the man their birth mother was married to. Only later DNA testing will reveal the half siblings or uncles and aunts for the next generation and its news will be a genetic bombshell to many.
Fielding and Stephens do a creditable job in very difficult circumstances of conveying such a range of people of both sexes. The narratives are added to and the information comes out in dialogue. The playwright is to be commended at taking a daring approach to these stories and for finding a new, topical and original subject of scientific knowledge.
As a post script, sperm donors now know that they may be contacted by their genetic offspring as records are kept and made available at age 18. Privately contacted donors are not subjected to the same scrutiny. Bertold Wiesman and his wife destroyed all of their records and would have been unaware of the DNA developments although as a professor of physiology at University of Edinburgh, he might have envisaged them.
Written by Maud Dromgoole
Directed by Tatty Hennessy
Director: Tatty Hennessy
Designer: Anna Reid
Lighting Designer: Jai Morjaria
Sound Designer: Yvonne Gilbert
Running Time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Closed at Jermyn Street on 13th April 2019
Jermyn Street Theatre
London SW1Y 6ST
Website: Jermyn Street Theatre
Tube: Piccadilly Circus
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at Jermyn Street Theatre
on 22nd March 2019