Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett
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Evolutionary theory made its stage debut as early as the 1840s, reflecting a scientific advancement that was fast changing the world. Tracing this development in dozens of mainstream European and American plays, as well as in circus, vaudeville, pantomime, and "missing link" performances, Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett reveals the deep, transformative entanglement among science, art, and culture in modern times.
The stage proved to be no mere handmaiden to evolutionary science, though, often resisting and altering the ideas at its core. Many dramatists cast suspicion on the arguments of evolutionary theory and rejected its claims, even as they entertained its thrilling possibilities. Engaging directly with the relation of science and culture, this book considers the influence of not only Darwin but also Lamarck, Chambers, Spencer, Wallace, Haeckel, de Vries, and other evolutionists on 150 years of theater. It shares significant new insights into the work of Ibsen, Shaw, Wilder, and Beckett, and writes female playwrights, such as Susan Glaspell and Elizabeth Baker, into the theatrical record, unpacking their dramatic explorations of biological determinism, gender essentialism, the maternal instinct, and the "cult of motherhood."
It is likely that more people encountered evolution at the theater than through any other art form in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Considering the liveliness and immediacy of the theater and its reliance on a diverse community of spectators and the power that entails, this book is a key text for grasping the extent of the public's adaptation to the new theory and the legacy of its representation on the perceived legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of scientific work.
characterization, dialogue, the actors’ bodies, and scenery, and constrained by the two-hour traffic of the stage. There is no such thing as “Darwinian theatre,” although a few plays refer directly to evolutionists by name, as in Shaw’s Misalliance (“Read your Darwin, my boy. Read your Weismann”) and Back to Methuselah (“Darwin is all rot”) or Susan Glaspell’s Inheritors (“Darwin, the great new man”). Some plays also physically place such figures on stage by calling for photographs or busts of
rage”, and yanks open the curtains, wordlessly conveying her deep frustration. Which comes first, these gestures of suppression by actresses, or playwrights inscribing them into their plays? And how do these instances relate to the broader discourse on human evolution? Duse’s acting hinged on restraint; she used “more contained gestures” rather than grand ones.101 She emphasized separate parts of the body rather than giving a notion of wholeness as in the grand gesture style of acting.102 Luigi
clear-headed revival” of a “fascinating” play.109 It may seem odd that directors still need to consider with such sensitivity the possible audience response to breast-feeding on stage, but in fact, by the time Margaret Fleming was written, breast-feeding had moved into the technological sphere it occupies today and a discourse on it was springing up in relation to pharmaceutical developments. Sally Mitchell notes that by the mid-nineteenth century, “glass bottles and rubber nipples became
problems of human evolution: that we are altricial—immature at birth, requiring a long period of dependence. In his preface to the play, Shaw pins great hopes on embryologists’ “astonishing” discovery of recapitulation to help humans learn how to speed up “into months a process which was once so long and tedious that the mere contemplation of it is unendurable by men whose span of life is three-score-and-ten.” He claims there are already examples of this “packing up of centuries into seconds” in
subject matter of plays. Rather than the old-fashioned, “tedious” theme of love, playwrights should focus on themes such as work (“hundreds of the professions occupied by women”) and “women’s friendships with women.”28 One might assume that the suffragettes would heed this call most of all. Suffragette playwright Cicely Hamilton agitated for contraception and abortion rights for women, “the right of men and women (but especially of women) to save themselves suffering, to spare themselves poverty,