Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Drama of Evolution

Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr. Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett. NY: Columbia UP 2015. ISBN: 978-0-231-16470-2. Hardcover; Illustrated. 400 pgs. $50U.S.

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr offers a fascinating and sweeping study of the impact of evolutionary ideas on the dramatic arts. She says that theatre and evolution ask similar questions and have similar aims in terms of probing the nature of being human. She says that the immediate directness of theatre and its emphasis on the action of human form provide an apt venue for scientific ideas. Theatre especially has the capacity to present history in real time. Shepherd-Barr says that the purpose of her book is twofold: to enumerate references to evolution in the playwrights under discussion and to examine how the writers engage, directly or not, with evolutionary ideas.

Her book is not precisely about any intersection between evolution and literary influence, and she specifically criticizes literary Darwinism (which examines human behavior, principally in its narrative form, in terms of evolved adaptations). Her concern is that the literary Darwinists try to justify art by characterizing it as an evolved behavior (and not as a byproduct of some other adaptation). Additionally, she makes it clear that she will not address any How or Why questions concerning the adaptive functions of the arts. Nor do we get, with all the emphasis on the moving human body, any ideas concerning mirror or motor neurons or theory of mind. This is not a book about the science of evolution. Rather, it is a demonstration of how the arts borrow (and at times twist) scientific ideas.

Shepherd-Barr is skillful in showing how playwrights actively employ, whether in agreement or not, scientific ideas of their time.  The scope and depth of her dramatic knowledge is impressive, and while much discussion of the plays can tend to summary rather than analysis, such information is quite helpful. This book is not only beneficial to students and scholars who study the interrelation of drama and science, but I’d venture to say that the book could be quite useful to playwrights who are writing in this area. From a historical perspective concerning modern drama, the book is invaluable and provides a social history about how theatre gives voice to evolutionary ideas of science, eugenics, male/female relationships and marriage, women’s issues, sex and birth control, motherhood, and parenthood.

Shepherd-Barr declares that in contrast to how a novelist (such as Thomas Hardy) can utilize the length of a novel to unravel evolutionary ideas, the playwright has to use the human body on stage as a symbolic text to address and question the audience. And this stage-to-audience dialogue worked well for the Victorians, since they were engaged with evolutionary ideas not only because of Charles Darwin (the conversation started much earlier) but because of the popularizing (and sometimes distortion) of Darwinian ideas by thinkers such as T.H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Ernst Haeckel. Shepherd-Barr’s understanding of evolutionary ideas and processes, from Lamarck to Lyell through Haeckel, is sound. She does an exceptional job explaining these often differing ideas concerning evolution (as she has written other books on theatre and science). For instance, there is Haeckel’s incorrect theory of recapitulation where the development of the embryo mimics the evolutionary process. While this idea turns out to be bad biology it works well on stage and was picked up by G.B. Shaw in Back to Methuselah. And that’s the point she makes and the core around which she hovers in the book – not the question of how perfectly imaginative writers understand evolutionary ideas but how imaginative writers contextualize any of these ideas (accurately or not) in their plays.

The Victorians were curious people who valued spectacle as a means of learning, evidenced in the growth and popularity of zoos, museums, lectures, and public experiments. There was a sense of the theatrical in how knowledge is thus acquired, and the Victorians were quite concerned with the implications of science, and especially evolution, on the notion of the individual and the meaning of life. Shepherd-Barr offers a thorough historical perspective with detail concerning Victorian attitudes, values, and beliefs, particularly in how discoveries in the biological sciences, geology, and anthropology filtered into the theatrical arts. For example, freak shows became popular as do exhibits of indigenous people from far-off lands, such as the Fuegians. Animals, too, became the subject of dramatic interest. Shaw in Man and Superman anthropomorphizes nonhuman creatures with human characteristics.

Likewise, there would be elaborate shows such as Birds, Beasts and Fishes (1854) where people mimic animals. In fact, in the nineteenth century there are many instances of animals appearing on stage. One of Darwin’s important books is The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) which features strange and nearly grotesque photographs of human faces. An actor such as Henry Irving in The Bells was expert in wild facial expressions that denote atavism (54). In light of evolution, Shepherd-Barr notes, many taboo subjects, such as sex, violence, and insanity are open to public discussion. At the same time, any survey of the scientific literature of the time will demonstrate that some thinkers questioned any aspects of evolution or simply misunderstood the processes of evolution.

Early attempts to integrate evolutionary ideas in drama examined how the natural environment offstage would impact the human action on stage. Examples of this, notes Shepherd-Barr can be seen in James A. Herne who was influenced by Henrik Ibsen where there is, echoing Darwin, a struggle for existence. One needs to adapt to his or her environment. The American realist, Hamlin Garland, like Herne, was familiar with evolutionary ideas, mostly via Herbert Spencer, and also demonstrated how the environment could determine aspects of an individual’s life.

Spencer popularized though often distorted Darwin’s ideas. It was Spencer who coined the expression “survival of the fittest.” Fitness, as a biological term, can be ambiguous. Traits and characteristics enhance fitness; the traits that contribute to better survival and reproduction survive. Spencer also promulgated a quasi teleological vision of evolution. He imagined that, especially for human beings, we are evolving up a ladder of progress. Nothing could be further from biological truth. Spencer is responsible for firing up the public imagination and dramatic writing in terms of eugenics and so-called social Darwinism. Henry Arthur Jones actually referred to Spencer in plays, but Shepherd-Barr notes that the Lord Chamberlain (i.e., licensor/censor) removed any such references, though the published version includes them.

Shepherd-Barr underscores how the reality of extinction fascinated Victorians and playwrights. Of course extinction had been known and talked about long before, but after Darwin there was a human connection. Dramatists symbolically built off what Victorians would have witnessed in museum fossil exhibits – the termination of a family line or a whole class of people, such as aristocrats. Moreover, another popularizer of Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, vexed Victorians with the question of where morality would fit into the picture of evolution. Huxley too misrepresents Darwin, claiming that there is progress in human morality.

Fundamental to evolution by natural selection are random variations, adaptations, and inheritance. To see moral progress in humanity is akin to Spencer’s eugenics. In line with Steven Pinker, to be more precise, societies can improve and individuals can exercise more care, concern, and self-control. But the elements of morality, still evident in our living, non-human primate cousins (viz work by Frans de Waal) do not progress teleologically. They can only evolve according to selection pressures. Certainly cultural evolution has an enormous impact on human behavior. Shepherd-Barr is familiar with all of these applications and explains them well. In chapter two, she presents an excellent discussion of acting/emotions and psychological realism in light of Darwin’s Expression of Emotions. George Henry Lewes, commenting on actors, says that rather than a more traditional, stylized acting, one needs to act naturally so as to capture nature. This would be, as Shepherd-Barr suggests, especially epitomized in a woman like the actress Eleonora Duse. The human body and especially the face is a container of primitive emotions. Rather than a grand gesture there would be emphasis on individual body parts and movements.

After the opening, introductory chapters, Shepherd-Barr begins to focus on specific playwrights. For chapter three, it is Ibsen, who touches on breeding, sexual selection, heredity and women, and adaptation. Beyond exploring evolutionary themes, Shepherd-Barr is good at discussing theatrical elements, dramaturgy, and staging. In order to show how evolutionary elements, sometimes perverted, end up in plays, she need to rely on plot summary. In an 1887 speech Ibsen essentially declares himself a Darwinist; but there are other ideas mixed in the speech, such as synthesis, which is not Darwinian since natural selection culls out.  Shepherd-Barr’s repeated point is that many of the playwrights, because their work is an artistic representation of reality, will take ideas from science and manipulate them in new ways. In other words, writers who work within the span of staging action within a few hours mainly look to the “broader implications” of Darwinian thought and not minute, biological details (71).

Shepherd-Barr credits Ross Shideler with noting how August Strindberg and Ibsen question patriarchy and the family so that there is a Darwinian struggle for existence seen in social, familial, and especially spousal conflicts. Men as much as women struggle against traditional roles; women often reject a weak husband (68-69). In spite of his emphasis on families and close human interactions, there are many references in Ibsen to laws of nature. In fact, Shepherd-Barr says that long before Richard Dawkins’ notion of the meme, Ibsen clearly hints at the power of ideas to thrive, spread, or die. It is not clear how much or how carefully Ibsen read Darwin. Ideas might have come from other sources, and Ibsen might have been more influenced by Haeckel. At any rate, early plays such as Ghosts and The Lady of the Sea seem to express some Darwinian ideas such as origin and descent and our compelling connection to the sea (77).  Ibsen seems turned against any notion of human progress and sees, rather, hereditary degeneration and extinction as more likely. Similarly, eugenics, says Shepherd-Barr, comes up in Doll’s House and Enemy of the People. But Ibsen’s engagement with these ideas from Galton might be satirical. Or he is simply engaging with the ideas of the times, such as so-called social Darwinism.

In chapter four Shepherd-Barr notes how many plays at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century address gender issues, especially the supposed call to motherhood. What is a woman’s role in life, in marriage, in society? Is motherhood “inevitable” for the progression of the species (92)? Theatre became a battleground of ideas related to the women’s movement, gender biology, male/female parenting, and male/female socialization and education. Near the end of The Descent of Man, according to Shepherd-Barr, Darwin suggests an essential mental difference between men and women, and surely this is the conventional and popular perception. Some Feminist thinkers, however, seized on Darwin’s notion of evolutionary change and how woman are adaptable; i.e., how women need not only be made for motherhood according to nature (95).

Shepherd-Barr then goes off on a long but interesting tangent about James A. Herne’s Margaret Fleming, perhaps the only play to stage breast feeding. The big question for the Victorians was how breast feeding, so motherly, could also be so atavistic. The Victorians were overly concerned with regression, the pulling away from their civilization to the primitive, and any instincts portrayed in women heightened those fears. Shepherd-Barr explains how by 1879 babies were pretty much outlawed on the U.S. stage. Glass milk bottles with rubber nipples were manufactured mid nineteenth century, with milk sterilization later on, so people might have been surprised by breast feeding. Of course there would be class issues as well. Families and women of means would use wet nurses. The play hits directly the question of motherhood and especially for women any “instinctual, biologically driven behavior” (113).  In later Victorian times women would be criticized for neglecting the family and motherhood if they chose to work. (See for instance George Gissing’s novel, The Odd Women.)

Yet, as Margaret Fleming demonstrates, women are criticized because of their devotion to their children. Margaret Fleming nurses at the opening of the play her own child; later, she nurses the bastard baby of a dying, poor woman with whom her husband had an affair. Margaret is clearly middle class, so there is a question about “what is natural” for a mother (120). Popular Victorian culture showed indigenous people naked, with women bare-breasted near children, suggesting for Europeans something savage in their own, natural tendencies. So there are very complex emotions concerning motherhood in breast feeding, which becomes sanitized and less prevalent with advances in science and technology. 

In chapter five Shepherd-Barr says that Strindberg’s interest in evolution and science influenced later playwrights from George Bernard Shaw to Susan Glaspell. Contrary to Ibsen, Strindberg’s evolutionary interest was more academic and Darwinian; however, as a creative writer he was also captivated by Haeckel’s mysticism (128). Strindberg went through several phases. In the 1880s he was naturalistic and fashioned characters according to survival. See, e.g., Miss Julie. Then there was an “inferno phase” from about 1892-98 where emphasis was placed on the importance of science. By 1907 Strindberg is religious and rejects evolutionary thinking with an unfounded fear of regression since he was under the mistaken notion that human beings descended directly from apes. In contrast to Strindberg and Shaw who skirt with Intelligent Design, Ibsen did not see any agency in nature. At the same time, says Shepherd-Barr, it is Anton Chekov who completely and unequivocally embraces the science of evolution.

In spite of his intellectual affinity to Ibsen, Shaw, from his preface to Back to Methuselah, opposed the science of natural selection, viewed it as inhumane, and accused Darwin of presenting life as random and sporadic. Shepherd-Barr emphasizes how Shaw is, however, not a determinist. For Shaw, it is the power of the human will (from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) that is paramount, as in Man and Superman. Shaw’s worldview, embracing Lamarck and Spencer, was more self-organizing – which is contrary to evolution by natural selection with its reliance on random variation. Shaw did, however, prefer sexual selection since it affords a sense of agency. In this way Shaw is a Lamarckian where acquired characteristics are inherited or not by use and disuse. Biologically this is not possible, because then there would be a blending of traits, and ultimately there would be a continuum of only a few traits and no spectrum.

But as Shepherd-Barr points out, in discussing Shaw and feminism, nothing can take away from Shaw’s comic genius or the fact that he engages in vital moral questions (though, like many of his day, on the wrong side of science). By the end of Man and Superman, Shaw rejects the Victorian idea (perhaps from Spencer) of a woman marrying a man to ennoble him.

Compared with the Victorians, the Edwardians are even more concerned about inheritance and try to find genetics as “malleable and mutable rather than fixed” (156). Perhaps this explains Virginia Woolf’s famous statement that character changed somewhere around 1910. Not coincidental to an almost negative obsession about inheriting bad characteristics, eugenics peaks in 1918 with Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Freaks, which postulates a question about how we can alter human genes. With a focus on aristocrats and “freaks” on stage, Pinero used real-life giants, contortionists, and diminutive people, related in some way to the devastation of WWI and how human actions can change humanity (157). Shepherd-Barr tells us that The Freaks is eugenic since the naturally distorted people (as opposed to war victims) are not allowed to marry.

Chapter six deals with issues of reproduction. For instance, around 1904 there are concerns from women about how much childbirth they should endure, and this unease plays out on stage. In fact, Shepherd-Barr asserts that sex and reproduction are, across theatrical history, prime subjects. She provides many examples from Ibsen to Shaw and notes how in 1922 Eugene O’Neill’s First Man featured the offstage screams of a woman dying in childbirth. There were no scenes of childbirth on any stage. By 1918, from the aftermath of WWI, a play such as Maternity by Eugene Brieux was not licensed since the English wanted to focus on repopulation (169). Only by the 1930s were hospital births more usual. For the Victorians and Edwardians, Shepherd-Barr reminds us, husbands were often present during childbirth since there was often a chance of maternal death.

Shepherd-Barr notes how some plays, with an emphasis on women’s concerns, mark a sharp distinction between marriage and motherhood. There of course was sex outside of wedlock, and this could be referred to theatrically. Sexual selection according to Darwin is dramatic by virtue of the male antics, colors, songs, and displays. But consider the patriarchal Victorian/Edwardian positon concerning all of this. They were immensely repelled by Darwin’s notion that sexual selection is the result of female choice. There are, then, many attacks on traditional notions of marriage in the early twentieth century, such as Shaw’s Misalliance or H.M. Harwood’s Supplanters. From 1904 onward with more women in the workforce, there was open-minded thinking about premarital and extramarital sex. Shepherd-Barr recounts how Darwin, in The Descent of Man, discusses male and female individuals who mate and then depart, a random act after a female choice.

Certainly, in the context of reproduction, eugenics comes up again, says Shepherd-Barr. Take for instance the play by Elizabeth Robins, Alan’s Wife, which includes infanticide by a woman consumed not by motherhood but by her marriage. Contraception and abortion, topics that came into direct conflict with the censors, were also subjects of plays. For example, Susan Glaspell in Chains of Dew argued to legalize contraception, and Harley Granville-Barker in Waste tackles illegal abortion that leads to death. In 1907 Edward Garnett’s The Breaking Point, which argued for easier abortions, was banned. These subjects are relevant to evolution since they touch on female sexual desire and choice. We see this especially in Votes for Women! By Elizabeth Robins where the female character acknowledges her physical needs that lead to her pregnancy and abortion. Of course there is Eugene O’Neill’s 1914 one-act play, Abortion, where the woman never appears since she’s dead from a botched abortion before the action of the play. The play is about the upper class young man who faces status disgrace from his family and subsequently commits suicide.

In chapter seven Shepherd-Barr focuses on Susan Glaspell and Thornton Wilder. Glaspell engages with biology and evolutionary thinking but does not evince a deep or complete understanding. She mixes and matches, according to Shepherd-Barr, elements of Lamarck, Spencer, and Darwin. In plays such as The Verge and Inheritors there is a preference for a type of punctuated leap, saltation, rather than the gradualism of natural selection. This is a dramatic device that permits for the sudden development of an individual. A more serious poetic liberty is Glaspell’s leaning toward “human destiny” (205). There is no destiny in the natural world, only cause and effect. From about 1909-10 Glaspell worked for the U.S. Forest Service and so we can see “the unspoiled earth throughout her work...” in different and at times incompatible environments, such as the edge between sea and forest (208).

Shepherd-Barr says Glaspell’s liberties and focus on physical nature enable her to create metaphors of humanity. In Close the Book from 1917 Glaspell suggests that the strength of the future of a family line is not in purity but in the blending of new blood. Glaspell sees agency in nature and expresses a creative evolution leading to human perfection, as in The Verge (210). Glaspell tries to encompass ideas about evolution through the individual, how a single person’s conversion can represent the much larger social or environmental change (220). In The Verge we have a woman scientist who rejects her proscribed social and professional roles; there is mutation theory of plants as a metaphor of women’s issues (211).

Thornton Wilder seems to accept Darwinism in The Skin of Our Teeth, but at the same time, like Shaw, his idealism forces him to reject the random blindness of natural forces. In Skin of Our Teeth, says Shepherd-Barr, there is an “almost mystical invocation of women...” as pivotal to human evolution, hearkening back to Ibsen seeing women as the salvation of the human race. This is “progressive” thinking that runs counter to the “ambivalence” we find in Robins and Glaspell (229). On the other hand we have Eugene O’Neill’s anthropological The Hairy Ape about a coal stoker in a ship’s engine room. He is dark and muscular with strong arms. By the end of the play he is killed by a gorilla. The play touches on life’s origins and how atavism lingers in more advanced civilization (232).

In her final chapter Shepherd-Barr discusses Samuel Beckett, whose highlights how human beings in their misdirected concerns about god (as in Waiting for Godot) have become alienated from the natural world. Like the other playwrights Shepherd-Barr discusses, Beckett also does not report evolutionary science; instead, he takes what he needs and fashions those ideas to line up to his own. We don’t know how much of Darwin Beckett read, though he does quote Darwin’s Origin of Species in his notebooks and in a letter writes dismissively of Darwin (244). Similar to Wilder in The Skin of Our Teeth and J.B. Priestly in Summer Day’s Dream, Beckett’s Happy Days provides a scathing assessment of environmental devastation dramatizing how we are destroying the planet.

Clearly Beckett echoes Darwin’s geological concerns, Shepherd-Barr stresses. As with Darwin, Beckett emphasizes variation, not fixity; see, e.g., how the tree in Godot changes during the course of the play. In All That Fall Beckett touches on reproduction, hysterectomy, menopause, and abortion. In Breath we witness an entire life in a matter of seconds. In Rough for Theatre I and Endgame there is a sense of human end-time and the destruction of earth or human extinction and universal entropy (253). As Shepherd-Barr says, Beckett is “a dramatist of the end of nature, of our great alienation from our natural surroundings...” (254). He embraces primitive characters, their biological needs, and even “anti-creation” (267).

In her epilogue, Shepherd-Barr mentions some contemporary playwrights who also deal with retro-Victorian themes of genetics, eugenics, reproduction, and climate change. The difference with contemporary productions is that they implicate the audience in our evolutionary concerns and environmental problems. I’d venture to say that the contemporaries might try to be more true to the science. But we cannot expect a playwright to offer a scientific paper; the wisdom and entertainment of drama is in how ideas from the scientific community are reinvented on stage.


- Copyright©Gregory F. Tague 2015. St. Francis College (NY). Thanks to Daniel Meyer-Dinkgrรคfe, editor Consciousness, Literature and the Arts journal, for permission to cross-post.  

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