Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr, Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett

Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr, Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett (New York & Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2015). xiv + 380 pp. £34.50 Hb. ISBN: 9780231164702

In her Preface, Shepherd-Barr recounts wisely rejecting her original name for this book: Darwin and the Dramatists. This admittedly ‘catchy’ title would, as she realised, have totally betrayed her findings, namely that the ‘theatre in an astonishingly wide range for forms took up specifically non-Darwinian ideas and transformed them in playwriting and in performance’ (ix). The eugenic tangles of Neo-Lamarckian, Haeckelian, and Spencerian concepts which interested so many playwrights form the largest proportion of the ‘Evolution’ in the book’s published title. The cultural prominence of non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms in the period in question, the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, will be of little surprise to students of literature and science or of the history of science. It can take a concerted effort, as made in John Holmes’s Darwin’s Bards (2009), to find writers who dealt explicitly and exclusively with the distinctly Darwinian mechanism of natural selection, without entering into teleological or essentialist territory. This is not to say that Darwin is absent; instead, he is simply given his contextually-appropriate place.

Surprised at the ‘little consideration’ that has been given to theatre’s relationship with evolution (1), Shepherd-Barr’s intent is ‘not only to catalogue theatrical allusions to evolution but also to show the more indirect, oblique engagement with the ideas themselves’ (3). She argues that many playwrights demonstrated not merely a ‘benign assimilation’ of scientific ideas, but, instead, an ‘often-deliberate wrong-headedness’ (4). Her study of these proudly obstinate dramatists builds primarily upon Jane R. Goodall’s Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin (2002), expanding the field up to the immediate post-war period. Theatre and Evolution proceeds through a vast array of these argumentative plays and playwrights in a broadly chronological manner, focussing on an Anglo-American scene but with significant detours to European culture more widely.

It begins briefly with a survey of Victorian pantomimes, parodies, and freak shows and continues on to generally more contemplative, and provocative, treatments of reproductive themes like heredity, birth, breastfeeding, contraception, and, above all, female sexual selection, in the decades around the turn of the century. Aside from George Bernard Shaw, most of these authors are obscure or otherwise underappreciated. As the book progresses deeper into the twentieth century the New Synthesis between natural selection and genetics becomes prominent, concluding with Beckett’s role as a grim theatrical ‘interlocutor’ of these developments (242). The epilogue briefly considers the present and future of theatre and evolution in the Anthropocene, the climatic threats of which make the worries of the earlier playwrights ‘seem positively cheerful’ (273).

Her case studies show the aforementioned ‘oblique engagement’ to be an apt description of the evolutionary forays of her two key authors, Henrik Ibsen and Samuel Beckett. These writers, like many of those in the text, explore ‘evolution to set the audience thinking, not to do its thinking for the audience’ (2). The former, as Shepherd-Barr notes, set ‘a key precedent of contrarianism’ (91): Ibsen’s plays explored modern life through his ‘Darwinian understanding of evolution’ with its contingently ‘meaningless’ natural world that also hinted at an unfurling Haeckelian recapitulation (69), forming a pessimistic outlook of degeneration, racial senility, and extinction. Yet Ibsen also indulged in a ‘temporary embrace of eugenics’ in An Enemy of the People (1882) and elsewhere (89), making the analysis of his twists and turns a rich and complex one. Beckett’s engagement with evolution proves to be extremely, if predictably, difficult to quantify. His ‘idea of the will in nature leans more toward Lamarckism’ (245), he was ‘intrigued’ by Haeckel (249), but his ‘world is Darwinian […] Beckett is the post-New Synthesis playwright par excellence’ (260). These strands become difficult to unite, although Shepherd-Barr finds his prevailing interest to be the threat of ‘ecocide’ (240). However deep and honest her analysis of this murkiness may be, it can be somewhat frustrating for the reader, who is often eager for more definite conclusions about even elusive figures like Beckett.

Less infamous figures, whose interactions with evolutionary theory are more overt in manner, although generally no less ambiguous in meaning, commonly make some of the book’s most intriguing studies. Hubert Henry Davies’s comedy Doormats (1912), for example, ‘reflects the buzz about genetics that William Bateson helped to generate’ through his transformation of Gregor Mendel’s dominant and recessive genes into ‘the two main types of people’, namely ‘boots’ and ‘doormats’ (150). Likewise, in plays such as The Verge (1921), which directly dealt with Hugo de Vries’s mutation theory, Susan Glaspell found herself ‘torn’ between ‘saltation’ and ‘gradualism’ as she fought to ‘find an alternative to the male-dominated model of modernism’ that sought for ‘drastic breaks’ with past norms (221). In this discussion, as in many of her other analyses, Shepherd-Barr finds a recurrent ‘contrarian’ tendency in theatrical discussion of evolution (214). Close readings of these works are always satisfyingly contextualised, as with the detailed considerations of how particular authors would have encountered evolutionary theory. Notable in this interdisciplinary detail is a fascinating section on how nineteenth-century critics and actors effectively applied Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) to theatre. Ibsenian actor Eleonora Duse, Shepherd-Barr shows, had an ability to blush on command which fascinated reviewers and appeared to defy Darwin’s belief in the impossibility of this action, ‘even while it harnesses it’ (60).

Shepherd-Barr concludes that ‘theatre has always foregrounded the family’, this being the ‘eternal theme’ of theatre’s engagement with evolution (286). Her subjects’ works frequently cannot be slotted into modern definitions of social conservatism or liberalism, feminism or anti-feminism, or even evolutionism and anti-evolutionism. She happily, therefore, refuses to romanticise the exciting potential of the theatre to subversively question biological essentialism, while highlighting the taboo-challenging naturalism of works like James A. Herne’s Margaret Fleming (1890), ‘the single instance of breast-feeding on stage’ (100). Apart from some slightly intrusive use of secondary critical quotations, Theatre and Evolution is a pleasure to read. Shepherd-Barr ambitiously and fluently covers a remarkable quantity and variety of authors, and the text takes its place as an important milestone in this young sub-field within literature and science.

Richard Fallon, University of Leicester