Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett

Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett

KIRSTEN E. SHEPHERD-BARR
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 400
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/shep16470
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  • Book Info
    Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett
    Book Description:

    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 Beckettreveals 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53892-3
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Preface
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. XI-XVI)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-19)

    An amused writer in theGalaxyin 1873 noted the “universal drenching” of literature and journalistic writing with Charles Darwin’s ideas.¹ The concept of evolution caught the public imagination as no other scientific idea. There have been many studies of evolution in the novel (Gillian Beer, George Levine, Gowan Dawson, and many others); poetry (John Holmes); the visual arts; music; and other art forms, but apart from Jane R. Goodall’s groundbreakingPerformance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin, little consideration has been given to theatre in this context. This is a striking gap, given the popularity and variety of...

  6. 1 “I’m Evolving!”: Birds, Beasts, and Parodies
    (pp. 20-37)

    Victorians lived in a cultural landscape in which “curiosity was a great leveler.”¹ Every type of theatrical performance was on offer, from melodramas (and their even more spectacular cousins, the equestrian melodramas) to pantomime to music hall to fairground shows, circus,tableux vivants, and public exhibitions. These shows cut across class divisions and catered to all kinds of audiences, a thriving theatrical eclecticism that lasted the entire century.² The combination of entertainment and education was a particularly potent one in an age of reform and progress. New spaces like zoos and museums were opening up all the time where the...

  7. 2 Confronting the Serious Side
    (pp. 38-62)

    More serious attempts to incorporate evolution thematically into plays were taking place, and many of these hinge on the relationship of people to their environments. Downing Cless has argued that by the mid-Victorian period, with the development of domestic drama, settings move indoors: “Nature does not disappear, . . . but it is distanced—what’s outside the window or what’s down the stream.”¹ While appealing in its simplicity, there are significant exceptions to this claim. Henrik Ibsen’s plays do feature people talking intensely in rooms, but they also emphasize and indeed rely on their natural settings (Ghostswith its ceaseless...

  8. 3 “On the Contrary!”: Ibsen’s Evolutionary Vision
    (pp. 63-91)

    Henrik Ibsen’s works address humankind’s “unprivileged position” brought about by “the newer biology,” as he consistently probes our struggle with this demotion. More specifically, he explores evolutionary mechanisms such as artificial versus natural breeding, sexual selection, and adaptation. In his letters and speeches, his drafts and notes to his plays, as well as in the plays themselves, Ibsen reveals a sustained interest in evolutionary ideas and these are often surprisingly broad, touching on a wide range of aspects beyond the issues for which he is so well known, such as his treatment of heredity and his portrayals of women. In...

  9. 4 “Ugly . . . but Irresistible”: Maternal Instinct on Stage
    (pp. 92-127)

    This chapter explores how plays in the 1890s and the first few decades of the twentieth century engaged with an aspect of evolutionary theory that had become particularly vexed. This was the idea of gender essentialism: whether motherhood was the true calling for women, whether the bond with the infant was inevitable and instinctive, whether woman’s evolutionary role was to select the superior mate for the continued improvement of the species. Henrik Ibsen made such questions about women’s changing roles central to his plays, and other playwrights followed suit in a range of plays that address the issue of motherhood...

  10. 5 Edwardians and Eugenicists
    (pp. 128-168)

    The full cross-cultural story of European theatrical engagements with evolution is far too broad for in-depth discussion here, but I look at several playwrights whose works reflect a serious interest in evolutionary themes and signal the potential of theatre to explore them. The first is Swedish playwright August Strindberg, whose interests in science, and in evolution particularly, set a key precedent for later play-wrights such as Bernard Shaw, Thornton Wilder, and Susan Glaspell. My purpose here is threefold: to see what playwrights across different cultures were doing with evolutionary ideas (especially in comparison with Ibsen, who influenced so many dramatists),...

  11. 6 Reproductive Issues
    (pp. 169-202)

    The eugenic program of directing human evolution upward through manipulation of breeding needs to be seen in relation to wider debates that were developing about all aspects of human reproduction, particularly the struggle for women to gain greater control over their reproductive capacities. “Of all woman’s rights,” declared an unnamed author writing inReview of Reviewsin 1904, “surely the first and most obvious is the right to say how many times she shall be subjected to the glorious but perilous ordeal of childbirth.”¹ This view was expressed repeatedly on the stage, for example by Eugene Brieux in his play...

  12. 7 Midcentury American Engagements with Evolution
    (pp. 203-236)

    The playwrights I consider in this chapter—especially Susan Glaspell and Thornton Wilder—take the theatrical engagement with evolution in radically innovative directions compared with their predecessors, and I explore what makes these innovations particularly American. Peter Middleton has noted a characteristically midcentury American attitude toward science, particularly physics.¹ The period (circa 1920–1955) also saw profound changes in evolutionary theory, from the gradual waning of the popularity of eugenics to the rejection of non-Darwinian alternatives to the consolidation of the genetics–natural selection camps into the Modern Synthesis. For almost this entire period, Glaspell experimented in a wide range...

  13. 8 Beckett’s “Old Muckball”
    (pp. 237-272)

    Samuel Beckett’sWaiting for Godotand John Osborne’sLook Back in Angerare typically cast in theatre histories as signifying, virtually simultaneously, two new and clashing paradigms in drama.¹ But the contrast between the seemingly apolitical, meaningless world of Beckett and the ostensible social protest mode of Osborne has distorted our understanding of Beckett’s work, relegating the dramatic milieu of his plays to some kind of alien, airless, and moribund world divorced from our own. Beckett scholars have offered many ideas about what kind of “world” Beckett depicts and indeed creates in works likeWaiting for Godotwith its lunar...

  14. Epilogue: Staging the Anthropocene
    (pp. 273-288)

    Theatre continues to interact with evolutionary ideas, and it remains a valuable site in general for artistically and intellectually wrestling with scientific ideas through its intimacy, immediacy, and communality. It can engage the mind and senses in a way that is unique and that is becoming, if anything, more vital in a fragmented digital culture. In fact, recent plays that engage evolution are pretty bleak about where we have arrived as a species and where we are headed. “Why is it that everything that humans touch turns to shit?” asks a character in Richard Bean’s climate-change playThe Heretic.¹ Plays...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 289-362)
  16. Index
    (pp. 363-380)