After Darwin by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Hampstead Theatre.
Timberlake Wertenbaker, perhaps best known for her inspirational play about the transportation of prisoners to Australia, Our Country’s Good, now offers After Darwin, another drama set mainly in the 19th century. I say “mainly” because Wertenbaker both follows Darwin’s famous voyage on the Beagle-noting the cataclysmic effects of his discoveries on the ship’s captain, Fitzroy, a man of absolute religious conviction-and she also offers these insights as scenes from a play which we see in rehearsal in contemporary Britain.
The play abounds in irony and paradox. Fitzroy is scrupulous in his precise, scientific observations, but cannot accept the validity of Darwin’s observations and inferences, because they undermine the basis of his belief in God. Later, however, he was to become one of the founding fathers of the modern science of meteorology. And he it was who named those familiar weather zones around Britain: Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, etc. By comparison Darwin’s own observations are often short on facts and full of value judgments. Moreover, when faced with evidence pointing to the evolution of species he is careful not to place himself in an exposed, heretical position. Rather he uses the discoveries of other scientists as props and supports. Fitzroy, who is clear that the nature of human kind has been fixed immutably by God, nevertheless believes that the “poor wretches” he finds in distant parts of South America, are capable of infinite adaptability. The Beagle carries sets of exotic cutlery, embroidered antimacassars, copies of novels of Jane Austen, etc, which will be used in an attempt to resocialise the natives. Darwin is hot on the fight against slavery, but indifferent to the native people he confronts seeing them as “abject, filthy and ugly”. When reminded by Fitzroy that they are human beings, Darwin retorts, “I feel closer to these beetles.”
The actor we see playing Darwin turns out to be a disingenuous, feckless rogue, whose behaviour nicely demonstrates the absurdity, not to mention the dangers, of social behaviour which is underpinned by the idea of “the survival of the fittest”. He wishes to abandon the play in favour of appearing in a film of stupendous crassness. He claims he is thus “adapting to his environment” the better to survive. On the other hand the actor playing Fitzroy chooses to be principled, loyal and dependable.
Does Timberlake wish us to take any lessons from this? It is difficult to know. But whatever her intentions by setting the drama as a contemporary play in rehearsal, she leaves the audience wondering about the consequences of applying ideas which seem to have considerable power when explaining the origin of species, as providing a relevant model for social behaviour.
I enjoyed the evening. It is rarely that a play entertains and informs, stimulates and amuses, and leaves its audience with so much to think and talk about later. But I have a cavil, and it is a substantial one.
I can see the attraction of Wertenbaker’s format, especially to a dramatist. Using a rehearsal room performance to inspect both the subject of a drama and the actors’ reaction to it, is an imaginative idea. But if the intention is to look seriously at the world “after Darwin”, perhaps more time needs to be spent looking at the impact of the theory of evolution. What about social engineering, eugenics, the tendency to see human society as a biological system, and to use imperatives derived from the natural sciences to explain social behaviour? Habermas and Marcuse have been keen to point out the dangers of using “scientism” to bolster the ideological basis of capitalism; to reduce matters which properly lie in the province of values, to the merely technical. I would argue that such things are much more central to the world “after Darwin” that those which Wertenbaker seeks to discuss. Wertenbaker’s analysis, enjoyable though it is, is sadly both insufficient and incomplete.