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

New York: Columbia University Press, 2015, 384 p. ISBN: 9780231164702
Adeline Arniac
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Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr. Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015, 384 p. ISBN: 9780231164702

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Mots-clés :

Théâtre, Darwin

Keywords:

Theatre, Darwin
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1Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr, Professor of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Oxford, is interested in the interaction between theatre and science and has already published a book on the subject: Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen (Princeton UP, 2012). In Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett, she further explores the interplay between these two worlds, focusing particularly on the influence of Darwin and evolutionary thinkers.

2She sets out to show theatre’s engagement with evolutionary ideas, working from a selection of plays and performances that tackle themes or motifs brought to the fore by the debate on evolution. Throughout, she demonstrates how theatre managed to popularise evolutionary ideas while also challenging them.

3The scope of the book is wide-ranging, as it includes British and American theatre, with references to European plays and playwrights, over more than a century after the publication of Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species in 1859. It takes into account drama but also performance in a wider sense, including Victorian freak shows and a contemporary Cirque du Soleil show, for instance. However, the author admits that she makes ‘no claims to complete coverage’ and offers instead ‘interconnected studies of representative examples that can be looked at in some depth’ (7). The argument thus skilfully navigates between detailed analyses and more general overviews and comparisons, providing a multidimensional account of the question.

4After a very welcome overview of the scientific concepts to be summoned up in the study, the argument is spread out over a series of eight chapters. They are organised largely chronologically but tend to put forward a specific aspect or issue of each period.

5The first chapter focuses on the Victorian era, exploring the ‘extraordinary freedom’ (21) in theatre’s engagement with evolution and the curiosity for science it fed into. The author first studies naturalism, explaining how the staging of wild nature represented the influence of the environment on the individual, laying the emphasis on its cruelty and thus reducing evolution to the idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’. She then comments on freak shows and exhibits of commercially displayed peoples, reflecting on what shapes us as human beings.

6In the second chapter devoted to the nineteenth century, entitled ‘Confronting the Serious Side’, the author furthers her analysis of the role of nature on stage, referring at length to the work of James A. Herne, the ‘American Ibsen’ (102), and his 1893 play Shore Acres. She also tackles the question of extinction, showing how the reality of life ending put forward by evolutionary thinkers was materialised on stage through the idea of the end of the family line.

7In her final chapter on the nineteenth century, the author focuses on Ibsen’s work and his ‘Evolutionary Vision’ (63). She suggests that he staged humankind’s demotion revealed by evolution and analyses a number of themes in his work, such as the question of heredity, the importance of the role of women and the presence of animals in his works, before confronting the question of his eugenic views.

8In chapter 4, the first one to broach the twentieth century, the author reflects on the staging of maternal instinct. She focuses on the idea of gender essentialism, exposing the debate that probed whether motherhood was ‘the true calling for women’ (92) or whether it was a role imposed upon them by society. She shows how plays like James A. Herne’s Margaret Fleming (1890) raised the question of attitudes to babies and the role of fathers.

9In her fifth chapter, the author considers the period 1900 to 1920. After a section on August Strindberg, she focuses on Bernard Shaw’s ambivalent attitude to evolution and demonstrates how many Edwardian playwrights started to tackle the workings of heredity and engage with eugenics.

10This emphasis on breeding puts to the fore ‘Reproductive Issues’—the title of the sixth chapter—and the role of women, allowing the author to go back to the question she had already started exploring in the fourth chapter, now looking at its evolution in several early twentieth-century plays. She examines how marriage is becoming dissociated from maternity and how sexual selection, by giving power to the woman selecting the mate, may be a way to reverse social norms. This exploration goes further into societal issues, raising the questions of contraception, abortion and infanticide, to name only a few.

11In the seventh chapter, the author focuses on the innovations of American playwrights in the period 1920 to 1950. She underlines the hybridity of Susan Glaspell’s work in The Verge and Inheritors (1921), Thornton Wilder’s calls for environmental awareness and Eugene O’Neill’s exploration of the impact of Darwinism on society.

12Beckett is the object of the book’s final chapter. The author counters the critical vision that often sees his stage as an abstract void and emphasizes instead its connectedness to the world we live in. Evolution provides her with an original angle from which to look at existing questions in Beckett criticism, such as his staging of the decaying body. While acknowledging that some of the bleakness of Darwin’s vision is summoned in Beckett’s plays, the author points to a form of vitality that the playwright adds to it.

13In her epilogue, the author surveys more recent interactions of theatre and evolution, including a reading of the show Totem by Cirque du Soleil. She also highlights how recent developments in science and genetics keep stimulating curiosity and theatrical engagement. In her final pages, she very rightly points out the fact that her analysis of the question of evolution has turned into an exploration of the ‘one abiding, eternal theme’: the wider question of the family (286).

14Throughout her study, the author summons a wide range of documents, from unpublished plays to drafts and notes, which will prove of interest to students and scholars especially interested in these authors or periods and searching for a ‘treasure trove waiting to be fully mined’ (202).

15The way in which she refers to performances is especially relevant, for instance on the questions of how maternal love can be staged: how can you stage a static feeling? How can you stage childbirth, breastfeeding or babies? Her accounts are historically informative but also very immediately relevant, as she remarks for instance that a 2007 production of Margaret Fleming toned down the breastfeeding element so as not to offend the audience, thus underlining how theatre is inherently connected to the expectations and values of society (112–13).

16This book will prove a very valuable resource for anyone interested in theatre and performance. If the starting point is evolution, the argument actually opens up to tackle questions that have to do with what defines the human and how we interact with each other, thus making it very applicable far beyond the world of science.

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Référence électronique

Adeline Arniac, « Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr. Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 88 Automne | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 29 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/4636 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.4636

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Adeline Arniac

Université Montpellier 3

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