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  • Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett by Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr
  • Vivian Appler
Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett. By Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. xiii + 380 pp. $60.00 cloth.

Theatre and Evolution is a significant contribution to modern theatre and performance scholarship because of its science-oriented intervention into the familiar narrative of the history of modern European and American theatre and performance. Shepherd-Barr focuses on questions pertaining to evolution as she makes the case that modern drama, studied in relationship with other cultural performances, is not just about the rise of the individual but rather is deeply invested in the (very) long-term stakes of humanity. She deftly curates a vast quantity of archival sources to situate theatre and performance as integral to evolutionary discourse throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Shepherd-Barr unites the ostensibly separate spheres of art and science through her argument that modern dramatists "actively engaged with science and often transformed the ideas they encountered in the process" (3). Theatre did not merely interpret scientific concepts onstage but participated in a cultural conversation that in turn impacted the progress of evolutionary theory in the Western popular imagination.

Shepherd-Barr's interdisciplinary method keeps scientific and theatrical questions in equal view. She introduces competing nineteenth- and twentieth-century evolutionary theorists as she distills the socioscientific themes—natural selection, maternal instinct, adaptation, mutation, heredity, extinction, cooperation, eugenics—of the plays at the heart of her criticism. She also meets the great challenge to interdisciplinary scholarship (i.e., to demonstrate a balanced intellectual exchange among diverse practices and practitioners) by depicting scientists as cultural performers and by articulating clear paths of scientific inquiry on behalf of science-oriented playwrights. She describes the 1827 procession of a live baby giraffe that was gifted to the king of France, highlighting the involvement of the "celebrity scientist … esteemed zoologist and founder of ethology," Étienne Geoffroy Saint Hilaire, as a public performance of science that inspired spin-off zoological performances that were popular throughout the nineteenth century (27). Her case study of August Strindberg in chapter 5, "Edwardians and Eugenicists," reassesses the playwright's often-dismissed "inferno" phase, during which he wrote scientific essays and performed "alchemical" experiments, as demonstrative of "how central this phase was to his work" (128). In chapter 2, "Confronting the Serious Side," Shepherd-Barr articulates Eleanora Duse's capacity to blush and pale on [End Page 313] command as theatrically defiant of Darwin's claim that the blush of shame is an involuntary reflex. Her final chapter, "Beckett's 'Old Muckball,'" addresses the shift from modernism to postmodernism through Beckett's deliberate "interplay between the organism and its environment" and contextualizes Beckett's oeuvre as a theatre of "ecocide," using Happy Days (1961) as a primary theatrical example and the playwright's "Whoroscope" notebook as a key indicator of Beckett's explicit interest in science (240).

"Two aspects of evolution have particular relevance for theatre," she claims: a fear of evolutionary degeneration and of women's roles as essential to the process of evolution as well as to the progress of evolutionary theory. She suggests that modern dramatic thinkers rejected Darwin, in part, because he did not take into account philosophies of individual will. Shepherd-Barr describes an anthropomorphic interpretation of Darwinian evolutionary theory by which "the mechanism of natural selection was understood as purposefully cruel, not just blindly and randomly so" (37). She marks Shaw's Back to Methuselah: A Meta-biological Pentateuch (1921) as a modern dramatic work that synthesizes "Schopenhauer and Lamarck" in a "belief in the role of the will in human evolution" that resulted in an anthrocentric evolutionary dramaturgy (134). Shaw admired Schopenhauer's philosophy of human will, and he preferred Lamarck's pre-Darwinian theory of evolution that promoted the idea that behavioral and physical characteristics acquired during an organism's lifetime could be inherited by future generations. (Lamarckism is largely discredited, although Shepherd-Barr allows that "it is enjoying something of a return through epigenetics" [14].) A preference for an evolutionary philosophy that allowed intentional improvement of human physiology often led modern dramatists such as Shaw and Ibsen...


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