PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.2 (2005) 114-119
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Performance and Evolution
In an oft-quoted passage from the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud claims that his work on the structure of the mind is the third entry in a series of "great blows to the naïve self-love of men," the first two being attributed to Copernicus and Charles Darwin. By placing himself in such esteemed company, Freud cannily anticipated the kind of "industry" his work would create in the humanities as well as the social sciences, and we are witness today to the overwhelming influence of Freudian analysis on the study of film, literature, and art. However, the centrality of evolution as a scientific account of mankind's origins has been so fully assimilated in the Western imagination (despite recent legislation to allow the theory of "intelligent design" back into the classroom) that the idea of Darwinian critiques in the humanities can seem almost absurd—like a Copernican reading of science fiction.
While the Darwinian worldview radically changed the social and biological sciences and inspired the naturalist and primitivist movements of playwrights, novelists, and artists at the turn of the century, the influence of evolutionary theory on popular culture and the performing arts during Darwin's lifetime has never been fully analyzed. In Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin, Jane R. Goodall (related to the other Jane Goodall through association rather than heredity) does just that, and begins by dismantling Freud's hubristic claim. Nineteenth-century audiences, rather than experiencing the epistemological shifts that crystallized in the work of Darwin as a form of "culture shock," or a sudden revolutionizing of received knowledge, greeted the new science of evolution, Goodall tells us, with "alert skepticism, a sense of the ludicrous, [and] a desire to play the game of knowledge-making, too, but under the anarchic rules of humbug." Popular performance, she argues, offered a medium through which cultural anxieties over the origin of mankind could work (and play) themselves out: [End Page 114]
The relationship between the two cultures of science and performance was dialectical, interdependent, but also adversarial. . . . Generated in a culture whose self-image was undergoing a critical process of redefinition, [these anxieties] lent themselves readily to dramatic and performative exploration. . . . The experimentalism of minstrel entertainers, actors, acrobats, and dancers often mirror[ed] that of natural scientists in its exploration of the limits and modalities of the human body, but it tend[ed] to be a burlesque mirroring.
With this mirroring relationship in mind, Goodall creates a parallel between the careers of Darwin, whose Origin of Species was first published in 1859, and the great showman P.T. Barnum, whose "Greatest Show on Earth" began in the 1840s and continues to this day. Barnum both anticipated and responded to the ongoing mid-century debates in natural history by making "large-scale entrepreneurial connections between the performing arts and the . . . natural sciences," creating spectacles "that were a kind of outlandish commentary on scientific interpretations of nature." Indeed, no one burlesqued the idea of evolution better than Barnum, the mastermind behind various "nondescripts," creatures purported to represent "the half-way point of development of a recognizable species, or more intriguing still, combin[ing] characteristics from different genera."
The curious genealogy of these nondescripts is anatomized in Chapters 1 and 2, "Out of Natural History" and "Missing Links and Lilliputians," where Goodall explains how the sentimental "monkey-man" and "missing-link" dramas of the 1820s (performed to amused, if not fully credulous, audiences in London, New York, and Paris) set the stage for Barnum's exhibition of such monsters, freaks, and prodigies as the Feejee Mermaid (a cobbled-together assemblage of primate, avian, and reptile taxidermy), the Aztec children (little people purportedly captured from the lost city of Iximaya), the Earthmen (African children from a tribe believed to live in underground burrows), Krao (a Laotian girl with hypertrichosis), and Jo-Jo...