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 Beckett reveals 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.
"Shepherd-Barr's knowledge of the theater and of theater history is striking. This is manifestly original, deep scholarship." — Christopher Collins, author of Paleopoetics: The Evolution of the Preliterate Imagination
"Shepherd-Barr is the perfect person to write a book on theater and evolution, a long-overdue topic, given the lively debate that has sprung up around the novel and evolution. Her chapters on Ibsen and Shaw are masterful, easily the best writing on these two important playwrights in recent years." — Martin Puchner, Harvard University
"Shepherd-Barr is one of very few scholars equipped to do authoritative cultural history in this area. She offers new and original perspectives, even on such figures as Ibsen, Shaw, and Beckett, each of whom has spawned a field of critical literature in his own right. This is a distinctive and significant contribution and a work of high-quality intellectual engagement. The scholarship is substantial, and the writing is so lucid and well paced that the book is a pleasure to read." — Jane Goodall, author of Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin
"With remarkable insight and erudition, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr traces a line of descent going from Darwin's theories to plays by Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, O'Neill, Wilder, Brecht, Beckett, Albee, and Stoppard, including numerous lesser-known playwrights. This astoundingly original study of the modern theater displays the riches contained in post-Darwinian debates. As Winnie says in Happy Days, 'natural laws... it all depends upon the creature you happen to be.' Such laws, laws we never voted for or understood fully, give rise to concepts like evolution, selection, propagation, extinction, mutation, variation, progression, regression, regeneration, repopulation, recapitulation, and filiation, all of which come alive magnificently on the stage." — Jean-Michel Rabaté, University of Pennsylvania
"Quite outstanding... It relates the issues that have dominated the drama of the last 150 years—nature, heredity, sexuality, the environment—to the evolutionary debate... Destined to be one of those books that will transcend its immediate purpose." — Michael Billington
"Impressive... A valuable contribution to the field of theatre and science." — Review of English Studies
"Shepherd-Barr's account of Ibsen's engagement with Darwinism should become a locus classicus." — Times Literary Supplement - Books of the Year
1. "I'm Evolving!": Birds, Beasts, and Parodies
2. Confronting the Serious Side
3. "On the Contrary!": Ibsen's Evolutionary Vision
4. "Ugly... but Irresistible": Maternal Instinct on Stage
5. Edwardians and Eugenicists
6. Reproductive Issues
7. Midcentury American Engagements with Evolution
8. Beckett's "Old Muckball"
Epilogue: Staging the Anthropocene
Read the introduction: