Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order

Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order

Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order

Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order

Synopsis

Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin reveals the ways in which the major themes of evolution were taken up in the performing arts during Darwin's adult lifetime and in the generation after his death.The period 1830-1900 was the formative period for evolutionary ideas. While scientists and theorists investigated the law and order of nature, show business was more concerned with what was out of the natural order. Missing links and throwbacks, freak taxonomies and exotic races were favourite subject matter for the burgeoning variety theatre movement. Focusing on popular theatre forms in London, New York and Paris, Jane Goodall shows how they were interwoven with the developing debate about human evolution.With this book, Goodall contributes an important new angle to the debates surrounding the history of evolution. She reveals that, far from creating widespread culture shock, Darwinian theory tapped into some of the long-standing themes of popular performance and was a source for diverse and sometimes hilarious explorations.

Excerpt

I remember the Museum of Natural History. It was full of still bodies, staring at you with glass eyes on which a light coating of dust was sometimes visible. Here, the wild species of the world—eagle, polecat, rat, fox, kangaroo, zebra, penguin, deer—had been upholstered, like the armchairs of suburbia. There was no sign of death having done its work on them, either by violence or decomposition; death comes to the living, and it was hard to believe these creatures had ever been alive, though here and there a special effort had been made to suggest as much. A badger half emerged from a replica of what might have been its hole, constructed from materials which fairly imitated dried mud and grass. Tall jars filled with brown liquid contained lizards, snakes and frogs, their stomachs and the vulnerable undersides of their feet exposed against the glass. The suffocating quiet emanating from these creatures gave the place something of the muffled atmosphere of suburban sitting-rooms.

My grandfather was an entomologist, but as a child I was never drawn to the study of natural life. The museum had given such study an image of fustiness and perhaps an edge of fear, though not the dramatic fear of some threatening agency; rather the dull fear of confinement and suspended animation. There is an obvious perversity about this association of naturalism with suspended animation, a perversity that hinges on the exclusion of the element of performance. I first visited the theatre and the circus at the age of 6, and to these I was irresistibly drawn. They seemed like the antithesis of the museum, as in obvious ways they were, but it never occurred to me then that these institutions were radically bound up with each other in their histories.

When in 1675 the philosopher Leibnitz envisaged a new Academy of Sciences that would be ‘a theatre of nature and of art’, there was nothing radically unconventional about his idea. Such an academy,

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