The greatest scientists often become the centerpiece of theater or musical works that expropriate their images and ideas as emblems of a particular historical era. Sometimes such a dramatic device works as intended. Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass’s lengthy meditation on the physicist’s life and his role as a pivotal figure of the Atomic Age, comes to mind.
Just as often, the scientist as icon leads the artist astray. This year’s observance of the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of his masterwork, On The Origin of Species, means that it is now the 19th-century naturalist’s turn to become an object of artistic and historical license.
Friday night’s reading of "Darwin’s Challenge" at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Manhattan may be the first attempt ever to hijack the life of the theorist of natural selection as a medium for cracking fart jokes. Playwright Jason Grote imagines the voyage of the HMS Beagle as an adventure tour for the upper classes, a pre-Victorian equivalent of a jaunt organized by National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. (The real Beagle foray was a true surveying and exploration trip that had nothing to do with young American actors attempting to imitate the most affected aristocratic British accents imaginable. Think of an extended commercial for Schweppes Bitter Lemon.)
Darwin emerges as a cross between twit and geek. Nicknamed “Pudding” by his companions, he becomes an object of ridicule because of his bumbling nature and a propensity toward flatulence. A whole (mercifully short) scene is devoted to a cheap gag centered around flatulence. (Darwin did suffer from a host of maladies for years after his return, but he was anything but a milquetoast during his time on board the Beagle. He once helped in the rescue of small boats that were about to be washed away by a huge wave, craft that were needed to return to the Beagle from a trip to inspect glaciers in Tierra del Fuego.)
The plot was as twisted (and seemingly endless) as DNA’s double helix. Because of a voodoo spell, Darwin and his matronly chaperone, Violet Busby, end up in a 21st-century reality game show called Darwin’s Challenge. The contestants on the Galápagos Islands compete for the title of “the fittest” and a reward of $1 million, a Hummer and a lifetime supply of Doritos. Darwin, as contestant, must try to best a hippie, a black woman from a Philadelphia ghetto, a Valley girl, and Ms. Busby, as they match up in competitive eating and other contests. It all ends with a gay wedding between Violet and Lisa, the woman from Philadelphia, in a ceremony presided over by Darwin as a clergyman.
Darwin as icon offers a playwright a range of possibilities: an occasion to depict the rise of secularism, an exploration of Victorian mores, even an analysis of how the scientist’s work was perverted by eugenicists and Nazis into the movement that became known as Social Darwinism. Some of these themes might even be treated with humor. But the play leaves those opportunities to others. At best, Darwin’s Challenge cries out for a laugh track as the scientist recites a passage from The Voyage of the Beagle when asked to introduce himself to viewers for the reality show’s opening credits. As a birthday present, maybe natural selection will take its course.
Scientific American marks this year's Darwin anniversaries with a special issue in January that focuses on evolution.
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