Darwin in Malibu

“As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities.” Charles Darwin, 1879, in a letter to J. Fordyce.

At the outset of “Darwin in Malibu”, we see Charles Darwin lounging in a Hawaiian shirt, cutoffs, and sandals. We suspect that this is not the Darwin of the dour countenance we have seen in pictures. Indeed, the conceit of the play begins with the premise that the famed biologist resides in a paradise-like purgatory a century after his passing from life as we know it. What follows is a humorous and interesting look into a vital intellectual realm.

The purpose of the play is to provide a playful vehicle for discussion of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, one of the most seminal, profound, and controversial postulates in scientific history. A useful backstory to the play is provided in a pre-play talk by director Bruce Coughran.

For those who may not know, Darwin misclassified the famed Galapagos finches that are central to the theory. He thought that he had identified finches, warblers, and gosbeaks, but he later learned from ornithologists back in England that all of the specimens were finches. The bumbling that led to his treatise on natural selection cannot be understated, no matter how indelible the theory would become. In fact, he was not a biologist but was training in earth science when he took the assignment on the Beagle, which brought him to the Galapagos. He had studied Charles Lyell’s “Principles of Geology” and having learned theories about changes in the earth’s surface from that source, he was able to map Lyell’s notions onto a biological framework.

It is also noteworthy that Darwin was cautious about developing and expounding the theory of natural selection, and he largely abandoned the critical public debates, leaving his position to be advanced by the ardent Thomas Huxley. A prominent critic of the theory was Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who along with Huxley participated in the era’s most famous public debate of the theory, the 1860 Oxford Evolution Debate. Thus, the play is largely a series of informal two and three party arguments among Darwin, Huxley, and Wilberforce in a Malibu beach house.

The characters and their depictions are well delineated. George Killingsworth is Darwin, and he is played as an easy going man comfortable in his own skin. He is amused, amazed, and true to real life, he is uncertain of things religious and how exactly they fit with natural selection. He even reads horoscopes and trashy novels like his current diversion, “Malibu” by Pat Booth.

Darwin’s ally, Huxley, is played with unrelenting fervor by Robert Ernst. As a man committed to science, Huxley is highly empirical and brooks no compromise with beliefs that are not supported by fact. When he is asked which side of his family is descended from apes, he responds, “I’d rather be an ape than a bishop,” which is an adulturation of his real life reply. The other visitor, Wilberforce, is played with the smugness of a true believer by Stuart Elwyn Hall, and like, Huxley, he is didactic and dogmatic. Wilberforce and Darwin did not meet in real life, but somehow, after a century in “purgatory,” the former felt that the latter could be persuaded of the literal reading of the Bible and that he would abandon his theory.

The plot proceeds as a series of intellectual vignettes rather than a linear dramatic arc. Each of these giants is effective in making points, but Wilberforce slips when forced to respond to hypothetical examples. In one case, Darwin gets him to agree that he would be able to shoot partridges if he were in heaven. But then the bishop is forced to accept either that Darwin would be shooting partridges that are “good”, because they were in heaven, or he would be shooting partridges that are “bad” and shouldn’t be in heaven. Another more compelling example concerns Noah’s Arc. Without dwelling on details, Wilberforce is virtually forced to admit that because of space constraints in the arc, that evolution must have occurred since The Flood. Further interesting debate centers on Darwin’s arguing that Wilberforce’s heaven equates to Darwin’s hell, and that Wilberforce’s notion of perfection looks back in time, while Darwin’s looks forward.

In all, the play provides considerable food for thought in an entertaining package. The script does have some problematic elements, mostly around the fourth character, a young beach girl, Sarah, played by Leandra Ramm, who does bring a fine singing voice to the party. While Sarah facilitate in some ways, and she has a storyline of her own concerning love and loss, it’s a stretch to integrate it with the high order primary themes. It almost seems that the part was created to include a feminine accessory in the proceedings. The opening sequences with Darwin and Sarah are a bit pedestrian and lack energy. However, by the time the arguments begin, the activity level is pretty pumped up.

“Darwin in Malibu” by Crispin Whittell is produced by Intra’s Net Theater and is performed at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave, Berkeley, through January 15, 2017.

Victor Cordell
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association

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