Sunday, June 03, 2012

"A History of Everything"--A Play About Science and the Meaning of Life

"We are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close forever."

That sentence from Richard Dawkins' book, Unweaving the Rainbow, is said by Alexander Devriendt to capture the theme of his new play, "A History of Everything."  I have just seen a performance of the play at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.  It's the work of a Belgian theatre group.  It was first performed a few months ago in Australia.

The play depicts the history of the universe in reverse, moving from the day of the performance backwards through the history of human beings and their evolutionary ancestors until we reach the Big Bang.  The performers enact selected events on a giant map of the Earth that covers the floor of the stage.  Eventually, the continents merge into Pangea, and then the Earth itself is folded up into a ball that disappears.  This is all done with a clever playfulness that is a joy to watch.  There is even some tasteful nudity that adds some sizzle (think Botticelli's "Birth of Venus").

Devriendt says that the sentence from Dawkins "embodied an important aspect of the show: how science and history can provide us with answers about our life, as opposed to religious or creationist views."

This play is a remarkable work of thoughtful entertainment.  It gave my wife and I much to talk about as we dined after the performance.

I have four thoughts about this play.  The first is that it is dogmatic in assuming the truth of Dawkins' scientific atheism.  It assumes that Dawkins is right that there must be an opposition between the scientific history of evolution and religious accounts of human life in the cosmos.  The possibility of theistic evolution is never considered.

Thus, dogmatic atheism has taken the place of dogmatic religion.  Just as artists once dramatized the religious beliefs of their time, now artists like Devriendt dramatize the atheistic beliefs of people like Dawkins, "who provide us with answers about our life."

A crucial turning point in this play is when it reaches 1859 and depicts the event of the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.  One of the actors speaks then about the "death of God," as if that were the only conclusion that anyone could draw from Darwin's science.  Of course, this is Dawkins' Darwin.  But it's not clear to me that Darwin himself would have accepted this.  Although he became a skeptic, Darwin left open questions about First Cause and the unexplained grounds of all explanation in a way that invited thought about reason and revelation.  Those like Dawkins are not open to such questions.

This play manifests what I have called Romantic Darwinism--the effort to infuse an atheistic evolutionary view of the world with religious emotions and thus achieve a kind of secular transcendence.  Artists like Devriendt are easily captivated by this, but without really understanding what they're doing.

Similarly, the reference to Lucretius ("atoms and the void")  is apt, because this play is a lot like Lucretius' poem--On the Nature of Things--in its poetic story of human life as part of an evolving cosmos that is undesigned and uncaring.

My second thought is that the play dramatizes the amazing increase in human population over human history without reflecting on the meaning of this.  One of the performers counts down the world population from the present seven billion.  This reminds us of the startling growth in human numbers over the past two hundred years.  And yet the play emphasizes war as pervasive throughout history.  The play thus misses one of the fundamental themes of human history--the remarkable decline in violence and increase in prosperity.  If Devriendt had read Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley instead of Dawkins, he might have thought about depicting this big pattern that supports historical optimism.

My third thought is that the last ten or fifteen minutes of the play should be cut out.  Near the end, a bright, blinding light is shined out on the audience to suggest the Big Bang.  This should have been followed immediately by total darkness as the end of the play.  This would have been more dramatically effective than continuing with some wandering lights on the stage, which was confusing.

My final thought is that this play reminded me of George Anastaplo's argument--in his book, The Artist as Thinker--that artists really are thinkers, and therefore we must judge their art by the quality of their thought.  One can see that a playwright like Devriendt is using his art to work through a line of thought--in this case, the thought of some historians and scientists--and consequently our aesthetic judgment about his art must be a philosophic judgment about the persuasiveness of his reasoning.

My earlier post on Romantic Darwinism can be found here.

My previous posts on the evolutionary history of everything can be found here and here.

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

Fascinating. I hope one day you will be able to see and comment upon my own plays. :-)

You can find a few here, as well as my poetry: