One of the most pleasurable aspects of our trip to Chicago and the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop was that Susan, Larry Arnhart, and myself were able to attend the play “In the Garden: A Darwinian Love Story” shortly after my interview with Dan Weinberg. The play is a dialogue, really, between Charles and Emma Darwin and the difficulties they had as a couple in coming to terms with his theory of evolution as it affected Emma’s faith in God.
I teach a course on Darwin and Lincoln at Lone Star College – Kingwood called “The Emancipators: Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Making of the Modern World”. These men were born on the same day, February 12, 1809, and I use their lives as a kind of microhistory to explore the nineteenth century, a century that one recent book argues transformed the world.
Several years ago Susan and I visited Darwin’s home when we were in England and it was one of the most enjoyable aspects of our stay there. We were especially impressed with Darwin’s garden and, as Larry said as we talked with him about it, Darwin’s use of botany in his scientific work. All this is to stay that I think the title of the play could be interpreted as a reference to both the Garden of Eden and to Darwin’s Garden. If you look at the picture to the right, you can see the garden and the greenhouse Darwin used for his experiments behind the hedges.
The play was held in the Chicago Water Tower building, which was one of the few in the city to escape damage from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. The set was very well done, with the action taking place in Darwin’s study. The playwright Sarah Gmitter, according to Larry, used to be a stagehand at the Looking Glass Theatre and this was her first production. There were approximately 75-100 people in attendance at 3:00 on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Chicago.
The play traces the relationship of Charles and Emma from their childhoods (they knew each other from an early age) to the death of their daughter Annie. Now, the playwright took some liberties with the historical record in that she placed Annie’s death after the publication of the Origin of Species rather than beforehand, but I don’t think that vitiated the importance of the issues at stake in the dialogue over science and religion. Having read a good deal on Darwin, I can attest that Gmitter used a significant amount of primary source material, which only added to the play’s interest.
There were two pieces of dialogue, both of them uttered by Emma, that I found particularly striking. One occurred when Charles and Emma were arguing about Darwin’s theory and its impact on people’s religious beliefs. She told her husband, “Charles, you insist that a finch needs thousands of years to change its beak, but expect a person to change her mind in the time it takes to read a single book.” The audience gasped (at least Larry and I thought so) when this beautiful line was uttered and the stunned expression on Darwin’s face was perfect. Later, after Annie’s death, Emma tells Charles that she has implored God in her prayers for an explanation of this tragedy. Charles asks her, “And what have you heard?” “I have heard silence,” Emma replies. Might I add at this point that another wonderful part of the play was that Emma is portrayed entirely and completely as Charles’ equal? Added to this was that Darwin, who is all too often demonized in American culture, is portrayed as human being struggling with issues of science, faith, knowledge, and, love. It is a warm portrayal and one that Americans would benefit from seeing.
So, “In the Garden” was unique in showing the excitement, indeed importance, of ideas. The Looking Glass Theatre has even held “Community Panel Discussion” after several performances in order to further respectful dialogue about these important topics. Overall, then, it was a highly intelligent play and one that I recommend wholeheartedly. If you visit Chicago, it runs until June 15, and I think you would find attending well worth your time. I can only hope it one day comes to Houston.