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Darwinian Selection

At the BU Theatre, a theory’s creator fears for his relationship with the Creator


Click on the slide show above to learn more about Trumpery.

When Boston University officials asked Jim Petosa to produce a play in conjunction with the Greater Boston Darwin Bicentennial, the director of the College of Fine Arts school of theatre first thought of Inherit the Wind. Written in 1955, the play recounts the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, which resulted in Tennessee teacher John Scopes’ conviction for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in high school.

“While Inherit the Wind is a fantastic piece of theater, it’s a bit overdone,” says Petosa. “I couldn’t help but wonder, isn’t there anything out there that’s a bit more contemporary?”

There is. Two years ago, Trumpery, a drama by American playwright Peter Parnell, opened at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City. This weekend it arrives at the BU Theatre.

In a creative form of survival of the fittest, the play examines Darwin’s efforts to complete On the Origin of Species before another scientist lays claim to his ideas. The quest nearly shatters Darwin, who hesitates to publish his work for fear of the furor the book would unleash. “If I finish, I’m a killer,” his character says. “I murder God.”

For more than 20 years, Darwin kept the theory of evolution to himself, letting On the Origin of Species languish in notebooks. He was not moved to publish the work until young British biologist Alfred Russel Wallace devised the same idea and propelled Darwin on a reluctant race to secure his legacy as the father of natural selection.

Petosa suspects the theme of self-doubt will resonate, particularly with college students. “Young people gravitate toward stories of radicalism because they are aspiring to make a difference in the world,” he says. “And Trumpery is about someone who made an enormous difference, at a tremendous cost to himself.”

Led by an all-student cast and crew, Trumpery, directed by Jim Petosa, is presented by the Boston University College of Fine Arts school of theatre. It will be performed at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., on Friday, May 1, and Saturday, May 2, at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, May 3, at 2 p.m. Admission is $12 for the general public and $10 for BU alumni and students, seniors, Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, and WGBH members. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office or at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion box office, 527 Tremont St., Boston. Members of the BU community can receive one free ticket at the door on the day of the performance (ID is required).

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.


4 Comments on Darwinian Selection

  • Anonymous on 05.01.2009 at 1:31 pm

    Just recently I’ve heard a lecture delivered by John van Wyhe, a historian of science at the University of Cambridge, who is a dedicated historian on Darwin’s life and founder and Director of Darwin Online. Van Wyhe’s recent research has challenged the long-held view that Darwin held back or kept his theory secret for 20 years (Darwin’s delay). His talk was about all sorts of misconceptions about Darwin including the most important one that Darwin had intentionally postponed the publication of The Origin of Species, The real reason was that Darwin was extraordinarily busy publishing and completing other projects. He was aware that his theory on evolution was important and that it absolutely had to be published however he has already had commitments and this was the only real reason for a delay, according to scholarly sources that Van Wyhe quoted in sharp contrast to populist ideas. It is disappointing that this play is shown at BU at this time.

  • Anonymous on 05.02.2009 at 8:46 am

    after seeing the play, a response to the above.

    Well, Darwin certainly must have been VERY busy! It’s an interesting post, but, really, the play, which I saw last night, does not pretend to be a purely historical account. Peter Parnell takes this bit of history and conceives an epic human canvass to tell a compellingly universal story about the tension between faith and science. Also, it delves into the human experience of grief and awe as well as exploring natural selection as a metaphor in human relationship. Well worth seeing. The audience that attended was riveted. It is thrilling that this play is shown at BU at this time.

  • Anonymous on 05.02.2009 at 6:15 pm

    a different thought

    I saw the production last night and find myself part of an enrapt audience for a highly engaging and illuminating play.
    The last comment expresses disappointment that the play is being shown. I was delighted by it and hope more get the opportunity to explore its genuine questions of the tension between science and faith, grief and awe, and all the other truly human conundrums that are so potently illuminated in it.

  • Anonymous on 05.08.2009 at 7:49 pm

    They did a FANTASTIC job with their performance. Well Done!

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