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New play about Darwin's dilemmas

A New Zealand company is planning to tour a new play about Darwin and the dilemmas he faced in going public about his theory of evolution.

Barnacles and battles

Darwin waited many years, continuing to amass evidence, before he publicised his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Darwin waited many years, continuing to amass evidence, before he publicised his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Called Collapsing Creation (or The Sex Life of Barnacles), the play is written by New Zealand playwright Michael Burton and recreates two turbulent periods in Darwin’s life.

The play begins in 1848, when Darwin is immersed in his exhaustive barnacle research and facing inner doubts about whether society will accept his revolutionary theory. The first half ends with Darwin questioning his religious beliefs after the tragic death of his eldest daughter Annie, aged 10 years, in 1851.

The second half jumps to 1859 just after The Origin of Species has been published. It explores the public outcry at the book and Darwin’s reaction to it. The play’s climactic scene is a boxing or wrestling match creating a metaphor for the intellectual battle between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce in the Great Debate of 1860.

The play uses 5 actors who play the main characters (Charles and Emma Darwin, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley and Charles Lyell) but they also take on a number of other roles in different scenes. A young girl plays the small part of Annie during her illness.

On the move

The play is being written and produced with touring in mind so the set will be minimal, with scene changes performed by the actors. The costumes will be simple and standard sound and lighting equipment will be used. The production will tour with a stage manager and a sound and lighting technician in addition to the 5 actors.

The project is being supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand who are organising an extensive programme of activities to celebrate the bicentenary. The play is intended to inform the general public about the dilemmas that Darwin faced when developing his theory and to stimulate debate about science today.

The production will open in Wellington (Soundings Theatre, Te Papa) in October 2008 then tour New Zealand before potentially coming over to the UK in the second half of 2009. If any partners are interested in hosting this touring production, please contact Michael Burton.


‘There is grandeur in this view of life... from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’ Charles Darwin