Feb. 12, 2008

Drama of Darwin's letters depicts stormy debate graced by humor

Harvard botanist Asa Gray, a devout Presbyterian, foresaw the storm that Charles Darwin's revolutionary theory of evolution would trigger. To deny the design of God in the development of new species was blasphemous, warned Gray. For 30 years, Gray and Darwin corresponded, debating natural selection, science and religion, exchanging ideas and opinions about family, war and slavery and even sharing gossip.

This relationship was brought to life Feb. 11 in Cornell's Uris Auditorium, in "Re:Design," a dramatization of those letters. The event was the kickoff to a weeklong series of events at Cornell and in Ithaca to celebrate Darwin Day, a commemoration of the scientist's birthday, Feb. 12, 1809, and his ideas.

The spirited discourse between the two naturalists began in 1855, after Gray's trip to London. Darwin shared his new theory of natural selection with his friend, sending Gray a copy of his book, "On the Origin of Species," before its publication.

Skeptical as he was, Gray recognized Darwin's genius and wrote articles to mollify public opposition to his book. The Bostonian was the single man most responsible for promoting Darwin's theories in North America. Darwin confides to Gray in a letter, "I should have been fairly annihilated should it have not been for four or five men -- and you are among them."

The letters are numerous, written with a sort of amiable rigor. The men shared details of their personal lives, but they were not afraid to disagree. Until the end, Gray remained a theist, Darwin a self-proclaimed agnostic. To Darwin, the force of nature dictated that lightning should strike a man whether he is good or bad, God-fearing or atheist.

In "Re:Design," the letters were read by British actor Terry Molloy as Darwin and American actor Patrick Morris as Gray, as the two men sat side by side at a desk on a set of Darwin's brick house in Kent.

Molloy and Morris translated the grace and humor of the men's correspondence into an on-stage dynamism that made the play seem like more than dramatic letter-reading. Playwright Craig Baxter provided structure by adding narration and layering the texts so that they crisscross with one another like dialogue.

Of course, in the 19th century the men did not write to one another over a desk but across the sea. Their letters crossed from America to England and back again countless times. They exchanged letters even during the turbulent Civil War years when Gray left botany aside. The unfailing hallmark of Darwin's letters to Gray was a warm salutation, "My dear Gray."

"Re:Design" was commissioned by the Darwin Correspondence project at Cambridge University. It was produced by Menagerie Theatre Company of East England and supported by the John Templeton Foundation.

For a full schedule of Darwin Day events this week, see http://www.priweb.org/darwinday.html.

Jill McCoy '08 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.