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Tragedy After Darwin: Timberlake Wertenbaker Remakes "Modern" Tragedy


Sara Freeman


This essay reads After Darwin, a 1998 play by contemporary British writer Timberlake Wertenbaker, in relation to recent writing on tragedy from literary scholar Terry Eagleton, performance studies scholar David Román, and the debates of the mid-twentieth century through Raymond Williams, George Steiner, Susan Sontag and Lionel Abel about the viability of “modern” tragedy. Wertenbaker’s play employs a metatheatrical structure, and invites a discussion of tragedy by having the characters of the “outer” play, who are staging an “inner” play about Charles Darwin’s relationship with Captain Robert FitzRoy of the Beagle and the publication of Origin of Species, argue about the status of their play and whether or not it is possible to be tragic “after Darwin.” Wertenbaker’s play may not “be” a tragedy itself, but in all the postmodern senses of the word “after” it pursues after the genre and exhibits a deep concern with what tragedy means and does in the contemporary political, social, and artistic world.

Wertenbaker’s play engages with tragedy out of the sense that western culture employs tragedy to understand itself when it is in crisis and that the literary structure therefore comes to reflect the culture’s modes of exploring and, depending on the view of catharsis, a culture’s mode of “dealing with” its crises and upheavals. The study proceeds by identifying the three crossroads After Darwin straddles by scripting its post Darwinian events at the intersection of tragedy and history, fate and free will, individual and community, and concludes by articulating how Wertenbaker’s hybrid, complexly cathartic final scene proposes a way the public art of theatre can still be a place for a culture to meet and process its crises.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.