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ReDesign: a play on letters

I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle. I cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance. And yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design.

—Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, 1860

Asa Gray, an American botanist, was one of the first people in whom Darwin confided his theory on the origin of species; Darwin even discussed his doubts with Gray. Now, archived letters between the two men have been brought back to life in a play, ReDesign, which tracks the intersection of their lives and their science.

“[Gray] made Darwin’s ideas acceptable to the religious side in the States. He was very significant in the spread of [evolutionary] ideas to that continent,” says playwright Craig Baxter. “The crux of this [play] is a little bit technical, and a little bit dry and academic, … but we’re trying to open it out and give it a more general [feel].”

In the opening scene, the two men flank the stage, each pacing their respective rooms on opposite sides of the Atlantic while they muse on their letters. A modern-day character, Jemma, sits center stage, trying to make sense of the letters while researching a video project.

The pair strike up their correspondence in 1855, when Darwin asks Gray for information about the distribution of plants in North America. The pair bond over shared interests and later, Darwin tentatively tells Gray of his new theories on evolution.

Gray is at first uncertain about the hypothesis, but later, when he receives a copy of On the Origin of Species, he becomes impressed and almost convinced by Darwin’s work, despite his strong faith in Christianity. The book still caused great controversy in scientific and religious circles, but Gray became key in getting Darwin’s ideas accepted in the United States. After the book was published, Gray made a public statement that greatly calmed opposition to Darwin’s book, as shown in the play.

Part of Gray’s statement:

“[We] cannot be expected to let the old belief about species pass unquestioned. … We cling to a long-accepted theory, just as we cling to an old suit of clothes. A new theory, like a new pair of breeches, is sure to have hard fitting places.”

Darwin later wrote thankfully to Gray:

“I should have been fairly annihilated had it not been for four or five men, including yourself. The effect on me is that I will buckle on my armour and fight my best. … But it will be a long fight. By myself I should be powerless.”

Apart from the science, the two continue writing throughout the American Civil War (1861-1865) about politics, their families, and their health. One interlude sees Darwin’s son, Horace, confused at how people once did not believe in natural selection, poignantly reflecting how Darwin’s ideas may often be taken for granted in modern biology.

“My dear Gray. I must tell you that the other day [my boy Horace] overheard me talking about species; and afterwards he came to me, with his eyes open with astonishment and asked, ‘Did people formerly really believe that animals and plants never changed?’”

Most touching about the play is the friendship and warmth between the two men, who, despite their differences, always manage to find common ground. “There is lots of polarized debate about Darwin versus God,” says Baxter. “[But] this is quite an inspirational relationship, because they’re not at loggerheads about it.” He adds, “It can teach us a lot maybe about how intellectual debate can be, without necessarily forming distinct camps that completely disagree with each other.”

ReDesign, playing this week at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge, was commissioned by the Darwin Correspondence Project, which aims to locate, research, and publish summaries of all of Darwin’s letters.