Public Faith caught up with the playwright Murray Watts after a recent showing of Mr. Darwin’s Tree to ask him about the origins of the play, his thoughts on Darwin’s place in debates over religion and science, and the two other plays he has on at the Fringe this year. Mr. Darwin’s Tree is a one-man play that spans its subject’s entire life, and actor Andrew Harrison fluidly embodies the wonder, humor, love, doubt, and pain of Darwin and his closest associates. It is clear from the interview that Watts knows each of these emotions well, and that he considers their honest exploration to be essential to genuine faith and, indeed, to genuine human being. Watts spoke of Darwin as a prophetic and exemplary human whose loss of faith–if it can be called that–should detract neither from the greatness of his scientific work nor from the greatness of his humanity. “Humanity is the issue,” Watts insisted, and the play movingly searches it out in the “hinterland between faith and doubt” occupied by Darwin.
Mr. Darwin’s Tree, which is co-sponsored by the Centre for Theology and Public Issues, is showing at the Playhouse at Hawke and Hunter Green Room until the 21st (tickets). Watts’s play Happiness begins its run tomorrow, and First Light starts the following Tuesday.
For the full transcript of the interview, please see our new digital archives page. A few highlights are presented below. As always, we invite you to share your thoughts respectfully in the comments section.
On the purpose of Mr. Darwin’s Tree:
I wanted to write a play that tried to put both sides as clearly as possible. I wanted people to come and see the show who were atheists or “agnostics”–as coined by Huxley–or convinced Christians. I wanted people to be able to come and not feel like they were being persuaded or brow-beaten to adopt a different position. For many people their a priori assumptions or convictions will be confirmed by the play. But I also wanted to see where that crossover was, that fascinating hinterland between faith and doubt. I wanted people to understand that it is an entirely twentieth- and twenty-first century myth that in the red corner there is science and in the blue corner there is religion.
On the status of Darwin’s personal faith:
What happened to Darwin is that he had a father who was a closet atheist, a free thinker, but he also had a mother who is a Wedgewood, like Emma–she was Emma’s aunt–who was a Christian. But his mother died when he was eight, so the Christian went out of the family. He was left with a father who he was hugely impressed by, who was never more than merely a nominal Anglican. … You have to understand that Darwin’s world is nominal, nominal, nominal. Did Darwin lose his faith? I don’t think so. What evidence is there of faith of a meaningful kind? Philosophically Darwin was thrown into confusion. But in terms of the kind of faith that Emma had, I’m not sure that Darwin ever knew about that personal experience of Christ, and that is explored in the play. That is in Emma, and that really troubles and attracts him, he respects it.
On Darwin’s exemplary humanity and the imperative of honest exploration:
To me Darwin is one of the most attractive people I’ve ever studied, of all the very many historical characters I’ve studied and dramatized. I find his humanity exemplary. He was a great father, he was a great husband, he was a very good friend. He did shy away from a lot of socializing as life went on, but that had a lot to do with his ill health. He was very loyal, and he was incredibly gentlemanly about Alfred Wallace and everything that was going on. He was an absolutely exemplary figure in so many different ways.
Humanity is the issue–what is it to be a human being, what is it to be truly human? This subject fascinates me as a playwright. And to be truly human, I think, sometimes is to express incredible rage and sorrow and anger, and to be able to express doubt completely openly. That is why the theatre is important, because it’s one of the last bastions of absolute, uncompromising honesty–you are not likely to find this in many churches. I can say now, out of my own experience of attending many, many churches, honesty is one of the things that is hardest for religious believers.
It’s absolutely tragic that there are a lot of Christians who have ganged up against him, because it’s out of sheer ignorance. Here is a man who grappled with truth and falsehood and who wanted, at tremendous personal cost, to fight his way through to what he believed to be a set of very uncomfortable truths. And in that sense he’s a kind of prophetic figure. But I think it’s very liberating to realize that there were many Christians who say that and thought it was a bit of a shame that he felt he had to chuck the baby out with the bathwater. And so the play leaves you not knowing which is right. And on one level, finally, it’s up to the individual. I didn’t want to impose any beliefs that I might have, or any doubts that I might have. I wasn’t thinking about, “How can I fashion this play for a Christian audience?,” or, “How can I fashion this play for a non-believing audience?” That’s completely the wrong way to think as a playwright, but rather ask, “What are the great issues? Who are the great characters in the story?,” and let’s see what happens.