Murray Watts Interview

Public Faith (PF) interview with playwright Murray Watts (MW), Tuesday 9 August, 2011.

PF I’m curious to know about the background of Mr. Darwin’s Tree. I’m aware that it was commissioned by the Christian think tank Theos. How did you decide to contribute this play to their Rescuing Darwin Project?

MW In the 1990s, I was commissioned to work on a series of programs about Freud for American television, it was a five-part series. Like quite a lot of big projects that I’ve been involved with, it actually never got made, for a number of reasons. But it was actually two years research for me out in the States and all over the place, and I wrote a whole load of scripts and things. And during this process I did a lot of research into Darwin. Although Darwin was never an actual mentor to Freud, because of age difference, Freud really almost deified Darwin. He was obsessed with him and saw himself as the “Darwin of the mind”–the evolution of mental processes and the rest of it.

As a result of this I read a lot about Darwin and I went to Down House where Darwin lived, and I found myself strangely moved, incredibly moved, actually, by Darwin as a character. I even went to Malvern, actually, which is where his little girl had been buried. This was before the bicentennial a couple of years ago, this was in the late 1990s so no one was doing that then, and I found this obscure, overgrown grave with Annie’s name on it. And, again, I was very moved by the stories I read about him losing this little girl. For a long time I thought it would be even beyond the TV series–I was looking at locations for the film–but I thought it would be an amazing place sometime to do with the subject of Darwin.

So when Theos, which is a renowned theological think tank, contacted me and said, “Look we’re going to do something about Darwin, understanding Darwin not as a kind of iconic figure for militant atheists, if you like, but we’re going to rescue Darwin and show the complexity of Darwin’s own thought and so on, and we would love to have a play as part of this,” I was delighted. That is the Darwin that I had encountered: a man of incredible humility and humor–the rather serious Victorian photography where you can’t smile because of the time lapse of cameras, it’s completely the wrong impression of Victorian life because everyone seems so serious. Darwin had a fantastic sense of humor. He built an indoor toboggan for his children so they could slide down the stairs–isn’t that a great dad? He and his wife made an agreement together that they would put their children before the furniture. So the children were always using the very beautiful furniture–because Darwin was from a wealthy background–they were always building rail-road trains out of the furniture and disturbing Darwin in his wonderful research into barnacles and things like that. They had this most amazing life.

The more I started looking into him for Theos, I thought, “Rescuing Darwin” is a very good title for the project, because here’s a man who has incredible warmth and humility and who struggles enormously with issues of faith. Darwin doesn’t like it if his theories are taken and used as knock-down arguments for atheism, and he has very strong Christian friends working with him, like Asa Gray, professor of biology at Harvard later on, and he also has people like Charles Kingsley as a great advocate. So it’s a terribly complex picture of a man going through a huge long life of scientific exploration, at the same time as he undergoes a slow descent, really, in terms of personal belief.

And the key thing that fascinated me as a dramatist was his relationship with Emma. Here’s a wife who is a very strong Christian, and who is always a strong Christian throughout the marriage. And she talks about the “painful void” between them–and there was only one. They had the most enviable marriage I’ve ever come across. I’ve researched a great many historical subjects and done films, and plays, and even books about them, radio plays and the rest of it, but I’ve never come across marriage as beautiful as Darwin’s to Emma, it was beautiful. But there was one “painful void,” which is the question of belief. She would actually place notes under his pillow and things like that. She didn’t want to bother him with his troubles, and sometimes she just didn’t want to have the conversation, but she would write to him and say, “I wish you could know and understand what I believe,” and he would respond very beautifully to all of this. Ironically, therefore, you’ve got a very strong Christian and deeply spiritual person being the greatest support to the man who probably had more impact on the loss of faith for many people.

PF Is there anything more about the decision to focus on Emma?

MW Generally when people have discussed Darwin, Emma doesn’t come up. But she’s a highly intelligent woman, very well educated, from a very illustrious family, that had a huge amount to do with the abolition of slavery, her grandfather was Josiah Wedgewood, so she was politically very aware as well.

PF The choice to focus on Darwin’s biography is interesting, considering that the piece was commissioned by a political think tank. You could have, for instance, focused on the early public debates over evolution and religion. Could you talk more about the decision to focus on the biographical?

MW One of the reviews that I was privileged to get for a play called the Fatherland in 1989 was titled “People Not Politics,” and it went on to say how important it was to have a play about South Africa that was not a campaigning play about apartheid, but the horrors of apartheid and everything [still] came out through the characters, through the people. The review was extremely warm, and it said something like, “You follow the characters in a haze of sympathetic tears.” The feeling of laughter, of grief, of anguish of rage, it’s like playing the whole piano. When you’re dealing with a human being, with the life of a great human being like Charles Darwin, you need to play the whole piano, in my view.

I grew up in a very English world and I played on one octave very, very sensitively. My mother was upset, for example, about the Silences, but I never saw her cry. I never heard my father raise his voice much. We had a very beautifully controlled, one-octave English life. When I went to Africa and Israel and many other places, I suddenly discovered cultures where people hit every note on the piano: rage, hilarious laughter, agonizing pain, tears, emotions which I’d hardly touched on in life were all being played out in front of me. So when the reviewer said “people not politics,” I thought that was a very good understanding of the play and also an understanding of what I was about as a playwright. My masters for this were people like Seán O’Casey, the great Irish dramatist, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams. These are the great writers of huge emotional “surges,” and their plays are not political, they are very often domestic. Like Ibsen’s great play Ghosts, which is a domestic drama, but contained in it is a portrayal of the claustrophobia of Norwegian society.

Therefore when I come to the ultimate “man of issues,” if you like, a scientist like Darwin, there are all sorts of things going on with his work. One of them is referred to in the play, his cousin Francis Galton who wrote this book on heredity genius and who coined the phrase eugenics. The history of the first-half of the twentieth century is an absolute disaster zone for the concept of eugenics, of purifying the race and manipulating evolution. Even now everybody looks back in horror and astonishment that anybody could have gone down that route. And yet in a number of different ways we still do it. Now these are huge issues, but I’m choosing to just mention them in passing all the way along, because by going through the emotional journey of Charles Darwin, almost from the cradle to the grave, I’m taking people on a kind of roller coaster: go with Darwin, be Darwin, be as he was, understand the agony he felt about subverting received opinions.

Darwin’s physical ill health, for example, his awful stomach pains and his terrible digestion and the times when he thought he was dying–this whole issue of health is very interesting and nobody can really get to the bottom of it. But when he is actually tumbling to the idea of the tree of life and to the ideas of evolution and of the survival of the fittest, he gets worse and worse in his health. So when you see him on stage grappling with the pain at the same time as he’s writing these secretive notebooks, it tells you so much about the shock on Victorian society and on the world. If you tried to talk about that in a cerebral way, or if you tried to dramatize that by having someone come onstage and say, “Mr Darwin, I do find your theories extremely shocking and subversive,” you’ve lost a lot. When it’s shown internally in the character, you show that Darwin pays a price continually, and it makes him sympathetic. That thing of drawing people into the life of other human beings is what the theatre does, the best kind of theatre. And therefore, a brief moment of imagined dialogue between Darwin and Emma will tell you more about the dilemmas of science and faith.

As it happens, the scene in the play of a dialogue between Charles Kingsley and T. H. Huxley is an invention by me. We don’t know that that actually happened, but I wanted to show the complexity of the debate, and I knew that Charles Kingsley was in a very interesting place in the mind of Darwin, since he quoted Kingsley in the second edition of On the Origin of Species. The two of them to me are incredibly fascinating characters but, again, the scene is more interesting to me as a way of showing how Huxley behaves and how someone like Kingsley behaves–that is even more important to me than the debate. The debate works if you get a sense of real individuals, you know. And also you just overload an audience if you do it too cerebrally, and that’s very tempting with somebody like Darwin.

PF What do you see as the relation of this play to the more typical responses to Darwin, which tend to be highly cerebral? Does it contrast or complement them?

MW 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.

I grew up with a father who was a scientist, my grandfather was a scientist, and my son studied natural sciences at Cambridge–I am the blip, right? I was surrounded by a world of science. My father, who is 100 next year, is a very distinguished ornithologist. A lot of his recordings of African birds, and his studies to do with them, are in the national sound archive in the British Library. There are many doctoral students and others listening to my father’s recordings, even probably now at this very time. I grew up with this man who was playing African bird songs at my house, and he talked a lot about scientific issues and things. But he was also a convinced Christian and he had no problem with Darwin–it wasn’t an issue for him.

The kind of pugilistic world of today is an interesting world to grow up in, a world that I associate more with the American scene than the British scene, to be honest. And the history of this is very interesting: what happened in the 1920s, with the Scopes Trial and the rest of it. Stuff happened that put people in the red and the blue corner in a way that was completely illegitimate. One of the things that you’ll notice in the play is that I point out that the Christians around Darwin–Asa Gray, Charles Kingsley, Frederick Temple–were not like that. And, in fact, the key thing is that Darwin’s own wife was such a Christian. So it’s a very much more complex picture, and you see Darwin see-sawing between things.

One of the things that I did not put in the play, but put in an earlier draft of it, is that at one point when Darwin is being very dismissive about something or another, Emma says to him “You’re such a bigot”–but she says it with great love. There are reasons it’s not in the play, partly to do with length–it needed a whole scene–but it’s worthwhile quoting it. Because the question is, was Darwin’s declension of faith really about with his evolutionary theories, or was it about some other things. Since there are people today, some very eminent scientists in the world–and one could name quite a few of them, who are convinced Christians but also leading authorities, whether it’s on the Human Genome Project, like Francis Collins, or whether it’s John Polkinghorne, or whether it’s eminent people in the world of astronomy, you could list a very considerable number of Christians who are leading the field in various areas–then you have to ask, what was really happening to Darwin?

I think there are some answers to this, although I don’t give them in the play. 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. So to say that Charles Darwin lost his faith makes sense in a way, since he actually goes far with studying theology and preparing for the priesthood at Cambridge. But, then again, you have to understand that you practically had to do that to be at Oxford or Cambridge, you certainly had to be a nominal Anglican and subscribe to the 39 Articles. 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.

PF Is that admiration and respect obvious in their correspondence?

MW Absolutely, you see in letters that they exchanged and in a number of other things that he had the utmost respect for his wife’s faith. He wished he could share it. He wrote an autobiography that is quoted in the play, a secret, private family autobiography about the real levels to which his so-called faith had declined, and Emma would not let it be published. So the world never really knew about Darwin’s complete loss of all faith or loss of any kind of adherence to the Bible or whatever until the 1950s when it was published. She was a huge guardian of his science and his reputation. This isn’t in the play, but he trusted his first crucial draft about the theory of evolution to Emma. This is where the film Creation was all wrong–there is no way that Emma was going to burn anything. It’s a fine film in many ways, but I remember thinking two things, that that particular crisis would never have happened, and that the narrowness of faith that is represented is typical of what happens when people write films or stories about Darwin and don’t have a real understanding of faith. Because actually Emma was not narrow at all. However, she did protect Darwin’s reputation in Victorian society. She thought, “I don’t really want my husband washing his dirty laundry of total doubt and disbelief in public at this point, I don’t think it’s good for his reputation.”

PF It’s interesting to think about what kind of reception his theory would have had if it had been known from the beginning that he was a skeptic.

MW I think that’s right, and I think he hid stuff and she held it back very shrewdly. People were able to get used to the scientific elements of evolution, and Christians were not put off. Many of them were challenged but drawn by it.

What Emma thought in my view is really correct. She thought that his mounting disbelief and atheism was not really to do with science. She thought it was much more to do with Charles’s own prejudice about the way that he evaluated evidence, that he excluded God and religion because he could only accept what could be proved in a laboratory and scientifically demonstrated. She made that clear to him in a letter early on–she’s that intelligent, she not a meek and mild wife. So when she says “My husband is such a bigot”–a “terrible bigot,” I think she calls him–it’s loving, funny, mischievous and true.

For reasons that are complicated, Charles Darwin did become quite bigoted on the issue of religion and it’s not entirely to do with his theories. It’s as much to do with the loss of his father, who was a closet atheist and who he really identified with, followed closely after by the loss of his daughter, both of which just absolutely shattered him. I think the loss of Annie and the loss of his father were as important in tracing his history. As well as the loss of his mother when he was eight–think C.S. Lewis and the impact the losses of mothers have on children. Those are three very important losses for Darwin which lie around the question of his faith. Here we come back to this issue of why you would write an autobiographical play, because frankly if you want to get to the bottom of Charles Darwin’s disbelief, don’t just talk about evolution.

PF In an article about your film The Miracle Man, you wrote that “the purest expression of Christian faith is dissident.” Watching the play I wondered if Darwin is an exemplary Christian, or if he perhaps shows us a path to more authentic Christianity.

MW 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.

I remember the Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaker saying to me and others, “Jesus Christ did not come to make Christians, he came to make men and women fully human. More fully men, more fully women, more fully children. He came to liberate people from the prisons they were in, where they weren’t fulfilling their true identity.”

Therefore, to talk about “making Christians” is like some kind of factory of evangelism, some kind of mass produced article that is subhuman. 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.

You are more likely to find honesty from people in the secular context, who at least tell you how it is, even if they tell you in no uncertain terms with lots of bad language–but they at least tell you how it is. But there is pressure on Christians to put up a front and do public relations for God, whereas God doesn’t actually need the public relations of frail humanity. If anything, we need his PR rather than the other way around!

Charles Darwin, therefore, fits into the position of a man who had an incredible breadth and warmth of humanity. It would have been absolutely wonderful for Emma if Charles could have shared her beliefs. He didn’t for complex reasons, but there was something about him, and certainly about their marriage, that truly expressed what a human should be. And in that sense, Charles Darwin has always been a role model as far as I’m concerned about how to be. I think he’s an amazing person.

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.

PF Do the other plays you have on at the Fringe this year touch on this search for humanity, the doubting and searching?

MW There is no formal connection between these three plays, they’ve all been written at different times in my life for different reasons. I think that in every play a playwright writes there is something autobiographical. Even when I wrote the Fatherland it had an element of autobiography. Okay, I’m not black, I don’t live in Soweto, and I’m not a black footballer, and I haven’t got relatives on Robben Island, like some of my friends had. However, I did work in South Africa and I was very close to people who had all these experiences and they were very much part of my life. In a way, as that culture was teaching me to play the whole piano, it got absolutely melded with my own sense of what it is to be human. I choose Fatherland because the play is perhaps the most remote from my personal experience, but it was absolutely partly biographical.

So you could say Happiness [is autobiographical], for example, because I know certain things about marital breakdown, because it happened to me. I know about love and hope against the odds. I know about living in the Highlands. I know about dreams and projects I’ve been involved with that have failed, and others that have had wonderful things happen to them. I know about living on the edge, because I think a lot of creative people know this terrible tension between great hopes and terrible disappointments, living through disaster and, [asking,] can you still keep hopeful? For me those are huge questions, and Happiness comes out of very personal questions about what happiness is and can you find a way through even the darkest times. So it is a play about love, really. That’s why the burning heart is a powerful image, the heart on fire. That’s not bad, that’s good–our hearts should be on fire, one way or another, even if it’s through suffering. So there is something deep in that play, and a lot of people have been very moved by Happiness and the brilliant performances in it.

First Light is all set in a boarding school. I grew up in a boarding school–that was the other life of my father the bird watcher, he was also headmaster of a boarding school. Many of my family were at boarding schools, and I went to a boarding school. I have a lot to do with people who now are headmasters of boarding schools. Although I have very, very complex feelings indeed about boarding school in general, First Light is set in an environment that I think I do understand quite well. It is a play that, again, is really about love and trust–how do they flourish in a world where there are increasing rules and protocols about what teachers and pupils can do, there are police-checks on everybody and rules about two teachers in a room. First Light is a controversial play and raises big issues about teacher-pupil relationships, but ultimately it is questioning the nature of human experience–can love thrive against the odds?

Interview conducted by Jamie Pitts ( for Public Faith.


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