New play about Darwin (NYC)

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Given the furor he feared it would unleash, it is not surprising that Charles Darwin sat on his “great idea,” refusing to publish “The Origin of Species” until 1859, more than 20 years after he first devised the theory of evolution.

“If I finish the book, I’m a killer,” he said. “I murder God.”

At least that’s what Peter Parnell has Darwin say in his new play, “Trumpery,” which opened this month at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York.

In the play, as in real life, Darwin is moved to publish by Alfred Russel Wallace, a young man whom Parnell’s Darwin dismisses as “a nobody, a collector, a poor specimen hunter,” but who has independently come up with a theory just like the one Darwin has been chewing on for decades.

So in part the play hangs on scientific “priority:” who will publish first? As the action begins, Wallace, as in real life, has sent Darwin a paper describing his ideas, in hopes that Darwin will help make them known. (If, like many people, you know who Darwin is but not Wallace, you probably think you know how that comes out. Think again.)

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