(credit: Thea Lacey)
Juliet Aykroyd is one of those gifted, multi-talented people who we read about and admire. An accomplished actor, a teacher of acting, an author, an award-winning playwright and a poet, she radiates creative energy and excitement. Apart from her roles in the theatre, including three seasons as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in movies and on television, she has distinguished herself as a serious playwright with a keen insight into history. Her play Darwin & FitzRoy, published in October 2013, tells the story of Charles Darwin, the world-famous biologist, and his stormy thirty-year professional relationship with Robert FitzRoy, the Captain of the HMS Beagle. But for FitzRoy agreeing to take Darwin, a twenty-three-year-old fledgling naturalist, aboard his five-year voyage of discover for the British Admiralty, Darwin would have become an undistinguished country pastor in a rural English village. For the first time in 150 years, however, Juliet Aykroyd has brought to the stage a story that captures the true voices of two of the 19th century's greatest minds and that pinpoints the origin of the creationism vs. evolution debate. THIRSTY was fortunate to catch up with Juliet at her home in Somerset, England to discuss her life and her remarkable play.
THIRSTY: How did you become interested in Charles Darwin and Robert FitzRoy? What fascinated you the most about these two scientific geniuses and the circumstances that brought them together? How important was their voyage on the HMS Beagle?
JULIET AYKROYD: My father was a scientist who wrote about human nutrition and the history of science, and was a big admirer of Darwin. I recall being told at an early age about the giant fossils (my dad loved fossils) and the Galapagos finches, and thinking that was all pretty interesting, but not really understanding the theory of evolution as my dad propounded it. FitzRoy I knew nothing about, until a friend who was at the time CEO of the British Meteorological Office pointed out that his 19th century predecessor had been overlooked by history, and that his life story would make an interesting play. I started researching, and was soon totally gripped by the FitzRoy-Darwin connection. It was intriguing to think how young they were when they set off on the Beagle; how they absolutely did not foresee the momentous outcome of the voyage; how convoluted and different were their personalities; and, how totally apart their ideas proved to be in the end. Darwin's experiences and observations on the Beagle were seminal to his great theory of evolution. Without FitzRoy (who refuted the theory) Darwin could have lived out his days as an unknown country clergyman with a penchant for natural history.
THIRSTY: Why do you think the story of Darwin and FitzRoy has been overlooked for almost 150 years?
JULIET AYKROYD: I don't know. It's very strange! Could it be that FitzRoy's misfortunes and sad end cast a shadow for potential biographers? Or, that the irony of the story somehow escaped historians' attention? It seems that nothing was written until the 1960s, when H.E.L. Mellersh's biography of FitzRoy and Alan Moorehead's Darwin and the Beagle shone a whole new light on the Beagle adventure.
THIRSTY: Are Darwin and FitzRoy's ideas and accomplishments still relevant today?
JULIET AYKROYD: The confrontation between Darwin's materialistic science and FitzRoy's orthodox Christianity, in explaining the origin of life on earth, is still a powerful issue for many, especially in the United States. Although we know a great deal more now about the mechanism of natural selection than Darwin did, thanks to Mendel and his successors in the field of genetics, Darwin's great theory has not been superseded. And many of FitzRoy's observations and innovations in weather-forecasting are still central to meteorology; in fact, we are coming to realize that in some respects he was ahead of his time, for example in his assertion that solar activity has a direct effect on earth's weather patterns.
THIRSTY: What was your creative process in writing DARWIN & FITZROY? How did you approach such an important scientific period populated by such iconic figures?
JULIET AYKROYD: Like many writers, I find that researching the background to a play is the easy part. This subject needed a lot of really exciting research, into the science, politics, events, beliefs of the time, not to mention the naval background. The two men's own accounts of the voyage, written soon after the event, were good starting points. Characteristically, Darwin's writing is easy to read, FitzRoy's sometimes impenetrable. My own experiences of sailing in small boats were useful in empathizing with the horrors of seafaring. Having done the research, and established the key events of the play – which are a matter of historical fact – I needed to bring the characters to life as truthfully as I possibly could; to a great extent, the thoughts and spirits and voices of the two men are so strong in their writings that they took over the process. Of course, from their own point of view they were not historical figures: just two men struggling to achieve what they most wanted to achieve.
THIRSTY: As an accomplished actor with theatre, film and television credits to your name, how different was it to be on the "other side" of the production as the writer and director?
JULIET AYKROYD: From experience as an actor of being directed in the theatre, I can say that the directors I've most enjoyed working with and learned the most from have been trained actors themselves. Obviously, they best understand the process of creating a character, and sympathize with the obscure terrors of rehearsing and playing. Directing my own play, with several cast changes over time, taught me a lot about the scenes and characters that I didn't know; it was a testing process; sometimes an actor's insight would lead me to change the text. It's fascinating, and humbling, when an actor's skill shows up the weaknesses, or the strengths, of an untried script.
As a writer, I approach the creating of a character in my plays very much as I would do if I had been cast in the role of that character, and was improvising the words. Which means exploring the life story of the person, the physical shape outwardly and inwardly, strengths, weaknesses, passions, fears, and so on. I try to imagine each scene as an actor would prepare it; what they would see, smell, hear, feel, where their mind is, how their body is, what they are craving. Doing this helped me with some of the difficult scenes and speeches in the play, particularly those concerning FitzRoy, whose complex nature was way out of my familiarity zone.
THIRSTY: Your play was performed over a ten-year period in England. As the playwright, how did you feel about the audiences' reactions?
JULIET AYKROYD: The intentions for the play were fairly modest: to devise an entertainment with an educational flavor, primarily for a somewhat select audience with a particular interest in the subject matter – meteorology and evolution. The reception at the early stage was very positive, and we were fired to test out other reactions. The person who commissioned the play is interested in bridging the gap between science and the arts; that is, to make scientific knowledge palatable to the general public (which for the most part in England is not particularly interested in science). We performed the piece over time to a variety of audiences: some at academic, specialist venues such as Cambridge and Reading Universities, in more drop-in-type London theatres, as well as in rural halls, theatres and schools. The small-scale nature of the piece, the simple set and minimal technical effects work well in small venues, where the audiences' attention can focus on the psychological drama. We were blessed with good actors, capable of interpreting and energizing the roles with extraordinary commitment.
As the writer, I was pleased that the play on the whole went down well with such a variety of spectators, and the discussions after the show were often of high quality. There seems to be something in the story that holds the attention, even of 12-13-year-old school children. Many people seemed not to know the historical events, and were surprised by them. Others, especially the older ones, commented on the universality of the theme: the uncertain trajectory of men's ambition.
THIRSTY: Your play has been lauded as true to the history of both Darwin and FitzRoy. Do you think there is a place for it in the classroom as well as in the theatre?
JULIET AYKROYD: I have mentioned our politely attentive audience of schoolchildren. The questions they asked afterwards showed that they enjoyed the performances, and had taken in at least some of the scientific information. I think a creative teacher could use it as a basis for teaching science classes, on the subject of evolution, or theology, or natural history. I think I can say confidently that everything that happens in the play is based in recorded fact.
The play was also used as an educational project for a summer school playwriting course, which was very successful, and resulted in a range of illuminating essays and commentaries.
THIRSTY: What other projects are you working on at the moment?
JULIET AYKROYD: I'm working on a full-length play about climate change, set in rural England, and starting to research a history of laundry, inspired by the beautiful lavoirs of France. I've also been asked to collaborate on a screenplay for a movie about the Beagle and her heroes.