"Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the strongest, but survival of those that best fit their environment," croons linkurl:Brett Keyser,;http://nightjarapothecary.net/2009/06/23/darwinii/ on the streets of Philadelphia, dulcet tones ringing from his guitar on a recent sunny Autumn afternoon. Though passersby shoot Keyser puzzled looks, his act makes perfect sense with this coming Tuesday marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's seminal work, On the Origi
By Victoria Stern | November 20, 2009
"Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the strongest, but survival of those that best fit their environment," croons linkurl:Brett Keyser,;http://nightjarapothecary.net/2009/06/23/darwinii/ on the streets of Philadelphia, dulcet tones ringing from his guitar on a recent sunny Autumn afternoon. Though passersby shoot Keyser puzzled looks, his act makes perfect sense with this coming Tuesday marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's seminal work, On the Origin of Species.
Brett Keyser singing on the streets of Philadelphia Image: Jackson Shellenberger
Decked out in a black top hat and turquoise Victorian tailcoat, Keyser stands in the middle of Chestnut Street beside his VW Beetle, on top of which rests a giant, green beetle sculpture, performing a tribute to Darwin that he named The Voyage of the Beetle. "A pretty obvious pun," Keyser admits.
His one-man street performance aims to confront people on the street with an unexpected experience in the middle of their daily routine, he says. His hope is to spark curiosity, "which of course is the root of the scientific impulse in humans."
The street performance complements a gallery performance called "Darwinii: The Comeuppance of Man," another one-man show that Keyser performs at the American Philosophical Society (APS) Museum in Philly. The APS Museum commissioned The Voyage and Darwinii in an effort to engage viewers with thematic elements from the museum's recent exhibit "Dialogues with Darwin." Keyser's hope is to use his street and gallery performances to lure an unconventional audience to the museum and offer them another point of access to engage with the topics.
Keyser, who co-wrote Darwinii with Emmy award winning New York playwright Glen Berger, celebrates Darwin's scientific discoveries and provides a musical entre into the naturalist's big ideas, including natural selection, sexual selection, adaptation and the struggle for survival.
Although Darwinii focuses on Darwin's philosophies, the renowned thinker never appears as a character in the play. Instead, for comic affect, Keyser decided to play Darwin's "great-great-great-great-bastard grandchild," Cristobal, an Argentine man accused of stealing Darwin's original manuscripts. He says he conceived of the character while reading "The Voyage of the Beagle," Darwin's personal account of his expedition aboard the HMS Beagle between 1831 and 1836.
The play begins while the protagonist Cristobal delivers a public apology for his crimes, then turning to the story of how he became obsessed with Darwin and his ideas about evolution. Cristobal lives by some of Darwin's key principles -- surviving by adapting to his environment and exploiting every advantage. As a young man he uncovers a family secret convincing him that he is an illegitimate heir of Darwin, and so embarks on a quest to prove it and profit from it.
The show attempts to bring Darwin's ideas to life by incorporating visual art, history and science. "I loved doing the research part, learning how Darwin has added to our understanding of the world," says Keyser. "Darwin showed that nature is in a delicate balance, which is important for our current understanding of how the decisions we make now can change our environment."
Keyser's musical play drew quite a crowd, debuting to a sold out audience during this year's linkurl:Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe;http://www.livearts-fringe.org/ in October. A former Seattle Times writer and reviewer, Ed Weiner, sent Keyser an email after seeing the show, writing "I felt compelled to let you know, for what it's worth, that Darwinii was just about the most entertaining and intellectually seductive theatrical piece I've seen this year in Philadelphia. You're doing some very visionary work at the APS."
This is not Keyser's first attempt at blending art and science. Since 2003, he has performed other one man shows in conjunction with the Museum's exhibitions, including "Horridus! Horridus! Name-calling in the Wilderness," which presented a mock lecture on the 18th- and 19th-century practices of taxonomy in the United States and a street performance called "The Princess & The Patriot: Ekaterina Dashkova, Benjamin Franklin, and the Age of Enlightenment," centered on a correspondence between Franklin and the Russian princess. Before that, he used performance arts to teach environmental science while working at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
"My goal with this play and others I've done is to get people thinking," Keyser says. "Through art, I can help bring together past and present, artfully explore scientific material."
Although Keyer's performances have ended, the linkurl:APS museum's Darwin exhibit;http://www.pachs.net/dialogues-with-darwin extends until October 17, 2010.
**__Related stories:__*** linkurl:Darwin and deduction;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/54632/www.case.edu/darwin/ [9th May 2008]*linkurl:Darwin hits dating;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/home/53296/ [22nd June 2007]