Posted by: georginaferry | October 8, 2010

Buckland’s Broadway melody?

It’s a common complaint that science hardly ever features either in high art or popular culture, despite its enormous significance in contemporary life. Oxfordshire Theatre Company has decided to do something about that by commissioning a musical about 19th century palaeontologists. Is a medium designed for romance, the triumph of the underdog, or wry and comic commentary on contemporary life, the right one for scientific discovery and the overturning of old certainties? I’m still trying to decide.

Last night Giants in the Earth (a working title) had its first public showing in the Lecture Theatre at the Museum – a rehearsed reading of the first half, almost all ‘sung through’. A very strong cast of performers had been working for a week on the score developed by writer and composer Nick Wood and Matt Marks, rewriting much of it in the process.

They had arrived at a framework in which William Buckland, Oxford’s first Reader in Geology and later Dean of Westminster, imagined (or hallucinated) the key events in the discovery of the dinosaurs while incarcerated in a nursing home in his final years.  (Buckland’s dramatic 1824 discovery, the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield, is on display in the museum.)

The diverse cast of fossil hunters who floated through his mind included down-to-earth and practical Mary Anning, anguished and unrecognised Gideon Mantell, and slimy self-publicist Richard Owen. Two other Marys, the wives of Buckland and Mantell, set up the inevitable tension between the demands of a scientific career and those of home and family.

The larger theme, as the pious cleric Buckland struggles with the realisation that life on earth was much more ancient than any Biblical account could explain, is certainly strong enough to sustain a couple of hours on the stage. I’m not entirely sure that having it sung rather than spoken increases its impact. However, a fully developed piece of musical theatre with staging, props and costumes may convince me. I very much look forward to seeing how the piece develops.

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  1. […] my post at Dodology Explore posts in the same categories: History, Scientists and popular culture, biography, […]


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