Secret Life of Humans by David Byrne is an intriguing, often ironic look into human progress through an anthropological perspective. But the playwright ironically twists the characters’ perspectives. The result is a grim look at our propensity for war, violence, and species extinction.
Byrne employs two treatises from different decades to engage us. Indeed one, a TV documentary first seen in 1973, The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, inspires the pivotal dramatic arc and establishes the plot. The second is Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Ava, the character who propels the play, alludes to both.
Byrne’s overarching irony and the theme of the play resound powerfully. We watch his characters enact their own self-deceptive machinations as they contradict their theories. The playwright suggests that as much as we attempt to rationalize mankind’s history and “evolution” as “philosopher gods,” we cannot get out from under our own destructive ethos. Rationality provides little compensation for humans. For they cannot understand how their own supremely complex being impacts their lives and decisions in the present.
The playwright interjects concepts from both works through the protagonist, lecturer Ava (Stella Taylor), and the other characters, one of whom is Bronowski (Richard Delaney). Byrne moves him in flashbacks in and out of time past as Ava’s device. She lectures about him and his perspectives and shows a video clip of a 1974 interview of Bronowski by Michael Parkinson. As she lectures about Bronowski, Richard Delaney portrays him, and in various vignettes we learn of his relationship with his wife and another researcher. But it’s Ava’s exploration of Bronowski’s secrets, which she reveals during the lecture, spurs the play’s action. In her discoveries ironies manifest.
Ava’s lecture frames the action. Character interactions fuel the events. Indeed, Ava directs the action as she describes the events and proves her thesis about humankind to us, her students. The other characters move fluidly in and out of the action. Along with Bronowski we meet his wife Rita (Olivia Hirst), who encourages her husband, and George (Andy McLeod), a researcher who assists Bronowski during WWII and shows more enlightenment, remorse, and empathy than his mentor.
Finally, we meet Ava’s foil, Jamie Bronowski, Jacob’s grandson, portrayed by Andrew Strafford-Baker in the present time. Ava meets up with him with the hidden purpose of discovering more about his grandfather for her own ends. They recreate salient moments from the past, subtly directed by Ava. All become illustrations of the thesis of her lecture. Ironically, she remains self-blind. Throughout, though loathe to dissect herself, she, too, illustrates the unattractive underbelly of the life of human beings. And she remains coldly scientific, an attitude not to her credit.
As a clue, Ava slips in that she has been fired from her position as a professor of anthropological studies. This will be her last lecture. The importance of this is unclear initially, but by the conclusion her self-dealing has become apparent. Through the events and her aphoristic summations a supreme irony is revealed: Humankind may self-deal its own species off the planet.
After introducing Bronowski and his work, Ava meets and manipulates Jamie, his grandson. Does she seek Jamie out to redeem her career? Most probably. She pursues his online, goes on a date with him, gets him drunk, and uses the predatory side of sex. When they return to Bronowski’s house (where Jamie grew up), they become intimate. Ironically, at this same house, Bronowski filmed the last segment of his documentary, then collapsed and died. A fitting memorial to his own apotheosis.
Cleverly, Ava engineers the meet-up with Jamie and plays it off with subterfuge and surreptitious innocence. Nothing is coincidence, and Byrne has Ava describe her own action as an inevitability. Jamie wishes to believe that coincidence has brought him and Ava together; he appears surprised that she knows about his grandfather. But Ava’s intention to use Jamie to learn the truth about Bronowski manifests clearly.
The pair enter Jacob Bronowski’s secret, hitherto-unexplored, locked storage room and Ava persuades Jamie to investigate the documents. Jamie eagerly complies to please his new love interest. We learn through Bronowski’s documents and letters of his research with his assistant George, creating incendiary bombs the British military used to to kill German civilians toward the end of World War II.
Jamie becomes horrified at this revelation about his grandfather, who had achieved great respect with The Ascent of Man. Few knew of his top secret, less-than-humane work with the British government. They also come across information suggesting that he worked on the Manhattan Project. In fact, on a visit to the site of the first nuclear bomb dropped on Japan Bronowski concluded that no justification is possible for the mass killing, despite politicians’ efforts to justify it. Brownowski acknowledges mankind’s potential for destruction, but remains outside of his own participation in it. Byrne reveals all this in flashbacks of the late 1940s.
Afterward, speeding to flashbacks of the 1970s, we understand that Bronowski suppresses all knowledge of his participation in this murderous work, rather than using it as a platform for pacifism as others such as Robert Oppenheimer did. He pretends he had no hand in the calculated, technological-scientific “progress” of genocide.
Touted for his documentary, Jamie’s grandfather never faces the meaning of his participation in creating the killing machinery of war. He remains deluded with “hope” that mankind has progressed since then. It is a false hope because he obviates his own inner, self-dealing impulses to destroy his species. He never learns, corrects, expiates, heals, or becomes a shining example, speaking out and stopping further exploitation of technological progress against humanity. He seeks to bury the past while receiving accolades in the present. Sadly, these behaviors are representative of how mankind’s genocidal power struggles continue.
Both Bronowski’s perspective and that of Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind attempt to explain human beings’ evolution and “forward” progress. But Byrne’s play suggests that rationality plays little part in beneficial, humane, social progress. Indeed, Byrne disproves Bronowski’s attempt to describe any progress as forward and linear through the revelation of the devastation Bronowski helped cause. Ava’s sly machinations to dupe Jamie for her own ends appear venal and provide a correlative to Bronowski, whom she demeans as simplistic. Her criticism is layered with sardonic humor. In her own self-interest, she has found a clearer understanding of humankind, blaming primordial impulses.
Byrne’s revelations are ironic. First, Bronowski’s secret past throws into doubt his construct that humankind moves forward. Our proclivity toward selfish power struggles, genocide, species-annihilation, and the employment of technological progress toward these ends actually devolves the human race. Second, Ava illustrates through her own actions that human beings’ self-dealing and aloneness probably will end in species obliteration.
The strengths of this intricate and complex production includes multimedia projections, the video clip of the Bronowski interview, and voiceovers. Also, Byrne screens a movie clip of Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, mathematician, Nobel laureate, writer, and social activist. Russell did not participate in the wars and spoke out against WWI and WWII. The British government sent him to jail during WWI.
Russell’s brave, forthright action serves as a bold contrast to Bronowski’s views and behavior and Ava’s austere selfishness. Bronowski contributes to species annihilation and covers up his own guilt. Though he refers to Auschwitz and Nagasaki in The Ascent of Man, he does so without including his own culpability. He avoids publicly using his own experiences as a teaching moment. Thus, he is incapable of self-correction.
Ava exposes Bronowski’s hypocrisy during her lecture as a means to advance her own career. However, in accepting a dark view of humankind’s primordial impulses toward war and violence (a canard), she offers no interventions either. Only Russell bravely resisted, and used his resistance as a platform to teach and admonish against species annihilation. In a video clip Russell admonishes that we must learn “charity and tolerance vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.” His behavior and his comment have the greatest power and meaning.
In an interesting theatrical dynamic, suspended from the stage on wires are two figures representing ancestors. At the conclusion these two figures represent the last inhabitants of the planet. In these segments, the figures walk slowly, leaving footprints. We view them in cross-section, looking down on them as they walk, a birds-eye view that allows us to envision them from a removed, “scientific,” “philosopher gods” perspective. As such we note they are unwitting, random movers. Yet Ava states that we look at ourselves as we view them.
Our progenitors first left footprints in volcanic dust in Tanzania. Ava suggests the final set of footprints will be left as homo sapiens ends, however that may occur. As a metaphor of our possible journey into oblivion, this unusual theatrical presentation is poignant. We are left with questions unanswered and no interventions except Russell’s admonition.
Byrne and Kate Stanley, who co-direct, succinctly render this complicated work. The removed, scientific-seeming Ava (Stella Taylor) presents an incredible icy desperation. Richard Delaney as Jacob Bronowski becomes the form of erudition without the wisdom of Bertrand Russell. The easily manipulated Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker) remains haphazard, a casualty of growing up in a notable household yet precluded from understanding. Finally Andy McLeod and Olivia Hirst contribute empathetic grist and mindless complicity to this sharply thoughtful work.
Kudos to the creative team, especially Ronnie Dorsey for costumes, Zakk Hein for projection design, Jen McGinley for set design, Yaiza Varona for sound design and composition, and John Maddox for aerial design.