The Louis Armstrong Gene

 

Where is art in the theory of evolution?

About the same place as cheesecake, according to Steven Pinker, one of the world's most influential thinkers. He's Professor of Psychology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has written about art from the perspective of evolutionary psysychology in a number of books and articles including How The Mind Works. 

He argues that the arts “are not adaptive in the biologist’s sense of the word” and describes them as something akin to drugs or cheesecake. They are pleasure technologies, he argues; their function is to figure out how to get at the pleasure circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of enjoyment.

They are not adaptations that helped us evolve but by-products of evolutionary development – luxury items we have acquired along the way. He gives the example of reading which could not have been any use to us as hunter-gatherers in a savannah environment and which arose out of other evolved traits like pattern recognition and the desire to communicate.

The belief that culture and art is a sort of luxury item or afterthought is probably shared by most of us, including most readers and theatre-goers.

But why has this this idea survived in the face of all material evidence?

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My First Play

cheviot posterI made my debut as a four year old. This was at Sacred Heart Primary School, Cumbernauld, where I took the non-speaking role of Christopher Robin in the school concert.

I was very much a Method actor as an infant. While my classmates sang “Christopher Robin is saying his prayers”, I knelt beside the bed and silently said some proper prayers; and when a big girl from Primary 7 lifted me into bed, in front of a packed house, I promptly fell asleep. 

My first play as an audience member was 7:84’s The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil, an agit-prop piece about the history of the Highlands. I was sixteen. I wish I could say it overturned all my expectations of theatre but firstly it was on the telly and secondly I had no expectations of theatre, never having seen any. But yes, it ripped through me like machine-gun fire.

 I’m not from the Highlands and, like the majority of Scottish Catholics, I regarded Scottish history as alien and abject. The songs I sang were Irish and I knew more about the Easter Rising than Keir Hardie. The icons of Scottish culture, from Robert Burns to Rangers, were anathema to me.   “Burns and Scott,” Edwin Muir wrote, “sham bards of a sham nation” – a phrase I often quoted with relish.

 

 

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A Bit of Tabloid at the Heart

The God of Soho posterChris Hannan talks to Heather Neill about writing The God of Soho for Shakespeare's Globe.  This article was first published in the Globe's quarterly magazine Around The Globe, Spring 2011.

 

Heather Neill. Where's the play set?

Chris Hannan. It opens in heaven, in a scene with the gods. Then heaven falls and the gods abandon it and these three characters - Mr and Mrs God and their daughter - get mixed up in the lives of some homeless people in Soho. They find an iconic 1950s Hermes-Kelly bag abandoned on the Soho streets which contains a dark secret and - in Dickensian fashion - provides a plot link between the homeless scene of Soho and the celebrity one.

 

 

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To Men of All Beasts

international times headline Tom McGrath's play Animal, first produced at the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh in 1979 is one of Britain's finest post-war plays -a wonderful demonstration of what physical theatre can achieve, what it can articulate about the human spirit.  But try to find a published copy of the script or even a photo of the production and you get a sense of how undervalued the play is.  

The boldness of the title announces its uniqueness.

Think of the context.

 

 

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Black Dumas

portrait of alexander dumasChris Hannan talks about the extraordinary life of Dumas and how he went about adapting The Three Musketeers for the theatre.  This article first appeared in the programme for The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain, an English Touring Theatre/Coventry Belgrade/Traverse Theatre co-production which opened on 9th October 2010.

To say that Alexandre Dumas was mixed race is an understatement; he was mixed everything.

His grandfather was a white aristocrat who bought a plantation on the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and married a black slave called Marie-Césette Dumas. In 1786 their black son joined the French army as a common soldier. Within seven years he was a distinguished general, single-handedly holding a bridge against the Austrians and commanding the French cavalry under Napoleon in the Egyptian campaign. On his return General Dumas was captured by the Kingdom of Naples, then at war with France, imprisoned for two years, tortured and poisoned. By the time he came home to his wife Marie-Louise, the white innkeeper’s daughter in a small village in north-east France, he was broken in health though capable enough to father a son, Alexandre, author of The Three Musketeers.

 

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Top 10 books of the American frontier

ghost townWhen Missy came out in paperback The Guardian asked me to write a piece on my Top Ten Books of the American Frontier.  This appeared on 8th July 2009.

I suppose when you think of the frontier – any frontier, a Gold Rush or an oil workers’ camp – the people are the same size but somehow the place is lonelier and seems bigger and that makes people go just a little bit mad or more extreme.   The American west in 1862 was – in terms of suicide, widespread consumption of drugs, divorce and sexual freedom – a hundred years ahead of its time.   What went on in their heads?

That was what interested me when I started to write Missy - the idea that these were 19th Century people living in a 20th Century world.   Of course once I started writing I got interested in other writers and their completely different ideas of the American west.  Here are my Top Ten Books of the American Frontier.

 

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Super-Tramp

hobo    Just over a hundred years ago George Bernard Shaw received a small parcel through the post.  It contained a self-published volume of poems by a man who gave his address as a doss house for single men in Kennington, London.  But Shaw only had to read three lines to know they had been written by a true poet.  He met the man, introduced him to literary London society and encouraged him to write his adventures.

 W. H. Davies’ The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, published in April 1908, has seldom been out of print since, and with good reason.  Its colourful tales of bums’ conventions and riding on top of freight cars drunk continue to delight, and it will endure because it is written from a point of view that is almost unique.  

 

 

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Across the Atlantic by Freighter

freighterThe first thing is I nearly miss the boat.  I take a train from Philadelphia down to Chester, thinking I will get a taxi to the ship from there.  No way.  The black homeless people who inhabit the station tell me this is not a town where  taxis feel safe.  They won’t come here supposing you phone them.  

 I talk to a bus-driver who says he goes near the port.  At least I think that’s what he says but I’m Scottish and he can barely understand me.  He drops me off at a petrol station in the middle of an industrial wasteland and I wheel my suitcase up an unpaved road, the only one I can see.  I come to a Pentecostal church – dilapidated and lonesome-looking on the margins of an ominously silent housing project.  Beyond that, thank goodness, is a big sign.  Penn Terminals. 

“You the passenger?” the security men ask at the gates.  That’s the first I know I’m the only one.  

 

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