The realms of art and science, often seen as representing opposite ends of the continuum of human endeavour, contribute to the understanding of life, the universe and everything through asking rather different questions. One could be said to concern itself with the creation of knowledge and the other with the creation of meaning. Somewhere in between, in the chasm of uncertainty, stands a piece of matter known as man, trying to make sense of it all.
With the Edinburgh University’s ESRC Genomics Forum and the Traverse Theatre representing the two ends of this spectrum, Glasgow-born playwright Peter Arnott has been invited to extend his reach towards both, embodying a unique and unlikely partnership between the two. The recent mapping of the human genome was the starting point for his year-long post as Resident Playwright and his full-length play, Group Portrait in a Landscape (Et In Arcadia…), is the finishing line he has always had in his sights. Generating discussion relating to genomics and its wider implications was a key remit, and the play that marks the end succeeds in creating further questions that in fact mark a new beginning.
Performed as a rehearsed reading, the first half of the play follows the interactions of a comfortable, academic family while they entertain two of the father’s would-be Ph.D students during a weekend at their home. The sudden death of one family member leads to a second half in which we view each character attempting to make sense of this catastrophic event, each ultimately left floating in their own void of unresolved questions.
Significantly, these questions are ones to which science has no answer. The knowledge that comes to light - that this particular death was caused by a genetic mutation about which nothing could be done - neither alters the fact of death, nor its inevitability, and it has nothing to say on the question of how to deal with that fact when its reality comes from nowhere and smacks you across the face.
Speaking most explicitly on this subject we see drop-out student Charlie, the shocking death in this family having resurrected unresolved questions he has about his own father’s suicide. He quotes Joyce’s law of falling bodies (from Ulysses) that fails to offer any understanding as to why his father jumped to his death, why when he was only nine years old, why in this place where they used to share family picnics.
Each member of the family gets their moment alone in the spotlight, retrospectively constructing their own meaning, utterly abandoned to their own little epiphanies of truth, bearing witness to a recurring theme in the play: that no-one really knows what anybody else ‘knows’, and that you can ‘know’ something without necessarily having to be told.
There are a number of different paths down which Arnott could have taken the genomics discussion: who should have access to this knowledge; what purpose should it serve; what the social consequences and implications might be. Instead, he references all manner of bodies of knowledge representing man’s search for certainty and truth, from quantum physics to the Scottish Enlightenment, and asks how this changes our understanding of ourselves.
In a dream sequence within the play, the daughter kills her brother through continually asking improper questions. The analogy is clear: that the knowledge we now have about our life has killed its meaning through prioritising the question of ‘how?’ in relation to the world, and neglecting the question of ‘how?’ in relation to our being in the world.
Science has produced ever more complex and fascinating facts about how the world works and as a result has presented man with a new existential crisis. To paraphrase Arnott, we have been shown that human life is a statistically unlikely probability, an accident that connects us to a universe where nothing has more value than anything else. In the end, the question that concerns us all is always, ‘how are we to live?’. It is now up to the arts to open a space in which man can negotiate a meaningful place to care for himself in this new-found, indifferent landscape.