From Eugenics to the “New” Genetics: “The Play\u27s The Thing”


Genetics occupies a place in the public imagination with which few areas of science can compete. It is popularly understood to be the “science of life,” concerned with the essence of humanity: a subject that generates both awe and fear. These divergent emotions are encapsulated in the “promise versus peril” debate: the promise of an end to human disease is countered by the peril embodied in the discriminatory capacity of genetic essentialism. This debate has become ingrained in popular culture, and its dramatic potential has been effectively realized in theatre. Plays have always been written and performed as expressions of social and cultural concerns. Drama is uniquely able to address salient issues and to manipulate the way they are perceived through characters with whom the audience identifies and sympathizes. In this way, theatre engages in a dialogue with public opinion and social policy. Plays are vehicles for exploring connections and parallels between eugenics and the “new” genetics, especially with respect to the role of women and their accountability for future generations. To illustrate this view, this article is structured in the format of a play. Act I explores how eugenic ideals influenced women protagonists within early twentieth century dramas. The intermission sets the stage for the convergence of the promise of emerging genetic technologies and the proliferation of civil rights movements. Act II then examines society’s embrace of the “new genetics” and how the promise and perils of this science have influenced society, especially the role of women. In analyzing these plays, this article aims to highlight the power of theatre to enhance our understanding of the complexities of the ethical, legal, and social implications of genetics

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