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Secret Life of Humans

Science, philosophy and social anthropology meet in this new British play that puts Dr. Jacob Bronowski at the center of a mystery about the human race.

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Richard Delaney and Olivia Hirst as Jacob and Rita Bronowski in a scene from “Secret Life of Humans” (Photo credit: David Monteith Hodge)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Dr. Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski, the mathematician best known for his acclaimed BBC television series, The Ascent of Man, is front and center of Secret Life of Humans, part of the 2018 Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters. While this is very much a play of ideas contrasting Bronowski’s theories of mankind with those found in Yuval Harari’s bestseller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, it has been dramatized effectively by David Byrne, the artistic director of the London theater group, New Diorama Theatre, devised along with the cast that performs the play.

However, while the play whose time scheme is very convoluted is easy to follow, Byrne along with the company of New Diorama Theatre seem to have played fast and loose with the facts, leaving us to wonder what else has been manufactured. The two philosophies that the play discusses (that mankind is working toward progress and that mankind is destroying itself) are a worthy theme but the plot and storyline appear to be nothing but a fiction.

Framed as a lecture by British social anthropology professor Ava in the present, the play also goes backward in time to two weeks ago, 1974 and later to the 1940’s. Using the audience as her class, Ava tells us of two theories of mankind, Bronowski’s theory, the basis of his 13 part series The Ascent of Man and the accompanying book, that mankind is always moving forward, and the opposing view that mankind is about to go over a cliff. She then takes us back two weeks to her first date with Jamie, who turns out to be Bronowski’s grandson. (Did she know when she made the online appointment or does she just take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself?  We never know for certain.)

Andrew Strafford-Baker and Stella Taylor in a scene from “Secret Life of Humans” (Photo credit: Richard Davenport)

At dinner he tells her that in his grandfather’s house is a locked room installed in 1949 and not opened in 50 years. Agreeing to go back to the house with Jamie for a romantic encounter, she gets him to show her the room’s contents which include the secrets of his wartime work. It is quite obvious she hopes to get an article or a book out of what she finds. In flashback we meet Bronowski, his colleague George, another brilliant mathematician, and his wife Rita who is also kept in the dark about his war work. We also see clips of British television host and commentator Michael Parkinson’s 1973 interview with Bronowski and his earlier interview with philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell.

Though it wouldn’t be fair to reveal it here for audiences about to see the play, the “secret” actually turns out to be one that has been widely known for some time as it is all over the Internet. The play’s assertion that Bronowski died immediately after his November 1973 television appearance is inaccurate as he died the following summer while visiting friends on Long Island. Nor is there evidence that there was ever a locked room. As Bronowski had four daughters, it is unlikely that one of them was a grandson named “Jamie Bronowski.” The frequent use of technology in the play like having actors walk on the wall as if traversing photographs has been done much more effectively by Cirque du Soleil and others. The quality of the black and white video clips leaves much to be desired.

However, as performed by the cast of five and directed by Byrne and Kate Stanley, the play is intriguing for those who don’t know that it is mainly fiction though the ideas are real. As academic Ava, Stella Taylor is both forceful and assured. In contrast, Andrew Strafford-Baker as her date Jamie Bronowski is timid, unsure and lacking in confidence. Richard Delaney as Dr. Jacob Bronowski is thoughtful and assertive. Though we don’t see as much of his wife Rita, Olivia Hirst is understanding and supportive. As his colleague, George, Andy McLeod is given the more dramatic material as he has several moral and ethical problems to work through. Unfortunately, Ava comes across as manipulative while Jamie seems too weak to have our sympathies. All of the actors seem to be pawns in a larger intellectual game.

Andrew Strafford-Baker, Andy McLeod, Olivia Hirst, Stella Taylor and Richard Delaney in a scene from “Secret Life of Humans” (Photo credit: Richard Davenport)

Jen McGinley’s set gets a great deal of mileage out of several moveable bookcases that are continually reconfigured, while Zakk Hein’s projection design is a big disappointment. Ronnie Dorsey does well with the costume design which spans three eras. John Maddox is credited with the aerial design which attempts to bring two dimensional photographs to three dimensional life. The most magical aspect of the show is Catherine Webb’s ever-changing lighting design.

While Secret Life of Humans dramatizes some weighty and timely ideas and philosophies, the play raises more questions than it answers. The play seems more of an intellectual stunt than either a biographical or scientific investigation. There is a real story here that hasn’t yet been told.

Secret Life of Humans (through July 1, 2018)

Brits Off Broadway Series 2018

New Diorama Theatre, in co-production with Greenwich Theatre

59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit

Running time: one hour and 25 minutes with no intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (971 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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