Written and directed by David Byrne (not that one), SECRET LIFE OF HUMANS is a new play that questions the ascent of man. The play is inspired by the life and career of Jacob Bronowski, who was one of the precursors to broadcast scientists such as David Attenborough and Carl Sagan. He was a Polish, Jewish-born mathematician, who got his doctorate in mathematics from Cambridge in 1935. Late in life, Bronowski made a thirteen-part television series, THE ASCENT OF MAN, which was broadcast on the BBC in 1973. Bronowski also had a secret life. Before the television series, he was a researcher for the UK’s Ministry of Home Security and the Royal Air Force applying mathematics to models for strategically dropping aerial bombs on German civilians during World War II. Played side by side with his work promoting human progress on the television series, the play SECRET LIFE OF HUMANS questions Bronowski's refrain that humanity is becoming ever more evolved, journeying “from advancement to advancement.”
SECRET LIFE OF HUMANS is framed as a presentation given by an academic, Ava (played by Stella Taylor). The story unfolds through jump cuts through time. Ava goes on a Tinder date with Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker), who happens to be Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski’s (Richard Delaney) grandson. Ava is critical of Bruno’s “simplistic” view of humankind, and Jamie is defensive of his grandfather. Ending up at Bronowski’s home, together they uncover a secret chamber with evidence of Bruno’s government work. In the course of their night together, Ava finds a legacy that could save her career, and Jamie gets his heart broken. Jamie is interested in a relationship, and his rosy view of his grandfather is shattered. In real life, it was Bruno’s daughter, historian Lisa Jardine, who found out about her father's military work after he had died.
Andrew Strafford-Baker, Stella Taylor. Photo by Richard Davenport.
In the play, when Bruno is deciding whether or not to participate in military research, he says “There are three questions to my mind. Should we do this? Well, maths itself, science itself, cannot be good or evil. It is either correct or incorrect, regardless of any later applications. Must we do this? The alternative is unimaginable. And can we do this?” His approach to science calls into question the assumption that science is a-moral, whether it is conceived of a-politically, and is only a tool.
The eleventh episode of Bronowski’s THE ASCENT OF MAN, titled “Knowledge and Certainty,” shows him grappling with this question.
SECRET LIFE OF HUMANS has been produced most recently at 59E59, with previous runs at the Greenwich Theatre and New Diorama Theatre in London, where it premiered in July 2017. The play is written by David Byrne and Kate Stanley, and directed by Byrne.
Cover photo: Olivia Hirst, Richard Delaney. Photo by David Monteith Hodge.