Out of the Wings

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La tortuga de Darwin (c.2008), Juan Mayorga Ruano

English title: Darwin's Tortoise
Date written: c. 2008
First publication date: 2008
First production date: February 2008
Keywords: history, history > memory, history > narrative, violence, violence > social, power > war

In 1835 Charles Darwin made his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands. He brought back a tortoise, Harriet. Harriet lived for nearly 200 years, through some of the major atrocities of the twentieth century. In Darwin’s Tortoise Harriet has a starring role as a witness to history with plenty to say about how humanity has failed itself. She is the past come to warn the future, but it is unlikely that anyone will listen.


On the night that La tortuga de Darwin (Darwin’s Tortoise) begins, a world-renowned history professor receives a visit that will change his life. The visitor is Harriet, who has come to tell the Professor that he has mistaken some facts in the first two volumes of his seminal History of Contemporary Europe. But Harriet is not a historian; she is a witness. In fact, Harriet is not even a human being. Rather, she is Darwin’s tortoise, taken from the Galapagos Islands many years ago. Harriet is now 200 years old. She wants to go home to her island to die. And so, Harriet promises to give the Professor the inside story of every major event of the twentieth century that she has lived through. In return, the Professor must help secure her passage back to the Galapagos.

The Professor initially refuses to believe that a tortoise could evolve to such an extent that it could walk and talk. Harriet, however, reminds him what her beloved ‘Charlie’ wrote in The Origin of Species – that, if subjected to extreme and extraordinary circumstances, an animal might well be forced to adapt. Having suffered through the First and Second World Wars, survived the Holocaust and endured the occupations of Berlin and Poland, this is exactly what Harriet has done: she has adapted.

The Professor spends the night taking notes as Harriet recalls the Reichstag Fire, the Normandy landings, and many other major historical events including the carnage of the two world wars. Harriet’s wartime remembrances are peppered with her memories of the young soldiers she met and the many, many deaths she witnessed. But the Professor is not interested in individual stories. For the Professor, the death of an ordinary soldier is an ‘insignificant detail’ – a mere triviality when considered in the context of the greater event of history.

While Harriet and the Professor talk, his wife Betty comes in and out of the study, curious to catch snippets of conversation. Betty lives in the shadow of her husband, a meticulous man who expects her to cook, clean and stay out of his way. When daylight comes, Betty and Harriet get a chance to talk alone together for the first time. Betty does not know that Harriet is a tortoise, and it is clear that she is bemused by, and jealous of, her husband’s interest in this old woman. As they talk, Harriet falls into a deep sleep. Betty is unable to wake her and calls an ambulance. And so, when the Professor returns home, he discovers that Harriet has disappeared.

The Professor eventually finds Harriet in a hospital under the care of a suspect Doctor. Just as the Professor is exploiting Harriet’s personal experience of history, so too the Doctor wants to exploit her as a fascinating medical case. The Doctor and the Professor argue over who should have custody of the tortoise. Eventually, without even consulting Harriet, they agree to share her. Still desperate to return to the Galapagos, Harriet does not object to the agreement. While the Professor is interested in her personal experience of the Holocaust, the Doctor is more concerned with how Harriet’s vocal chords manage to pronounce words like ‘Auschwitz’ and ‘Guernica’. Similarly, while the Professor wants to hear Harriet talk about her harrowing experiences in Berlin, during which she gave birth to a child, the Doctor is more intrigued by just how a tortoise managed to conceive and have a baby with a human being.

As the days go by, the Professor becomes jealous of sharing Harriet with the Doctor. He tells Harriet that the Doctor is about to be struck off the medical register. Despite having experienced the worst that humanity has to offer, Harriet thinks well of the Doctor, claiming that the man is just lonely. The Professor claims that he, too, is lonely. In fact, he almost goes as far as to admit that he has fallen in love with Harriet. But it is perhaps not Harriet who the Professor loves, but rather the fact that she embodies his one passion: history. Betty has found out that Harriet is a tortoise. After her initial horror she, too, has grown fond of Harriet, but also for what appear to be selfish and self-seeking reasons. Tired of being in her husband’s shadow, Betty has written a musical called Darwin’s Tortoise. She now wants to make Harriet, and herself, famous.

Back in the examining room, the Doctor is conducting yet another examination of the tortoise. He hooks her up to a brainwave machine and sets about monitoring her response to various emotions. He asks her to recall increasingly distressing memories, culminating in the death of her child. At this, Harriet pretends to faint. When the Doctor temporarily leaves the room, Harriet has a chance to listen to the notes he has been taking on his Dictaphone. She listens to a recording of the Doctor nonchalantly mentioning an operation he plans to do on her. He speculates on the possibility of her death, his voice bearing absolutely no trace of concern. To her horror, Harriet realises that the man she has taken pity on is only interested in her as a medical subject.

Harriet flees back to the Professor. She asks him to finally fulfil his promise to help her return to the Galapagos. Reluctant to lose his historical treasure trove, the Professor argues that Harriet is now more human than tortoise. On hearing this, Harriet undergoes a startling transformation. Her evolution begins to reverse itself, and she apparently loses the ability to talk and to walk. Suddenly, then, Harriet loses her appeal as either a medical or historical subject. To the three humans, she is now nothing more than an unwieldy and messy beast. Almost predictably, they decide to kill her. But Harriet overhears their plan, and miraculously re-evolves once more. She makes her own birthday cake, and offers it to the others. She notes the irony of the situation: while she has evolved, the human beings around her have devolved and turned into beasts, wanting to get rid of her as soon as she was no longer useful. In the end, Harriet gets her revenge. She has deliberately poisoned the cake she gave to the humans. As the Doctor, Betty and the Professor all start to die, Harriet wonders what she will do now. The answer is simple. She will do what she has always done: adapt.


Harriet was a tortoise that Charles Darwin transported home from the Galapagos Islands after his visit there in 1835. She was the subject of study in Darwin’s seminal The Origin of Species. Harriet died in Australia Zoo in 2006, around the age of 176.

In La tortuga de Darwin (Darwin’s Tortoise) Harriet recalls her very personal experiences of many of the major events of the twentieth century, including the Dreyfus Affair, the First and Second World Wars , the bombing of Guernica and the Holocaust.

Critical response

La tortuga de Darwin (Darwin’s Tortoise) has been very well received. Mayorga won several awards for it, including the Max Prize in 2009 for Best Author. The play continues to be translated into a growing number of languages, including Korean.

  • Mayorga, Juan. 2008. La tortuga de Darwin. Ciudad Real, Ñaque

Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 4 May 2011.

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