Born in 1908, Robert Ardrey was an American playwright and author who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He attended the nearby University of Chicago, graduating in 1930. It was the very beginning of the Great Depression, which he writes in his autobiography “was the making of me… because it deprived me of any incentive other than to write.” While in college he had taken writing course with the then young and recently famous Thornton Wilder, who in the years ahead, more than anyone else, was his mentor. Ardrey worked at numerous unusual jobs, including pounding away at a piano in an Al Capone era speakeasy. Another was as a guide to the Mayan exhibition at the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition, which opened in April, 1933. Meanwhile, he wrote drafts of plays and sent them to Wilder, who finally gave his approval when he felt the work was good enough to get produced on Broadway.
The first play, called Star Spangled, opened in 1935 and only lasted a few days. But as a result the following year he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, which gave him his first financial freedom to write for a whole year. Several other plays, including Casey Jones and How to Get Tough About It, were subsequently produced on Broadway. These included his most famous play, Thunder Rock in 1939. It tells the story of a disillusioned lighthouse keeper on Lake Michigan, trying to escape from an ominous and increasingly fascist world. Alone on his island for long stretches of time, he conjures up in his mind the living images of a ship’s crew and its immigrant passengers who died when their ship foundered nearby a century before. Thunder Rock didn’t do particularly well in New York then, but it soon had an extended run in London as one of the last plays playing the West End during the Blitz, and by many is now considered a modern classic.
In 1938 he got a call from Samuel Goldwyn’s office at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and went out to Hollywood with a lucrative contract (for him unbelievable wealth in the Depression era) of a $1000 dollars a week. In the years to come he would write screenplays for some of Hollywood’s greatest adaptations: The Green Years (1946), The Three Musketeers (1948, with Gene Kelly), Madame Bovary (1949, with Jennifer Jones and Louis Jourdan), The Secret Garden (1949), The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955) and The Wonderful Country (1959, with Robert Mitchum). There were other movies with original or adapted screenplays including They Knew What They Wanted (1940, with Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton) and the original screenplay (partly based on the journals of Major-General Charles Gordon) of Khartoum (1966, with Charlton Heston and Sir Laurence Olivier), for which he received an Oscar nomination.
During the 1950s, however, as Hollywood’s culture changed for the worse, he got increasingly restless and renewed a long-standing interest in human origins and behavior, something he had first studied as an undergraduate in Chicago. With his family, his wife Helen, and two young sons, Ross and Daniel, he moved to Geneva in the summer of 1956. One of his next projects involved staying in Vienna during the fall of 1956 while the failed Hungarian Revolution took place in Budapest only a few hours away. It was brutally suppressed by Soviet troops. Out of this experience came his last play, Shadow of Heroes, produced in London in 1958 and in New York in 1961. During these same years he was traveling to Southern and East Africa and researching the origins of man and human behavior. This resulted in his first book on the subject, African Genesis, published in 1961. It was highly controversial from its memorable opening lines: “Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born. The home of our fathers was that African highland reaching north from the Cape to the Lakes of the Nile. Here we came about – slowly, ever so slowly – on a sky-swept savannah glowing with menace.” His thesis, simply put, was that our human ancestors originated as predators in Africa, who had inherited a host of instincts from our animal heritage. Obvious now, not so obvious then. His ideas, in 1961, proved a form of heresy. Dominant social theories in Europe and the United States at the time included behaviorism and cultural anthropology, in which there were no complex instincts and human behavior was solely the result of cultural conditioning and response to environmental stimuli.
In the early 1960s Ardrey and his second wife, Berdine, who was to illustrate his books on human and animal behavior, lived in Rome and traveled extensively in Africa and Europe. He met with a wide variety of scientists and incorporated less familiar sciences like ethology into his own evolving ideas about human behavior. This research resulted in his best-selling The Territorial Imperative published in 1966. It, too, had a revolutionary thesis that half a century later no longer seems controversial. The title itself has become part of the language. In it he answered the question he posed to himself at the outset: “The concept of territory as a genetically determined form of behavior in many species is today accepted beyond question in the behavioral sciences. But so recently have our observations been made and our conclusions formed that we have yet to explore the implications of territory in our estimates of man. Is homo sapiens a territorial species? Do we stake our property, chase off trespassers, defend our countries because we are sapient, or because we are animals? Because we choose, or because we must?” Once again what seemed revolutionary in his work and his analysis now seems common knowledge and a basis for subsequent research in many different disciplines.
In his autobiography he described how he thought of his four books on human and animal behavior. “I had followed an overall plan not unlike a symphony in four movements. The first movement had been man is by his evolutionary nature a predator. It had been an elaboration of Raymond Dart’s original statement concerning the predatory transition from ape to man, that we are men and not apes because for so long we had been dependent on hunting. The second and third movements, The Territorial Imperative and The Social Contract, had been investigations of other inherited behavior patterns originating in the animal world, which I believed of significance to our evolutionary nature. The final investigation, which I was now contemplating, was The Hunting Hypothesis. As in a symphony it returned to the original statement, but broadened and modified in light of all that had been subsequently learned and discovered.”
The Social Contract was published in 1970 and The Hunting Hypothesis in 1976. Also during these years, in 1968, Ardrey published Plays of Three Decades, which included Thunder Rock, Jeb (a very early civil rights play from the 1940s about a returning Negro veteran) and Shadow of Heroes. This volume included a long preface with his thoughts on the theater as he’d lived it from the Great Depression on. In many ways he remained a playwright all his life, and he thought of his autobiography in terms of the three acts of a play. In 1977 he and his wife moved from Rome to the small seaside community of Kalk Bay, thirty minutes south of Cape Town, in South Africa. He died there on January 14, 1980. His ashes and those of his wife are interred in the Holy Trinity churchyard, overlooking False Bay, which faces south toward Antarctica. His story, as he conceived it in his autobiography, was how a boy grew up on the South Side of Chicago, had many fascinating adventures including Broadway and Hollywood, and ended his days at the Cape of Good Hope.