The Transit of Venus is a compelling examination of the relationship between science and faith amid the disputes leading to the English Civil War, and a notable highlight of the 24:7 Theatre Festival.
Eric Northey’s play focuses on William Crabtree of Lower Broughton, Salford, and Jeremiah Horrocks of Much Hoole near Preston, and how they were the first to observe the transit of Venus: an alignment of the Sun, the Earth and Venus in the sky, so the planet is seen as a small black disc moving across the face of the sun.
Crabtree describes Horrocks the eager Cambridge graduate as ‘a shooting star’, and that’s how actor Nathan Morris plays him. He grasps the audience’s attention as soon as he anxiously enters the stage and knocks over various objects after finding himself love-struck with Crabtree’s assured daughter Jenny (Lucy Ward).
“Everyone at Cambridge is dishevelled,” Horrocks says, and so John McElhatton’s pompous but friendly Crabtree spruces him up by lending him his Italian telescope and up-to-date Rudolphine Tables; items which would have been out of reach at the Oxbridge universities, but were easily procured by the uppity merchants, who were the biggest beneficiaries of mid-17th century international trade.
Together, the two managed to predict the 1639 transit, paving the way for modern astronomy – despite of their spiritual differences, as Horrocks is an enthusiastic Puritan and the notably more modern Crabtree is a frustrated Anglican, who questions the reliability of the Bible’s language went put up against mathematics.
Unlike the last transit, which occurred on 5 June this year, the 1639 recorded observations were mostly destroyed. Crabtree kept hold of Horrocks’ drafts after his death, but Manchester in the mid-17th century was a powder-keg; the Civil War which exploded two years later between the Parliamentarians and Royalists wrought chaos and the papers were later burnt by a marauding party of soldiers.
“Faith is what people die for,” says our Crabtee, “and dogma’s what they kill for. We’ve got to stop that” – tragically, they never did in their own time, but The Transit of Venus shows us how these two astronomers were at the cusp of a transformative era, bound by period conventions, but their insights helped us move towards a more enlightened Britain.