The Public Humanist

Why is American Theater Afraid of Climate Change?

The 1993 play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by American playwright Tony Kushner unflinchingly tackled AIDS and homosexuality in America in the 1980s.

The 1993 play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by American playwright Tony Kushner unflinchingly tackled AIDS and homosexuality in America in the 1980s.

I am particularly grateful when a book comes along that illuminates what our culture is really afraid of, those repressed realities that make our arts so docile, so fearful of challenging the status quo. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, sheds light on an embarrassing failure of nerve that has been bothering me for well over a decade: Why haven’t American theater companies – local as well as national productions—dealt seriously with climate change?

For years, film documentaries and nonfiction studies have focused on this ongoing global tragedy. (This year at the Sundance Film Festival there will be a new subsection, the New Climate, which will include 14 documentaries, short films, and special projects, including a virtual-reality experience that turns participants into a tree that is violently chopped down.) But there hasn’t been an Angels in America for climate change. Why? Where are the valiant attempts to create one? Why are there so few dramas or musicals that grapple with graphically envisioning (let alone combating) an oncoming catastrophe that will radically transform human life? Why are our theaters complicit—by way of their indifference—with know-nothing political conservatives (Trump and company) and mega-corporations whose power lies in denying the truth? Just what are our theater companies afraid of?

But there hasn’t been an Angels in America for climate change. Why?

The arts ignore climate change, speculates Ghosh, because they are part-and-parcel of the general climate of denial, the refusal to accept that a rapidly sickening world demands a radical readjustment of business as usual. Is there anyone who would argue that the Anthropocene shouldn’t be of concern to theater artists? For Ghosh, it presents “perhaps the most important question ever to confront culture in the broadest sense—for let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.” Yet the overwhelming response of our stage artists, producers, and directors (are there any creative types who don’t accept the fact of climate change?) has been to minimize this call to aesthetic arms. And this is a symptom of our cultural derangement.

Of course, selected theater artists pay lip service to the need for a world transformed through an understanding of climate change, but their art ends up leaving the world of today—with its unrestrained exploitation of nature, worship of free markets, and endless consumption—undisturbed. Instead of scripts on how climate change will shape our sense of nature and ourselves, the political plays produced today deal with admittedly important, but less controversial issues of racism and identity politics: these inspirational narratives serve up a ready-made lineup of villains and heroes. Theater gives us dramas that assume there is (and will be) a life of plenty for all—it is simply a matter of more people getting more. But it is just that assumption of limitless growth that climate change undercuts.

Is there anyone who would argue that the Anthropocene shouldn’t be of concern to theater artists?

Why are our theater artists unable to confront climate change? It is partly because so far the countries most severely damaged by global warming have been well off the beaten path. But the failure of the theatrical imagination—cowardice in the face of an unacceptable reality—goes deeper than that. Our standard story lines—psychological realism dedicated to individual moral uplift—inevitably depend on the notion (sustained by military and economic muscle) that our way of life is never going to change. But, according to most scientific accounts, our current course of consumption is simply not sustainable: unless we are inhuman enough to wall ourselves off from the less fortunate, taking what resources we need while leaving millions to flounder on a decaying earth. Our theater artists should face that dystopian possibility; even it is discomforts readers and audiences. But they won’t.

Eve Ensler performing In the Body of the World

Eve Ensler performing In the Body of the World

How could serious theater deal with climate change? Most likely it will be through scripts that turn away from realism. Playwrights should take their inspiration from older, unrulier literary genres, drawing on myth and folklore to explore the now-attenuated relationship between the human and the nonhuman. In his magisterial critical study on eco-poetics, The Song of the Earth, critic Jonathan Bate recommends a number of different strategies, such as writing that conveys the fragility of nature, art that undermines our self-serving notion that nature is endlessly bountiful and resilient. The oceans can die; in fact, they are under dire siege at the moment. “Ask yourself,” Bate poses, “whether you can accept a poem that is not only a making of the self and a making of the world, but also a response to the world and a respecting of the earth.”

Because global warming is an ongoing tragedy, theaters should consider drawing on that venerable form and serve up the darkness that comes when squarely facing the bitter truth.

In what ways can the stage properly respect the earth? A number of approaches are being ignored, partly because they don’t tell audiences the reassuring things they (as well as critics and theater artists) want to hear. To the credit of the American Repertory Theater, two shows by Eve Ensler (O.P.C. and In the Body of the World) took up the issue of global warming and its consequences, but neither were wholly successful, artistically or politically, partly because of our culture’s inability to face the negative. The rush toward pat inspiration, the impatient need to cook up ameliorative possibilities—to never have them leave their seats upset—cuts against confronting the situation we are in now, and looking squarely at where it is going to lead without collective action and considerable sacrifice. Because global warming is an ongoing tragedy, theaters should consider drawing on that venerable form and serve up the darkness that comes when squarely facing the bitter truth.

The theater and its critics should raise elemental questions that provoke rather than placate, that ask what it means to be human in the Anthropocene, an era in which we are slowly but surely poisoning the earth.

As for theater critics, they need to reject the demeaning job of consumer guide. They have to find the moral and intellectual gumption to demand, scold, and shame theaters into doing what has been done, so magnificently, by stage artists in the past: by the Greeks and Shakespeare, Ibsen and Brecht. The theater and its critics should raise elemental questions that provoke rather than placate, that ask what it means to be human in the Anthropocene, an era in which we are slowly but surely poisoning the earth. Without confronting how we have encouraged the extinction of nature, we cannot, in critic Bonnie Honig’s phrase, accept “the possibility of action in conditions of impossibility.”

Here is my go at it: the Judeo-Christian ethic, with its call to be “fruitful and multiply,” is off the mark, at least if it is interpreted in such as way as to minimize humankind’s stewardship of the earth. The Greeks, with their sense that we exceed reasonable limits at our peril, are closer to illuminating a fruitful creative path. Our dramatists, producers, directors, and actors must dare to answer an essential question in their work: “Are we creating a world worth living in?” If the answer is yes, then they must explore the objections raised by those who believe that something is deeply wrong. How do our current efforts to combat climate change reflect meaningful human/moral values? If the answer is no, then why are we destroying ourselves and the earth around us? Few in today’s theater are exercising their imaginations on this invaluable task, but I am sure that creative writers in the future will—they will not have a choice, given that our comfortable “reality” will be crumbling underneath their feet. And they will look back at us as deranged shirkers, and probably as much, much worse.

,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply