Climate in Drama

I’m reading David Wallace-Wells’ book The Uninhabitable Earth, in which he deals very explicitly with the effects of the current climatic catastrophe on human life on Earth. The book is frightening.

The book inspired Jim Grimsley’s play Cascade, which will premiere in April 2022 as part of the Process Series at UNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, by Joseph Megel. This play is also to be seen in Europe in my German translation.

Following Karen Malpede’s Other Than We and Dawn King’s The Trials in early 2021, Cascade is the third play I am translating that explicitly addresses the consequences of this climate catastrophe for human populations.

Dawn King – The Trials

In her play, Dawn King draws the picture of a necessarily less individualistic society in the next generation, in which drastic measures are to ensure the supply of people with the too scarce resources in an atmosphere less suitable for living. For this, everyone must lead a different life, more oriented to the common good. Social and ecological work assignments determine life. The youth has already become accustomed to it, it knows nothing else. The irresponsible habits of the past (“What’s veal?”) are forgotten.

This life also includes dealing with the responsibility of their parents’ generation (i. e. our current one in the 2020-ies) for the climate catastrophe in the form of mass trials. The play is a courtroom drama in which the younger generation sits in judgment on the older.

In terse and intense clashes, interrupted by three monologues by the defendants, the jury discusses the arguments of the adults. The children and young people passionately, radically, but also overwhelmed, illuminate the most diverse perspectives, practical and philosophical aspects of the ethics of a life that Homo sapiens has sabotaged for himself.

The world premiere took place on 15.01.2022 at the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus, directed by Adrian Figueroa.

Karen Malpede – Other Than We

Karen Malpede chooses a clearly more distant future. There is not much left of humanity, and the few remaining specimens live in authoritarian societies under domes with artificial climates. The world outside is contaminated, at least that is the claim of the regime that wants to maintain control. Two female scientists design physical and genetic solutions. With an aide, they become pregnant, escape from society, and pass these genetic traits on to their own children, who will then be the heirs to humanity.

Malpede, based on Noam Chomsky’s theories of evolutionary science, paints a picture of a genetically altered species which ensure that, while not humans, something similar to them survives in a world that is no longer habitable for “us.”

Malpede uses language in her play that is decidedly unusual for the English-speaking theater world. She makes language itself the object of her thoughts about evolution (cf. Chomsky). The half-forgotten beginnings of American drama appear to be a point of reference – namely Susan Glaspell’s The Verge. In that 1921 play, the botanist Claire also strives to create something by means of plant breeding in which the plants fundamentally evolve into something different. Glaspell’s expressionistic language finds its way into Malpede’s piece.

With her vision of the protagonists fulfilling the self-imposed but also nature-given mission of species preservation, Malpede chooses perhaps the most radical dramaturgy of these three texts. As in Brecht’s Lehrstücken, the protagonists practice acquiescence (Einverständnis) to what is necessary, opting for action that benefits development (to avoid the problematic term “progress” that created the situation in the first place through the 19th and 20th centuries) but also demands sacrifice on the part of individuals. The American narrative topos of the family is translated here into a society of companions of the same fate who, however, actually manage to propagate the species, so that the happy mothers, in view of the flourishing of their offspring, and at the same time the happy scientists, in view of the success of their experiment, can willingly accept their own deaths.

Jim Grimsley – Cascade

Grimsley’s play focuses on escape from uninhabitable regions. In the mid-21st century, it has become too hot in latitudes closer to the equator. Like millions of other people, a father and daughter head north through North America as climate refugees. Along the way, they lose both his elderly mother and their connection to the caravan. In the mountains, they meet a climate scientist and her son who relocated to higher elevations several years earlier.

The characters’ accounts of their journey creates the image of the moving masses. The emotional and physical costs of the trek, the psychological and practical difficulties of a life on the road, become apparent, and the caravans recall the treks of the early 1930s, when, after the Depression, an immense drought drove farmers from Kansas, Oklahoma, and other Midwestern “Dust Bowl” states westward, especially to California, where they are met not with welcome and help but with rejection.

Such hostility is also found in the play: the neighbors on the mountain are hostile, probably the father’s hunting accident was really plain murder. When the missing dog is found shot later in the play, the two partial families decide to move further north together. What began with a trustful exception at the first meeting, conveys in this decision the message that humanity and solidarity are the ways to increase the chances of survival and preserve dignity in the face of the catastrophe that threatens us all.

Climate change isn’t something happening here or there but everywhere, and all at once. And unless we chose to halt it, it will never stop.

David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth
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