Laughing and Crying: absurdist theatre, science and climate crisis
Rapidly rising sea levels and temperatures, erratic and severe weather: we have made nature uncanny, broken and unpredictable. In his book Dark Ecology, eco-critical philosopher Tim Morton describes global warming as a “wicked problem for which time is running out, for which there is no central authority; those seeking the solution are also creating it” (37). Our modern plot has dark irony and repetition, paradox and illogic. The Anthropocene is absurdist.
In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, journalist and author Roy Scranton writes that the UN climate summit of 2014 “came down to a bleak ritual of stalemate, as if the world’s leaders had been cast in a business-class version of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame”(4). Tim Morton uses the symbol of the Ouroboro—the snake eating its own tail—to describe governments stuck in a loop, arrogantly and doggedly pushing forward with an accelerating system of ‘growth’-based neo-liberalism, trying to solve problems they caused in the first place.
Yet within this looping cycle is an opportunity for playfulness. There is a desperate humour in our predicament, which is better acknowledged than ignored. As Morton suggests, “The very attempt to escape the web of fate is the web of fate; then you notice that you are caught in the loop and you are the loop. Two days of laughter follow” (145). Writers arguing against the human-centric find themselves in this paradox. Morton argues for ownership of the situation, and a willingness to move away from the kind of thinking responsible for climate crisis, even as our ecological awareness, “evolves paradoxically into an anarchic, comedic sense of coexistence” (160). A strange combination, but perhaps fitting for the absurd Anthropocene.
I wonder if, at this point, we can write the Anthropocene in a linear, satisfying way at all. I argue that we must reveal climate crisis not just through content, but form—by moving beyond dystopian realism to reflect a reality that is a little more strange. In my research and writing practice, I have found that the theatre is showing us new ways to examine escalating neoliberalism, global warming, and ultimately climate crisis, using absurdism and, unnervingly, comedy.
In Australia, ambitious form and an appropriately absurd ‘gallows humour’ animate plays like The Turquoise Elephant (2016) by Stephen Carleton and Kill Climate Deniers (2018) by David Finnigan. In The Turquoise Elephant, a family empire of environmental vandals observe global climate destruction through the triple-glazed windows of their mansion, but are pulled into a reckoning when a group of radical activists, ‘The Front’, infiltrate. The callous and self-interested forces of neoliberalism are personified by characters like Augusta, who is disdainful of activism and driven by profit, while young Basra produces well-intentioned but ineffective and ironic environmental blog posts from inside her family’s fortress of wealth. The character of eccentric matriarch Aunt Olympia, and her outrageous, sinister speeches, reflect the absurdity of climate change denialism using repetitive cyclical language. The activists themselves revel in their own theatricality in their repeated and ritualistic manifesto declarations in the midst of environmental collapse. In these ways, The Turquoise Elephant uses dark comedy, heightened by absurdism, to bring the Anthropocene ‘home’. As Linda Hassall writes, “By putting the terrifying effects of climate change in familiar Australian locations—the cities of Sydney and Melbourne—Carleton depicts an eerie global climate-scape, and makes two of Australia’s renowned capital cities terrifying and, unfamiliar wastelands of our own making” (89).
Kill Climate Deniers stages a rowdy climate coup on Parliament House, combining the activist occupation, political machinations by the Environment Minister, and real-life criticisms of the play as interruptions by the playwright. Absurdist plays such as Kill Climate Deniers de-centre the human relative to the environment, and challenge our in/ability to verbalise climate violence. Verbal abuse, cross-talking and general miscommunication reproduce the violence done to the planet—criticism embedded into form. Communication breakdowns reflect the ridiculous nature of our slow response to climate change, and the farcical but dangerous spectre of its denial.
These plays also reanimate the social and environmental anxiety that bubbled up fifteen years ago in Manjula Padmanabhan’s frightening organ-selling speculation, Harvest (1997)— a play that sits somewhere between absurdism, science fiction theatre and the emerging ‘Science Play’. In literature, science fiction is widely used to portray the implications of and responses to climate change; however, the spectacle and speculation of science fiction often suffers in translation to the stage, due to budget constraints and the expectations of film-goers. In contrast to science fiction, the Science Play seeks to build scientific or mathematical ideas into the structure and experience of the work, rather than dictating it through characters.
In a great example of a Science Play, Arcadia (1993), playwright Tom Stoppard “links chaos theory to the essence of theatre itself: its liveness, immediacy, and unpredictability” (Kirsten-Shepherd Barr, 135). In the play, the revolutionary mathematical discoveries of early nineteenth-century student Thomasina and the capers of her tutor Septimus are the subject of much fascination, frustration, and misunderstanding for researchers on the same estate 180 years later. The character of Bernard Nightingale, a modern literature academic, abandons rigour and method to construct cultural memory based on his own desires and preconceptions. Images and theories of the past are distorted by human interference, and the idea of perfect human method is destabilised, made absurd.
The doubling time periods (i.e. past and present) activate Stoppard’s exploration of chaos theory in the play, as well as the second law of thermodynamics. Yet unlike the misguided researchers in the play, the audience is privileged with a view of time and history that steps back from the muddying effects of chaos theory and thermodynamics in order to demonstrate them. As Shepherd-Barr states:
Stoppard structures the alternating time periods in such a way as to confound the known laws of physics: the audience watches time reversed, the pudding unstirred, as the gradual revelations in each scene update and revise our understanding of both past and present. (136)
Arcadia uses structure as well as, in performance, its liveness, the potential for missed lines, different audience responses, and improvisation to invite a critique of the idea of human command over the laws of science and nature. With the possibility for direct interaction between performers and audiences, theatre is a uniquely suitable form through which people can ‘experience’ scientific concepts, arguments and possible solutions. While Science Plays may not present science fiction-like visions of the future, they can “successfully employ a particular scientific idea or concept as an extended theatrical metaphor” (Shepherd-Barr 6). A move towards science on stage, making use of the unique tools of live theatre, could deepen the audience engagement with science.
In fact, the real-life activation of climate change science is becoming hard to avoid. The Science Play aims not to merely explain science in dialogue, but apply the concepts explored to character, staging and structure. In 2022, we live climate change, and the writing/performance of it is evolving correspondingly. What does the scientific reality of global warming do to the structure of a play? Would it look like absurdism?
It feels absurd to link the alarming science of climate change, the theatre, and humour together; but in the Anthropocene, their combination makes perfect sense. Society and governments are stuck in a recurring absurdist loop, and it might be time for artists to destabilise form and consider new possibilities for expression. Theatre is a deeply public and collaborative art form, and one with the increasingly necessary “capacity to put forward radically new ways of living, being, seeing, acting and interacting” (Stevens 89).
Roy Scranton puts it well when he describes the humanities as “the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life”, which require “active attention, cultivation, making and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. It must be worked” (5). For a growing number of writers in the theatre, this working involves a thorough embedding of scientific concepts, an interrogation of neoliberalism, and a charged embrace of the absurd.
Carleton, Stephen. The Turquoise Elephant. Currency Press, 2016.
Finnigan, David. Kill Climate Deniers. Oberon Modern Books, 2019.
Hassall, Linda. Theatres of Dust: Climate Gothic Analysis in Contemporary Australian Drama and Performance Landscapes. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.
Morton, Timothy. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. Columbia UP, 2016.
Padmanabhan, Manjula. Harvest. Aurora Metro Press, 2003.
Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. City Lights Books, 2015.
Shepherd-Barr, Kirsten. Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen. Princeton UP, 2006.
Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. Faber and Faber, 1993.
Feature image via 'Art Collection - The Metropolitan Museum of Art'