Guest Blog: Theatre and Ecology – A Different View

19th June 2018

Carl Lavery, Professor of Theatre Studies at Glasgow University, uses the example of Samuel Beckett to talk through a different view of the connection between theatre and ecology.

To think of theatre and ecology, or even theatre and environment, is generally to think of three forms of representation, all of which would seek to represent ecological issues (climate change, species extinction, energy usage, etc.) in a direct or conventional way:

  • Activist or committed performance that intends to tackle recognisable problems by representing them in ways that we immediately grasp;
  • Site-specific interventions that, in some way or another, aim to place the work within the environment as opposed to merely depicting it. These include performances in cities, fields, rivers, mountains, seas, etc.;
  • Work that refuses the large energy expenditure of the theatre and instead aims to generate green power by obtaining its energy from the sun or by pedal power.

But what if none of these performance modes actually worked? Not simply because the issues they purport to deal with are already well understood by the majority of the audience who generally go to see them – a case of preaching to the converted, so to speak – but also because they tend to assume that they can represent such abstract, massive things as climate change or, alternatively, bring to light the often invisible ravages and inequalities caused by petroleum extraction. Bertolt Brecht, for instance, once said that the social, monetary and environmental consequences of oil frustrate the five-act play!

Theatre’s ecological role?

If these limitations are accepted, what then should theatre’s ecological role be? And how, as critics and spectators, are we meant to engage with it? One possible way forward might be to rethink the significance of plays and performances that, on the surface at least, appear to have nothing to do with environmental catastrophe in any obvious sense. These are works that offer no message or solution to the problems that face us. Rather, they simply present the mess, and leave it up to us to draw our own conclusions, to find ways of making sense of them.

One thinks, here, for instance, of the work of Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), a playwright who, for too long, has been associated with a bleak, absurdist outlook on life, dealing with personal forms of existential crisis. However, the closer one looks at Beckett’s plays, the more it becomes obvious that they are infused with an acutely sensitive ecological consciousness. Waiting for Godot (1953), for instance, shows us a world in which only one tree remains; Endgame (1957) is located within an anonymous, post-apocalyptic landscape where food is running out and nature has ended; and Happy Days (1961) presents us with a startling image of a middle-aged woman, Winnie, buried up to her waist in a mound of earth and suffering the consequences of extreme heat.  At one point, her parasol spontaneously combust and, at one another, she complains about the loss of the ozone layer. Happy Days, like so much of Beckett’s early work, is haunted by the future ghost of global warming, as the most recent production of the play with Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester (2018) makes so abundantly  clear, with its plastic ridden set and blazing light bulbs – what Beckett referred to ‘as hellish half light’.

It has been de rigeur amongst theatre specialists to see Beckett’s dead and depopulated landscapes as making visible the anxieties of a nuclear generation. But it should not be forgotten that Beckett’s plays were also contemporaneous with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the ‘great acceleration’ in fossil fuel consumption after 1945, and the coming into being of an age of oil spills, acid rain, plastics, industrial farming and ocean acidification. Beckett, of course, was not immune from his time, and it is worthy of note that he conceived of the character of Winnie as a bird with oil on its feather, tragically stranded, defeated by pollution.

Feel the madness of our society

As opposed to the more explicit modes of representation mentioned above, Beckett’s plays retain their ecological shock value, their capacity to make us think, precisely because they refuse to tell us what they are about. By leaving his spectators in kind of no-man’s land, Becket manages not only to explain the sadness and dereliction in which we live today. More crucially, I would suggest, he allows us to feel the madness of our society, to experience in our bodies the disorientation and disbelief we experience as we witness a social and economic order that is, quite literally, unable to stop consuming itself.

Beckett’s indirect or oblique approach to ecology, to what we might call living in the Anthropocene, is not only efficacious because it confronts us with what we normally repress, but also because it offers a kind of answer, albeit silently and implictly. To watch a Beckett play is to renounce our habitual ways of responding to the world. Instead of continually striving to act, Beckett invites us to slow down a little, to show some patience and to acknowledge the presence of something – an artwork – that we can neither dominate nor exploit. Beckett’s work exists as a living thing. In the same way that we don’t ask for explanation for why a tree should exist, so Beckett’s work refuses to explain itself. It is simply there for us to make sense of as we can, as we will, but always in the knowledge that our understanding is partial. The work retains its mystery and strangeness, even as it gestures towards a devastated world, an earth in ruins.

Radical strangeness and unfamiliarity

Perhaps, it is this, the radical strangeness and unfamiliarity of such works that we need to pay more attention to as ecocritics and activists. Instead then of thinking about theatre and art that deals with ecological crisis in expected ways by, more often that not, telling us what we already know, Beckett shocks us out of our complacency and taps the unconscious fears and anxieties that prevent us from living differently. By inviting us to confront our fears, Beckett, I suggest, holds out the possibility of experimenting alternative modes of existence.

Along with a whole host of ecological thinkers from Arne Naess to Donna Haraway, I do not believe that creating greener energy supplies or producing more sustainable economies is enough to prevent the ecological nightmare to come. If we are to live on a better planet, it is not nature that needs to be saved, it is, rather, that bizarre, irrational animal called the human. One way of doing this might be to pay greater attention to the ecological potential of artworks that show human subjects lost in a world that they have destroyed without knowing why they have done so. To resurrect a complex word that has been almost forgotten today, Beckett’s plays work dialectically. It is through the negative that the positive might be best attained. As such, our task is to become attuned to that negative, responding to the ‘undoing’ that Beckett discloses in a manner that is generative of a new people to come.

For more on these issues connect with the Performance, Ecology and Heritage Hub at the University of Glasgow or contact Carl Lavery directly.


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This story was posted by Carl Lavery, Glasgow University. Creative Carbon Scotland is committed to being a resource for the arts & sustainability community and we invite the community to submit news, blogs and opportunities to the site.

Photo credit: Happy Days – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

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