On Mortality

The Persistent Acts series returns, with the mother of all existential questions.

“How do we live knowing we’re going to die?” This question manifested in a production of Terminal, written by Susan Yankowitz and The Open Theatre, that I worked on at Butler University in 2014. Through a devising process led by our professor William Fisher, my fellow students and I used text and structure from the previous iterations performed in 1969 and 1996, to grapple with themes of mortality, grief, and afterlife. Terminal has resonated with me over the years, especially in terms of this central question of how we, as humans, live with the consciousness of our own mortality.

I return to this question now in a climate context. Conversations with my peers at the intersection of performance and climate change are more and more involving questions of loss and grief – how do we, as humans in Western civilization, grapple with the sixth extinction? Zooming out to a timescale larger than the human timeline, I am reminded that species have come and gone throughout Earth’s vast history, and that will continue to happen. So yes, in our lifetimes we have already said goodbye to several species, and there is a place in the arts for processing these losses. Leaning into my anthropocentrism and biased perspective for a moment, I’m grappling with the inevitability of our human extinction.

Photo credit: Brent Smith from Terminal at Butler University

In 2013, US veteran Roy Scranton wrote an op-ed in The New York Times: Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene. I’ve turned to this article as I’ve been contemplating the terminality of my time on Earth, and the gravely immense changes we’re facing as a civilization in the age of climate change. Scranton asks my question in this way: “How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?” While this is a harsh outlook, I feel empowered by this reframing that implies people have agency – we can at least choose our outlook. I practice this idea in my plays imbuing agency to both performers and audiences. Scranton describes his daily approach to this looming question as a process of day-to-day meditation while deployed in Iraq: “I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure,” which commanded: ‘Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.’ Instead of fearing my end, I owned it.” He continues to outline his imaginations of every way he could possibly die. I consider the theatre a place to imagine alternative realities, to build a world on tenets of equity and justice for all. Scranton’s imaginative process comes from what he needed in order to participate in war. It is personal, but he suggests that we need to scale a version of his individual process to prepare for our civilization’s end.

I was drawn to Scranton article because of the idea that we need to learn how to deal with our mortality in the Anthropocene. I also turned to this article because I’m in a new territory directorially. This month, I’m working on a ten-minute play about war, Hemingway at Work, by Bruce Calhoun. Through the lens of Hemingway’s writings, this play looks at Republican fighters in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Ultimately, these soldiers will lose to the Nationalist Front, and Franco will rule as dictator for close to four decades. Nevertheless, these characters carry on, discussing why they’re fighting in the first place. One fighter stands for democratic socialism, which he views as “a viable alternative to the imperialism of Britain, the capitalism of the United States, and the totalitarianism of Russia and Germany.” Both characters do not want to live under a despot – they have too much to lose.

Because the actors and I are not putting an actual battle onstage, and fortunately none of us have been involved in literal war, I have been playing with abstractions: the sound of bullets is Hemingway’s typewriter; instead of fatigues, we’re sourcing everyday clothes; the actors will not be wielding rifles. I am making these production choices because, for one, I cannot realistically reproduce a war scene onstage, nor am I interested in that, and two, the play is not about the history of the war or war itself, it is about two people waking up each day knowing they are going to die. While this play is not about climate, it raises timeless questions that I am considering anew in this anthropocenic age.

How do we live knowing we’re going to die? As I’ve experienced through the characters of Hemingway at Work, resilience and persistence will play a role in processing this impossible question. Grief, in terms of the loss of biodiversity and Western civilization as we know it, will be a part of the process. Like other species, humans are not permanent. Western civilization has been resilient for centuries, but I am staging ways that humans can be resilient outside of extractive, oppressive, and unsustainable systems. These systems, too, are impermanent. Fortunately, we have tools like art to model ways of distributing resources more equitably, and to implement more caring localities.

There’s More…
…Art at the intersection of climate and grief:
Eco-theater collective Superhero Clubhouse tackled extinction in their recent Planet Play, PLUTO (no longer a play)
Visual artist Xavier Cortada addresses global biodiversity loss in his ongoing project Endangered World

…on Artists & Climate Change about grief:
Grief and Melancholia
Fear, Climate Grief, and Why I Organized a Book of Comics About Climate Change

(Top image: Terminal at Butler University. Photo by Brent Smith.)

This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.


Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is on the Marketing team at HERE Arts Center and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.

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