On Late Style Ecotheatre

“There’s a wilding inside that connects with a wilding up there,” Uncle, the elderly environmentalist, says in my 2014 play Extreme Whether. That is what it feels like when creation takes hold of one. Necessity flaps madly in the gut like a free-flying bird that will dash itself to death or find release. This is why poetry is wild nature produced by human nature, a song between a living cosmos and an ever-emergent self. This is why preservation of life in all its sentient forms is the work of the dramatic poet and why the poet must be fiercely engaged in the exploration, creation and manifestation of justice on this earth and for earth’s creatures.

I had written ecofeminist theatre all through the 1980s and mid-90s. In Better People, 1987, a rare beast wanders into a geneticist’s lab, and rather than be cloned, she swallows him; he emerges an animal-rights ecologist. But, I was sidetracked by the Iraq war and the US torture program so it wasn’t until 2012 that I turned my attention to the warming climate. As I did the research necessary to begin to understand, I came, of course, upon the resistance to scientific truth from the fossil fuel industry, a Republican Congress and successive administrations. Extreme Whether is about this conflict within a family (à la Ibsen). One twin is a renowned NASA climate scientist being censored by the government, the other, a publicist for the fossil fuel industry, married to a Republican lobbyist. I came to view climate scientists as visionaries and altruists, ill-suited to the public battle forced upon them but fighting for truth in the face of falsehood. The relationship between a deformed frog, Sniffley, who exists in the minds of the characters and the audience, and an Asperger child, who is also a fierce environmentalist (prefiguring Greta Thunberg), and Uncle provides the play’s subplot.

The Beekeeper, Sybil, (Evangeline Johns) from the 2016 revival of The Beekeeper’s Daughter. Photo by Beatriz Schiller.

Extreme Whether is the last of my mid-life ecotheatre works. Now, I have found my way into cli-fi futurism and at the same time, the dictates Edward Said outlines in his last book On Late Style seem particularly apt. I am calling my new play Other Than We, a Late Style work. Writing now, at the “end of the world,” (at very least at the end of the stable climate we’ve known since writing began), and closer to the end of my life than I’ve ever been, I think about Edward Said’s concept of Late Style in both ways, personal wisdom on the edge of singular mortality, and the madness of unthinking ecocide.

Said writes: “Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present.” Lateness, according to Said, includes the facility to rip through one’s own style, arriving at dissonance and resonance, surprise, entangled themes and variations, a strange sort of buoyancy, ending in irresolution, and mystery.

Said died in 2004, the year of the invasion of Iraq. (His daughter, Najla Said, would play three roles in my play Prophecy, about the costs of the war.) If Said had lived, he, too, could not help but become increasingly obsessed with the climate crises. In her Said memorial lecture in London in 2016, Naomi Klein focused on the environmental themes already present in his work. I have never before set a play in the future and doubt that I could have done so were my own future not becoming short. While I had thought about and researched the play for several years, I wrote most of Other Than We in the months following Trump’s election. In part, a debate about the origins of consciousness, “from a glob of flesh thought, think of that,” in main, a thriller about the creation of a post-Homo sapiens species, Other Than We is preternatural, outside the known order of things. Its final transformative moment represents, simultaneously, the death of Homo sapiens and dawn of a new species’ consciousness.

The Beast in Better People dances with the geneticist, Edward Chreode (George Bartenieff). Puppet designed and animated by Basil Twist. Photo by Beatriz Schiller.

In the middle of the night, working from 3:00 am to 6:00 am, literally shocked out of sleep by an image or thought, I wrote. This futurist cli-fi play takes place after “the deluge,” when the survivors live in a surveilled and increasingly unsustainable Dome. The two women scientist-lovers, joined by a physician refugee from Africa and an elderly linguist, knowingly sacrifice themselves in order to birth a new and finer species that will run on four legs or two, tolerate temperature extremes, be able to go for long periods without water, be androgynous, and, most of all, be capable of language and rational thought BUT no longer have a head separate from a heart. Every thought henceforth will be felt through.

These characters exhaust their own bodies in a daring escape, creating, birthing, nursing, nurturing the new beings, without knowing if their experiment will be a success. It’s a metaphor, of course, a fable, for what we do anyhow when we give birth, if we dare, in this harsh new world. There’s an unforeseen transformation at the end. No answer, but a glimmer. The play inhabits the liminal space between knowing and not knowing. Late Style supposes clashing feelings, tonalities, and resolutions that devolve into rising crescendos again. The climate crisis moment we inhabit imposes, like Late Style, the impulse to rework, rip up or revivify old structures, transform social systems, to dare in face of the imminent end of species and habitats.

To rewild our intellects.

Other Than We will have its world premiere at LaMama, NYC, Nov. 21-Dec. 1, 2019 and be published by Laertes Books.

(Top image: Uncle (George Bartenieff) and Annie (Emma Rose Kraus) construct a frog pond for Sniffley and others, Extreme Whether, 2018, LaMama production. Photo by Beatriz Schiller.)

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Karen Malpede’s earlier ecotheatre works include A Monster Has Stolen the Sun (1984), Better People(1989), the adaptation of Christa Wolf’s ecofeminist novella Kassandra (1992), The Beekeeper’s Daughter (1995) and the short Hermes in the Anthropocene: A Dogologue (2015). Blue Valiant, scheduled for production in 2021, continues her fascination with animal-human communication. She is author of 19 plays produced in the U.S. and Europe and of the anthologies: A Monster Has Stolen the Sun and Other Plays and Plays in Time: The Beekeeper’s Daughter, Prophecy, Another Life, Extreme Whether;  her plays and essays on the environment have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Dark Matter, Transformations and elsewhere. She is co-founder of Theater Three Collaborative and Adjunct Associate Professor of theater and environmental justice at John Jay College for Criminal Justice, CUNY. National McKnight Playwrights Fellow, NYFA Fellow.

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