The Play’s the Thing

May 15, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Politically, America may still have a long way to go before everybody’s on the same page with regard to anthropogenic climate change and the imperative to take immediate action. (And statements like this one—made just this past weekend—certainly don’t help.) But culturally, the idea is moving ahead full-steam. Climate-themed artworks and productions have been popping up like daffodils this spring: in our concert halls and museums, on our stages and TV screens. Last month the Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, a former environmental activist, was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music for “Become Ocean,” an orchestral work that the Pulitzer judges described as evoking “thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.” The Canadian playwright Chantal Bilodeau recently completed the second play in a planned eight-play cycle exploring the challenges posed to Arctic nations by climate change. From now until the end of August, visitors to the Brooklyn Museum of Art can crane their necks to take in a 60-foot-tall installation, “Swoon: Submerged Motherlands,” that grew out of one New York-based artist’s experience of Hurricane Sandy and her concern about rising seas. On television, meanwhile, climate change has been the subject of recent network news specials and star-studded cable miniseries.

When it comes to effecting major social change, culture often points the way—opening our minds to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Framing their works as acts of political defiance, black essayists, poets, playwrights, painters, singers, and other artists helped foment outrage in the 1940s and 1950s, which in turn generated the political momentum necessary for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Similarly, in the 1990s, gay-themed plays like Angels in America and even TV sitcoms like Will and Grace helped set the stage for a massive generational shift in attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage—the results of which we’re witnessing right now.

Surveying all of the climate-themed culture on offer at the moment, it’s hard not to wonder if we may be approaching a similar tipping point. The week before last, at New York’s Public Theater, I caught one of the final New York City performances of The Great Immensity, a well-reviewed play written by Steven Cosson and staged by The Civilians, a theater company dedicated to “exploring the intersections of theater and society.” The play tells the story of Phyllis, who’s searching for her husband, Carl, a nature photographer who’s gone missing at a biological research station in Panama. Carl isn’t dead, Phyllis eventually learns: he’s just morbidly depressed about the state of the earth, and in his misery has opted to withdraw from both civil society and his marriage. Carl’s despondency, meanwhile, has made him ripe for recruitment by the Earth Ambassadors, a group of young activists who are planning a mysterious, unspecified “action” at an upcoming international climate summit.

Through a combination of dialogue, musical numbers (by Michael Friedman), and multimedia projections, the play’s first act relentlessly—some might say numbingly—enumerates many of the environmental crises we now find ourselves confronting: rising sea levels, ocean acidification, melting glaciers, habitat fragmentation, garbage-clotted ocean gyres, species extinction. But in the second act, once Phyllis has finally located Carl (it turns out he’s in the Arctic), context gives way to plot as she learns the true nature of her husband’s role in the shocking act of civil disobedience that the Earth Ambassadors are planning.

And that’s the point at which The Great Immensity becomes something of a head-scratcher. Once the earnest young activists seize the world’s attention, what are they going to demand? An international carbon tax? Increased investment in energy efficiency and smart-grid technology? More government-supported R&D for renewables? Sadly, none of the above. The kids’ big ask is for … a global climate accord. What such an accord might actually entail—and whether it would be legally binding, with attainable goals and realistic deadlines—is a wonky question that The Great Immensity doesn’t attempt to answer, or even to ask, for that matter.

As an artistic decision, maybe that’s for the best: such minutiae aren’t exactly the stuff of high drama. But it also means that while The Great Immensity raises a number of provocative questions, the play ultimately feels less like a call to action and more like a reflection of our frustration with our political leaders and the impotence of the environmental movement. After the performance that he and I attended, Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies at New York University (and the author, most recently, of Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle to Stop Climate Change Failed—and What It Means for Our Future), put it well. “This is the first adult work on climate change that I’ve seen,” he told me, “because it deals with those feelings of powerlessness. It’s not 50 Things You Can Do To Save the Planet.”

Jamieson meant this as a compliment: a lot of people have done those 50 things, and yet the planet remains conspicuously unsaved. For my part, I found it both curious and gratifying that The Civilians didn’t feel obliged to present much climate science. To me, that’s a positive sign: it suggests that we may have leapfrogged the perceived need to spend time and energy defending the science with hockey-stick graphs and Keeling curves. We can stop asking whether climate change is real or not, and instead focus on solving it.

I’ll admit that I left the Public Theater that night feeling a bit confused by The Great Immensity’s anticlimactic conclusion. Could a decent climate treaty truly be our last, best hope for saving the planet? (And if it is, can I finally quit washing out my empty peanut butter jars before placing them in the recycling bin?)

But I may be missing a more salient point. The theater was absolutely packed on the night I attended; subsequent performances were sold out. And that means something. Americans may still rank climate change at or near the bottom of our stated priorities—but that doesn’t mean that we don’t care, or that we aren’t worried. NBC News, with a global audience of tens of millions, wouldn’t have sent Ann Curry around the world to meet with so many good-looking climate scientists if the network thought its show, Our Year of Extremes: Did Climate Change Just Hit Home?, wouldn’t fall on receptive ears and eyes. Rather than damning our artists (and content providers) for failing to light our way out of the darkness—a responsibility, it should be pointed out, that isn’t theirs in the first place—we should instead be celebrating their ability to pull us together, to engage our minds, and to prime us so that we’re fully ready to take action once the correct path emerges from the gloom.

No one fully understands how major societal change occurs—why some revolutions take and others don’t. Only in hindsight does it now seem inevitable, for instance, that the Berlin Wall would fall, or that the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s would be codified into law. Soon, we may be adding legal same-sex marriage to this list of historic “inevitabilities”—even though the prospect of this shift seemed anything but inevitable less than a decade ago.

A few weeks back, Al Gore assured a reporter from the website Politico that climate change is something we can, and will, solve. “The only question,” he said, is “how long will it take us to get past that political and social tipping point? We’re getting there.” Perhaps I’m still suffering from Earth Month fever, but as climate-change consciousness weaves its way into our cultural fabric through the arts and humanities, in addition to the sciences, I can’t help but think that Gore may be right. Maybe we really are—finally—starting to get it. Climate change is, as The Civilians merrily tell us, an immensely complicated problem, which means that working together, from a multitude of angles and through a variety of disciplines, is our best hope of moving forward.

Elizabeth Royte

OnEarth contributing editor Elizabeth Royte also writes for the New York Times Book Review, which called her "no stranger to the pleasures and perils of chasing errant pieces of plastic and other castoffs to surprising (and often disgusting) places." She's the author of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It and Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash.

Tags: climate change, climate change messaging, social movements