Prophecy or Cautionary Tales? Australian Climate Gothic Drama and Mutating Climate-Scapes
In Australian theatre, it is difficult to separate ecologically driven performance from thematic investigations about the effects of climate change on the country. Climate change is becoming the popular vehicle for reflection and critique on Australian society’s ideals, values, way of life, on a history of material consumption and on the tensions between individual self-fulfilment and respect towards the other-than-human. As a phenomenon, the climate gives expression to the contemporary nation’s anxiety about the uncertain ecological future we might leave generations to come. Australian dramatists are responding to the climate story exploring how cautionary tales of excess or prophetic tales of catastrophe and doom can promote questions about our ecological situatedness. Drawing on two unique examples of Australian Climate Gothic Drama, this discussion outlines the developing form and acknowledges that the ancient land which has perpetrated the popular Australian land-culturescape to the rest of the world is now mutating into an unfamiliar climate-scape.
Keywords: Australian drama, climate gothic, performance, playwriting
Contemporary Australian playwriting and theatre production (hereafter discussed as Australian drama) is taking centre stage in addressing the often-volatile national discourse about climate change. The great arid continent of Australia, its remote distances and its associated spatial imagining, is fast becoming a mutating psychological stage on which historical memory, cultural difference, social unification and racial debate are performatively inscribed. With climate change currently at the forefront of debate on the national political front, the frightening and escalating extreme weather events experienced by many Australians in recent times is stimulating dramatic representation that is eerily prophetic or, in the least, cautionary.
In the field of scripted dramatic work, Stephen Carleton and Chris Hay suggest that there has been a groundswell of plays in the last decade that are focused on “dramatising the effects of global warming in a range of different modes and genres” (80) including ecocritical and gothic explorations. Stephen Carleton’s The Turquoise Elephant explores contemporary Australian society’s ideals, values and way of life through a catastrophic national climate event. Recipient of the prestigious Griffin Theatre award for the best new Australian play in 2015, they produced it in 2016 and again produced by Browns Mart Theatre, in the Northern Territory, in 2018. Others, like Salvation, one of my own post-dramatic works, question the history of material consumption in this country and explore the tensions between individual self-fulfilment and respect towards the other-than-human. Salvation, developed in association with Griffith University emerging contemporary theatre artists and produced at The Brisbane Powerhouse Visy Theatre in 2013, won an industry achievement Del ARte Chart award for overall aesthetic concepts. Both The Turquoise Elephant and Salvation offer mutating climate-affected scenography through which popular landscape characteristics, projected to the wider world over the last two- and one-half centuries, are transforming as familiar spaces, and places mutate into frightening and unrecognisable climate-scapes (Hassall, Mutating the Australian Gothic 11).
The Contemporary Australian Climate-scape
As a theatrical concept, “climate-scape recognises scientific climate variables in the language, materiality and imagination of the theatre” (Hassall, “Theatres of Dust” 2). Dramatically, it unifies culture-scape with deteriorating landscape and proposes a discourse of analysis between land, environment, as well as habitat and species management. It further acknowledges the “impact of an economic ethos that has resonated throughout the national Australian ideology since colonization” (2). Climate-scape is germane to the burgeoning Australian Climate Gothic Drama genre (hereafter referred to as Climate Gothic) that prophesises some Australian drama as cautionary tales of climate catastrophe. Discussed below as extending the genre of Australian Climate Gothic, the concept reimagines “enduring Australian landscape legacies through climate change lenses” (1), wherein an “existential aesthetic” [is becoming] “the given form in the panicked atmosphere of the times” (Carleton and Hay 81). Dramatic analysis further responds to the historical perspective that persistently embraced Australian myths about our identity in and of place since colonisation.
The myths populate the national literary and artistic canon, which has not only cultivated but also taken excessive pride in promoting epic depictions of the landscape and our (white) place in it. These depictions have been the canvas for an insistent national obsession about who we are and represent our attempt to define “Australian-ness” to the rest of the world. Rather than projecting insight into historical behaviours and activities that ultimately affected contemporary environments and our rapport with non-human nature, the landscape depicted as an adversarial symbol of our imaginary relationship to it and, therefore, lacked any rational representation of its genuine existence (Hassall, “Contemporary Theatrical Landscapes”). The glorifying of people—bushrangers and battlers and swagmen—and place—beaches and sunburnt deserts and haunting eucalypt forests—enacted a mythic space, a frontier country, a paradoxical changing space of beauty and brutality, well into the late twentieth century (Hassall, “Contemporary Performance and Climate Change 270–95). The division between past myth and present legacy explores continuing conflicts surrounding social conjecture, political hysteria and denial about characteristics of the time including escalating climate change and its effects on the national psyche.
The National Psyche and Nation Building
The national psyche emerged from the Australian settler tradition and traces back to an almost hysterical projection of a mythic man-against-the land ideology. As an experiential state of being, it can be said to have developed as a way of shaping a more sanitized alternative to white history (Hassall, “Contemporary Performance and Climate Change” 270–95; Carleton, “Australian Gothic Theatre” 51–66). Australian history is littered with heroic settler and colonial tales about the power of an unforgiving landscape, in which the white man (and in Australian colonial narratives it was always the white man) must battle to claim his place in the bush or the desert. Narrating an illusory place in the country’s vast distances and isolating spaces, the little Aussie Battler endured extreme suffering and privation; he ultimately defeats non-human nature, beating the unforgiving land into submission, and in doing so appropriates it and the great distances as his own. The harsh reality of nation building, however, is reliant on colonising activities detrimental to the well-being of the native Australian landscape.
For over two centuries, there was limited acknowledgement of the toll taken on the land incurred by the spread of European settlement and the effects of sheep and cattle farming. Artists, poets, writers and dramatists made little attempt to depict the impacts of fencing and farming, mining and excavating on First Nations People’s relationship with and care of country. The White Earth by Shaun Charles and Andrew McGahan, produced at La Boite Theatre in 2009, is a dramatic adaptation of McGahan’s award winning novel and explores the rise of the “cow-cocky” or “grazier.” Whilst not explored fully in this discussion, the play is a significant work as it critiques the invasion of cattle and sheep farming across the land as part of the occupation which disposed First Nations Peoples of their country and which significantly contributed to the escalation of soil salination, soil erosion and habitat destruction as evident today. It further suggests that the frameworks of settler society wherein the myths were born was a colonizing method of establishing Eurocentric rights to land appropriation and ownership (Hassall, “The Mythic Space” 73). Ignoring insight into past activities that harmfully affected the environment, the settler landscape perpetuated in the national psyche until well into the twentieth century. It is a symbol of the coloniser’s extreme relationship to and with the landscape in the quest for making a place to call home. Such representation is now the subject of dramatic scrutiny through a body of Australian plays I classify in Theatres of Dust as Climate Gothic. As a subgenre of Gothic, it explores the paradox of oppositions situated between past imaginings and present realities.
Australian Climate Gothic Drama
In this time of accelerating climate change, species extinction, rampant infection, political instability, economic crisis and right-wing extremism, Gothic representation can unearth and address volatile contemporary issues. A resurgence of Gothic sensibilities on the national stage was popularised under the term Contemporary Australian Gothic drama and defined as a genre that layers historical atrocities into the present-day national psychology to expose national guilt about colonisation and colonising behaviours of the past. Whilst embracing similar thematic elements, the Climate Gothic deviates from the popular form as it often personifies the climate-scape as a symbolic antagonist (Hassall, “Mutating the Australian Gothic”).
Climate Gothic utilises theatrical atmospheres, sceneographic imagery and geographic imaginings about the climate-affected planet as provocation for discourse and/or education, sometimes even to suggest change. Audiences of Climate Gothic performances as well as readers and scholars of the published dramatic fiction have the opportunity of witnessing and responding to the ecological challenges pertaining to our shifting climate-scapes. In re-imagining the landscape as climate-scape, Climate Gothic exploration offers a space to adopt, refine and question popular and traditional concepts of self, family, nation and place-attachment in a changing world. The dramatic worlds are sites of human dislocation from non-human nature, and the plots expose violence, disruption and trauma as experienced in, by and through the contemporary climate-scape. Ultimately, Climate Gothic contests Australian Eurocentric histories to explore themes that include racial inequality, inequitable distributions of wealth, consumerist and industrial colonial process, activities that have contributed to habitat destruction, extinction and volatile weather events including increasing flood, drought and bushfires. Significantly, Climate Gothic questions our epic legacies and unearths the falsehoods embedded within the Australian mythology popularised in the past.
The following discussion explores two examples of ecological driven Australian drama that sit within the Climate Gothic space, The Turquoise Elephant by Stephen Carleton and my own work, Salvation. Both plays investigate the challenges posed by the Anthropocene, specifically how human and non-human preservation is a growing concern, and both are cautionary tales, offering prophetic warning that the time for change must happen now.
Prophecy or Cautionary Tales?
The Turquoise Elephant and Salvation explore climate-change circumstances from dramatic positions. Significantly, these plays can be described as cautionary tales of excess (The Turquoise Elephant) or prophetic imaginings of catastrophe and doom (Salvation) and promote questions about our ecological situatedness through the cultural platform of theatre playwriting and production. The Turquoise Elephant reassesses traditional and political Australian values by analysing (post)modernity’s privileged and irresistible globalized systems of excessive over-consumption in a time of climate change. Salvation investigates the dis-ease associated with politicised discourse and denial arguments contradicting climate science, and it considers the emotional anxiety and uncertainty associated with the warming of the planet. What is important to note is that both plays attempt to generate ecological conversations by posing cautionary tales of climate change set in the mythological past, in the volatile present and in the country’s uncertain future.
The Turquoise Elephant evidences the increasing visibility of ecocriticism in Climate Gothic drama, since it negotiates the interrelationship between contemporary dramas as cautionary environmental tale. Climate change denial is a major theme explored in this play as the cast of five unlikable characters exploit the spectacle of climate-change to their own advantages. The playre-evaluates Australian values through its scrutiny of the luxuriesof an irresistible (post)modern first-settler family set in a frightening time wherein Australia is on the brink of a climate event of epic proportion. A Climate Gothic reading includes a vibrant critique of privilegedglobalized systems as contemporary society’s excessive over-consumption is satirised. It isa cautionary tale of excess, demonstrating what Ursula Heise describes as,an eco-cosmopolitan environmentalism (3–16). Audiences are witness to a succession of absurdist, futuristic, operatic and horrendous circumstances.
What is disturbingly prophetic about the play is that the plot sits withinthe cultural conversation of two major Australian cosmopolitan cities—Sydney and Melbourne. The play offers an unnerving climate-scape wherein renowned sites of national art and culture transform into inhospitable wastelands of our ownmaking. The obnoxious characters debate climate-related principles that they deem inconvenient to their status quo and, in doing so, satirise the continuing climate debates based in maintaining the status quo of a first world country. Their outrageous arguments reflect the broader Australian division between personal concerns and the greater forces of culture, society and politics relating to the environment; for instance:
AUGUSTA: We need to get back to fossil fuels. Coal. Uranium. Now!I.vi
Renewables are what got us into this mess. Solar panels are useless if we’re about to plummet into an Ice Age. No sun. No power.
BASRA: That’s crazy.
AUGUSTA: No dear. Perfectly sensible.
AUGUSTA’S illogical reaction to the threat of plummeting into the next Ice Age is an example of how The Turquoise Elephant houses its thematic inquiry in a broader eco-global investigation. AUGUSTA is a descendent of first settler family sheep farming royalty and her climate related egocentrism is further situated within the broader imaginings of prophetic world-view circumstances; for instance:
AUGUSTA: Where’s the maid?I.ii
BASRA: The Philippines.
BASRA: Left on Sunday.
AUGUSTA: Not another one of those hysterical Catholic festivals?
BASRA: Her mother-
AUGUSTA: Some sighting of the Virgin Mary on a garbage mountain.
BASRA: Her family has just been wiped out by a category six typhoon.
AUGUSTA: Not again.
BASRA: They’ve lost everything.
AUGUSTA: When’s she coming back?
As a cautionary tale, the play satirises the Australian privileged position through the “maid’s” plight and, in doing so, aligns with Alexandra Hauke’s theories on how eco-critical and ecological analysis scrutinizes images of world-wide environmental catastrophe and disappearing ideas of home. Set somewhere in the near future, we learn that rising sea levels are inundating Melbourne’s sewerage pipelines. Its underground rail system is flooded, and there is mass panic as evacuating Melbournites predict a life-threatening cholera epidemic. Temperatures have escalated to the high 40s and low 50s degrees Celsius. The Governor General is proposing all coastal city communities relocate to higher ground. The global perspective is diabolical. The permafrost has entirely disappeared in Greenland, the last of the snow is melting on Kilimanjaro and, in Cairo, the Sphinx is about to be submerged under rising floodwaters. The thematic relationship with the threat of escalating real-world climate change events is disconcerting.
At the Fourth International Conference on Language Literature History and Civilization, Mohammadreza Dabrina discussed eco-drama and suggested that within eco-critically informed plays, there is a very familiar and authentic connection to the real world. The premise of these circumstances actually happening in Melbourne is eerily prophetic as it flirts with scientific speculation about the extent, speed and impact the continuing rate of rising sea levels will have on the Australian coastline by 2050 (Lane; Maxwell 15–26). Eighty percent of the Australian population lives within 50 kilometres off the Nation’s coast, and reports suggest the rising sea level crisis will require people to adopt new social, settlement and subsistence strategies (Ulm, Williams, Turney, and Lewis). As I discuss in the chapter entitled “Romantic Legacies in Theatres of Dust,” the Government and the public are meeting the risk threat with some speculation, denial and irony even as Melbourne authorities are under advice that significant adaptation is required to offset predictions about a catastrophic future flood event (89–92).
As a cautionary tale drama, The Turquoise Elephant draws attention to the reality of environmental issues that are increasingly likely to occur in this country. As an absurdist critique of climate-dial culture, the play exposes the deficiencies of our current political policies asks audiences to consider alternative ways of thinking about their relationship with the non-human environment.
Described by Carleton and Hay as an absurdist work, The Turquoise Elephant expresses an “emergent sense of ecological and environmental anxiety that today has become palpable” (81). It explores the relationship between climate change and humanity in psychological terms and brings to the forefront the fact that climate change is not only out there on the edge of socio-political thought but is a monster that is ravaging our inner and outer consciousness. The play ends with the confronting ruin of two of Australia’s most recognizable national icons, the sinking of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the slow submersion of the Sydney Opera House into Sydney Harbor. The destruction of both the national symbols at same time is a confronting testament to climate-denial and scepticism in the contemporary climate-scape. We watch these symbols submerge into the rising sea, as an eco-terrorist organisation conducts a concentrated attack on power stations, transmitters, banks, big businesses and everything that has corrupted and/or polluted Australia. However, like the disappearance of Sphinx and the final melting of the ice caps in Greenland as explicated in the play, the Australian disaster is another entertaining event, a spectator sport of epic proportion:
OLYMPIA: The Opera House is going under.II.Lxx
During the Storm.
Isn’t that exciting?
Will you sit with me and watch it Basra dear?
. . .
Oh, silly me. You never go out do you?
Not for years. Not since you were a little girl.
You’re a watcher. Like me.
We’re watchers, you and I.
Oh! There! Look! You can see it coming up now!
It’s on the concourse.
Where’s the Harbor Bridge gone?
. . .
Get a chair and sit next to me.
This is going to be the best one yet!
Better than Melbourne.
Better than Kilimanjaro.
This will even be better than the Sphinx.
[As Olympia peers at the carnage through her lorgnette, the turquoise elephant sheds a tear and its image fills the room . . . THE END].
Very different in style and form, Salvation is also a disconcerting work in that it prophesises the future Australia as a ghost nation; a haunted, desolate space. At its heart, the play explores how the escalation of white culture over the last 250 years is responsible for the increasing deterioration of the Australian landscape into a dying climate-scape. As a cautionary tale, the play explores (white) cultural and environmental legacies in and of the Australian landscape, including convict transportation and settlement, farming, mining and resource extraction, habitat destruction and nation building. Articulated as a post-dramatic contemporary performance piece, the production of the play offered a chorus of 22 Gothic-inspired ethereal characters identified as overlapping VOICES who drift through, haunt and personify the PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE Australia. The deliberate overlapping of timeframes draws on traditional Gothic elements that explore how past atrocities disturb or disrupt contemporary physical and psychological landscapes.
Salvation characters caution that the past not only haunts the present but the haunting will continue unsettling any hope for the future health and well-being of the nation. Salvation examines how PAST “fiscal activities supported resource extraction and the massive expansion of pastoral needs saw immense economic growth in the fledgling white nation but those same activities are the causal effects of environmental degradation” (Hassall, “The Monstrous Gothic” 34). From the perspective of the PRESENT, these activities are now associated with the escalation of extreme weather conditions, including extensive periods of drought, increasing flood events, destructive and consuming bush fires and increasing winds that contribute to ever-weakening soil erosion conditions. The FUTURE offers a Climate Gothic reversal of fortune, the aggressor/settler has become the victim of the self-fulfilling prophecy of an industrial nation.
Salvation suggests that Industry-reliant Australians find themselves in a liminal state, that of remaining within the predominantly inescapable manufactured structures they have developed and perpetrated within place, while simultaneously being in and beyond them due to tensions between past landscapes and present climate scapes (Hassall, “The Monstrous Gothic” 31–36). The historical mutation of spaces and places exemplifies the spread of human behaviour reliant on material culture and in human values and standards layered into the shift from landscape to culture-scape to climate-scape. From the outset, Salvation claims that Europeans arrived and, with little foresight to perpetuating a sustainable landscape, they cut down trees, farm that which was previously unfarmed, exploit the land for resources and transplant models of Eurocentric architecture and culture. Salvation as the following excerpt depicts the exploitation of non-human habitat as ongoing to nation-building processes:
(Men are moving roughly, loudly, drunkenly in and through the landscape. The men are engaged in numerous physical labours that move through time. They are claiming the land as their own. They are determined to tame it. It includes tree felling, sawing, hammering, cane cutting, mining—any industry that has raped the landscape for natural resources. The actors carrying tin buckets, which transform into various industrial mechanisms or applications, create the industrial soundscape. The landscape bleeds. The men tire—collapse and proceed to drink themselves into a stupor. PAST and PRESENT overlap)
PAST: Letter Home 5: Dear Temperance You have been long-suffering in the face of my absence. This bastard place binds me to cruel labour. My back is near crippled; my hands are blistered and weeping. No matter how hard I work there seems more to be done. The sun drives me mad. It puts me in mind of murder. (xvi–xvii)
In Letter Home 5, the Climate Gothic analysis draws on Gothic drama sensibilities from the twentieth century, whereby the enhancement of white displacement by extreme weather is an ongoing state of being. The play further explores how PRESENT displacement in relationship with continuing environmental degradation; for example:
PAST: Letter Home 6: My Dearest Faith We are surely damned. There is no Salvation to be found here. Even if we repent. There is drought. There is terrifying distance …v
CHORUS: Terror Australis (terror) Terror Nullius (terror).
The final condemnation of the white colonial experience viewed at the end of the play prophesises the moment when the FUTURE realises, albeit far too late, the repercussions of nation building with no thought of the environment:
FUTURE: Someone else desires her. I could not keep her. Not forever. Fool that I was. I loved her too cruelly. Too long. She did not forgive me. Her colours have faded. In her sadness, her former brightness flickers. Her generous sandy hills are scarred. Deep pits of emptiness where her beauty used to be. I took from her all she had to give. She rejects me. And my heart breaks. My heart tears from my chest . . . The red winds that blow from the West no longer whisper my hope but scream my betrayal. She hurls her drought and fire and flood at me and scorns my fear. She wants another. A lover who will be tender. In the dark eyes of the ancient ones, I see my pale defeat.xvii
Salvation offers an apocalyptic sensibility wherein any hope for an ecologically healthy FUTURE environment is long past, as actions and choices made in the PAST (and which continue in the PRESENT) come to destructive fruition. Colonizing and (post)colonizing practices have offended the ancient landscape and depictions of her rich red soil, rolling plains and beatific beaches are tall tales belonging to a contested past. Climate Gothic analysis in Salvation points out the limitations and, significantly, the effects of (white) masculine modes of thought and behaviour that traditionally align with mythic representations of land, place, space and identity in Australian drama. It is a cautionary tale that belies these outmoded mythic landscape representations wherein climate change is no longer prophecy but reality.
The plays presented in this essay suggest the anthropogenic experience informs the everyday Australian socio-cultural milieu. Extreme weather such as flood, fire, drought and cyclone, once predicted as one in one hundred events, now happen on a monthly, weekly, daily basis. The denialism associated with global warming weather events of the magnitude experienced frequently in this country is criticized by Stephen Carleton and Chris Hay as being “played out sharply in the Australian political arena [and] leading to a national existential crisis of inaction (79–80). The Turquoise Elephant and Salvation examine the effect of the warming planet on both the human and the non-human experience and argue that the once cautionary tales associated with global warming are today a certainty. Warming’s prophetic warnings are now alarming causes for immediate action. As a burgeoning field of dramatic writing, production and inquiry Climate Gothic drama supports socio-cultural analysis because the plays scrutinise human and non-human climate affected experiences.
Australians, largely, have always accepted environmental challenges and natural disasters as one of the offsets of living in this beautiful, brutal and haunting landscape. The Turquoise Elephant and Salvation utilise extreme and catastrophic weather events as defence mechanisms against those who have thoughtlessly taken all the land had to give. Salvation suggests that, since colonization, our national (white) narratives reinforce how we have worked hard to combat environmental hardship in an arid and unforgiving country that has battled hard to beat us down, even whilst we brutalised the land with little thought for heathy ecological legacy. The Turquoise Elephant makes no bones about warning that global warming is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. The sub-text embedded within both plays suggests that Australians must come to terms with the reality of the battle ahead. In hurling her extreme weather at us, the planet is doing all she can to warn us that we need to act now, that if we do there is hope. Her cries are evident in the rising temperatures and sea levels, in the habitats being destroyed at alarming rates, in the accelerating death throes of species extinction, in the reality of food and water shortages and in the unpredictable
 Culture-scape is identified by all or some of the geography and by place, architecture, environment and social groupings; see Una Chaudhuri’s discussion in land/scape/theatre with Elinor Fuchs.
 The discussion is posed from the perspective of Australia’s colonising history and the spread of Eurocentric people and culture across the land.
 Refers to a generation of unemployed men who roamed the country living of the land during the Great Depression.
 Colloquialism for Australian male of the working class who battles the landscape to eventually earn his place in the country.
 Cow-cocky and grazier are colloquial terms and/or titles farmers who own and fence huge tracts of grazing land for either cattle or sheep farming.
 The Australian Gothic situates a readymade dramatic vernacular for revealing the socio-cultural and economic effects of colonizing practices of and in the contemporary Australian world order. Further, the Australian Gothic scrutinizes the impact of historical experiences on both geographical and psychological landscapes and, in turn, imagines how these experiences impact on the contemporary consciousness. Traditional Australian Gothic perspectives are viewed through thematic explorations of (national) guilt associated with colonial behaviours of terra nullius, settlement, appropriation of and enclosure of land by civilized society, and with treatment of First Nations People.
 Dis-ease (noun) as referred to in this article aligns with a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal or plant, especially one that produces specific symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury
 An extensive discussion and Climate Gothic analysis of The Turquoise Elephant forms Chapter 8 Romantic Legacies: Ecocriticism in Australian Performance of Theatres of Dust: Climate Gothic Analysis in Contemporary Australian Drama and Performance Landscapes (2021). This discussion aligns the Climate Gothic analysis with eco-critical and (post) Romantic discourses.
 An extended Climate Gothic analysis of Salvation is in Chapter 3 in Theatres of Dust. This extended discussion explores the Climate Gothic and its relationship to Australian Gothic through an in-depth exploration of settler behaviours that have impacted on the environmental health and well-being of the Australian landscape.
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*Linda Hassall has 30 years’ experience as a director, playwright and dramaturge in the theatre industry. Her artistic focus is on developing new work in Australian performance. She is a practice-led performance researcher, and she links her artistic practice to landscape and ecocritical perspectives in contemporary performance. She is an award-winning playwright Post Office Rose (2008) and director Salvation (2013) and has recently written a book linking her artistic and scholarly practice: Theatres of Dust: Climate Gothic Analysis I Contemporary Australian Drama and Performance Landscapes (2021).
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