Theatre, Ecology and the Secret Life of Naturalism
Naturalistic theatre—with its traditionally carbon-heavy sets, its domestic settings, its implicit anthropocentrism, its historic tendency to “proffer a wholly social account of human life” (Chaudhuri), its narrative tendency towards systems of closure and phallocentrism (Aston, Feminism and Theatre)—might seem to have little to offer contemporary ecological playwriting. However, as this article seeks to demonstrate through a reading of plays by Lucy Kirkwood, Steve Waters, Annie Baker and Caryl Churchill, naturalism plays a vital—albeit often hidden—role in the dramaturgy of a number of contemporary plays which address our current ecological crisis.
Keywords: naturalism, dramaturgy, ecodramaturgy, hypernaturalism, ecology, theatre, Kirkwood, Waters, Baker, Churchill
In her seminal 1994 essay, “‘There Must Be a Lot of Fish in That Lake’: Toward an Ecological Theater,” Una Chaudhuri noted a “disastrous coincidence, in the second half of the nineteenth century, between the age of ecology and the birth of naturalism” (23). Chaudhuri’s piercing analysis skewers what she sees as naturalism’s inefficacy in tackling environmental issues:
In the theater, naturalism (and then, more tendentiously, realism) hid its complicity with industrialization’s animus against nature by proffering a wholly social account of human life. . . . Though its thematics kept in touch with nature through images of cherry orchards, wild ducks, and polluted baths, the ideological discourse of realism thrust the nonhuman world into the shadows.24
Since the publication of Chaudhuri’s essay, the field of Performance and Ecology has mushroomed, and the vast majority of artistic work in this field is distinctly non-naturalistic. Wendy Arons’s and Theresa J. May’s eclectic Readings in Performance and Ecology (2012), for example, brings together essays on a variety of innovative forms, from audio walks to somatic interventions. Lisa Woynarski’s insightful Ecodramaturgies (2020) looks at a range of formally experimental performance events which include “site-based, participatory, immersive, installation, activism, film, live art and text-based plays,” which she reads from “an intersectional ecological perspective” (6). And Chaudhuri’s own current work in this field continues to shed fresh critical light on formally experimental and non-naturalistic ways of exploring what she terms “ecospheric consciousness,” a term she elaborates in the podcast Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab (Chaudhuri and Zurkow) and in initiatives which include DearClimate.net and Climate Lens.
Beyond Chaudhuri’s observation of it “proffering a wholly social account of human life,” naturalism has long been perceived as an inherently conservative form. For theatre scholar Catherine Love, attempts to convey complex environmental issues “within the interpersonal dramas with which audiences are more familiar . . . risks reinforcing the anthropocentrism that got us into this mess in the first place” (226). For Woynarski,
[e]cological issues are often presented in a homogenous way, based on a narrative of a singular problem in need of a “solution” . . . Cultural works, such as theatre and performance, can reproduce these problems by creating an image of ecological work as “green and pleasant,” middle class, white, singular and reductive.34
She cites Steve Waters’ The Contingency Plan—which I discuss in some detail in this article—as an example of such work.
Articulating the feminist critique of realism, Elaine Aston (Feminism and Theatre) observes:
In narrative terms, dramatic and theatrical texts in the realist tradition operate systems of “closure.” Their well-constructed or well-made forms follow a linear pattern from exposition to crisis and ultimate resolution. The subject of this narrative is male and its discourse is phallocentric. . . .40
This male focalisation of realist narrative puts it at odds with contemporary ecological thinking, such as the “tentacular thinking” proposed by Donna J. Haraway (30–57) and the field of queer ecology which recognises that
life-forms constitute a mesh, a nontotalizable, open-ended concatenation of interrelations that blur and confound boundaries at practically any level: between species, between the living and the nonliving, between organism and environment.Morton 2013, 275–76
Furthermore, naturalistic theatre productions are traditionally carbon-intensive, a factor May suggests should be taken into account when considering the impacts of ecodramaturgy as methodology, by “examining how theater as a material craft creates its own ecological footprint and works both to reduce waste and invent new approaches to material practice” (May 4).
Yet despite this plethora of arguments as to why naturalism might be unsuitable as an ecodramaturgical form, in this article I attempt to demonstrate that, in fact, a range of naturalisms operate within contemporary ecological playwriting, fulfilling a vital—albeit often hidden—function. Progressing from overt to covert forms along what I call the naturalistic spectrum, these naturalisms function in surprising ways, sharing rhizomic connections which lead back to the mother tree of late nineteenth-century European Naturalism. At the most overt extreme of this naturalistic spectrum, I position Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children (2016) as—with its closed time, closed space “pressure cooker” structure; its uninterrupted, “real time” successional temporality; and its focus on a moral issue that needs urgently to be resolved—it exemplifies a familiar, conventional form of naturalism that adheres closely to Émile Zola’s prescriptions of what naturalistic theatre should be, as outlined in his 1881 essay “Naturalism on the Stage.” I move on to examine Steve Waters’ On the Beach, the first in his diptych of plays The Contingency Plan, originally produced at the Bush Theatre in London in 2009 and subsequently rewritten for production at the Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre (U.K.) in autumn 2022. I explore how On the Beach represents a strain of naturalist symbolism which admits the more-than-human world, aligns human and avian environmental vulnerabilities and reveals its deepest meanings through subtle striations of motif and symbol. Next, I investigate hypernaturalism’s contribution to contemporary ecological playwriting with a reading of Annie Baker’s The Antipodes (2017). I suggest that hypernaturalism’s excessive focus on the minutiae of the mimetic onstage world and its tendency to eschew narrative momentum in favour of mood, atmosphere and subtext helps thematically to foreground the hyperobject (Morton, Hyperobjects) of global warming and ecological devastation which impacts the play’s diegetic offstage spaces. Towards the covert extreme of the naturalistic spectrum, I consider Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone (2016) as an example of disrupted naturalism. I argue that Churchill’s non-naturalistic dramaturgy—including the introduction of monologues and the dismantling of naturalism’s invisible fourth wall—depends for its existence on the presence of a naturalistic edifice, the fracturing of which reveals the play’s radical political intent. Before analysing the above texts, however, it will be worthwhile pausing to consider precisely what I mean by the term “naturalism” and its derivatives.
What I Talk About When I Talk about Naturalism
The terms “naturalism” and “realism” are frequently confused within critical discourse. Christopher Innes sums up this widespread confusion with his observation that
[t]he terms “Naturalism” and “Realism” are particularly ambiguous. . . . [E]ach term tends to be used more imprecisely than other literary or artistic designations, and both have been defined in various competing, even mutually exclusive ways. . . . “Naturalism” and “Realism” are frequently interpreted in the broadest sense as synonyms. . . .3–4
Further, in his “A Lecture on Realism,” Raymond Williams points out that
Naturalism is originally the conscious opposition to supernaturalism and to metaphysical accounts of human actions, with an attempt to describe human actions in exclusively human terms, with a more precise local emphasis.65
He goes on to note that
the terms naturalism and realism . . . are for a time interchangeable, even complicated by the fact that in a famous definition Strindberg called naturalism the method which sought to go below the surface and discover essential movements and conflicts, while realism, he said, was that which reproduced everything, even the speck of dust on the lens of the camera. As I suppose we all now know, the eventual conventional distinction was the same but with the terms the other way round.65
What I talk about when I talk about naturalism stems from Williams’ 1977 essay “Social Environment and Theatrical Environment: The Case of English Naturalism.” In it, he argues that there are three relevant senses of “naturalism” and its derivatives in contemporary usage. The first, he says, “indicates a method of “accurate” or “‘lifelike’ reproduction” which “began in English around 1850, mainly in relation to painting” (203). The second sense, he notes, “began in the late sixteenth century in a form of conscious opposition, or at least distinction, between revealed (divine) and observed (human) knowledge” (203). The third sense “indicates a movement in which the method of accurate production and the scientific philosophical position are organically and usually consciously fused” (203; my emphasis). It is in this organic fusion that I situate my meaning of “naturalism.” Thus, for example, I view Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children as naturalistic because the characters and their domestic interior are reproduced in lifelike detail, whilst the conflicts and undercurrents operating in the play flow from human rather than supernatural, metaphysical or divine origins.
Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children
In The Children, Kirkwood employs an overt form of naturalism that conforms closely to Zola’s prescriptions for what naturalism should be. The action takes place within the single, interior setting of a cottage on the east coast of England in a summer evening. There are no intervals or act breaks to disrupt the narrative, which unfolds as one continuous, uninterrupted scene. Stage directions provide detailed information about hand props and furnishings and, intriguingly, we learn that
the room is at a slight tilt. The land beneath it is being eroded. But this should not be obvious to the naked eye, and only becomes apparent when, for example, something spherical is placed on the kitchen table.Kirkwood, The Children 4
The subtly skewed room acts as a constant visual reminder of the precariousness of the situation the characters find themselves in. Far from being a rural idyll, the cottage is, in fact, a sanctuary where Hazel and Robin, a married couple in their mid-sixties, have sought refuge following a recent devastating accident at a nearby nuclear power plant.
Thirty-five years earlier, Hazel and Robin worked as scientists at the nuclear plant and had been aware of design flaws in the plant’s safety systems, which may have contributed to the accident. One of their former colleagues, Rose, pays them a surprise visit, the purpose of which is to try to persuade them to join her in a clean-up operation at the plant. As she explains:
When I heard about the wave, and the meltdown, when I saw it on the news, and understood the full, the mess, the meaning of this, the thought came into my head immediately. . . . Right now I’m looking for a team of twenty people over the age of sixty-five. To take over and let the young ones go, while they still have the chance, while there’s still the possibility of, well, life.Kirkwood, The Children 49
The play’s central narrative question is whether Rose will be able to persuade Hazel and Robin to join her in this clean-up operation. Kirkwood’s decision to employ a closed time, closed space dramaturgy enables her to subject the characters to extreme emotional pressure, with no possibility of escape and no opportunity of deferring the moral decision. Safely ensconced behind naturalism’s fourth wall, the audience is afforded a unique vantage point from which to witness the characters’ reactions under pressure, as uncomfortable home truths are revealed and the characters’ moral integrity comes under the spotlight. Naturalism’s dramaturgy of confinement serves to raise the play’s emotional stakes: what Rose offers Hazel and Robin, in effect, is the choice between living in denial and the possibility of moral redemption.
The Children’s detailed naturalistic interior helps Kirkwood’s nuanced subtextual writing to provide the audience with subtle hints that Rose must have visited the cottage more recently than she professes. For example, we learn that:
ROSE sits in a battered armchair.Kirkwood, The Children 7
Without looking she reaches under it and pulls out a footstool,
rests her feet on it.
HAZEL watches her.
Then, a couple of pages later: “ROSE finds a glass in the first cupboard she opens. / HAZEL watches her” (9).
We watch Hazel watching Rose, and by observing Rose’s non-verbal mimetic actions, we begin to discern the scene’s subtext; that Rose must have visited the cottage much more recently than she pretends. This, indeed, turns out to be true, as we later learn that Robin and Rose enjoyed romantic trysts in the cottage until relatively recently, unbeknownst to Hazel. The toxicity of this love triangle is a domestic mirror of the toxic environmental obscenity (Greek ob skené, “offstage”) of the nuclear radiation that lies beyond the cottage doors.
While The Children’s mimetic onstage world is represented with detailed verisimilitude, its diegetic offstage world remains hazy. Describing the nuclear fallout whilst making tea, for example, Hazel tells Rose:
When we went back to the house, after the wave, after the explosions, I felt like, it’s stupid but, I felt like I could see it the radiation hanging in the air a sort of a sort of filthy glitter suspended and I didn’t like it. . . .Kirkwood, The Children 12
The more the play’s interior world focuses on prosaic verisimilitude, the more its exterior world tends towards lyrical expressionism. Kirkwood acknowledged this tension in interview, explaining that: “I think that exterior world is where I allowed the poetry to sit” (Personal Interview). The heightened lyricism of The Children’s offstage world, further emphasised by the play’s closing moments in which a church bell can be heard “[a]s if from under the water” (Kirkwood 79), reveals an uncanny vital materialism (Bennett) at play, which naturalism’s conventions dictate must reside solely within the play’s potent diegetic offstage imaginary.
Steve Waters’ On the Beach
A similar tension between the detailed, mimetic onstage world and the hazy, diegetic offstage world is also evident in Steve Waters’ On the Beach, the first play in the diptych The Contingency Plan. On the Beach is set “[a]bove a salt-marsh, on Robin and Jenny’s land in North West Norfolk” (2), an ostensibly exterior but functionally interior location. This liminal space acts as an ecotone between the domestic (signified by Robin and Jenny’s nearby house) and the wilderness (signified by the North Sea). Such ecotones are inherently sites of tension; as Morton reminds us, the “tone” of “ecotone” is an aesthetic quality that denotes “the tension in a string or muscle. . . . It also, significantly, refers to a notion of place; hence ‘ecotone,’ a zone of ecological transition” (Ecology Without Nature 43).
The hazy offstage space of the ocean—thematically linked to Will and his father Robin’s glaciological work on ice melt rates in the Antarctic—is conjured by characters’ references to “Governor’s Point” (Waters 3), which Jenny dismissively refers to as “a great big lump of sand in the North Sea” (4). References to Governor’s Point recur as a leitmotif throughout the play, soaking into the audience’s imagination as a potent but unseen signifier of rising sea levels and reinforcing the play’s overarching thematic focus. But Governor’s Point itself lacks detail, visible even to the characters on stage only via powerful binoculars and located somewhere “out Brancaster way” (3). Despite this haziness, or possibly because of it, it retains a symbolic power in, indicatively, much the same way that Madame Ranyevskaia’s beloved cherry orchard in Chekhov’s eponymous 1904 play is referred to but never quite seen.
The audience for Waters’ On the Beach sits behind naturalism’s invisible fourth wall, a position which feels simultaneously domestic and vulnerable to the elements. The audience pries into the minutiae of Robin and Jenny’s domestic life but is unable to intervene, even when witnessing physical violence—as when “WILL swipes out at ROBIN, who stumbles and falls” (Waters 57)—or coercive controlling behaviour—as when Robin destroys Jenny’s mobile phone towards the end of the play. Indeed, econaturalism’s invisible fourth wall could be interpreted as a metonymy for humanity’s contemporary, uneasy position vis-à-vis global warming and ecological crisis; we sit on the metaphorical fence and watch from a privileged yet impotent position, seemingly unable to act while the tragic consequences of our anthropogenic carbon addiction play out with nightmarish inevitably. While the sense of privileged impotence may be a legacy of naturalism’s roots in nineteenth-century bourgeois drama, the sense of tragic inevitability relates to the narrative’s temporal structure. In “Hamartia in the Anthropocene,” Jennifer Wallace explains that
[c]arbon emissions, which cause global warming and climate change, follow a complex but inexorable schedule. . . . So extended is the plot of the climate’s tragic narrative that we are now experiencing the temperature rise caused by carbon emissions released in the 1970s while simultaneously laying down the conditions for global warming forty years from now.153–54
And indeed, Waters situates the point of moral failure in On the Beach forty years previously (in the 1970s), when ex-glaciologist Robin failed to speak up about what he knew were inaccurate reports of Antarctic ice sheet melting rates.
Waters plays a further deft dramaturgical trick by bringing the hazy diegetic wilderness and the detailed mimetic interior areas together in the form of a scale model that Robin has constructed to test his hypothesis about the catastrophic sea surge which he predicts is imminent. Robin’s scale model, described as “a relief map of the [nature] reserve within a tank with markings on the side” (Waters 43), is a totem of the wilderness contained within the domestic realm. He pours water into it, releases a scaled-down sluice gate and even agitates the water with his hands to demonstrate his predictions for the tidal surge.
At the beginning of the play, Will brings his girlfriend, Sarika, to Robin’s and Jenny’s off-grid home to meet his parents. She is a senior civil servant working on climate policy with Robin’s ex-colleague Colin Jenks, who is the government’s current Chief Scientific Advisor. We learn that in the late 1970s, when Jenks and Robin worked together measuring the rates of ice-melt in the Antarctic, Robin unearthed data that contradicted the “stability hypothesis” on which Jenks has continued to base his conservative scientific modelling. While Jenks gained an influential position as a senior civil servant, Robin moved to the off-grid coastal property in Northwest Norfolk in the late 1970s and has remained there ever since with Jenny, haunted by his moral failings. Sarika has persuaded Will, a glaciologist in his father’s footsteps, to present his recently researched scientific evidence to the government, with the aim of injecting a sense of urgency into its climate policy planning.
At first glance, On the Beach might indeed appear to be merely proffering Chaudhuri’s “wholly social account of human life”; yet from the play’s outset, the more-than-human world makes its presence felt through the play’s striations of symbol and motif. The first nonhuman animal we encounter is referred to in the play’s opening moments. Robin looks through his “telescope of considerable power” (Waters 3) and spots an unusual bird with distinctive white plumage which has landed on Governor’s Point. Robin explains that the bird is a “Eurasian spoonbill no less” which appears to be “Back after a four-hundred-year break!” (4) and wastes no time in linking the bird’s appearance with changing weather patterns in southern Europe: “Can’t be easy nesting on the Med now, those dried out estuaries; needs eels, mud, brackish water” (5). The Eurasian spoonbill, starkly incongruous in this North Sea location, is thus presented as a signifier of disrupted weather patterns, an augury of impending environmental devastation. This has the effect of linking human and avian vulnerabilities; just as the spoonbill has been displaced by changes to its natural habitat, so Robin and Jenny will go on to face fatal displacement by the devastating tidal surge Robin has been predicting. In this way, Waters signposts very early in the play that the needs of human and more-than-human animals are deeply intertwined and that birds are the vectors for these prescient messages.
The symbolic role of birds within On the Beach becomes even more apparent when we consider the significance of the characters’ names. Three out of four of them carry the names of birds; Robin, Jenny (the traditional common name for a female wren) and Sarika, who explains “Weirdly it [my name] means cuckoo in Hindi” (Waters 34). Although the effects of this nomenclature operate at a largely unconscious level, it is striking that the robin and the (Jenny) wren are both resident native British birds, while the cuckoo is a summer migrant and a brood parasite to boot. And indeed, Sarika functions as a metaphorical cuckoo in Robin’s nest; tempting away Robin’s and Jenny’s only offspring and “migrating” south with him, to a cabinet room in Whitehall, which provides the claustrophobic setting for The Contingency Plan’s second play Resilience.
Robin’s isolationism becomes increasingly clear as the play progresses, articulated in his somewhat unhinged speech towards the end of On the Beach, when he has cut off his and Jenny’s telephonic communication with the outside world, insisting “Being alone is actually our strength. If we can prevail alone you know we will be stronger” (Waters 77). His outburst— reminiscent of Thomas Stockmann’s isolationist speech towards the end of Ibsen’s 1882 An Enemy of the People (“the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone”) (222)—is directly linked to his mistrust of Sarika and the governmental scientific authority she represents, complicated by the fact that the department Sarika works for is headed by Robin’s longstanding nemesis, Jenks. The xenophobia Robin displays towards Sarika and his chauvinistic isolationism are presented as a form of nativism linked to Robin’s concerns for conservation in the Site of Special Scientific Interest, in which he and Jenny have built their off-grid Shangri La, or utopia.
Annie Baker’s The Antipodes
The Antipodes exhibits a form of hyper econaturalistic dramaturgy in which an excessive focus on the minutiae of the mimetic onstage world contextualises the horrors of global warming and ecological devastation unfolding in the play’s offstage spaces. In addition to naturalism’s constituent elements with which we are familiar—”natural” sounding dialogue; no monologues or direct audience address; the presence of an invisible fourth wall; a linear plot; a causal narrative pattern progressing sequentially from exposition to crisis then resolution; realistic props, costumes, stage furniture and sets; a narrative focus on a single moral problem that needs to be resolved—I argue that hypernaturalistic plays such as The Antipodes exhibit three other defining characteristics: they tend to eschew narrative momentum; they tend to focus on mood, atmosphere and subtext at the expense of plot; and they tend to deploy a dramaturgy of intense confinement. Each of these characteristics is used in The Antipodes to foreground the play’s overarching thematic concern with the contemporary ecological crisis.
The Antipodes is set in a windowless meeting room, reinforcing the characters’ isolation from the outside world, a place that has become so hostile that near the end of the play, Sandy—one of the main characters—announces his intention to a move north to live in a cooler zone, effectively becoming a climate refugee. When the play opens, we see seven characters, ranging in age from their early twenties to their early fifties, sitting around a large conference table, taking part in a brainstorming session which is being led by the oldest character Sandy, who is aged “fifty-five to seventy.” We meet the characters in medias res, sharing ideas about various sorts of monsters. It appears that the purpose of the brainstorming session is to generate stories which will contribute either to a pitch for funding a feature film, or perhaps an advertising campaign. The actual reason is never clarified. Sandy tells them that
the most important thing is that we all feel comfortable saying whatever weird shit comes into our minds so we don’t feel like we have to self-censor and we can all just sit around telling stories. Because that’s where the good stuff comes from.Baker 15
Sandy is central to how environmental fears are expressed in the play. Although he has been facilitating the brainstorming sessions, two thirds of the way through the play his personal assistant Sarah suddenly announces: “sorry but he’s not gonna be able to come in today” (Baker 61). In a series of brief vignettes, Sarah offers increasingly implausible reasons for his absence. But, suddenly, just as we are giving up hope of seeing him again, Sandy appears “in the doorway, wearing sunglasses” (63). He is clearly in a hurry to leave— “things are pretty crazy so I gotta head home in a few / minutes” (64) he explains—but before doing so he delivers an impassioned speech which reiterates the importance of stories:
We need stories. As a culture. It’s what we live for. These are dark times. Stories are a little bit of light that we can cup in our palms like votive candles to show us the way out of the forest.64
As the play premiered in New York in April 2017, in the early months of Trump’s presidency, it is tempting to read the “dark times” primarily as a comment on the political, social and economic turmoil of his divisive tenure. But the “dark times” surely also refers to the climate crisis engulfing the play’s Umwelt; Sandy ends his speech a few lines later with a valedictory warning to the participants to “Stay safe in this crazy weather” (64).
The “crazy weather” manifests itself several pages later when—the participants having agreed to stay for the entire weekend in the meeting room to finish the project on time—there is “A single thunderclap” (Baker 72), which wakes Eleanor and causes the lights briefly to “flicker off and then on again” (72). After the participants call Sarah, she appears “[s]lightly less chipper than usual” (76) and breaks the news to them that “apparently one of his [Sandy’s] houses got hit really hard by the storm” (77). When participants Danny M1 (so named because there is another character, Danny M2, both of whose surnames begin with the letter M, but Danny M2 joined the group later), Eleanor and Josh express their surprise and sympathy, Sarah elaborates:
Yeah. Really scary. A lot of water damage and I think a trampoline blew into the ocean or something. It’s lucky they were in their other house.77
The climate devastation which has occupied the play’s subtext and background until this point now gate-crashes its thematic foreground. When he makes a surprise reappearance towards the end of the play, Sandy explains, “Our beach house is fucked . . . It’s been a wild ride” (81).
It is no coincidence that Sandy, the powerful and mercurial facilitator of the brainstorming sessions in The Antipodes, carries the name of the post-tropical cyclone that so devastated New York in 2012, five years before The Antipodes received its premiere in that city. Like his superstorm namesake, Sandy in the play leaves a trail of destruction in his wake, disrupting the lives of the other characters who will be forced to find alternative employment after he decides to put their project on “permanent hiatus.” While the unpredictable Sandy is free to come and go as he pleases, the play’s hypernaturalistic dramaturgy of intense confinement demands that the participants remain within the oppressive windowless meeting room, brainstorming monster narratives with no clear purpose.
Human meddling is portrayed within the play as being responsible for a variety of environmental disasters. This is perhaps most strikingly illustrated when, during one of the play’s many moments of narrative suspension, notetaker Brian asks his fellow participants: “Guess how old the world’s oldest animal is[?]” (Baker 33). Several answers are given, all of them underestimates. Then, Brian, who has looked up the answer on his laptop, explains: “The oldest animal in the world is Ming the Clam. She’s Five Hundred and Seven” (33). The participants express surprise and are curious to know more, but the mood darkens when Brian reads the rest of the article: “She’s an Icelandic ocean . . . Qua Hog. . . . They counted the rings on her shell. Like a tree I guess . . . But . . . oh shit. They killed her . . . ‘Ming was unfortunately killed by researchers when they opened her shell to figure out how old she was’” (33–4). This prompts Josh to observe: “That is like such an example of how screwed up everything is right now. That is like . . . perfect” (34). The play’s eschewal of narrative momentum and its focus on mood and atmosphere enable exchanges such as this to resonate, foregrounding the play’s overarching thematic concerns with the anthropogenic destruction of the natural world.
Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone
In her insightful revision of the feminist critique of realism, Aston asked whether there could still be “room for realism on the English stage” after Sarah Kane’s Blasted (1995), which “radically ruptured” (21) the social realist tradition (“Room for Realism?”). In our current state of global climate and ecological crises, perhaps Aston’s question might usefully be reframed: could there still be a niche for naturalism within contemporary ecological playwriting after Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone (2016)?
In Churchill’s play, three female characters, Sally, Vi and Lena, “all at least seventy” (4), meet in Sally’s backyard and indulge in ostensibly superficial conversation. They are joined by another septuagenarian, Mrs Jarrett, who—unlike the others—periodically steps outside the backyard to utter apocalyptic visions of an ecologically devasted world and, in doing so, ruptures the play’s naturalistic façade.
Referring to the original 2016 Royal Court production, Aston (Restaging Feminisms) explains:
There are eight garden scenes each punctuated by a monologue, the latter voiced . . . from a darkened stage surrounded by dual, rectangular frames of glowing electric light.The design of the brightly lit garden, complete with fence, wooden shed, lawn, foliage and an assortment of chairs, provides a stark contrast to the void from which Mrs J speaks. The former setting is estranged by its juxtaposition with the latter: a technique of scenic dislocation that disturbs the familiarity of the garden.101
The estrangement Aston observes aligns with Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt,which is inherently political in intent; rather than passively suspending its disbelief, the audience is invited to engage intellectually and critically with the play’s exploration of humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with the nonhuman world.
In a similar way to how the Leeds hotel bedroom in which Blasted opens is suddenly transformed into a battlefield of unspeakable human suffering, so the suburban familiarity of “Sally’s backyard” on “A number of [summer] afternoons” is problematised by Mrs Jarrett’s jarring monologues. These utterances represent a form of monologic dislocation, echoing the play’s scenic dislocation; not only do they undermine the naturalistic edifice of the play, but they reintroduce aspects of supernaturalism and metaphysics which, Raymond Williams reminds us, naturalism originally opposed. Furthermore, their starkly apocalyptic tone puts them at odds with the social niceties of the conventional naturalistic dialogue with which the play opens. Mrs J, for example, says:
Rats were eaten by those who still had digestive systems, and mushrooms were traded for urine. Babies were born and quickly became blind. Some groups lost their sexuality while others developed a new morality of constant fucking with any proximate body . . . Songs were sung until dry throats caused the end of speech.Churchill 8
As Grochala observes in The Contemporary Political Play: Rethinking Dramaturgical Structure (2017): “If a text articulates a politics through its representation of structures, then a play can be thought of as a particularly powerful agent for change” (58). She goes on to explain that
[p]lays can be seen as carrying reactionary political messages within their form when they reproduce, rather than, reimagine, social structures through their dramaturgical structures.69
Churchill’s decision to reimagine social structures by rupturing the play’s naturalistic form in this way—by introducing monologues; by offering the possibility of direct audience address; by challenging the inviolability of naturalism’s invisible fourth wall; and by dispensing with conversational etiquette—represents an urgent and political call for change, for a rejection of human exceptionalism in favour of a restored relationship between humans and nonhumans. Time and again, characters express excessive fear of wild or feral animals. Sally, for example, says:
pigeons are like rats . . . and pigeons like rats leads to cats rats cats rats are filthy plague everywhere, only how many feet from a rat, and pigeons are filthy, rats are filthy, cats are filthy their bites are poison they bite you and the bite festers, but that’s not it that’s not it I know that’s just an excuse to give a reason I know I’ve no reason I know it’s just cats cats themselves are the horror because they’re cats and I have to keep them out. . . .24–5
The characters’ lives are also being devastated by the climate crisis raging outside their illusory suburban sanctuary. Lena, for example, explains that “I sat on the bed this morning and didn’t stand up till lunchtime. The air was too thick. It’s hard to move, it’s hard to see why you’d move” (Churchill 32). By the time we reach the end of the play, conventional naturalistic dialogue has been all but abandoned, replaced by disjointed, apocalyptic utterances in which the shadow of ecological crisis looms large. Lena, for example, says, “[t]he sun’s gone” (42), while Sally asks, “why did the chicken not cross the road?” (42), to which Vi mordantly replies, “a car was coming” (42). Churchill’s decision to deploy this chicken joke is far from coincidental; it subtly evokes the palpable sense of menace which permeates the subtext of Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958).
In Pinter’s play, Stanley has sought refuge in a seaside boarding house, but henchmen McCann and Goldberg arrive on the scene and play a disturbing game of verbal dominance with him, culminating in physical violence. Just before the violence erupts, Goldberg poses the question: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (51), which Stanley finds himself incapable of answering. Sally’s inversion of this question reinforces the sense that the natural world itself is out of kilter, human and nonhuman worlds having become so fundamentally misaligned that chickens no longer obligingly cross roads. Towards the end of Escaped Alone, Mrs J repeats—no fewer than twenty-five times—the phrase “terrible rage,” and as with Extinction Rebellion’s customary valediction “with love and rage,” it is here that the play’s most urgent and resonant call for political change resides. Performative eco activism—as demonstrated, for example, in Extinction Rebellion’s 2019 campaign “The Sea is Rising and so are We”—has the ability to catalyse behavioural change through the presence of live spectators bearing witness to ecological lament. Escaped Alone also bears witness to ecological lament and, through its disruption of naturalistic form, directly challenges the audience to effect change.
Naturalism—on account of its perceived conservatism, phallocentrism, anthropocentrism and its traditionally carbon-intensive material production—would appear to have little to offer playwrights whose work addresses our current ecological crisis. However, this article has argued that naturalism performs a vital, albeit often concealed, function within contemporary ecodramaturgy. Conceptualising theatrical naturalism, after Williams (“Social Environment and Theatrical Environment: The Case of English Naturalism”) as the “organic fusion” of lifelike reproduction with a human—as opposed to supernatural or divine—account of character behaviour, I propose that a naturalistic spectrum exists within contemporary ecological playwriting. At one extreme of this spectrum, I suggest that there is a form of overt, immediately recognisable naturalism, exemplified by Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, in which a closed time, closed space “pressure cooker” dramaturgy presents the characters with an emotional imperative to make a moral decision with the clock ticking and with no possibility of deferring the decision. Further along the spectrum, I have shown that there is a form of naturalist symbolism which admits the more-than-human world and decentres naturalism’s traditional anthropocentric focus by aligning human and nonhuman environmental vulnerability, as exemplified by Steve Waters’ On the Beach, the first play in his diptych The Contingency Plan. The play uses symbolism to show birds both as harbingers of climate crisis and as signifiers of conservation nativism. Progressing along the naturalistic spectrum, I have shown how Annie Baker’s play The Antipodes conjures the obscenity of climate devastation taking place in its offstage world through exploiting hypernaturalism’s tendency to create detailed mimetic onstage worlds and by eschewing narrative momentum in favour of a focus on mood, atmosphere and subtext. Towards the most covert extreme of the naturalistic spectrum, I have argued that Caryl Churchill’s formally experimental play Escaped Alone reimagines social structures in an ecologically damaged world by dismantling naturalistic conventions. By challenging the inviolability of naturalism’s invisible fourth wall and by deploying monologic dislocation alongside what Aston (Restaging Feminisms) calls “scenic dislocation,” the play articulates its radical political intent.
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*Andrew Burton is a fixed-term teacher in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex UK, where he is also a PhD candidate. His thesis re-evaluates the role and potential of naturalism within contemporary ecological playwriting.
Copyright © 2022 Andrew Burton
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