Ecological Theatre

Nüvit Mortan

Anadolu University

"Now if nature should intermit her course and leave altogether, though it were but for a while, the observation of her own laws; if these principal and mother elements of the world, whereof all things in this lower world are made should lose the qualities which now they have... if the moon should wander from her beaten way, the times and seasons of the year blend themselves by disordered and confused mixture, the winds breathe out their last gap, the clouds yield no rain, the fruits of the earth pine away as children at the withered breasts of their mothers no longer able to yield them relief: what should become of man himself, whom these things now do all serve? See we not plainly that obedience of creatures unto the law of nature is the stay of the world?" (Richard Hooker, cit. Tillyard 26)
Were it that Hooker's concern for "the stay of the whole world" remained anachronistic and irrelevant today! Yet, this vivid evocation of ecological catastrophe can be considered a piece of performative discourse or even acted out as an entire play in the form of a monologue. It would be effective as a rhetorical plea voiced by a male actor on the stage or anywhere else in the city center or in a forest, for instance. Many ecologists of our day could use it for consciousness- raising purposes in their concern for the preservation and conservation of "nature". Many but not all. For within this wider framework, there are various movements such as the "Faith First" Movement, Shallow Ecology, Deep Ecology, Eco-feminism and Green Cultural Criticism.

Definitions compete to set the problem right; the solution is urgent; "the stay of the whole world" is at stake. First, ecology is differentiated from the environment which, according to Berg, is "really a view of what's around us in a fairly narrow perspective."(cit. in Murphy 177) It is the interaction of all natural systems and beings in the planetary biosphere. Ecology is "the study of the environment in its inter-animating relationships, its change and conservation, with humanity recognised as part of the planetary human system." (4) In order to maintain 'the stay of the world' the necessary paradigm shift in understanding should be made. Human beings should learn to distinguish between "things-for-themselves" and "things-for-us". (4) They should stop seeing natural systems as things that serve "man". The whole world view should change. "A gender heterarchical continuum" (5) should replace the hierarchical, patriarchal, anthropocentric "use-value or exchange-value basis" of the capitalist system. (5)

The US social ecologist Murray Bookchin recognises the importance of the contribution of radical forms of feminism in turning the social ecologist "commitment to a non-hierarchical society and personal empowerment" into fully developed ideals, i.e., "a lived sensibility" (Bookchin 340-1 cit. in Warren, 61).

The role of ideology in the shaping of this new human consciousness is emphasised by Arial Kay Salleh who criticises Deep Ecology for failing to access the significance of ideology as a material force in the world. "The feminist consciousness", on the other hand, is not only anti-class but "is equally concerned to eradicate ideological pollution, which centuries of patriarchal conditioning have subjected us all to, women and men" (cit. in Murphy 8). "Victoria Davion offers the distinction between 'eco-feminist' and 'eco-feminine' positions and rejects them "for their essentialising tendencies to speak of one woman's voice, a woman's way of knowing, gender-identified traits, "the feminine" or "the female" or "the feminine principle." (3) As a truly feminist perspective requires a critique of gender roles which must include both masculinity and femininity, it cannot embrace either one or the other uncritically (14).

(Ecofeminism) recognises the twin dominations of women and nature as social problems rooted both in very concrete, historical, socioeconomic circumstances and in oppressive patriarchal conceptual frameworks which maintain and sanction these circumstances. [(Warren 1990: 143) (p. 57) cit. in Buege, Warren 1994:57]

Karen J. Warren rejects biological determinism, the idea that women can be closer to nature than men, an 'eco-feminine' stand also severely criticised by the social ecologist Janet Biehl. Biehl especially finds the promotion of religious ideas of goddesses and irrational reactionary to end domination which is a human-constructed fact of contemporary human society which must be and can only be changed through human action According to Biehl, mythopoeic structures such as Gaiaism fail to describe the "real" structures of the social and physical world. Seen not as a dogma but a perspective, to stop oppressive and exploitative practices on women and non-human nature together, an eco-feminist understanding of the world can serve as a pivotal fulcrum from which to effect change. Theatre providing a live milieu of social interaction between the performers and the audience is undoubtedly the site to bring about the ideological shift of consciousness needed to effect such a change.

It is often a dangerous site when nature is not used metaphorically but actually in the play. That is when the performance space and the mode of performance are radically interrelated with nature. Gabrielle Barnett recounts how in the United States "the radicals introduced environmentalists to confrontational theatricality, moving the activist arena from legislative halls to forests, rivers, deserts, oceans, and mountains themselves"(56). Then "the forest became a stage on which a dramatic conflict between environmentalists and the logging industry would be enacted repeatedly"(56). Life and theatre overlapping, assaults on the performers crippled for life one, Judi Bari; another a Navaho environmental activist, Leroy Jackson, was found dead after receiving death threats from the loggers.

"Have you a man digging your garden, when he should be digging trenches?" asks the singer in Oh what A Lovely War. The singer is a woman. It is women who call men to enlist so that there will be "Thousands of dead lying in rows on top of each other in an ascending arc from the horizontal to an angle of sixty degrees"(27) Then we listen to the French officer reporting:

The guns recoil at each shot; night is falling an' they look like old men sticking out their tongues and spitting out fire. The rain has started, shells are busting and screaming; artillery fire is the worst. I lay all night listening to the wounded groaning. The cannonading goes on; whenever it stops we hear the wounded crying from all over the woods. Two or three man go mad every day." (Act One, 27)
The unnatural sound of wounded human beings fill the woods when men who should be digging their garden are called to dig trenches instead. War, the inevitable outcome of insatiable capitalistic greed works its black magic in hastening ecological disaster for the human and non-human world alike. In a brilliant 'tour de force' the Theatre Workshop production directed by Joan Littlewood evoked the supposedly peace-time engagement of the men, an exclusively patriarchal "sport" in the words of "The Standard-Bearer. Il fait beau pour la chasse..." (24) which renders nature and animals "things for us." Later in Act Two when "British, French, German and American munitions manufacturers with a Swiss banker and beaters"(57) enact on stage grouse-shooting not only do we witness once again that capital has no nationality but also that devastation of human and non-human overlaps. Krupps fuses are used in English grenades (p.60). Meanwhile, the hunting party is going on: "Germany (shoots). Another one for me. Britain, well, that's a duck, not a goose. Germany, well I shoot anything." Metaphorical and literal at the same time, these last words convey the horror of the ease of human destruction motivated by greed and "interests" most poignantly (60).

From shooting the conversation moves on to more "effective" (63) means of destruction:

Germany. We use phosgene-cylinders 1.4 meters long, highly portable in the trenches - go on a man's back - he can carry a rifle as well.

America... We've developed sixty-three different poison gases and we've got eight more ready.

The image appearing on stage with Slide 22, then, is "Infantry advancing along the crest of a hill, silhouetted against a large white cloud." The following slides all show the dire consequences of gassing in the shapeless, deformed, wounded soldiers. By working in munitions factories without any social consciousness or ideological awareness, women partake in the killing of the very beloved they mourn for. The play is seminal in dealing with issues which will later be the subject of plays by materialist feminist and eco-feminist playwrights.

In Waiting for Godot the possibility of human life on a plant revolving in a void all alone in an uncaring universe is frightening enough. The denuded tree on an empty stage enhances this fright through it's suggestion of apocalyptic eco-catastrophe. Again the negative ecological vision in Pinter's play The Caretaker is one the audience shares with unease:

DAVIES: Looks a bit thick.

ASTON : Overgrown.

DAVIES: What's that? A pond?

ASTON : Yes.

DAVIES: What you got, fish?

ASTON : No, there isn't anything in there. (Pause.)

It is as if Aston is answering what Trigorin says to Nina after watching her act in the playlet Treplev wrote in "The Seagull." "I didn't understand it at all. But I watching. You acted so genuinely. And the scenery was beautiful. (Pause). There must be a lot of fish in that lake." Nature depicted as beautiful scenery in art may naturally remind Trigorin of fish but the thought of how the imagined "lot" became "actual none" over such a short period of time is certainly frightening to Pinter's audience recalling Chekhov.

The use-value basis epitomised in the Chain of Being concept informing Hooker's text is one of the main causes of ecological suicide. The exchange-value basis or consumerism of capitalist and state capitalist economies leading to imperialism and colonialism, finding its ultimate designation in war, is the other. The air-raids of the Second World War soon followed by the uses of the atom bomb, and the chemical weapons, the experiments with nuclear power carried on all over the globe, which proved to be as fatal to our planet as the hole in the ozone layer did.

Hooker's warning reverberates in the words of the British spokesman before the First World War in Oh What A Lovely War:

KAISER: War is unthinkable. It is out of the question.

FRENCHMAN: It would upset the balance of power.

BRITAIN: It would mean the ruin of the world undoubtedly.

The talk here, however, is not informed by environmental ethics or by any ethics for that matter. Multinational corporations will not hesitate to enter war for their interests even thought it might lead to the ruin of the world (15).

Ben Elton's 1990 Green comedy Gasping brigs together issues of ecological concern and the mobilisation of public opinion against their own interests in the profit seeking market economy of late capitalism. The chief of the Lockheart corporate company which is already making "serious money" (3) asks those whom he pays "to think" (6) to find an exciting means of making profit and the young top executive manager Philip comes up, after a month of brainstorming, with the idea of selling "air designer"(21). The idea is to offer people "pure, sparkling, guaranteed filtered, cleansed and mineral enriched private air" (23). The company consults Kirsten, the 'top ad lady' of the 'Image Control' advertising agency (27). Philip has no doubts that the consumer society, already stupefied through advertisements into buying Coca-Cola, 'just a sweet, sticky drink that can completely dissolve a tooth inside twenty-two hours" (32) as a drink that "adds life, and is the real thing..." and Perrier, "stuff that falls out of the sky" bottled and sold in what has become "[a] multi-million pound industry..."(21) will be easily convinced into buying designer air - oxygen cleaned and stored in machines to which he gives the name "Suck and Blow"(23).

Soon not only the original target consumer, the Yuppie whose "other car is a Porsche... [who] wants the very best and [who] intends to get it" (22) but people of "lower income" (40) also buy it. The Japanese begin to manufacture it. Second-hand Suck and Blowers are sold:

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, before we continue with tonight's performance you may like to know that before our next production, which will be Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical Aspects of Mussolini, this theatre will be fitted with Stick and Blow machinery throughout so that all our patrons may enjoy the safety and the quality of one hundred per cent filtered private air. Thank you for your attention.
Soon people begin to stockpile oxygen as a result of typical mass consumer hysteria. Philip begins to question the moral implications of the horrible situation it has all led to when the Chief suggests to build Super Suckers and Bumper Blowers to collect the oxygen in under-populated areas; they will be hired to pump the air back where there is a shortfall and make further profits. "I mean", retorts Philip in a way reminiscent of the total consequences of scientific discoveries in the hands of inhuman systems that are anti-life, "Everybody owns the air, don't they? We don't really have a right to sell it? Do we? Or what" (60)? Philip is reproached by the Chief for "taking [his] Ph.D. in moral Semantics." (60) Philip's moral awakening is caused by a letter thrown anonymously under his door; "[a]n extract from the reply that the American Indian Chief known as Seattle sent in 1854 to the US Government on receipt of their request to buy from him the land of his people" (119). The letter reads:
  Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. We know that the white man doesn't understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother but his enemy. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the Red man. There is no quiet place, no place to hear the unfurling of the leaves in the Spring or the rustle of the insects' wings. The clatter of your cities insults our cities, and what there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night? If we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred as a place where even the white man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadows' flowers. (119)
In Act Two, Scene Five, The Minister For The Environment is on the stage "making a speech"(90). He calls people to take "common sense measures" such as taking shorter breaths or tying to move less at home:
  Lie down on your bed and take slow, well-spaced breaths ... perhaps you could time them. Avoid activities that you know will consume air, keep[ family discussions to a minimum.., The lavatory is a key danger, go only when you know it's coming, and straining will throw your meter sky high. Obviously love making is a very irresponsible activity when the air is thin, definitely to be avoided. Ask Grandma not to knit so vigorously and get rid of the dog..."(91)
In Act Two, Scene Seven, we see the "BBC reporter with microphone, a woman with a backpack which feeds a tube to a big plastic bubble on her head ... [wandering] across the front of stage" (96). She is recounting from a "relief camp, jointly run by Oxfam and War on Want ... currently supplying breathing space for refugees [who] have struggled here, gasping for breath from their homes in the outlying hills where the air is now too thin for survival. The scene is biblical in its horror" (97). A child is gulping painfully because the oxygen has been sold by irresponsible rulers "of this tortured, divided country, both on the left and right... for arms, western developers, with the connivance of a corrupt administration, have sucked far beyond agreed international quotas. Now this region is all but uninhabitable"(96).

That the child is desperate, "whilst the means for her survival lies silent, invisible, useless, compacted down into the huge Western Suck and Blowers is vivid testimony of man's inhumanity

to man"(97). This inhumanity cannot be separated from the slaughter of animal life given in all its violence: "This goat did not die naturally, it was slaughtered by the very people whose survival depends on its milk and meat. The need for air supersedes over the need for food and as the air thins animals are slaughtered in order to stop them breathing and consuming what little oxygen remains"(97).

The issues of hunting and war in Oh What A Lovely War reappear in Gasping on a different scale. The ecological catastrophe depicted in this play seems so immanent that the prospect of a shift of consciousness in humans into changing their whole outlook on life, i.e., starting to think of non-human nature as "things-for-themselves" seems almost impossible to achieve.

First broadcast on BBC Radio 3, in 1971 Caryl Churchill's radio play with the urgent title Not Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen, although written nineteen years earlier than Gasping, evokes the horror of a similar dystopia. "The time is 2010." (38) Mick and Vivian, his mistress, are ordinary people trying to survive in a world of total environmental collapse. Mick's wife has left and joined the 'fanatics' who riot, burn buildings and kill themselves in protest saying that since millions are dying of hunger and war they want to shock shock into stopping"(52) but these atrocities do not stop.

As a socialist-feminist playwright, Churchill criticises Mick and Vivian's retreat into their private world making plans for the future although total annihilation is immanent. They have shut themselves off both literally and metaphorically. Literally, it is impossible to go out into the haze and smoke. Inside the tower block where they share Mick's one room, Vivian keeps spraying oxygen. She is always out of breath and talks in gasps. Through the breaks in her halting and repetitive speech and Mick's astonishment at seeing a sparrow, the atmosphere is powerfully evoked and juxtaposed against the unseen death of Claude who will sacrifice himself for them After Claude leaves, Mick tells Vivian to "shut the window"(54). The metaphorical shutting out of the outside world invites the listeners to respond to the absurd attitude Mick and Vivian show in the face of annihilation in a state of shock the fanatics want people to feel in the play.

The powerful evocation of ecological catastrophe in the play expressed through Mick's nostalgic remembrance of the birds that once existed in the city is horrifying:

VIVIAN. I think it was a bird it was a bird a bird a bird a bird a bird.

MICK: What? What?


MICK. A bird in the London's?

VIVIAN. Small brown brown I think it was a bird.

MICK: A sparrow. A sparrow's a small brown bird. I didn't see it . Claude can't have seen a sparrow. He's not twenty . There were still some birds in the eighties. When I was a young man there were flocks of birds ... And birds whose names you may have seen at the zoo, blackbird, starling, blue-tit, I have seen them with my own eyes wild in the gardens of the Londons long ago.

Equally horrifying is the devastating callousness of the type of human being brought up, "educated" and conditioned to live by purely personal needs; the type of human being who is the outcome of capitalistic consumerist mentality with his/her inability and refusal to think or act for the common good. This ideology will be responsible for the ultimate annihilation of the world. Metaphorically shut out with "TV; music; books; games; puzzles; large jigsaw half finished on a table"(38); they participate in the catastrophe in an act of omission. They have an unwillingness to make the necessary paradigm shift into a hierarchical understanding of one's place in the ecosystem and failure to act collectively to change it can ironically reverse the hierarchical position humans think they hold on the planet. If there is no interrelationship with others, human and non-human alike, however, there can be no private world as Mick and Vivian dream of. The simile Vivian makes is appropriate here: "You take five five steps remind that mad cat cat in cage at the zoo up and up and down up and-"

Set against constant references to "money" and its ongoing power as capitalistic exchange value, the play abounds in violent images culminating in the killing by Mick's elder son Alexander and his wife of their own baby because of the guilt they feel for giving birth to an unlicensed baby in the first place. That they are doctors makes the act doubly horrific.

Another call against the hierarchical and patriarchal order set by human beings and their destructive potential as a species comes from Bryony Lavery in the afterword to Origin Of The Species, a play she was commissioned to write for the feminist theatre group Monstrous Regiment:

We had come across apiece of information to the effect that if we think of the entire span of time as a calendar year ... human beings as a species make their appearance in the last three or four seconds before midnight on the last night of the year. So the play is set just before midnight on New Year's Eve ... the end of the year, the end of the day and unless we do something about it ... possibly the end of the world.

For some time we had toyed with the idea of presenting a show in which the actors sat quite still for 99 per cent of the time, while a voice described the Big Bang, the appearance of stars, of the Earth, the creation of micro-organisms, the death of dinosaurs, the arrival of reptiles, birds, mammals ... and then for the last few seconds of the piece ... when human consciousness is formed ... the two actors would rush about the stage fighting, falling out, inventing weapons and generally creating the mayhem for which our species is responsible. We felt as a form it held a certain truth ... but might be somewhat undramatic for 99 per cent of the time. We are a species that is most interested in ourselves...

The depiction of dystopian 'landscape', often in violent imagery, in these plays which call attention to the disastrous ecological consequences of the capitalistic socioeconomic system and ideology reverberates ironically the frequently quoted words of Gertrude Stein. "A landscape is such a natural arrangement for a battlefield or a play that one must write plays"(cit. in Birringer 67).

Helen Keyssar observed that "[i]n feminist drama... the impetus is not towards self-recognition and revelation of a 'true' self but towards recognition of others and a concomitant transformation of the self and the world" (xiv)." As we experience how post-modern capitalism generates its own contradictions, the idea of a cultural politics becomes increasingly important the more we actually see the political masquerade as aesthetic, and the more we recognise the difficulty of creating an aesthetics of negation that could express itself without being subverted into a fashion"(Birringer 25).

Not only feminist drama but all theatre committed to radical change should engage in bringing about the shift of consciousness that will shape "cultural politics" Johannes Birringer proposes in the face of "the mental desert form ..." that Baudrillard talks of in America."(cit. in Birringer 1).


Barnett, Gabrielle, "Performing for the Forest" Theatre New Haven: Spring-Summer, 25;1, 1994. pp. 52-61.

Birringer, Johannes Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Churchill, Caryl Shorts, London; Nick Hem Books, 1990. pp. 37-55.

Elton, Ben. Gasping. London; Sphere Books Limited. 1990.

Keyssar, Helene. Feminist Theatre An Introduction to Plays of contemporary British and American Women. Hong
Kong: Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1984.

Lavery, Bryony. Origin Of The Species London; Methuen Drama, London; Methuen Plays by Women vol.6, 1987.

Murphy, Patrick D. Literature, Nature and Other Eco-feminist Critiques. New York; State University of New York
Press, 1995.

Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton and the members of the original cast, Oh What A Lovely War; London, Methuen Drama, 1986.

Warren, Karen J. ed. Ecological Feminism. London and New York; Routledge 1994