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
From shooting the conversation moves on to more "effective" (63) means
America... We've developed sixty-three different poison gases and we've
got eight more ready.
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:
ASTON : Overgrown.
DAVIES: What's that? A pond?
ASTON : Yes.
DAVIES: What you got, fish?
ASTON : No, there isn't anything in there. (Pause.)
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:
FRENCHMAN: It would upset the balance of power.
BRITAIN: It would mean the ruin of the world undoubtedly.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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...
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
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