Department of Theater, Dance,
and Performance Studies
Incorporating Theater of Apocalypse Into Climate Change
by Michael Qi 12.11.18
As a whole, theater of apocalypse presents several unorthodox ideas regarding how to address modern societal issues, and its emphasis on a drastic departure from the familiar make it an appealing option for those unsatisfied with the direction of their communities. However, the ideas in theater of apocalypse should not be adopted completely. Its evocative imagery has a tendency to hyperbolize topics, and its emphasis on the past sometimes leaves no room for understanding modernity, but both are necessary in order to solve contemporary problems such as climate change. Therefore, as opposed to a complete upheaval of society in favor of tradition, change within existing institutions guided by the wisdom of the past should be utilized in order to positively influence and improve society.
One common theme in theater of apocalypse is a critique of the status quo. Many plays involving apocalypse depict the world in catastrophe as a result of society’s shortcomings, warning people of what could happen if nothing is changed. For example, The Book of Revelations paints a severe picture of the suffering people who do not adhere to Christianity will experience in the afterlife. While the religious motives behind the creation of this apocalyptic text call its validity into question, it serves its purpose effectively. In essence, John of Patmos is instilling fear into his readers. By vividly imagining and describing the torment unbelievers will experience if they do not practice Christianity, readers feel compelled to adopt his suggestions. Similarly, Yvette Nolan’s Unplugging utilizes people’s fear of apocalypse to emphasize a point. The play takes place in a world ruined by people’s dependence on technology and ironically exposes their lack of knowledge. Common wisdom and native skills, also known as grounded normativities, have been neglected as society progresses, and institutions have crumbled as a result. Like The Book of Revelations, Unplugging is very direct in its message; there is an inherent weakness in society that will cause its downfall if not addressed and amended. In general, apocalypse presents a striking image of dire circumstances, making it an potent method through which to express a social critique. The potential impact of an issue can be magnified through the lens of apocalypse and causes people to think more seriously about its significance.
Theater of apocalypse also illustrates basic aspects of human nature effectively because it depicts life and death situations that allow it to reflect on people’s instincts. In a world without technology, Unplugging emphasizes the Hobbesian idea of the state of nature. Although characters are able to work together occasionally and often sympathize with others’ struggles, their primary focus is always themselves. Since the disappearance of technology, each day becomes a struggle to survive. With limited resources and no overarching institutions to organize them, society and its people have descended into a selfish chaos. Even so, the characters do not find the unplugging entirely detrimental, and several even believe their current state of affairs preferable to the world dependent on technology. Through Unplugging, Nolan expresses the sentiment that although human nature can be flawed, it is still preferable to the disconnected lives many people lead today, reminding them not to forget their roots. In the same way, Jorge Garcia’s Marisol illustrates how people react in times of crisis when they have grown too dependent. However, unlike in Unplugging, the apocalypse in Marisol is extremely unpredictable. Since the angels have decided to kill God, natural laws including space, time, and direction have become violated, leaving many characters unsure and confused. As they try to survive, they grow increasingly desperate and recklessly honest. Some resort to violence while others use the opportunity to try to take advantage of society’s institutions. Without established rules to dictate characters’ actions, both Unplugging and Marisol are able to depict their natural tendencies more realistically. Doing so prompts readers to reflect on their own behavior and question their own worldviews and instincts.
However, theater of apocalypse does not only emphasize the shortcomings of society; it also offers opportunities for improvement and suggests action to spark change. For example, the upturned world in Marisol is the result of both the angels’ and people’s dissatisfaction with God’s negligence. Garcia is demonstrating that in order to fix the deteriorating world left by God, a complete apocalyptic revolution is necessary. This idea is also explored in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Perestroika. In the play, Prior recognizes the need for change and boldly rejects the path of a prophet laid out for him by the angels. Both Garcia and Kushner use their plays to advocate that society should never content itself with its current state. Instead, it must constantly reflect, revolutionize, and evolve in order to progress. However, the radical process for improvement suggested in Marisol and Angels in America is not the only one present in theater of apocalypse. In his play Right Hand of the Father, Enrique Buenaventura offers an alternative method of impacting society. Instead of destroying the existing institutions completely and constructing a new system in its place, Don Peralta utilizes the opportunity given to him to work within the limits of the system. By exploiting the contradictions of divine law, he is able to help people escape their suffering at the hands of the devil. Furthermore, since God was put the rules in place, he has no choice but to accept the outcome of Peralta’s actions. Although the approach for altering society presented in The Right Hand of the Father differs greatly from that of Angels in America and Marisol, it is no less effective. In addition, both methods exemplify the effectiveness of theater of apocalypse in catalyzing change. By imagining an intense situation and utilizing strong imagery, theater of apocalypse is able to emphasize the shortcomings of the world. From there, it can offer an ideology to change it for the better.
Although theater of apocalypse presents an unconventional way for examining societal issues, its ideas are not without drawbacks. In fact, they can be unrealistic and almost extreme in some cases. The chaotic world of Marisol, for instance, depicts a dysfunctional world and emphasizes the downside of depending on the divine. However, it is unlikely that such a setting would ever manifest in reality. As a result, the actions of its characters are difficult to relate to and apply to modern society. Furthermore, the purpose and message of the play become unclear as the imaginative environment of Marisol distances it from the authenticity of its thoughtful social commentary. On the other hand, Unplugging does present a realistic world caused by society’s dependence on technology. Nonetheless, its suggestion for change does not fit the theme of apocalypse considering its setting. In the play, the characters must learn to live for themselves and off the land after the structure of society collapses. Instead of depending on grounded normativities and common wisdom, people have grown complacent and rely on the simplicity provided by technology, making them less independent. However, apocalypse by nature is unexpected, unlike anything society has ever experienced, and can even be incomprehensible at times. If it were to occur, it is unlikely it would be able to be resolved with grounded normativities. For example, history is limited in its ability to help society understand the unpredictable effects of the modern apocalypse of climate change. Therefore, the fundamental argument of Unplugging is flawed because its rejection of technology and reliance on common wisdom is rather radical. Similarly, Marisol blames the deterioration of society on God’s negligence and overlooks the positive aspects of life. Even so, institutions and technology are not inherently bad, but should be utilized with care. Instead of perceiving them as society’s downfalls and rejecting them entirely, people should aim to build upon existing structures in order to gradually improve them.
Furthermore, theater of apocalypse tends to idealize the past and disregard the future. Yuyachkani’s Adios Ayacucho and the traditional Mayan play Xajoj Tun Rabinal Achi are both performances that revolve around the idea of ancestral remains. The characters in Adios Ayacucho are in search of their bones, which have been taken by colonizers, while Rabinal explores the ways for indigenous people to honor the dead and find closure. Adhering to tradition and respecting what came before are central themes in these performances because natives were denied their ways of life once colonizers arrived. As a result, they focus on recovering their past and ensuring it is passed on to future generations. This sentiment also manifests in the broader Maya-Quiche philosophy, especially regarding the idea of cycles and baktun. Although Mayan civilization is well known for predicting the end of the world in 2012, the year actually represented a new beginning. In other words, it was simply a part of the overarching, spinning energy that pervades the universe and symbolized a return to the past on the path to the future. However, people should not misinterpret the meaning of this ideology too simply. Maya-Quiche philosophy is not suggesting that the past holds all the righteous answers to the troubles of today, but rather that people should remember what has happened in order to make better and more informed decisions for the future. Instead of a stagnant circle, the idea baktun is best expressed as a spiral. As society grows, so too will its understanding of the past, and by continually revisiting the ever-expanding knowledge humanity as gathered, people will able to gradually improve the world based on what they have learned.
While theater of apocalypse may sometimes seem implausible in its grand depictions of societal ruin, the ideas it presents are extremely relevant to the danger of climate change. Human activity has caused global temperatures to increase almost two degrees, and as a result, sea levels are expected to rise approximately four feet within the century, which is enough to drown major coastal cities such as Shanghai and Miami. Furthermore, climate change has resulted in more widespread disease, extreme weather, and agricultural inconsistency throughout the world (2014 National Climate Assessment). These changes are threats not only because they endanger individuals, ecosystems, and the economy, but because they pose a risk to human society as a whole. If no action is taken, the effects of climate change will continue to grow, and people will continue to suffer. In fact, many scientists have suggested that the consequences of climate change will soon become irreversible. In other words, society is standing on the brink of its own terrifying apocalypse.
Fortunately, theater of apocalypse provides several suggestions to alleviate the causes of this situation. For example, according to the National Resources Defense Council, approximately 40 percent of food in the United States is thrown away even though an eighth of Americans are unable to feed themselves, underlining a clear gap between the degree of production and consumption (Food Waste). In other words, a tremendous amount of resources is wasted under the current economic institutions and societal perspectives. However, plays such as Unplugging and decolonial texts emphasize the importance and advantages of efficiency and living off the land. If society moves away from aggressive consumerism, it would be much easier for people to obtain what they need. Furthermore, doing so would relieve the pressure of human actions on the environment and help start the process towards healing. Similarly, the emphasis of these plays on grounded normativities and the wisdom of the past could improve societal culture. Today, people often lose themselves in the digital world and forget about the present, and several studies have determined that the use of technology leads to a lack of social skills in children (The Impact of Social Media Use on Social Skills). However, as illustrated in Unplugging, if people refocus on simple interactions and lifestyles that served as the building blocks for modern society, they will be able to focus in the moment and address communal issues with increased awareness. If people do not distance themselves from climate change, they will understand its severity and be encouraged to find a solution.
In theater of apocalypse, this change is often the result of an upheaval of the existing social hierarchy. Problematic systems are replaced with concepts and ideas from the past, allowing people to return to their roots. This way, the insincereness people perceive in modern institutions can be eliminated and society can start again with a wholesome, traditional approach to development. Many characters in theater of apocalypse, such as the eponymous Marisol and Prior from Angels in America, reject the deteriorating systems left by negligent divinities and powerful figures, instead choosing to use their own experience and ideas in order to develop something better. In addition, this pattern has been manifested many times throughout history. The American, Cuban, and Chinese revolutions all arose from dissatisfaction with the elite. People united in order to imagine a better world and as a result, society was able to change because it no longer depended on its previous, stagnating state. In regards to climate change, society must first establish a collective, revolutionary perspective on energy. By reorganizing their basic principles and promoting sustainability, people can cooperate under this new vision and achieve the result they seek.
However, it would be imprudent to destroy the institutions that govern society entirely. Although they are often portrayed negatively, they are built with positive intentions. In fact, people often forget how much the world has progressed as a result of both institutional and technological advancements. Communities, cities, and states developed as people learned to act cooperatively while fossil fuels and the Industrial Revolution created a manufacturing boom that raised the standard of living for people across the globe. Furthermore, countries in the United Nations collaborated to resolve the ozone crisis in the 1980s, and even more recently, goals for limiting carbon emissions were detailed in the Paris Climate Accords. While the effectiveness of this agreement is debatable, there is no doubt that it is a step in the right direction. To adopt the approach of total revolution presented in theater of apocalypse would not only undermine the existing efforts towards progress but could also prove to be counterproductive. After all, people should use the entirety of the resources and information at their disposal in order to resolve an issue on the scale of climate change. Choosing to reject modern institutions because of their shortcomings overlooks the benefits they offer. Instead, the knowledge and ideas from all people should be incorporated into global organizations that work towards environmental preservation to accelerate the progression towards a solution.
Also, as previously mentioned, society should not restrict its perspectives to ideas of the past as emphasized in theater of apocalypse. Instead, people should be willing to embrace and utilize the institutions and technology that have been developed over time alongside the knowledge they have gained from their ancestors. The effects of climate change have been abrupt, and even now, scientists continue to discover and correlate socioeconomic trends, such as an increase in automobile collisions, to its impact (Scutti). Due to the rapid growth of human institutions and technology, modern society is far from the world from that of the past. In fact, environmental issues are only one facet of the escalating political tension, and history unfortunately cannot provide all the answers. Therefore, people should instead aim to expand their worldviews and explore every option they can find. Inspiration can arise from unexpected places and might even develop as a result of considering ideas from both the past and the present. Across the countless millennia of human development, the Earth has remained constant, and it only natural for its salvation to require a broad range of knowledge and experience. For example, conservation farming and reforestation were both prevalent in nomadic societies that understood the necessity of allowing the land to replenish. Although these practices declined in popularity in the past to maximize the utilization of resources, they have experienced a resurgence recently in order to promote the longevity of the earth. In addition, with modern technology, analysis, and urban planning, the effectiveness of these methods has grown dramatically. By incorporating visionary ideas from a wide range of sources into advanced systems, society will be able to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Addressing climate change should aim to integrate ideas from theater of apocalypse without sacrificing the positive aspects of institutions. Many plays illustrate the independence of traditional cultures, and by enacting similar methods towards life, society can learn not to rely too heavily on the systems in place. As illustrated in Right Hand of the Father, it is possible to create change from within the system, and a similar approach should be utilized in regards to climate change in order to realize the full potential of society’s resources. Furthermore, the resourcefulness exhibited in theater of apocalypse encourages people to think creatively about solutions to climate change. Instead of contenting themselves with the status quo, they should always aim for further improvement. Society has come a long way since the beginning of humanity, but the recent progress has come at a cost. In order to continue moving forward, it is important that people reflect on the past and utilize the wisdom it has to offer. In addition, people can incorporate modern advancements into this line of thought to magnify its impact because although there is valuable insight to be gained from studying the past, it is not always relevant. By considering it in a more modern context, it can maintain its value and continue to contribute to the improvement of society. Building upon the people, knowledge, and communities of both the past and present creates the most potential for the future.
There is no simple solution to solving a global issue on the scale of climate change. However, although there are many different approaches, the one with the most potential pushes the institutions of the present forward guided by knowledge from the past. This way, society can take advantage of the benefits of its more advanced infrastructure while also considering the resourcefulness and independence humanity displayed in early communities. There are already several ingenious implementations of ancestral practices to alleviate the effects of climate change, but this philosophy is not limited to the environment. In order to change the world for the better, people should aim to incorporate all the developments and knowledge of both history and the present.
2014 National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, https://nca2014.globalchange.gov/highlights/overview/overview. Accessed 11 Dec. 2018.
Food Waste. National Resources Defense Council, https://www.nrdc.org/issues/food-waste. Accessed 10 Dec. 2018.
The Impact of Social Media Use on Social Skills. New York Behavioral Health, http://newyorkbehavioralhealth.com/the-impact-of-social-media-use-on-social-skills. Accessed 10 Dec. 2018.
Scutti, Susan. Unexpected Effects of Climate Change: Worse Food Safety, More Car Wrecks. CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/13/health/climate-change-impact-study/index.html. Accessed 11 Dec. 2018.