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  • Beyond Bambi:Toward a Dangerous Ecocriticism in Theatre Studies
  • Theresa J. May (bio)

Critics and scholars who want to investigate the way ecologies—physical, perceptual, imagined—shape dramatic forms stand at the edge of a vast, open field of histories to be rewritten, styles to rediscuss, contexts to reperceive.

Erika Munk (5)


It took a hurricane to demolish the popular conceptual binary that distinguishes between "nature" and "culture." Whether we understand nature as a cultural construction or as an authentic "other" that is "out there," Hurricane Katrina dramatized its fierce, inexorable interconnectivity with human culture. This interface between nature and culture is the site of ecocriticism: the critical application of an ecological perspective to cultural representation. An increasingly lively and nuanced ecocritical discourse in literary studies has entered its third decade, but a comparable discourse in theatre studies has been slow to take root. Given that ecology is the study of the interrelatedness among living organisms and their environment—and that theatre is always an encounter between people and place—I find this gap surprising. Certainly a sense of urgency could not be more apparent. Recent (re)confirmations of global warming predict a twenty-first century in which we humans will come to terms with our relationship to the natural world, come hell or high water.

Twelve years ago Erika Munk observed that "our playwrights' silence on the environment as a political issue and our critics' neglect of the ecological implications of theatrical form are rather astonishing" (5), yet a relative few have taken up the gauntlet. 1 In the same landmark 1994 issue of Theater , Una Chaudhuri argued that the reason may lie in Euro / American theatre's "programmatically anti-ecological" humanist paradigm ("There Must Be a Lot of Fish in That Lake" 23). In "complicity with industrialization's animus against nature," modern theatre has "proffer[ed] a wholly social account of human life" (24). Unable or unwilling to speak beyond that frame, theatre may be at best a reflection of human culture's disassociation from the other-than-human world. And yet, if theatre is trapped in a humanist catch-22, then imagination, dreams, and mimesis have no connection to our ecological, our animal selves. This, in turn, is to subscribe to a duality of body versus mind that we know is not true—contemporary science, philosophy, economics, arts, and medicine have demonstrated otherwise. In the theatre, we also know this binary to be unsupported by praxis. My aim here is to call on theatre scholars to flesh out the way in which the human imagination participates in, and is integral to, our ecological "situatedness." We know that stories can open new possibilities of being, can crack the eggshells of long-standing ideological paradigms, and can also devastate and kill both land and people. Stories layer upon one another like geological strata; they are both invasive and indigenous; they are ecological forces as potentially powerful as hurricanes. [End Page 95]

Does ecocriticism seem placid, too contemplative, or even indulgent in the face of present-day horrors? When the world around us is up in arms and going up in flames, who can afford to go green? In this vein, a colleague once chided me for my so-called tree-hugging "Bambi-esque" interests. Bambi always comes up when a discussion of ecological concerns falls prey to poststructural cynicism, and he—Bambi—is as good a place as any to begin. Both a myth and a trope, Bambi is an aggregate of cultural memory, a signifier ripe with ideology. 2 When deployed, Bambi shores up a particular construction of the human / nature relationship. In "Animal Geographies: Zooësis and the Space of Modern Drama," Una Chaudhuri observes that "[a]s pets, as performers, and as literary symbols, animals are forced to perform for us. . . . Refusing the animal its radical otherness by ceaselessly troping it and rendering it a metaphor for humanity, modernity erases the anima even as it makes it discursively ubiquitous" (105). Bambi mediates and mystifies the ecological in everyday life. She / he is a site of the wild tamed, named, and commodified. 3 Bambi is an example of "eco-minstrelsy"—a reflection of human power and...


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pp. 95-110
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