- Readings in Performance and Ecology Edited by Wendy Arons and Theresa J. May
Throughout history, nature has certainly created a lot of drama, but is nature drama? As part of a larger conversation on nature and culture, the editors of this volume readily admit that the arts, especially theatre, “have traditionally been conceived as the activity that most divides humans from ‘nature’”(1). As such, the essays in this book focus on rethinking the relationships that exist or are possible between theatre and nature. They term this approach an “ecological perspective,” hoping to inspire both artists and scholars to pursue related work. The essays in the book employ a primarily materialist framework in order to address ways in which theatre has used “nature” as part of its content (part of an approach in literary studies coined “ecocriticism”), together with exploring considerations of the nonhuman in performance and what theatre means and does to the environment. The book is divided into thematic sections with essays that “speak to, and sometimes challenge, one another,” hoping to engage the reader in an “open-ended and lively debate” (7).
The five individual sections of the book suggest how an ecocentric lens might be applied to many different fields within theatre. The first parts, “Ecocriticism and Dramatic Literature” and “Animals and/in Performance,” focus on examining how nature, as an elemental force and then as a living nonhuman [End Page 275] character, appears in and affects drama. The first two essays in Part I concentrate on how the environment was dramatized in American and Canadian theatre during the first half of the twentieth century. Barry Witham writes about environmental disasters in the 1930s through a thoughtful analysis of three lesser-known American plays from the period that “serve as cautionary tales for the twenty-first century” (21). In contrast, the plays discussed by Nelson Gray explore how settlers and First Nations peoples were intrinsically connected to their environment in such a way that it might bring humanity together via a shared sense of place. The third chapter, by Robert Baker-White, foreshadows the exploration of animal characters in the next section because it focuses on the human/animal dyads in Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie and Maria Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends. Baker-White argues that reading each play through the lens of “the animal” provides “a means of reimagining possibilities for human interaction” (33).
In Part II, each author argues for the interdependent relationships between humans and animals. Una Chaudhuri begins with the dubious yet iconic image of a pair of polar bears “stranded” on Artic ice that have become central characters in the social and political drama surrounding global climate change. In her compelling essay, Chaudhuri weaves together theory, artistry, and science in order to show how drama reveals the similar threats that face polar bears and human children as to “give voice to the shared animality on whose recognition the future of so many species depends” (57). In the next essay Baz Kershaw describes a site-specific, three-day performance at the Bristol Zoological Gardens in England, where performers alternated among portraying visitors, zookeepers, primatologists, and feral humans. The performance explored how humans, as yet another primate species performing together with monkeys, chimpanzees, and others, form a “global ‘performance commons’”(60) that ties together aesthetic and scientific communities. In contrast to the previous two essays, which focus on contemporary performance and art, Derek Lee Barton writes about how a giraffe that was imported from the Nubian Desert to Vienna in 1828 inspired many displays and images. The “giraffe demonstrates how the otherness of animal bodies has, from time to time, served to consolidate social and political boundaries” (77).
Part III, “Theorizing Ecoperformance,” provides a general introduction to the larger discourses of ecology and theatre as they relate to aesthetics, politics, and social theory. On one hand, locating this chapter in the middle of the book situates it in a position resembling its rhetorical function—providing an overview of the central theoretical language necessary...