- Staging Global Warming, the Genre-Bending Hyperobject
Our cleverness, our inventiveness, and our activities have modified almost every part of our planet. In fact, we are having a profound impact on it. Indeed, our cleverness, our inventiveness and our activities are now the drivers of every global problem we face. And every one of those problems is accelerating as we continue to grow toward a global population of ten billion. In fact, I believe we can rightly call the situation we are in now an emergency, an unprecedented planetary emergency.1
So begins Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion, a lecture-cum-diatribe that bombards the audience with one example of human-instigated destruction after another until all lands, waters, air systems, forests, and animals are thoroughly devastated. And there is no solution. “We’re fucked,” he concludes. Not a play, but a performance, not by an actor, but by a scientist playing himself, Ten Billion (2012) was presented in an exact mockup of Emmott’s Cambridge University office in London’s Royal Court Theatre. It was a “genre-bending” performance—either a “non-illusionist” event or ultra-mimetic theatre, or something of both. Director Katie Mitchell explained,
We spent four or five months in workshops trying all the usual theatrical forms to present the subject . . . and we ended up with a load of scenes that were a bit cheesy or ridiculous, that all seemed to diminish and oversimplify and sensationalise the subject. I had to conclude that, in my opinion, using existing theatrical formats was not going to work, and the only way to do it was to get the scientist up there using a different language to talk to people—lay person’s language.2
Mitchell contends that rather than having an actor play the scientist, “there’s something about the complexity of this subject matter that it seemed better to address it by getting the scientists themselves to stand up and talk about it.”3 This complexity is defined by Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) theorist Timothy Morton [End Page 101] as “hyperobject,” a concept that will be used in this essay when analyzing the challenges faced by playwrights writing about global warming and overpopulation.4 In addition, Mitchell’s statement implies the insufficiency of dramatic genres to deal with this hyperobject, and her faith instead in the authority of the scientist, the objectivity of his science, and the dramatic truth derived from bare facts. Theatre has been accused of being “fake” in comparison with performance that supposedly presents “true reality,” but, as Joseph Danan suggests, postdramatic does not necessarily dispense with drama; nothing divides so neatly, especially when dealing with such vast subjects that exceed the human scale of live performance and require balancing scientific data, arresting metaphor, and quotidian life.5
These relationships between science and theatre, truth and facts, pessimism and activism in Ten Billion are also at the heart of four other plays from the contemporary London stage. This essay will examine how their attempts to dramatize global warming within existing genres distort the theatrical taxonomy as defined by Joseph Meeker in his Comedy of Survival. To address the novelty, scope, and complexity of global warming as well as consider audiences’ preconceptions of it, playwrights stretch theatrical genres to accommodate it or “resize” it to make it fit conventional genre parameters. The Bush Theatre’s The Contingency Plan (2009) and When the Rain Stops Falling (2009) at the Almeida are intelligently crafted plays that incorporate elements of tragedy and comedy in their language and plot structure. Contingency uses witty, fast-paced dialogue, but ends with a scientist sacrificing his life for the truth, while Rain unravels the crime of pedophilia across generations and continents but ends with a meal of redemption. The comedies, The Heretic (2011) at the Royal Court and Studio Theatre’s Lungs (2011), both address the social impact of global warming and overpopulation, but employ different strategies to attempt the comic restoration of normalcy. Regardless of which genre they adopt, the plays either extend the limitations of genre to cope with this new hyperobject, or they compromise the plot’s engagement with it to preserve the genre’s conventions...