- The Imagination of CatastropheCaryl Churchill's Natural History Lessons
The other afternoon I heard a French political analyst on National Public Radio describe the political forces sweeping her country as the "wind of history." That phrase called to mind Witold Gombrowicz's Operetta, his post-war play in which, after two world wars and a revolution, a character observes of the new society, "It's the wind of history." In Escaped Alone, Caryl Churchill's startling new play, the effects of wind generate unspeakable conditions:
The wind developed by property developers started as breezes on the cheeks and soon turned heads inside out. … Buildings migrated from London to Lahore, Kyoto to Kansas City, and survivors were interned for having no travel documents. Some in the whirlwind went higher and higher, the airsick families taking selfies in case they could ever share them.
The apocalyptic world that the play depicts in several short, narrative segments within an otherwise recognizable dramatic setting has a frightening air of reality to it, with the ecological chaos of Churchill's Far Away (2000) now extended to a global scale. Churchill writes plays not about what is, but what can be. Walter Benjamin's angel of history, caught in a wind storm called progress, pushes him unwittingly into the future while surveying the wreckage of the past. Escaped alone is a play whose varieties of time are wedged between possible futures and possible pasts while yet distilling the present moment.
Any random number of contemporary books sitting on my library shelves project dystopian landscapes, mass murder, totalitarian societies, ecological disaster, and they are not written as science fiction—works such as Edna O'Brien's The Little Red Chairs, Roberto Bolaño's Distant Star, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Thomas H. Cook's Tragic Shores, Bernard du Boucheron's The Voyage of the Short Serpent, Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last, Omar El Akkad's American War. [End Page 1] What all of these writings have in common is the portrayal of ordinary people turned killers among a deranged populace when the veneer of civilized behavior is destroyed by extreme social conditions.
Escaped Alone starts out friendly enough. A woman, Mrs. Jarrett, steps through an open door of a fence into a garden to join three other women in their seventies for an afternoon of tea and conversation. They are neighbors, wives, mothers. What do they talk about? The dialogue starts out on a simple range of topics: family news, changes in the local shops, dentist visits, television programs. As the eight numbered sections in this play lasting only fifty minutes get underway, Vi's murder of her husband in self-defense is revealed, someone mentions drone bombings, and another speaks about the eagle as a fascist bird. Before long, scene 6 arrives, and the four women unexpectedly break out into the sixties' girl group favorite, "Da doo ron ron." The stage direction for this humorous moment within the dark play notes, "They are singing for themselves in the garden, not performing for the audience." The choice of song is unspecified in this performance within a performance for the actors alone (even though the audience is watching), but it serves to carry the women to another dimension in James Macdonald's superbly directed production, which originated last year at London's Royal Court Theatre and was restaged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February, 2016.
For the last two sections in the play the women carry on about jobs, illness, more about the murder and prison term, Lena's depression, family updates, cooking, and seabirds. Sometimes there's a homily or rhyme or joke. Sounds of birdsong, traffic, and children playing can be heard in the background. Ordinary lives, ordinary things. Ridiculously banal conversation about animals, shopping, and more curiously, particles and waves and microbes. Little by little, the social world seeps through the subconscious. The thought crossed my mind that someone among them must be thinking of voting for Brexit. The local is inextricably tied to the global, and the political is not merely personal. Churchill has a way of giving her female characters sharp turns away from...