Arts Review/Commentary: Climate Change and Artistic Derangement

Why haven’t American theater companies dealt seriously with climate change?

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh. University of Chicago Press, 176 pages, $22


By Bill Marx

Sometimes a book comes along that clears up years of confusion, and I am particularly grateful when it illuminates what our culture is really afraid of, those repressed realities that make our arts so docile, so fearful of challenging the status quo. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, a trio of chillingly brilliant lectures by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, examines an embarrassing failure of nerve that has been bothering me for well over a decade: Why haven’t American theater companies – local as well as national productions — dealt seriously with climate change?

Numerous film documentaries and nonfiction studies focus on this ongoing global tragedy. So why hasn’t there been an Angels in America for climate change? Or at least the valiant attempts to create one? Why are there so few dramas or musicals that grapple with envisioning (let alone combating) an oncoming catastrophe that will radically transform human life? Why are our theaters complicit — by way of their indifference –with know-nothing political conservatives (Trump and company) and mega-corporations whose power lies in denying the truth? Just what are our theater companies afraid of?

The arts ignore climate change, speculates Ghosh, because they are part-and-parcel of the general climate of denial, the refusal to accept that a rapidly sickening world demands a radical readjustment of business as usual. Is there anyone who would argue that the Anthropocene shouldn’t be of concern to artists? It presents “perhaps the most important question ever to confront culture in the broadest sense — for let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.” How could that not be the case? If Naomi Klein is right in This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate, then the arts and criticism will be no exception. Yet the overwhelming response of our artists (are there any creative types who don’t accept the fact of climate change?) has been to ignore this call to aesthetic arms. Ghosh singles out novelists in his “Stories” lecture, but theater artists are guilty of cultural derangement as well.

Of course, selected theater artists pay lip service to the need for a new world, but their art ends up leaving the world of today — with its unrestrained exploitation of nature, worship of free markets, and endless consumption — undisturbed. Instead of scripts on how climate change will shape our understanding of nature and ourselves, the political plays produced today deal with admittedly important, but less controversial issues of racism and identity politics: these narratives serve up a ready-made lineup of villains and heroes. Theater gives us dramas that assume there is (and will be) a life of plenty for all — it is simply a matter of more people getting more. But it is that assumption of limitless growth that climate change undercuts.

Global warming is changing economic, political, social, and cultural realities, though its impact has been somewhat muffled here because the most worrisome effects are taking place in countries on the margins (our mainstream media don’t spend much time reporting these alarming developments). But challenges are coming our way soon enough. For example, the current refugee crisis is a faint foreshadowing of the future: in the decades to come tidal waves of people will flee areas no longer able to sustain human life. In his lectures “History” and “Politics,” Ghosh provides an informative (if quick) rundown of the ways privileged countries have, over time, procured the earth’s resources—to the point that it is now impossible for poorer countries to ever approach Western standards of living. They are out of luck and they know it.

One particularly disturbing section is a comparison of the language in 2015’s Paris Agreement on climate change and the Pope’s encyclical letter of the same year, Laudato Si’.  Ghosh neatly dissects the calculated moral emptiness of current corporate-driven efforts to ameliorate global warming. For example, the central theme of the Encyclical is “how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” Not so for the Paris Agreement: “Its intention, and what it has achieved, is to create yet another neo-liberal frontier where corporations, entrepreneurs, and public officials will be able to join forces in enriching each other.”

For me, the most interesting parts of the book are Ghosh’s speculations on why our artists are unable to confront climate change. It is partly because the countries most severely damaged by global warming have been well off the beaten path. But the failure of the artistic imagination — cowardice in the face of an unacceptable reality — goes deeper than that. Our standard story lines  —  psychological realism dedicated to individual moral uplift — inevitably depend on the notion (sustained by military and economic muscle) that our way of life is never going to change. But, according to most scientific accounts, our current course of consumption is simply not sustainable: unless we are inhuman enough to wall ourselves off from the less fortunate, taking what resources we need while leaving millions to flounder on a decaying earth. Our artists should face that dystopian possibility, even it is discomforts readers and audiences. But they won’t.

For Ghosh, people in the future will not be kind to the artists who reject the task of representing the apocalypse to come:

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they — what can they — do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight? Quite possibly then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

Love that phrase “modes of concealment,” which sums up so much of what we see on our stages, as well as  read in our novels. What can artists do to answer the call appropriately? Here I somewhat disagree with Ghosh, who suggests that concerned writers move away from realism and take their inspiration from older, unrulier literary genres,  drawing on myth and folklore to explore the now attenuated relationship between the human and the nonhuman. He also believes science fiction should be treated with much more respect; it is in the speculative novels of writers such as J. G. Ballard (The Crystal World, Super-Cannes)  and Cormac McCarthy (The Road)  that we come to grips with the unthinkable, the unalterable trashing of human life. (Saramago’s Blindness and Lem’s Solaris would also seem to fit that bill.)

Ghosh’s ideas for engaged literary responses are fine, but too limited. In his magisterial critical study on eco-poetics, The Song of the Earth, Jonathan Bate recommends a number of different strategies, such as writing that conveys the fragility of nature, poetry that undermines our self-serving notion that nature is endlessly bountiful and resilient. The oceans can die; in fact, they are under dire siege at the moment. “Ask yourself,” Bate poses, “whether you can accept a poem that is not only a making of the self and a making of the world, but also a response to the world and a respecting of the earth.”


Novelist Amitav Ghosh — Climate Change is a crisis of culture and of the imagination. Photo:

How does the theater dramatize the crisis posed by climate change? In what ways can the stage properly respect the earth? A number of approaches are being ignored, partly because they do not tell audiences the reassuring things they want to hear. To the credit of the American Repertory Theater, two shows by Eve Ensler (O.P.C. and In the Body of the World) took up the issue of global warming and its consequences, but neither were wholly successful, artistically or politically, partly because of our culture’s inability to face the negative. The rush toward pat inspiration, the  impatient need to cook up ameliorative possibilities — to never have them leave their seats upset — cuts against confronting the situation we are in now and looking at where it is going to lead without collective action and considerable sacrifice. Because global warming is an ongoing tragedy, theaters should consider drawing on that venerable form and serve up the darkness that comes when squarely facing the bitter truth.

(Note: Arts Emerson will be presenting a concert performance of a musical version of Octavia E. Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower in March. It is “the story of young Lauren Olamina, who lives in a not-so-distant America, where climate change has driven society to violence and the brink of extinction for next season.” It will be interesting to see where this combination of theater and science fiction goes.)

Ghosh suggests that a critical approach could shake up the artistic paralysis. Theater critics need to reject the demeaning job of consumer guide and demand that stage companies move beyond cultivating ‘modes of concealment.’ They need to find the gumption to demand, scold, and shame theaters into doing what has been done, so magnificently, in the past — by the Greeks and Shakespeare, Ibsen and Brecht — to raise elemental questions that aim to provoke rather than placate, that ask what it means to be human in the Anthropocene, an era in which we are slowly but surely poisoning the earth. Without confronting how we have empowered the extinction of nature, we cannot, in critic Bonnie Honig’s phrase, accept “the possibility of action in conditions of impossibility.”

Here is my go at it: the Judeo-Christian ethic, with its call to be “fruitful and multiply,” is off the mark, at least if it is interpreted in such as way as to minimize humankind’s stewardship of the earth. The Greeks, with their sense that we exceed limits at our peril, are closer to the prophetic mark. Our dramatists, producers, directors, and actors must dare to answer an essential question in their work: “Are we creating a world worth living in?” If the answer is yes, then they must explore the objections raised by those who believe that something is deeply wrong. How do our current efforts to combat climate change reflect meaningful human/moral values? If the answer is no, then why are we destroying ourselves and the earth around us? Few in today’s theater are exercising their imaginations on this invaluable task, but I am sure that creative writers in the future will — they won’t have a choice, given that our comfortable “reality” will be crumbling underneath their feet. And they will look back at us as deranged shirkers, and as much, much worse.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Joan Lancourt on January 6, 2017 at 10:38 am

    Bill, thanks for posing this question about theaters and climate change. I agree that most of our theater is playing it safe, afraid to really challenge its audience, or to provide a forum for real dialogue about the core questions that confront us, as a society and as individuals. And thanks for including efforts like Praxis’ Incident at Vichy in your theater listings We so desperately need theater that makes it really tough to ignore the threats to democracy as well. I wonder if there’s a way that ArtsFuse could sponsor some of these much needed dialogues???

    • Bill Marx on January 7, 2017 at 9:47 am

      This from today’s NYTimes: “The researchers calculated that human contributions to global warming reduced water runoff in southern Africa by 48 percent and concluded that these human contributions “have contributed to substantial food crises.” Isn’t this tragedy worth a drama? Preserving our lifestyle means spreading starvation around the globe.

  2. Stephan Golux on January 8, 2017 at 1:21 pm

    I don’t have the impression that theatre is well situated as a tool for propaganda (good or bad) any longer. There was a time when you might say theatre was mass media, but it isn’t any more. Try as we might, unless our technology reverts substantially backwards (and certainly that is possible!) theatre won’t serve a fundamental role in getting any kind of message, subtle or not, to a wide swath of people. Certainly not in the so-called first or second worlds. Maybe in the third.

    I have done a couple of handful of theatre pieces on climate change. My own completely anecdotal experience is that in the most typical of circumstances the audience self-selects as those who want to ritualize (which theatre IS very good at!) their own mourning or sense of empowerment, or sense of helplesslness…. or doubt, or fear…. theatre is great at that work. Grounding and exploring issues in a non-propagandist frame. And that is non unimportant. I don’t think it changes the political dialog one iota, but it may do its own specific part in taking a big ?scary? abstract scientific concept/phenomena and giving it a feeling dimension. And of course the more emotionally and spiritually complex that experience can be, the more enlivening the result. Which boils down to my personal opinion that didactic theatre saying “Wake up! Climate change is real!” will have little effect while theatre that personalizes climate change and creates a ritual frame for experience will have some effect.

    But there is one more very important thing. The creation of the piece of art itself is important. This is less about the audience or the message. It is about the exchange that the artist has. And when (as I have experienced quite amazingly) the artist may engage the scientist directly, whether in research or in person, there is an exchange that is quite telling. A piece I collaborated on Fairbanks, NSF funded, went even farther in that not only were artists invited into the research sanctuaries of the scientists, but the scientists were invited into the research sanctuaries of the artists. In fact the scientists were asked to perform. The transformation through THIS exchange was palpable. And I know it changed the subsequent energies of both artists and scientists.

    So those kinds of bridges, those energetic and ritual and spiritual bridges, theatre can do that. I wish it did it more.

  3. Bill Marx on January 11, 2017 at 9:22 am

    Thanks to Debra Wise for e-mailing me about The Arctic Cycle (Eight Plays, Eight Countries, One Big Problem) and the Climate Lens Initiative (born in New York City). The latter is about using performance to increase the visibility and impact of works of art that look at our world through a climate lens.

    This is part of the ambitious Climate Change Theatre Action program, a series of readings and performances of short climate plays, by playwrights from all six continents, initially presented in support of the United Nations annual Conference of the Parties (COP meetings). In 2017 they will follow up on a full plate of activities in 2016: a marathon of theatre, activism, and interdisciplinary conversations to coincide with COP23, hosted by Fiji and held in Germany. Let’s hope some of this work will be seen in Boston.

    I will reiterate what I said in my review: Are these plays being seen on our major stages? Or are they tucked away in nooks and crannies for a night — the equivalent of PSAs? Do these narratives go beyond the commercial formula of individual heroic/moral action? Are they willing to look at climate change as a tragedy in the making? Are they willing to seriously critique current political/corporate efforts to deal with the problem? Where is the corporate support for these efforts — shouldn’t they be called out? Why aren’t our universities pioneering efforts, via art, to imagine climate change?

  4. Bill Marx on January 11, 2017 at 9:57 am

    This in the NYTimes today about climate change and the Sundance Film Festival.

    A new Sundance subsection, the New Climate, will include 14 documentaries, short films and special projects, including a virtual-reality experience that turns participants into a tree that is violently chopped down. (Not to be left out, the less prestigious Slamdance, a concurrent festival, will open with “What Lies Upstream,” an investigative look at drinking-water contamination in West Virginia and Michigan.)

    Who knows if all these films are good? But where is theater in this conversation? Apparently, our companies are not interested …

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