Note to "Extreme Whether"
The Drama of the Thinking Heart
Author’s Note to Extreme Whether
Note on the text: In my play Extreme Whether (W-H-E-T-H-E-R) I am, again, using current research, not only about the science of global warming and climate change which, in and of itself, is enough to stand one’s hair on end, but about the ways in which that science has been censored and is being willfully misunderstood by the so-called climate change deniers, those with financial ties to the coal, oil and natural gas industries. This well-funded campaign against scientific truth may well prove the most consequential blockade of human knowledge in human history.
The play is based on the life and work of American scientists, most particularly James Hansen, Michael Mann and Jennifer Francis, plus the research of biologist Tyrone Hayes into the effects on amphibians of the herbicide atrazine; these scientists have been attacked and vilified for their ground-breaking research.
I came to view climate scientists as visionaries and altruists, flawed and flummoxed like all such people who are suddenly called by forces outside themselves to excel themselves, fighting not just their own reluctance to become publically involved, and their own ill-adaption to public and activist lives, but, ultimately, fighting for the truth in the face of falsehood, not just because truth matters in some abstract or even in moral terms, but because the fate of the Earth itself, and all who live here, is ever more obviously at stake. I set the play as a family drama because we are an American family; what happens to the least of us, a frog in this case, is likely to happen to us all.
Extreme Whether, whose title is a pun that is also a dare, is built on pairs and opposites. The scientists, John and Rebecca, struggle with the implications of their knowledge, one supports and encourages the other when the other loses strength or hope; the publicist and lobbyist, Jeanne and Frank, plot and plan their misinformation campaign and the exploitation of the family land; and the wise old environmentalist Uncle and young, motherless, intersex, Annie, bond across generations and through a shared commitment to protect Earth and Earth’s creatures.
Throughout the play I am also juxtaposing the styles of what might be called psychological and magical realism.
In Extreme Whether I want people to re-experience those moments of absolute wonder, utter peace, and sudden insight we have all experienced alone in the natural world. Through the oracular voices of Uncle and Annie and the juxtaposition of lyric and realist stylistic modes, I try to create a poetry of the theater that frees the imagination and allows us quite literally to come to our senses.
--Karen Malpede, Theater Three Collaborative
Drama of the Thinking Heart
By Karen Malpede
Increasingly, I think of my theater as post-tragic, written in the most dangerous times known to sentient creatures, when the tragic reversal from good fortune to bad is perhaps already the inescapable trajectory. Written on the precipice of climate and perhaps also nuclear disaster, written with intent of pulling us away from blind obedience to this ominous fate. Written to allow a glimmer of clear sight in which we grasp the inevitability of the crisis even as we act to shake it off.
As a playwright, I am keenly aware of the ritual source of ancient drama. Gilbert Murray, the great classicist, relates a "tale from Pausanias, that when Aeschylus, as a child, was put in a field to watch the grapes and fell asleep, Dionysus appeared to him and commanded him to write tragedy. When he woke up he tried and found it quite easy." From which we may conclude not that writing tragedy is simple, but that there is an inviolable connection between nature and creativity, between human nature and biophilia, our love of world. Wishing to retain connection to that same earth-centered impetus I begin by asking what sorts of actions can I put on stage that might allow contemporary people to engage in experiences that would help us face our dangerous reality. How might the intensity of the ritual passage be reinvented so that modern participants are brought to conscious reassessment of our role as protectors of the web of life?
In the back- and- forth exchanges between characters facing the extremes of modernity, an intensity of thought and feeling might be reached that allows expulsion from the collective mind of wearying numbness, a breaking- through to a vision, momentary, fragmentary, nevertheless real and embodied, of a dance of life, a returned embrace—a connectedness to others, to natural forces, and to the felt perception that our own individual deaths might leave us part of an ever-cycling web of life. And though we will all ultimately be lost to our particular consciousness, such intense lyric exchanges remind us that what we hold inside is vast and tumultuous as the universe from which it came to lodge for awhile in us and we owe it therefore to the coming demise of self to give, while we can, a full embrace to the endangered natural world. This, then, is a ritual language whose purpose is to address the violence of the now and to mediate the fear of individual death by bonding us more securely to the endless round of life.
The Beekeeper’s Daughter was written and performed during the Bosnian war, 1993-95, was revived in a June 2016 production in recognition of the plight of current refugees. The play is structured as a mystery in which the celebrants (here I include the author/director, actor/characters and audience) enter more deeply into the reaches of their unconscious minds as the play progresses scene by scene into wilder nature, moving from the House, the Hives, into the Forest and to a Stormy Sea In this play, the antagonist is traumatic memory; each character has their own. Robert and his daughter, Rachel, bear separate memories of the suicide of Dora, his wife, her mother; Sybil of her role in her own daughter’s death and Admira of her multiple rapes and impregnation. Only Jamie, the Dionysian bi-sexual tempter/liberator of them all, seems free of a traumatic past. The play’s protagonist is the creative force inside each character to make art and nurture life. The play is a paean to creativity. Its central character, Robert Blaze, is inspired by two passionate creators—Robert Graves and my friend, Julian Beck—and the character’s speeches articulate the sentiments, sometimes the actual words, of both.
Fear of refugees is a fire being stoked across the world in 2016, but what is really at stake here is not so much fear of the other as fear of what openness to the suffering of others will awaken within the self. Such listening must be done in community; the characters in The Beekeeper’s Daughter form a family around Admira. Each actor in the drama plays a role in her precarious decision to return to life. In the theater, the audience becomes the larger listening community, strengthened and redeemed by their ability to hear and feel with the characters.
Extreme Whether (2014) is largely an agon, a verbal contest or debate, between two climate scientists and two representatives of the fossil fuel industry. Theirs is a battle between the accretion of terrifying knowledge, as the scientists measure the extent of the quickly melting polar ice and try to predict the climate system’s tipping points, and the extractive representatives’ accretion of ever more money and power. As is usual in drama, the chief antagonists are related by bonds of blood; in this case, they are fraternal twins, as am I and each twin’s need to prove oneself separate and distinct gives added force to their battle over the family land.
But the verbal dueling is interrupted and counterbalanced in ritual ways—just as the agon sections in a Greek tragedy periodically give way to contemplative choral odes or charged speeches of the messengers or prophets. The forward movement of the play, its bitter conflict of truth versus profit, is halted periodically by collective moments of biophilia, moments in which the beauty of nature asserts itself so powerfully the characters have no choice but to suspend conflict in order to wonder at their love of world.
The aged steward of the inherited estate whom everyone calls Uncle and the young self-defined intersex Annie serve as oracular voices, one of the past, the other for the future; it is they who call the hyper-rational, intellectual others out into the natural world. And it is Annie who gives voice to the voiceless creatures all of whom are dependent upon human choices now. Extreme Whether ends with an epilogue in which the choice confronting the human race is starkly posed. Uncle reappears from the netherworld (as a god might do at the end of a Greek tragedy) to offer, not a curse, but an inclusive vision of biological life-ever-lasting here for the grasping.
Between these two plays—both reliant upon the soul’s connection to the natural world–come the plays about the wars. After Beekeeper, in despair, I had given up writing original drama, and turned to short fiction most based on interviews I’d done with close survivors of the September 1, 2001 attacks in New York City, stage adaptation with George Bartenieff of the Holocaust diaries of Victor Klemperer, public participatory ritual, docu-drama, and the essay. But the crisis of the invasion of Iraq roused my wish to be heard in a dialogue of my own making and I returned to dramatic fiction. I began a play Prophecy, loosely based on my earlier short story of the same name which would expand to bear echoes of the Sarah, Abraham, Hagar monotheistic story of origin. I was writing with actors in mind, George Bartenieff, of course, but, also, Kathleen Chalfant and Najla Said; I had met the two women when they came to read names in our Iraq: Naming the Dead ritual in the Victorian grave-yard of St. Mark’s Methodist Church in the East Village during the Republican Convention of 2004; then they joined the cast of the docu-drama I put together that marked the second anniversary of the invasion, Iraq: Speaking of War.
In the U.S., even more, perhaps, than in the U.K., we have blinded and numbed ourselves to our own crimes, much to the detriment of our common life. It is precisely here that theater has a role to play; where there has been no justice their might yet be drama that bears witness to the manifold costs of war.
Those whose young adult years (university years in my case on two of the most radical US campuses) were marked by the war in Vietnam, with friends drafted and dead, or fleeing the draft, body counts, images of children burnt by napalm, and by young people shot on college campuses, most readily grasped the horrors that would inevitably follow the invasion of Iraq.
A complex marriage haunted by memories of Vietnam sits at the center of Prophecy. Past and present collide when the couple’s lives are intruded upon by two young people, his daughter from an extra-marital affair and her acting student, both of whom are victims of current wars in the Middle East.
In 2006, as I was writing Prophecy during a retreat in Macedonia, Najla Said was being evacuated from the bombing of Beirut, and sending emails out. The suicide rate of Iraq war veterans was on the rise, though largely unremarked upon at that time. In Prophecy, the young will suffer most. Alan and Sarah arrive at a deeper intimacy and put to rest the crimes and infidelities of the past, while Jeremy and Mariam try for understanding out of reach; the absolution craved by the young man who has killed cannot come from the aggrieved young woman from the Middle East. Prophecy ends with a lament.
Another Life began by reading Beckett. The layered language of All that Fall intrigued and I began a long monologue—the words of the private contractor and mogul Handel. But my previous work co-adapting the diaries of Victor Klemperer was even more influential. Klemperer, a philologist, wrote about the corruption of language under fascism. We were victims of a similar descent from reason as the nation "ramped up" for "shock and awe."
Handel’s story is invented but it shows what happens when the sense of never having been loved enough finds revenge in taking power over others. While the towers fall outside his window, Handel ruminates on his hard childhood as the son of immigrants and his mother’s suicidal leap; his suffering, the only pain he can imagine, has fueled his rise to power over others. The mercenary empire he founds, Deepwater, is modeled on Eric Prince’s Blackwater. George Bartenieff who created the role took physical cues from Ruppert Murdoch, Dick Cheney and Omar Gaddafi. Lately, Handel’s bellicosity brings to mind Donald Trump.
Those Handel dominates must struggle to stay human: Abdul, the undocumented Egyptian livery cab driver and Handel’s trophy wife from Chechnya, Tess, are imprisoned, tortured and abused, but they fall in love and finally escape as Handel dies; David Abbas, the half-Syrian, half-American interrogator Handel hires will survive on sex and alcohol. Lucia, Handel’s adopted Chinese daughter, goes to work for her father as a physician in a black site, and has a nervous breakdown. To redeem herself, she becomes a whistle blower and the play ends with her testimony before a Congressional committee. The ghost of Geoff, her fiancé, appears as her conscience; the only character innocent of Handel’s manipulation because he died as the south tower fell.
Handel, who profits off of torture, is the most purely immoral character I’ve concocted—though Dean Charles Muffler in Prophecy must be a close second causing almost directly the death of Lukas in Vietnam and the suicide of Iraq-war veteran, Jeremy. Rage at war was a dominant driver of both plays, yet Prophecy is full of domestic humor, between husband and wife, teacher and students, father and daughter, and Another Life is as close to satirical comedy as anything I’ve written. There is a great deal more humor in each of these four plays than their topics might suggest, a discovery that often surprises actors and audiences—who need to become nimble to adapt to the quick back and forth whip of the comic cutting through.
Poet Robert Blaze says in The Beekeeper’s Daughter, "one can’t help what one writes, one really has no choice in the matter." And that really does seem to be true. I lie fallow for months or years (15 years separate Beekeeper from Prophecy, though the next two plays followed fast). In Extreme Whether Uncle explains, "There’s a wilding inside that connects with a wilding up there," and that is what it feels like when creation takes hold of one. Something stirs that can no longer be contained. Necessity flaps madly in the gut like a free-flying bird that will dash itself to death or find release. This is why poetry is wild nature produced by human nature, a song between a living cosmos and an ever-emergent self. This is why preservation of life in all its sentient forms, and all life forms are sentient to some degree, is the work of the dramatic poet and why the poet must be, therefore, fiercely engaged in the exploration, creation and manifestation of justice on this earth and for earth’s creatures.
The four plays in this volume are linked by being born from contemporary crises: the war in Bosnia, its rape camps, can be read, now, in hindsight, as a signature moment in the drift away from cosmopolitanism toward narrow-minded ethnic violence and the start of civil wars in places where people lived together, if not always at ease, at least civilly. Bosnia, too, marked the modern moment, all too familiar now, when unmitigated savagery began to coexist with luxury—a time in which the world’s "haves" live wildly privileged lives and "have nots" suffer unbearable fates. I was in Umbria, staying as a guest at a 14th century castle, when news of the rape camps appeared in the world press. Later, we were privileged because of our production to meet and become friends with two Bosnian refugee families, easing their transition into the U.S. while enormously enriching our own lives. Bosnia was the start of the new refugee crisis in the West, and an instigator, alongside Chechnya and Afghanistan, of Jihadist’s journeying to take up the fight.
The invasion of Iraq exacerbated all these trends. This ghastly spreading war is now widely understood, even by the many who cheered it on, as a "mistake." It was and is, of course, far worse: a criminal act, illegal and immoral. The lies were apparent at the time; it was not faulty intelligence that led the U.S. and Britain, Bush and Blair, into war with such huzzahs; it was greed, simple and pure, perhaps mixed with some religious crusader’s fervor on the part of those two—the handler and his poodle—but clearly, simply desire for dominance and oil. The U.S. torture program fostered by the wish to revenge the attacks of September 11, 2001, also violated domestic and international law. No one has ever been held accountable in the U.S. for these criminal acts.
Fighting escalating wars, torturing, droning innocent civilians, bombing hospitals and aid convoys at the time the planet is literally burning up is insanity of the highest order. Those who do climate science or have made the effort to learn its basics find ourselves in an unfathomable position in which knowledge and language count for nothing against the entrenched lethal habits of fossil fuel addiction and revenues and the lies of free-market ideology. Researching Extreme Whether shook me to my core; it has also been the most difficult play to fund, while arguably the most popular.
Does bearing witness matter? All I can say in my defense is that I had to speak-out in dramatic form. I think that drama can enhance our ability to take it in the unbearable, see through lies and dogma, to understand the truths of our own times, and be fully present in the moment. Intellect without feeling is often deadly; emotion without thought renders us weak and easily manipulated. I believe that drama provides the opportunity to think feelingly and that we are enriched when we do so with others, in the community of audience.
If language is what makes us human—setting us apart from all other animals—and if language, as Noam Chomsky argues, was a biological, evolutionary leap for the purpose of allowing "internal thought," then, I propose that a language of passionate thought for the purpose of compassionate understanding represents the next, and needed evolutionary leap. How we get there species-wise I have no idea, but that images of such a longed for reality can be put into the bodies of actors, then onto stage where they enter the consciousness of audiences, this much the artist can do. As my partner George Bartenieff has often said, "Revolution needs to be replaced by evolution."
I hope that as these plays age, they lose none of their original bite—but come to stand as records of modernity gone terribly wrong—but, also, terribly right for each play has its heroes—or, rather, each play is made up in the majority of characters who refuse to partake in the violence swirling around, who insist that the only struggle worth entering is the one for sentient thought. This capacity to think and feel at the same time, to feel the impact of our thoughts and think about the truth of our feelings, is what will finally make us completely human—for we are not yet whole. These plays look forward and back; they envision and remember. Their plots sear into consciousness our crimes and present acts of reconciliation. Their stories tell of what was and might yet be. In each play, characters surprise themselves by acting in empathic ways. They love across boundaries. They forgive. They gain wisdom from protecting others. As their connections and commitments deepen, they discover determination and strength they did not know they had. The actions of these characters alter the narratives; they turn the trajectory from disaster toward sustaining life.
I am remiss if I do not acknowledge the core artists who have made these plays reality over the past 22 years; their talents may be glimpsed in the photos. Without these collaborators, I would not and could not have written and directed these plays—for Theater Three Collaborative exists on a shoestring, at the very edge of the American theater where it is mainly ignored if not reviled by the establishment. Primarily, since 1987, when our mutual friend Judith Malina cast him in my play Us, I have been inspired, taught, and goaded by the amazing shape-changing talents of producer/actor George Bartenieff, classically trained in dance by his parents, in Shakespeare at RADA and the Guild Hall, yet dedicated to the avant-garde’s merging of the physical with poetry and its urge to transform. I have written a major role in every play for him and cannot write until I understand what his role will be. Luckily for me, he can act any and every thing. We go over every word and action together, many times, before and during rehearsal, and after the play is done. When we founded our theater in 1995, to produce The Beekeeper’s Daughter, the late Lee Nagrin, an absolutely singular, multi-creative voice, for whom I had written the role of Sybil, just as I wrote Robert Blaze for George, brought with her two design geniuses: lighting designer Tony Giovannetti and costume designer, Sally Ann Parsons, and I’ve had the privilege of working with them ever since. Artist Luba Lukova came to us at that same time, and she has designed all our graphics plus video projections for several plays. Composer Arthur Rosen has written scores for each of these four plays; Michaelangelo DeSerio has designed two of them and overseen production on one other and Carisa Kelly has become Sally Ann’s co-designer. Beatriz Schiller has been our main photographer. Actors who have stuck with us, acting in multiple readings and productions, and otherwise advising, include: Abbas Noori Abbood, Kathleen Chalfant, Christen Clifford, Najla Said, Kathleen Purcell, Alex Tavis and Di Zhu—while many others have graced single shows. Media specialist, Catherine Greninger, has allowed us to function. This book is a record of twenty-two years of theater work done outside the mainstream by renegade artists. And I am profoundly grateful to all my collaborators over all this time.
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i Gilbert Murray, Aeschylus and the Creation of Tragedy, Oxford University Press, 1940, p. 147.
ii Edward O. Wilson introduced the concept that there is a instinctive bond between humans and other living systems in his book Biophilia, Harvard University Press (1986).
iii I take the word "protectors" from Native American tribes who reject "protestors" in its favor as they make a stand against oil and gas pipelines across their native lands (and all the U.S. is native land, actually).
iv Robert Blaze in the play quotes Graves directly when he says explains to Admira in the Sea Scene: "poetry is rooted in love, and love in desire, and desire in the hope of continued existence." The White Goddess, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (1948) p. 409. Sentiments such as: "We pushed forward the boundaries the possible. We made everyday life wildly exciting and human love heroic," from Robert’s "Happy" speech in the Forest Scene with Rachel, and, in fact, much that Robert says, are inspired by and are certainly meant to recall the passions of my late friend, Julian Beck, co-founder with Judith Malina of The Living Theatre, who died in 1984. An earlier play, Us, is dedicated to Julian’s memory.
v "Prophecy" TriQuarterly, #123, Northwestern University Press, pgs. 178-197. In the short story, the war has not yet begun. The student, Jeremy, comes to say good-bye to his teacher, Sarah, before he deploys, rousing her memories of Lukas. Alan, Hala and Mariam do not yet exist.
vi Iraq: Speaking of War was performed on March 19, 2005 at the Proshansky Auditorium, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, to mark the second year of the invasion of Iraq, and again the following October at the Culture Project, with Iraqi music by Emar ElSafar, percussion by Johnny Faraj, and an original suite, "B-A-G-D-A-D" by Milos Raikovich. Peter Francis James, Najla Said, Kathleen Chalfant and George Bartenieff, all of whom later performed in Prophecy in New York, in 2010, were in the cast, along with Judith Malina, Hanon Reznikov, Dalia Basiouny and others.
vii Undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin; graduate school at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
viii Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky, Why Only Us: Language and Evolution, Cambridge: MIT Press, (2016). See pgs 110-111 for a quick summary of their argument.
ix I realize writing about language, politics and sentience the influence on my work of a dear friend, Dorothy Dinnerstein, author of the influential feminist book, The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976), published in the UK as The Rocking of the Cradle and the Ruling of the World (1987). At the time of her death in 1992, Dorothy was working on an unfinished book to be titled Sense and Sentience about which she and her circle had had many conversations—one memorable one on an arrest bus after a protest against Wall St. greed and nuclear arms in 1983, when I was six months pregnant. It is to Dorothy’s memory, and to that Ned Ryerson, the first financial patron of my work, a Quaker educator and writer, that The Beekeeper’s Daughter is dedicated.
The polarization of the American family has serious and real consequences. In the case of the Global Warming, the fight against scientific truth has the most serious consequence imaginable. 98% of scientists world-wide agree that Global Warming is a human-caused phenomenon that threatens the very continuation of life on Earth. Life developed during the 11,000 year Holocene period during which climate and sea level remained relatively stable. We have left the Holocene and entered the Anthropocene era in which the burning of fossil fuels is now altering the climate on Earth faster than at any time that life has existed. While there is no real scientific debate about this fact, and its seriousness, the fossil fuel industry has mounted a lengthy and expensive campaign aimed at obscuring scientific truth and attacking climate scientists themselves.
“Extreme Whether” is inspired by the real-life stories, current research and actual struggles of American climate scientists who found their research and their personal lives attacked and vilified by representatives of the fossil fuel industry. The books and lives of Dr. James Hansen, Dr. Michael Mann and Dr. Jennifer Francis plus Dr. Tyrone Hayes who research on the herbicide Atrazine is used by the characters of Annie and Uncle in the play are central to the story of the play.
Hansen’s book Storms of our Grandchildren tells his history at NASA. Hansen is the scientist who testified before Congress in 1988 that Global Warming had begun. The censoring of Hansen’s science by the U.S. government for which he worked, under the Bush Administration, and his repeated attempts to tell the truth about Global Warming are the basis of many events in the play. Hansen’s call for a tax on carbon is also in the play.
Mann’s book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars goes into detail about the attacks against him, including finding white powder in his mail box, having his emails hacked, law suits brought against him, and lies told about him and his work with the intent of having him fired, in response to his research that shows the rapid change of climate in the last decades. Many of the tactics used again Mann, including impugning the integrity of his research, are used against Rebecca in the play.
Francis’s research about the rapidly melting Arctic ice and its effect on the elongation of the Jet Stream and increasingly extreme weather patterns in the temperate regions of the globe has been widely quoted and hotly debated. Rebecca’s science in the play is based on Francis’s.
Hayes’s research into the deleterious affects of the herbicide Atrizine, already banned in the European Union, and the threats leveled against him, including death threats, has been the subject of a February, 2014, New Yorker profile: “A Valuable Reputation: After Tyrone Hayes said that a chemical was harmful, its maker pursued him” by Rachel Aviv. Haye’s research is used by Annie and Uncle as they attempt to protect Sniffley and other amphibians and as they attempt to save the water by fighting against fracking.
Please see http://theaterthreecollaborative.org/hot-off-the-press/ for more information, interviews with scientists, articles.