Much of this essay as well as the excerpts from scenes from the plays is originally published in Plays in Time: The Beekeeper’s Daughter, Prophecy, Another Life, Extreme Whether, Intellect Press, September 2017.\
When Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accord in May 2017, it became clear to many more people that climate policy in the US is dictated not by scientific consensus or by public interest but by the many millions of dollars the fossil fuel industry pours into the coffers of climate change denying lobbyists and politicians (virtually, the entire Republican Congress). This is the scandal of our time. The Paris Accord represents the flawed but last, best attempt of the nations of the world to keep world temperature rise caused by Anthropogenic climate change to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” as John Bjornson says in Extreme Whether, quoting Dr. James Hansen who resigned from NASA in 2013 to protest US climate policy and the censorship of climate science. Hence, Extreme Whether, written in 2013-14, has become ever-more relevant as extreme weather events increase world-wide while climate policy in the US aligns itself ever-more openly with the fossil fuel industry instead of with the interests of living creatures and earth. That this play has been kept off the major stages of the country is an indication, too, of how tightly culture is controlled by those same interests—for who sits on the boards of our major funding and cultural institutions but people whose wealth is acquired, at least in part, by investments in lucrative fossil fuel industry stocks.
I am a writer and director of plays. 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 (the first, as at Fukushima, could set off the second or vice versa), 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 place in 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 were is still to be a part of life wondrous and whole, and we owe therefore to the coming memories of ourselves a full embrace of 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. Surely, this is kin to the experience of the initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries; surely, kin to the worshippers of Dionysus as his ritual gave birth to drama, tragic, comic and the satyr play for which celebrants became audience/participants. Such a theater embodies an ecofeminist ritual experience.
The Beekeeper’s Daughter was written and performed during the Bosnian war, 1993-95, and 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) must enter deeply into the dark, delving down into the reaches of their unconscious minds, there to relive dangerous secrets of the flesh and soul that might annihilate were they not grasped in communion with one another. Inside this play, mass rape is exposed, its lethality defused, and that which threatens to destroy becomes a story whose telling and hearing allows for movement through trauma into a created life.
Rachel, a human rights worker, brings Admira Ismic, a pregnant victim of a Bosnian rape camp, to her ex-pat poet father’s idyllic Adriatic island home to ask for help from her Aunt Sybil, a beekeeper, who raised Rachel after her poet-mother’s suicide. Sybil bears a terrible secret about the circumstances of the death of her own child that has left her with deep sight. She understands immediately what fearful journey into her own psyche will be asked of her if and when Admira is to survive. It takes more than half the play to arrive at Sybil and Admira’s shared song in the forest. Everything Admira relates about the rape camps actually happened to women during the Bosnian war. A significant number of those women later killed themselves. The play asks its audience to consider if bearing witness matters. Can the acts of listening and of sharing be reparative?
[Sybil sits on her stool in the clearing in the forest, rocking back and forth
with Admira’s child on her lap]
ADMIRA: I want to kill my child.
SYBIL: I know, child. I know that.
ADMIRA: No one should live. Not anymore. Beasts. Only monsters should walk the earth. He is too weak. I won’t let him. I won’t allow it. They took babies by their heels, hit their heads against rock. I saw what came out.
SYBIL: I did. I did it. No one believed me. It was an accident. The wall came out of nowhere. I turned right into it. I had my foot on the gas. The air smelled like spring. I had the pedal to the ground. I could smell her sweet flesh.
ADMIRA: They did it all in front of everyone. They took four of us. In front of everyone. On the ground. They did it. Everyone saw it. No one moved.
SYBIL: It was a long time ago. Before even Rachel was born. Then no one could believe such things. I didn’t believe it myself. Even with my black eyes, I couldn’t see. Now people try to believe. They read in the newspapers. They see on the television.
ADMIRA: I itched so. The smell. I couldn’t stand the smell. They made me smell like that. I can’t say these things to anyone. I want to shout. All the time I want to shout. I am so dirty inside. I must be dead. No one lives with so much dirt.
SYBIL: She used to talk in poetry. She said to me when she was three and a half, “mama, where do the stars go in day? Do they go down under the earth to dance with the dead bones.” When she was just two, she asked: “Mama, why doesn’t light always come colored like in rainbows?”I wrote the things she said down in my head. They were going to take her away from me. They were going to take her away. Because I watched him one night from the door, when he hurt her. I watched. My tongue turned to ash in my mouth.
ADMIRA: I wanted to kill them all. I want to go back and I want to kill. I want to kill everyone who looked at me. Everyone who watched. Everyone who knows anything. Rachel knows too much. Some nights I want to take a knife. I want to cut out her heart. So she’ll know. So she’ll know what it felt like.
Sybil, whose daughter was wounded by an abusive father but who died at her own hand is the only one who knows in her own flesh enough of sorrow to hear Admira’s rape story without recoiling. At the end of their call and response in the forest, after they each have unburdened themselves, Sybil speaks of the comfort she has found.
SYBIL: That’s how I learned to keep bees. Dora bought me a hive. Dora was always very good to me. I found out that bees live the same way in captivity or in the wild. No one has ever been able to change the essence of bees. All we have ever been able to do is steal their honey, but the bees go on being bees just the same as always. They live as if they were free. They talk to each other with their wings. They make up dances. In times long ago, people used to understand the language of bees but now we’ve forgotten how to understand them
It is the poet, Robert, who does most of the childcare throughout the play, having, surprisingly, fallen “in love with this baby.” Like many men as they age, Robert has become open to the experiences of nurturing the young he was simply too busy for when his own daughter, Rachel, was young and he was making his name as a writer. And it is Robert who sits with Admira when she confesses her wish to become an avenger—feelings that terrify her so she has been trying to starve herself to death “so I won’t raise my son to be a killer.” Robert’s ability to hear the full force of Admira’s rage allows her to arrive at the moment of clear sight (Katharsis) she and the audience require—and after she speaks, she breaks her starvation by eating the chocolate he has offered.
ADMIRA: Suddenly all I could see were swollen bellies. In the room all around were women crying. I was one of their voices. All alone, shivering. But all I could see were bellies heaving. Like the bellies of the sea. Swollen sea bellies. And the sea was singing to us; she opened her mouth, swollen bellies heaved out. I tasted sea salt in my mouth. I cannot explain what I saw. We were each one of us waves, all the women alone in that room were like the waves on the sea; I saw it all in that moment. I remember I said to myself,” I am going to live.”That is my story, too, isn’t it, Robert?
Fear of refugees is a fire being stoked across the world, 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. Facing someone who has endured the seemingly unendurable rouses the irrational, the unexplored inside the self, and in order to reintegrate that sufferer into the larger world, those who dare listen will also be challenged and changed. 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 final decision to return to life. In the theater, the audience becomes the larger listening community; perhaps they are strengthened for the task of becoming empathic listeners to those who are suffering in the world, perhaps, too, they become more aware of the benefits of taking action to mitigate that suffering.
Extreme Whether (2014) is largely an agon, or verbal contest, 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 antagonists are related. Jeanne, a publicist for the fossil fuel industry, and creator of the now ubiquitous “I’m an energy voter” advertising campaign, is the twin sister of John, preeminent climate scientist whose story of struggle is inspired by Dr. James Hansen, who announced to Congress in 1988 that global warming had begun and was subsequently censored by U.S. government for which he worked. Rebecca, an ice scientist, is John’s lover; Frank, a fossil fuel lobbyist and unscrupulous self-made man, is married to Jeanne.
Their verbal dueling is periodically 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 aged steward of the inherited estate whom everyone calls Uncle and the young self-defined intersex Annie serve as oracular voices in the drama. Both give speeches in which they set forward earth-centered ways of being. “We sensed our place in the grand design, to marvel at the large and small, to tread lightly not to leave a mark, the grasses would rebound, we would exit as we’d come, gently, unremarked upon,” Uncle remembers. To which Annie responds: “Don’t cry Uncle. I am not numb. I can feel the vanishing of things. What else can we do but work to save what is.” The two are digging a frog pond in which Sniffley, Annie’s beloved frog deformed by the pesticide atrazine, can find safe haven.
The forward movement of the play, its bitter conflict of truth versus profit, halts periodically for collective moments of biophilia, when love of nature asserts itself so powerfully the characters have no choice but to stop and wonder. This begins with Extreme Whether’s prologue on the hill, the most beautiful place the characters know, when Jeanne returns to the family land after a long absence, and the twins remember their youth and speak of the death of John’s wife. Later, Jeanne’s plotting phone call with Frank is interrupted as Annie calls John and Rebecca outside to see the starlit sky that subsumes within its grandeur all mortal tensions below.
UNCLE: There’s a wilding inside. Rebecca! John!
JEANNE: Dear Frank, I have to hang up. It’s a madhouse.
UNCLE: A wilding inside that wills to connect to the wilding up there.
(The door slams.)
ANNIE: Papa! Rebecca!
JOHN: Whatever is it?
ANNIE: It is the heavens on fire.
JOHN: This is the cathedral dome.
JEANNE: Why, John, you’re a poet.
JOHN: Jeanne, here?
JEANNE: Here. Take my hand. Let us pretend we are children, again, and the sky is as big as it was then. We used to stand with Father and he’d name each constellation for us; funny, I’ve forgotten them all and yet there they are the same as ever. I could feel myself aloft, as if dancing in the night sky. I’d get dizzy and fall.
ANNIE: It’s so. If you squint. Squint, papa, squint. See, you fly right up there. I’m twirling in the middle of the stars.
UNCLE: Tip me out of this chair!
JEANNE: Goodness, no.
UNCLE: Lay me down, spine to ground.
ANNIE: Papa, help.
(Annie and John tip Uncle out of his chair.)
UNCLE: Thank you, John, Annie child. Now, all able bodied ones, the same. Eyes up. Spirits aloft.
(Rebecca and Annie lie down. John follows them, then Jeanne. The stars spin overhead; the sounds of insects below echo the music of the spheres.)
REBECCA: There’s Sirius, the Dog star.
ANNIE: In Canis Major, of course.
UNCLE: “The grand processional of all the stars of night.”
REBECCA: Lyra fading out. Aquila growing bright.
ANNIE: I’m dancing with the Dolphin Delphinus.
REBECCA: I’m astride Capricornus, the sea-goat.
JOHN: The sky will endure.
REBECCA: As long as we see.
ANNIE Heaven’s song…
UNCLE: Will be sung. The unfortunate ones, the lost, who struggled and wept, whose voices never were heard on earth, they sing to us in the night.
JEANNE: What a lovely thought.
UNCLE: Attend; you, too, shall be blessed by those who sparkle and shine, who cry in the dark.
(Music of the spheres. Sniffley and friend croak.)
JOHN: (jumps to his feet) By god, I feel full of such power. I’ll draft a speech that will be unforgettable.
(Black out. Night music shifts to morning music of the birds.)
In Act II, as Jeanne and Frank plot to blackmail Rebecca in order to destroy her reputation and John’s and to frack that beautiful hill, Sniffley dies. Annie’s family gathers to mourn the nonhuman person who has become part of their lives. Again, the audience is asked to suspend its own desire to witness conflict and to contemplate with the characters what really matters.
(Annie enters ringing a ritual bell; Uncle carries in Sniffley’s body in a hand-made box. John joins the funeral procession, they arrive at a clearing in the woods. Uncle places the small box on the ground. Then Rebecca joins the group, coming from her walk. Annie removes her hat and stares at her father until he does the same.)
ANNIE: Sniffley came when I called. Sniffley ate from my hand. Sniffley liked oatmeal cookies into which instead of raisins I would bake some flies. Sniffley listened. This is a quality of soul most rare in humans. Sniffley looked out at the universe with a clear gaze. He wanted nothing more than to be. This is what I learned from Sniffley: I was seen and I was heard. I was. I am. Sniffley was. He/she/me/birl/Sniffley-boy-girl, the world is far more precious for you lived. Those who knew Sniffley, I would now like each to say a few words.
JOHN: What struck me most about Sniffley, despite his deformity, which meant that every time he jumped he nearly fell on his face, was how utterly dignified he was.
REBECCA: I shall miss his frog song, morning and night; I shall miss his croaks.
UNCLE: I shall be brief. I have said it before and I shall say it again: where is Sniffley, now? In that slim slice of air that surrounds the earth, our atmosphere, no thicker from space than tissue paper. We are breathing him in. Sniffley is now of us; we are of him. So, it goes, in death we unite. We are no more alone. We become. Enough. Being is.
(During Annie’s song, Frank enters and stands outside the group, observing.)
ANNIE: I should now like to close with a song:
And the world was, too
The most decent frog
Most beautiful place
And the world rose, too
Out of H2O. Ocean
River, lake, pond, womb
For nothing at all
He cocked his head
Listened, Dreamt, felt, caught bugs
A hop, a croak, a fall,
Nothing of him does remain
(The last line is repeated twice more, with John, Uncle and Rebecca joining in.)
UNCLE: We shall retire to the funeral pyre.
Extreme Whether ends with an epilogue in which the choice confronting the human race is starkly posed and Uncle reappears from the netherworld (as a god often does at the end of a Greek tragedy) to offer, once more, not a curse, but the benign and inclusive vision he first voiced in the star scene.
(The air is pea green, heavy, and dense; a few coughs are heard. Slowly, a yellow light comes up, as if a piercing sun-light is struggling to cut through the fetid atmosphere, bringing with it greater heat. John, Annie, Rebecca, sit together on the hilltop. Behind them is Uncle’s wind turbine, but the blades are not moving. Deathly still.)
REBECCA: Pass the water.
JOHN: There is no more water.
REBECCA: Uncle dug us a well.
ANNIE: The turbine’s stopped working.
JOHN: There is no more wind.
REBECCA: It’s so hot.
JOHN: The ocean water seeped in.
ANNIE: The salinity of the ocean water is very great.
REBECCA: The air is so thick.
JOHN: Just sit.
REBECCA: This is what Venus is like.
JOHN: Not quite.
JEANNE: (off) John.
(Jeanne appears, crawling.)
JEANNE: I don’t want to die alone.
JOHN: Of course not.
REBECCA: Where is Frank?
JEANNE: Massive heart attack.
REBECCA: Lucky Frank.
JEANNE: I no longer loved him.
JEANNE: Where is Uncle?
REBECCA: Uncle died serene. He left us a working well and a wind turbine…
JOHN: Yes, Annie, what?
ANNIE: I want to wake up. Will you wake me up, please, papa, like you used to do, remember, shaking my shoulders, holding me, saying, “Annie, wake up. You’ve been having a bad dream. That’s all it is. Wake up, now.” I think everyone should wake up, Papa, now. Let’s wake up, please. Wake up and tell me what you see.
(Music of nature slowly begins.)
REBECCA: I see trees.
JOHN: I see deer, and frogs.
ANNIE: Sniffley’s line. I hear birds.
JEANNE: The Ocean is teaming with fish.
ANNIE: Wind. I feel wind.
(The wind turbine begins to turn. The multifold sounds of the music of nature begin once again to intensify.)
(Uncle appears. Stars come out. )
UNCLE: Attend. I have given you everything. You, too, shall be blessed by those who sparkle and shine, by those who cry in the dark.
(End of Play)
The young of all species come into this world already able to feel delight and terror. By halting the forward action in Extreme Whether with scenes that call our attention to the exuberance of shared contemplation in nature, I am leading the audience 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.
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About the Author
Karen Malpede is the co-artistic director of Theater Three Collaborative, with her partner, actor/producer George Bartenieff. The late Lee Nagrin was a co-founder. The Beekeeper’s Daughter was TTC’s first production in 1994-5. The play was revived in June, 2016, at Theater for the New City in New York City. Extreme Whether premiered in October 2014 at Theater for the New City, and was performed in Paris in December 2015 as part of ArtCop21. Extreme Whether is scheduled for revival in New York in February 2018 at LaMama ETC, in New York City. She is author of A Monster Has Stolen the Sun and Other Plays, Plays in Time: Beekeeper’s Daughter, Prophecy, Another Life, Extreme Whether, editor of Women in Theater: Compassion and Hope; her play Us is published in Women on the Verge: Seven Avant-Garde Plays by Women, Better People is in Angels of Power. She is author of 17 plays, numerous essays, articles, and short stories in Confrontations, Tri-Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, Torture Magazine and elsewhere. For information about her theater’s work visit www.theaterthreecollaborative.org