In closed spaces | Fabian Scheidler


Industrial civilisation has led the earth into the sixth mass species extinction in the planet’s history. The vast forests of Southeast Asia, Central Africa and the Amazon are being turned into lunar landscapes. In the oceans, low-oxygen ‘dead zones’ are expanding rapidly; the Great Barrier Reef – the biggest structure life has ever created on earth – is dying before our very eyes. In Central Europe, about three quarters of the insect populations have already disappeared, while in Australia’s unprecedented wildfires of 2019/2020 at least one billion mammals, birds and reptiles have perished – in only a couple of months. Whether humankind as a species is going to survive ‘the great dying’ it has triggered is far from certain.

It is a drama of almost cosmic proportions and on all accounts the greatest tragedy humans can imagine. But western theatre has remarkably little to say about this. It still presents us plays where desperate people yell at each other and roll on the floor; it shows the emptiness that the capitalist system creates in us and between us; but it has no language, no form for the much greater drama that is taking place between humans and the more-than-human world. While many think that everything has already been done on stage, the most crucial thing has not even been tried. The tragic plot par excellence – the conflict between creation and the hubris of man – is not staged. How has this inability to deal with the most important topic of the 21st century come about?

The reason is to be found in a striking peculiarity of modern western theatre: it cannot represent the more-than-human world. Apart from some Christmas fairy tales, bourgeois theatre has, since its emergence, created characters who act as if they were alone with each other on the planet. In this closed universe, the sphere of what we call ‘nature’ is nothing but a backdrop to human intrigues. In Shakespeare’s works there was at least a storm; however, it turned out to be just a tool of Prospero’s colonial machinations. Later, the more-than-human world has disappeared more and more from western stages. Eventually, it merely served as a symbol, as a faint memory of a vanished world out there – a wild duck, a glass menagerie, a dead tree. Humans are hovering about in closed rooms without an exterior world. All that is alive in there is themselves.

This isolation, however, is by no means due to the nature of theatre itself. After all, Greek tragedy, and thereby European theatre as a whole, once emerged from the Dionysian chants of horse- and goat-like characters. The great dramatic traditions of China, Japan, Bali and India – compared to which western theatre can sometimes look quite underdeveloped – abound with more-than-human characters. For us, however, they represent hardly anything more than religious folklore and an exotic decoration. Because only people can act, right?

It is, however, not only theatre that has separated ‘nature’ from us as something alien and extrinsic. It is our civilisation as a whole. We are used to dividing science neatly into natural sciences and humanities; one dealing with physical objects, the other with societies and mental processes – as if we could insert a concrete wall between our bodies and our minds. We treat the outside world as a disposable mass for our insatiable economic system which is transforming the living world each and every day into mountains of dead commodities. We are fondling our beloved pet dogs while at the same time devouring steaks that originate from the nightmare of the slaughter factories which, for their part, are fed from the burning forests of the Amazon. – Surely, there are no other protagonists than us. Or is there anybody else?

However, what has been split off and repressed as ‘nature’ returns centre stage as the protagonist of the 21st century: storms that no Prospero is able to control, floods that no Hercules can embank, blazing heat from which there is no shelter anymore, pandemics emerging from the excrement of bats who are fleeing from the ravaged woods. What is approaching us, has no human shape. It is different. And still it acts. Does theatre have anything serious to say about this? Is it, while our civilisation has started to fall apart, going to find a new language and form? Or will it just go down with all the rest, wriggling and shouting in closed spaces?

Fabian Scheidler is a German writer, playwright, dramaturg and journalist. His books include ‘The End of the Megamachine. A Brief History of a Failing Civilisation,’ analysing the origins of global crises, and ‘Chaos. Das neue Zeitalter der Revolutionen’ (Chaos. The New Age of Revolutions).