Has Your Dystopian Play Come in Handy?

In many cities, the threat of the novel coronavirus and the efforts to slow its spread have altered daily life dramatically. Ordinary objects (doorknobs, soap) seem transformed, banal activities — biting a nail, buying milk — freighted with danger. New vocabulary has emerged, as have new habits and new ways of navigating a narrowed landscape.

Has Your Dystopian Play Come in Handy?

Still, if you see enough theater and you have, like me, a fascination with onstage dystopias, certain elements may feel familiar — restrictions on movement and behavior, distrust of the environment and each other. “King Lear” and “Endgame,” “Far Away” and “Blasted” are classics of the genre. But you could fill a shelf with plays of the past several decades that have dreamed bleak outcomes for humanity. And then, in a pinch, you could burn that shelf and those plays for warmth.

Recently, I spoke with several playwrights — via telephone and email — about what it is like to first imagine a cataclysm and then live through one. Because playwriting is a solitary art, many of the men and women described routines that felt both somewhat typical and wholly changed. “Friends have suggested that I must be coming up with so many stories during this time,” Robert O’Hara said. “I’m simply hoping we all make it through this alive.” These are excerpts from the conversations.

José Rivera, “Marisol”

The Public Theater, 1993

Apocalyptic event: A young copy editor navigates a despoiled New York City. The moon has disappeared, and food has turned to salt.

Your circumstances: “ I live alone, on the Upper West Side. My routine hasn’t changed very much. I get up every morning, and I write for four to six hours a day. Generally, I’m as isolated as I always was.”

Your play: “I lived a lot of those experiences. I was burnt out of my Bronx apartment. I was attacked by a guy with a golf club on the subway. Crack was beginning to explode, as well as AIDS. I didn’t set out to write a piece of prophecy. I was responding to my daily existence.”

How to live now: “I resist writing about a crisis when I’m in the middle of the crisis, because I can’t see clearly.”

Anne Washburn, “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play”

Playwrights Horizons, 2013

Apocalyptic event: Following a pandemic and technological destruction, surviving humans shelter together, exchanging remembered song, stories and episodes of “The Simpsons.”

Your environment: “I speak to you from our bedroom in Brooklyn. I’m with my husband, Gordon. The apartment is a sty. So that’s very occupying. My goal is usually to spend all my time at home, but since I never get to realize that goal, it’s hard to say what this will be like.”

Your play: “I was thinking about a pandemic, a fantastically quick-moving, incredibly mortal, sweeping humanity off the face of the earth pandemic. This is not that."

How to live now: “Dystopias are soothing because the worst has already happened. What’s awful about right now is that we’re before whatever is next. We can’t start to cope because we’re all still being slung around by the future. Either this is the worst time, or it’s the easiest time and it gets much worse.”

Jennifer Haley, “The Nether”

MCC, 2015

Apocalyptic event: In the wake of an ecological collapse, humans spend most of their waking hours in elaborate online worlds. A detective investigates a potentially dangerous site.

Your environment: “I’m in Los Angeles, sheltering in my cottage. I’m pretty used to it. I’m naturally a hermit and I have a cat — there’s actually a whole community of cats around here. I’ve been talking more regularly to close family and friends.”

Your play: “I was thinking about climate change, working with the idea that nature had become so compromised, it was actually far more pleasant to spend time in virtual realms. I was trying to say that the internet as a piece of technology is not all bad. I’m so grateful that we have the internet right now.”

How to live now: “We’ve been living under the illusion that we can reliably predict what our lives might look like a week, a month, year or two from where we are. All of a sudden, we don’t know.”

Mac Rogers, “The Honeycomb Trilogy”

The Gym at Judson, 2015

Apocalyptic event: Returning astronauts seed earth with apian life-forms who enslave humanity. A generation later, humanity rebels.

Your environment: “I’m in my apartment in Long Island City with my wife, Sandy. She just popped in to say that she’s saving me from the apocalypse. She went through the various canned stuff and figured out how many meals we have left.”

Your play: “In my plays, collapse is specifically motivated by human actions. A big difference between that and the coronavirus situation is that viruses don’t think like a human enemy. They’re just doing their thing."

How to live now: “Jumping into apocalyptic science fiction was a way of getting away from myself. I was like, I want to force my drama into a world that I couldn’t possibly survive in. Now I’m actually looking down the barrel of a world where, if there were total societal breakdown, I would be one of the first to go. I can’t fight. I can’t forage. My wife would outlive me by quite a bit.”

Penelope Skinner, “The Ruins of Civilization”

Manhattan Theater Club, 2016

Apocalyptic event: In an ecologically imperiled future, the British government has placed profound limits on childbearing. One woman tries to flout the system.

Your environment: “We are in London: me, my partner, our toddler and our dog. In some ways, my life isn’t so radically different — I work from home, we hardly ever went out in the evenings. But our routine has shrunk, and anxiety for the people we love and the world and the vulnerable is huge.”

Your play: “It was inspired by research I did about the climate crisis — a year of research followed by five years of living with the anxiety resulting from that research."

How to live now: “Just over two years ago, our child was born with a serious long-term medical condition, and I’ve learned a lot about being in the moment, not projecting too far into the future and trying to manage overwhelming feelings of anxiety. I have also developed a profound respect and gratitude for people working at every level of the health-care profession. We are in their hands now.”

Zoe Kazan, “After the Blast”

LCT3, 2017

Apocalyptic event: An unnamed catastrophe has damaged the earth’s surface, perhaps irreparably. Underground, a woman bonds with a robot.

Your environment: “I had a job in Australia; my parents came with me. Paul, my partner, was in London working on the ‘Batman’ movie. Paul’s production shut down, and then my production shut down. And as of yesterday morning at 6 a.m., we’re staying in my parents’ basement. I’m grateful to not be totally alone.”

Your play: “I thought about it for like five years. It seemed really important to me that it be ecological, but that it not be an accident, like a meteor or something that had no causality. My friends who are introverted who saw my play, were like, that seems like a very hopeful future — where people are safe and spend their days reading and doing science.”

How to live now: “I wouldn’t say I feel prepared in any way. But I am like, ‘Oh, all of the Oregon Trail skills that I have may come in handy.’ ”

Robert O’Hara, “Mankind”

Playwrights Horizons, 2018

Apocalyptic event: In this fierce satire, women have gone extinct, and abortion is illegal. Somehow two men have and lose a baby.

Your environment: “I’m sheltering with my partner at our home upstate. We are adjusting to being around each other so much. We have to find the time to settle down and quiet our minds. The challenge of sitting inside the unknowable is something I usually manufacture in my art. But this is not a 90 minute one-act.”

Your play: “I imagined a world where half the population disappeared. I hope we are not living through that right now."

How to live now: “The thrill of being an artist is to imagine the unimaginable. There is no thrill in sitting inside of a real pandemic. This is not fiction.”

Andrew R. Butler, “Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future”

Ars Nova, 2018

Apocalyptic event: Climate change and resource scarcity have created profound political upheaval. In the 23rd century, government cracks down on cyborg life as a ragtag band plays on.

Your environment: “I’m in my apartment in Brooklyn, in an old building on Ocean Avenue. I live with my partner — and our two cats — and we’re both here doodling away, getting in each other’s hair.”

Your play: “I was thinking of climate shift and the resulting political divisions. I truly hadn’t imagined a giant plague scenario.”

How to live now: “I so desperately want this to be temporary. I’m intrigued by the creativity that is emerging in this new social-spatial arrangement. And I’m curious about what will stick.”

Duncan Macmillan, “Lungs”

Postponed from the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2020 spring season

Apocalyptic event: A couple decides whether or not to bring a baby into a world that seems much like ours, but devolves into ecological catastrophe and extreme inequality.

Your environment: “I’m at home in North West London. My son is having his last day at school. Things are eerie. The shops are empty. My phone is lighting up with people either panicking or sending funny videos.”

Your play : “‘Lungs’ touches on political unrest, climate change, economic uncertainty. When I wrote it, people seemed to find the characters’ global concerns absurd. Now it seems less satirical.”

How to live now: “We’re experiencing the sort of disruption that people elsewhere in the world have been experiencing for a long time. I’m choosing to see this as a collective act of compassion that we’re choosing to undertake as a way to protect those who are less privileged and more vulnerable than we are.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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