Frankenstein – now that IS a play about climate change

Enjoyed two hours of talk on culture, politics and climate change in advance of a group outing to see Greenland at the National Theatre last Friday. Mix of academics, artists, critics and journalists met in the National Theatre Studio to follow up some of the loose strands trailing from the Mediating Change: Culture and Climate Change podcast series that we had put together. Even before most of us had seen the performance there was a sense that any cultural work that aims to be ‘about’ climate change is setting out on a very difficult and probably misconceived route.

One of the things the play showed was how incredibly difficult it is to capture all dimensions of the topic. It was somehow burdened by the scale of its evidently serious preparation. Research politics; old fashioned high politics; consumption politics; family and relationship politics. Plenty of messy politics but not much resolution.

Robert Butler has blogged on what it might mean that we’ve waited years at the bus stop for serious engagement by theatre in the topic and then three plays come along at once (also Heretic at Royal Court and Water at the Tricycle Theatre). But whatever the merits of these, I found myself much more provoked in the wake of a trip to the National’s new version of Frankenstein. There is Frankenstein’s Mont Blanc-scale hubris: ‘I can build this thing’.  And then there follows the business of falling in love with his creation: ‘I can’t kill this thing – I made it – it is quite brilliant’.

Put another way, there is a Romantic anti-industrialisation/anti-urbanisation strand which runs through environmentalism from day 1. But there are also strands in recent discourses of climate change ‘solutions’ that are  in thrall to science and technology’s apparent invincibility and adaptability. Hence the arch modernists who were formed in the whiteheatoftechnology environment of the 1950s and 1960s are happy to contemplate immense geo-engineering experiments and massive expansion of nuclear power – Science discovered this problem and Science will solve it. This confidence seems undented by some fairly substantial qualifying evidence from across the last century. But I can recognise in quite a lot of the science & technology debates around climate change a point made in Armand Marie Leroi’s programme notes about how science is ‘a perpetual race between power and desire’.

My neighbour on both theatre trips Renata Tyszczuk suggests that one of the themes Shelley wants us to think on is that we need to take responsibility for our creations – however monstrous they may be. Certainly Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth and the Creature’s blind tutor De Lacey think so: they insist that the creature / science can be civilised if loved and taught in the right way (it must be said that they both get torched or strangled).

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4 Responses to Frankenstein – now that IS a play about climate change

  1. Gordon Smith says:

    Man will create, man will admire his own creation, man generally resists criticism (e.g. Artists, bankers and Architects) of his all too obvious flaws. The crux is how to motivate for a richer but less consuming/environmentally bruising future.
    The ‘environment’ may be a poor choice for the topic of a play whereas Frankenstein perhaps underlines the blindness of the genius/expert. It is noticeable how few Architects/Engineers/Educationists/Financiers/Scientists/Physiologists (and so forth) are actually deconstructing their own ‘fields’. Building is inherently wasteful, engineering mostly involves using new ‘expensive resources, education does not teach ‘optimisation’ or ‘using less’ across the syllabus, ever heard of a financier saying ‘this will make less money but it is the right thing to do’ and when did ‘the mind mechanics’ join campaigns as how to encourage people to behave in a different way? t

    • Joe Smith says:

      Morning G
      THanks for this. Yes although I think we are in interesting times of change in *some* of those fields. I’ll be at Ecobuild in ten days and that is a fascinating index of pretty fast movement in the built enviro sector. But yes, we could do with more and faster. And most of them are only doing that because of legislation.

  2. Pingback: Noises off: When is ‘relevance’ not relevant? | The Environment Syllabus

  3. Pingback: Noises off: When is ‘relevance’ not relevant? | Hopenhagen2009

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