When the English Department gathered this month for the fourth annual Department Faculty Lecture, one can only guess nobody expected to hear about sexual relations between a man and a cat. But the introduction Professor Una Chaudhuri gave us to her recent work did not fail to shock, delight, provoke, and invite us to further exploration. Drawing from the disciplines of eco-criticism, animal studies, drama and performance studies, Professor Chaudhuri’s lecture, “AnthropoScenes: Climate Change and the Drama of Bad Ideas,” signified on theater scholar and theorist Martin Puchner’s notion of modern drama as the “drama of ideas,” where a play’s intellectual ambition and rigor seizes on theater as a kind of philosophical testing ground. In the wake of the many assaults from global capitalism and the totalized and newly devastating processes of climate change, Professor Chaudhuri proposed, we’ve been seeing a new form of theater: the drama of the bad idea. These dramas “destabilize meaning,” “disrupt all registers of performance,” and “unseat their spectators.” The ideas they embody and dramatize are the problematic commitments and attachments that have led to our contemporary ecological and political nightmares and destructions.
Professor Chaudhuri offered detailed and ambitious readings of two plays, Caryl Churchill’s Far Away (2000) and Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors (2009), as examples of the drama of the bad idea. She showed a photograph from a production of Far Away capturing a crowd of downcast and anonymous prisoners awaiting execution, each grey body adorned in a fabulously vibrant and utterly original hat. She then provided the stage direction for this scene which suggests how many prisoners should appear—“five is too few and twenty better than ten. A hundred?”—and argued for the incommensurable scale expressed in the non-suggestion. Chaudhuri contended that this flexibility deferred the responsibility of the scale of the scene onto the play’s production, and in turn allowed each director to decide just how far the play’s “dystopian vision stretches.” Sitting in the audience, this reporter (himself a playwriting student) was led to consider how such unfixed scales might allow a play’s production to respond, in real time, to the kinds of damages climate change and global capitalism inflict unto the theatrical imagination. Should the future bring a scale of damage currently unimaginable or too far away to imagine, perhaps a play with unfixed proportions can accommodate these kinds of crises. In this way there’s a kind of radical responsiveness or sensitivity written into the work. This train of thought was undoubtedly just one of the many intellectual sparks set off in the lecture hall as Chaudhuri tunneled towards the play’s upsetting and epic interior, cased within an intimate and domestic form, and its final terrifying description of a world quite seriously, quite literally at war, where weather and flora and fauna and nationalities and household objects have been weaponized and recruited.
Chaudhuri also turned to Wallace Shawn’s lewd and saturnalian play Grasses of a Thousand Colors, examining how geological and geopolitical disruptions and destructions register as a kind of dramaturgical unhinging of scale. She presented the play is something of a climax in Shawn’s body of work, a culmination of his lifelong experimental critique of classic liberal ideology. Shawn’s play, in which he also stars as the central character, a wealthy cat-lover (literally) and renowned scientist, is told in a series of first-person memoir-like reflections. The protagonist believes he has cured a scarily developed crisis of world hunger, but the grain he’s pioneered and administered induces cannibalism and chronic vomiting in the species digestive systems, causing mass death. Chaudhuri described the play as comprised of disconnections and glaring transgression of species separation both sexual and gastronomic, effects so upsetting or disorienting that several audiences members departed during each of the play’s intermissions. Quoting liberally from the play’s more anatomical and steamy sections, she momentarily caused the very kind of anxious hilarity she discerned as the play’s most precious resource.
Chaudhuri posed urgent questions about how exactly each play dramatizes how easily “forgetting is accomplished” in our cotemporary politics, and suggested that these plays force if not guide their audiences towards questioning what exactly a human being is, and how we live through and within futures we’ll never experience. Her love of the playwrights she discussed, her commitment to their work and to the interpretation of their work was obvious. Chaudhuri’s rigorous and dynamic lecture played with wit and insight, prophecy and forecast; like the plays themselves, it was as inspiring as it was unsettling.