Academic journal article Extrapolation

Shakespeare, Survival, and the Seeds of Civilization in Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven

Academic journal article Extrapolation

Shakespeare, Survival, and the Seeds of Civilization in Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven

Article excerpt

Lear and the Georgia Flu: "This great world shall wear out to nought"

Emily St. John Mandel's novel Station Eleven opens with a performance of King Lear. As the actor playing Lear, Arthur Leander, speaks the line "I remember thine eyes well enough," he suffers a heart attack and collapses on stage. Given the events that follow, it is no coincidence that the lines which precede this exchange (which are unspoken in the diegesis of Station Eleven) are apocalyptic in tone:

O ruin'd piece of nature! This great world

Shall so wear out to naught. (19.129-130)

As Leander collapses, the artificial reality of the performance collapses with him: "Regan and Cordelia were holding hands and crying by the curtain, Edgar sitting cross-legged on the floor nearby with his hand over his mouth. Goneril spoke quietly into her cell phone. Lake eyelashes cast shadows over her eyes" (6). The boundary between actor and audience blurs and the world of performance seems to spill over into reality. Jeevan, the trainee paramedic who rushes onto the stage to aid Leander, realizes that the actor is dead and so feels that "his role in this performance was done" and looks to "exit the scene" (6). The apocalyptic world of King Lear, however, follows him from the stage. When Jeevan leaves the theater he takes a phone call informing him that a virus, the Georgia Flu, is sweeping the globe. As he receives the news he looks up to see an eerily appropriate image: a poster of Lear holding Cordelia in his arms.

King Lear, it seems, is a fitting play for the end of the world. As well as the line quoted above, Joseph Wittreich identifies in the play several echoes of St. John's apocalypse including the sounding of five trumpets:

[T]he mystery of the seven stars [...], the cracking of thunder and catastrophic earthquakes, the eclipse of sun and moon, the wheel of fire, the lake of darkness, the sulphureous [sic] pit, the wrathful dragon, the price of darkness, the black angel, even the monsters of the deep and the imagery of defiled and fresh garments. The storm on the heath [...] recalls what the Book of Revelations says of Armageddon. (189)

In Station Eleven, the performance of King Lear appears to bring forth the apocalypse it describes. In this moment we are presented with a microcosm of the post-apocalyptic genre; the simultaneous movement forward and back encircling the moment of Armageddon. In the moment where the diegetic and extradiegetic worlds collapse in concert, Arthur Leander, in the grips of a heart attack, leaps backward in time, speaking lines from Lear out of sequence, circling the moment of his own collapse, the collapse of the play, and the collapse of civilization-the words with which Shakespeare declares that the world will wear out to nought.

Regression in Elizabethan Apocalypses and Station Eleven

As the plot progresses, the text continues to circle the moment of collapse with increasingly large revolutions, events are separated from the apocalyptic moment first in hours and then years and decades before and after. Michael Rogin describes the forward-backwardness of the genre as follows: "Where history fails, science fiction steps in, projecting onto the future the terms on which the United States can redemptively recover its past" (2). Post-apocalyptic tales, of which Station Eleven is no exception, frequently draw upon genres which typically belong to earlier time periods such as the Western (David Brin's The Postman (1985), for example, or the Mad Max films) and the Second World War (the destroyed cityscapes of the Terminator films). The destruction of the apocalypse, in certain incarnations of the genre, offers the promise of reconfiguration, of resetting and rebuilding a society unencumbered by the problems of the world that was destroyed. In the case of Station Eleven, as shall be argued below, the past which is being redemptively recovered calls upon both the American post-apocalyptic ideal of recovery, and the British post-apocalyptic idealization of cultural imperialism. …

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