The Nature of Drama, or Drama and Nature: Notes on Some American Plays

By Cardullo, Bert | Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The Nature of Drama, or Drama and Nature: Notes on Some American Plays


Cardullo, Bert, Pennsylvania Literary Journal


For a moment I lost myself... I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way (134). -Edmund Tyrone, from Act IV of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.

When I initially thought about the subject of "drama and nature," the first thing that came to my mind was the cinema and nature, not the speech I just quoted from O'Neill's 1941 play. The reason, of course, is that drama deals essentially with the relationship between people, whereas cinema deals with the relationship of people not only to other people, but also to things and places-including nature. In fact, nature documentaries form a filmic genre all their own, from Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North in 1922 and Man of Aran in 1934 to James Alger's The Living Desert from 1953, Folco Quilici's The Sixth Continent from 1954, and Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World from 1956.

Many other nature-documentary films have followed over the years, including such relatively recent works as Nicolas Vanier's The Last Trapper in 2004, Luc Jacquet's March of the Penguins in 2005, Alastair Fothergill's African Cats from 2011, and Fothergill's Bears from 2014. A sub-genre of the nature documentary, as is well-known by now, is the documentary film about the environment and ecology, among which we could name 2006's Who Killed the Electric Car? and An Inconvenient Truth; 2007's The Eleventh Hour and Arctic Tale; Earth Days, The Cove, and Crude, in 2009; Chasing Ice, in 2012; Emptying the Skies, from 2013; and 2014's Extinction in Progress, which had its world premiere at the twenty-second annual Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C.

Over the past two decades, there has also been a spate of hooks about ecology and the theater, or the theater's ability to treat environmental hazards and ecological threats as a genuine social problem, even as, from the late nineteenth century to the present, the drama has treated other social problems such as workers' exploitation, women's marginalization, and racial discrimination. Here are the titles of some of these theater books about the environment: Greening Up Our Houses: A Guide to a More Ecologically Sound Theatre-, Theatre Ecology: Environments and Performance Events-, Ecologies of Theatre-, and Nature Performed: Environment, Culture, and Performance. Notice, from the titles of these works, that, taking their cue from Richard Schechner's influential 1973 book Environmental Theater, all these volumes focus, not on dramatic literature, but on theatrical production-on the performance or staging of events, not the scripting of dialogue and stage directions.

But my specialty is dramatic literature, so I have to ask: just what is the relationship between scripted drama and nature or the natural world? (By "nature," of course, I do not refer to Aristotle's use of the term, by which he meant reality in general-a reality that the drama was supposed to imitate, according to the Poetics [335 B.C.], by holding a mirror up to it.) Well, there isn't much of a relationship between drama and the natural world, except indirectly, for the reason I gave earlier: drama deals essentially with the relationships, or conflicts, between people. It cannot realistically depict or record nature, as the cinema can; for the most part, it can only talk about or refer to nature, as in the speech I quoted at the start from Long Day's Journey into Night, where O'Neill's alter ego, Edmund, speaks of his fleeting union with the sea and everything that surrounds it.

Nature's role in most scripted drama is thus indirect, implied, or allusive, although such play titles as Aristophanes' The Birds (414 B.C.), William Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611), and Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (1904) might make you think otherwise. …

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