Learning to Die Better

Thoughts on The Children, Escaped Alone and Ecological Disaster

If you’re not going to grow, don’t live.

That’s what Hazel says and that’s what she believes. We believe her.

So I want to chat about James Macdonald for just a second. His two shows at the Royal Court in the past year, Escaped Alone and The Children, asked how we might best learn to cope and die in our old age in the apocalyptic imminence of our world. When Escaped Alone entered theatres in February of this year, it was highly praised for the age of the women on stage. We never see older women as the front runners of plays that are new, explosive, and unsettling. Linda Basset’s periodical and unfiltered documentations created a disquieting show. Churchill’s display of a dying world seen through surreal bifocal lenses asked us what we were willing to accept. Can we accept our mortality? The mortality of our planet? Are we prepared to take responsibility for the consequences, in our back gardens no less? Perhaps we find the answers in The Children.

Lucy Kirkwood presents her aging characters with a moral choice – choose to die for the ‘greater good’ or wait to die for the children, because they need you. Again, we are put in a domestic setting much like our own, except it’s a bit crooked (literally the set was titled). The cows are dead, Ken is dead, the wave came, the ground cracked; things are not as they were. And yet there is denial and a refusal to accept that what has happened, and what is happening, is going to affect how we live and die. We still do yoga, we still drink tea, we still bicker – because what else can we do? And then Rose, an outsider, an intruder, a different kind of person all together, disrupts us. When she presents Hazel and Robin, and us, with her proposal we are caught off guard. Is it our responsibility? Must we rectify what we have destroyed? Because, like Hazel said, they’re the kind of people that cleaned up other people rubbish on picnic sites and now they’ve earned it. They’ve earned the right to leave the mess and they’re tired of this shit. Kirkwood asks us then, essentially, are you prepared to pick up your rubbish and die for it? Because you were the ones that dropped it in the first place, right? I saw glimpses of Churchill in Kirkwood’s writing – the jumps between talk of tea and talk of catastrophe was seamless but there was a shift. What Churchill elongated and examined in Escaped Alone, Kirkwood condensed and put in a ticking clock world. So, what are we going to do?

But actually the question becomes not what are we going to do, but what are you going to do. You, the elusive, conservative older generation that voted for Brexit, that uses nuclear power, that created a system that fucks us – how are you going to fix it? When the shows are watched with these questions floating in the back of your brain, The Children becomes an angry piece of political theatre – pointing fingers and asking who’s going to clean this up? But maybe they’ve done enough and they shouldn’t have to sacrifice themselves? It’s so hard to answer this question, all these questions, because it is happening to us right now. There have been waves and leaks – it just hasn’t happened here yet so for us, for the ones watching the show, it’s not real. Not yet. I’ve been doing a lot of research lately about the Anthropocene and ecocritical thinking and the question that I keep coming back to is, what can we actually do? I think writing literature and plays and making art about the declining state of our planet and our species is important and it’s also futile.

I kind of like that though – it’s futile and if we draw attention to that and ask what is really going to be done, then maybe we can make change? But would we or anyone we know sacrifice themselves to try and salvage our planet? I’m not sure they would, or even if I would. And that is so scary. So we need to learn to die better. We need to learn to accept our own mortality and the impending mortality of this earth if we are complacent. It’s too overwhelming to think about the destruction of our entire species but we need to, and we need, like Macdonald, Churchill, and Kirkwood, to think of death as not something to resist, but simply an inconvenience.

One thought on “Learning to Die Better

  1. This is very powerful – the questions and thoughts you raise. I think these are the most important questions of our time and it doesn’t matter what your age is; where in world you live… A lot of ‘stuff’ is being done in ‘our’ name and frankly not in the interests of everyone’s future!

    We need more active action, we need to change the nature of dialogue, we need to get our voices heard, we need to have different people – us types – representing us. There has never being a time when the need to be political has been stronger and in fact the need is to get into politics and have a type of government which can take a long view but also help its peoples to appreciate and understands the choices we have to make.

    Eve – your blog goes to my heart, it disturbs as it should and really does beg the question – what, when and how…

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