"The Zeitgeist of the 21st Century”

An Interview with Andrew Bovell by Walter Bilderback


Walter Bilderback: How would you describe the relationship between the family saga and the Anthropocene? The American writer Rob Nixon uses the phrase “slow violence” to explain why it’s so hard for us to emotionally grasp climate change and why it’s so challenging to deal with it in art: in your play, it also seems to be an apt description for the legacy of Henry Law through three generations.

Andrew Bovell: I think the play is itself a description of the relationship between a family saga and the Anthropocene. The epiphany came in the understanding that there would be a relationship between generations in order to tell this story and that we could achieve something of the epic by unfolding the narrative over a period of time. The idea is simple - We inherit what is unresolved from the past and if we do not resolve it ourselves we pass it on to our descendants. With each generation the wound becomes deeper. The play is a provocation. Are we prepared to pass on the damage from the past to our children? But perhaps also a suggestion that we have failed to face the problem and that the future generation will have the courage to face what we could not. Rather than speaking about climate change directly, I needed to root the themes in the human experience, within the relationship between people, defined as they always are by notions of love, connection and betrayal.

WB: I know you wanted to chronologically compress the range of Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters: was it intentional to place Law family saga so neatly within what has been called “The Great Acceleration,” the era following World War II when so many human and environmental factors – total population, urban population, energy and water use, fertilizer consumption, ocean acidification, and levels of CO2, Nitrous oxide, and Methane, to list just a few – spiked tremendously?

AB: Flannery was no more than a starting point. His book poses the question - Are we destroying our own habitat to the extent that we could cause our own extinction. That is a fascinating question and began the whole investigation.

Yes, the time setting was intentional. Very deliberate. Originally, Henry Law was a climate scientist engaged with the study of the weather. Reference by scientists was first made to "man made" climate change in the 1950's. I took this early notion of the idea as a starting point. But I also wanted our own time... roughly 2013 to sit at the centre of the work and for the past and the future to radiate out from there. Our time being the focus for the debate around climate change.

WB: How helpless do you, personally feel human civilization is in the face of climate change?

AB: The answer to this lies in the final scene of the play. There is hope here that the damage of the past can be undone or at least understood and there is a suggestion that we have the capacity with this understanding to move on in a different way. I describe the play as melancholic. Melancholia being defined as the deep thinking required before change is possible. I think we are in a melancholic age. That is we are doing the deep thinking required to change. I believe in our capacity as a species to understand the problem and to find the solutions. This is what we are engaged with at present. 

WB: In the years since you wrote When the Rain Stops Falling, a meaningful section of writing on the Anthropocene has started to deal with the concept of mourning. This seems very similar to the “deep thinking” you associate with melancholy. Were you aware you had anticipated so much climate thought?

AB: Perhaps this mourning will become the zeitgeist of the 21st century. It seems logical now that we will need to and should mourn what we have lost and what we have destroyed before we can move on. But at the time of writing the play.... I was reaching into what was then unformed thinking. But isn't that what we want theatre to do... the reach forward and to articulate the ideas that we haven't yet found a way to articulate.

WB: There’s also Elizabeth’s interest in Denis Diderot, the great Enlightenment radical, whose essay predicts the constantly acquisitive nature of capitalism.

AB: The discovery of the essay about the red dressing gown was pivotal. It seemed to me to be such a revealing critique of capitalism... the idea of continued growth which is responsible for the current situation. It is the industrial revolution that changed man's relationship to the planet but the 20th century represents the acceleration.


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