How Do You Stage a Play About the Climate Crisis?

In his new book, Brian Kulick looks to everyone from Euripides to Ibsen for the answer.

Eve Glasberg
March 15, 2023

Staging the End of the World: Theatre in a Time of Climate Crisis by Brian Kulick, chair of the Theatre Program at School of the Arts, is an account of the planet’s demise as seen through the eyes of theater. Since its inception, drama has staged the fall of empires, floods, shipwrecks, earthquakes, plagues, warfare, and nuclear annihilation. By using a wide range of plays alongside contemporary thinkers, Kulick guides and galvanizes readers in grappling with climate change. 

He divides this litany of theatrical cataclysms into four historical phases: the Ancients (including Euripides and Bhasa, the legendary Sanskrit dramatist); the Age of Belief (the anonymous authors of the medieval mystery cycles, Shakespeare, and Pushkin); the Moderns (Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht, Beckett, and Bond); and, finally, the way the world might end now (Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner, and Anne Washburn). Kulick teases out the philosophical implications of such plays, and their relevance to our own troubled times.

Kulick talks about the book with Columbia News, as well as the best book he ever received as a gift, what he’s working on now, and why Jorge Luis Borges would be his most favored dinner guest.

How did this book come about?

My son, Noah, was born some two decades ago. Like many parents, my wife and I wondered whether it was right to bring a child into this world, and if there would be one for him to inherit when he came of age. If so, would that world even vaguely resemble the relatively hospitable one that we had grown up in?

Such questions began to overwhelm me, and leaked into my work as a theater director. The plays I was making at the time seemed profoundly inconsequential when compared to the worldwide crises that we were facing. Suddenly, my son and my work merged into one central project. If I was going to continue to make theater, then it would have to be a theater for my son, to educate and prepare him for a hostile future. The plays I would put on would have to, in one way or another, speak to his future needs, and provide him with the proper moral and ethical outlook necessary to make his way.

Staging the End of the World grows out of exploring this body of work. In tandem with this theatrical journey, my bookshelves were groaning under the weight of contemporary books about the demise of the planet—works by activists, ecologists, environmentalists, ethicists, philosophers, nihilists, and scientists. My book is a fusion of these two parallel investigations, one, theatrical, and the other, theoretical.

Staging the End of the World by Columbia University Professor Brian Kulick

Do you think the artistic global outlook for the future in terms of the climate crisis is positive or negative? 

I believe we have a real window of opportunity to turn things around. I reject wholesale climate fatalism. In this respect, I agree with the environmental philosopher Catriona McKinnon when she says that negative thinking about the future becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy—that which is repeatedly asserted as impossible, becomes impossible. In other words, the more people tell us that a radical reorientation is scarcely imaginable, the more unimaginable it becomes.

Artists must tell stories about our current plight. Storytelling is still one of the most powerful tools we have to help us. For me, the ability to tell stories is right up there with the invention of fire and of the wheel.

What is the best book you ever received as a gift, and why?

The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes. When I was a kid, I suffered from severe dyslexia. I had this wonderful reading tutor, Mrs. Bowers. One day, we were slogging through the Dick and Jane books, and she asked, “Brian, what do you like?” I said I liked Sherlock Holmes movies, and she said, “Those are books.” I couldn’t, at that time, believe anything as interesting as Holmes could be a book. But at my next lesson, Mrs. Bowers handed me a beautifully wrapped gift—the complete Holmes volume. I asked if we could read it instead, and she warned me that it would be much more difficult, but she agreed. I learned how to read by working my way through that entire book, which also gave me an appetite for trying to solve things, in my case, the mystery of certain literary works.

What's your favorite book no one else has ever heard of, and why?

The first book that comes to mind is Pierre Klossowski’s Diana at Her Bath, a beautiful little study of the myth of Actaeon. The book begins with the following question about the ancient Greeks, “How could such a humanity have even existed?” Klossowski answers by examining the remains of our everyday language. The book is page after page of revelatory prose—prose on the verge of poetry, which is my favorite kind of writing.

What are you working on now?

A book in the spirit of Klossowski, which deals with the little-known myth of Protesilaus. He was the first Greek warrior who died on the shores of Troy. Persephone took pity on his plight, and granted him one day back on earth to be with his newly wed bride. It is a beautiful tale.

What are you teaching this semester?

A class on Shakespeare and a class on the late works of the English playwright Caryl Churchill. So it’s a busy and wonderful term.

Who would you invite to a dinner party, and why?

Young Jorge Luis Borges, middle-aged Borges, and old man Borges.   Because I love him.