Aging Women and the Apocalypse: Three Dramatic Representations

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This blog post is a condensed version of an upcoming book chapter in the edited collection Aging Studies and Ecocriticism: Growing Old Amid Climate Change, edited by Nassim W. Balestrini, Julia Hoydis, Anna-Christina Kainradl, and Ulla Kreibernegg. It is shared here with the permission of the editors.

Climate change presents challenges to dramatic theory that are only beginning to be mapped. Incorporating an apocalyptic event allows contemporary tragedy the means and mechanisms to represent the terrible repercussions of our self-inflicted erasure of the nonhuman realm, and through these representations to prepare ourselves for future crises and reversals. Here we consider three ecotheatre plays that feature older women at their centre. Each play offers a specific vision of the apocalypse and a particular construction of aging and older age in relation to the environment. The plays differ in their employment of age-related stereotypes, in their construction of time and memory, and in their depiction of who is blamed or redeemed. We argue that the effectiveness of ecotheatre is intimately tied to its form – whether it truly challenges a current world order hell-bent on destruction, or whether, through familiar dramatic structure and opportunity for catharsis, it restores it.

Kayak by Jordan Hall

In Kayak ‘old’ Annie Iverson, the play’s central character, is considered old at the relatively chronologically young age of 56. The play begins with Annie on an expanse of ocean, waking up after a rough sleep in her kayak.

An image from the theatre play, Kayak, in which a middle-aged woman sits in a yellow kayak.
Kayak by Jordan Hall, a 2019 Echo Collective production directed by Sloan Thompson, Photograph of Denyse Wilson as Annie by Javier Sotres.

While the play loosely adopts a classical tragic structure that builds to a climax in which recognition and reversal occur, Kayak is also structured as a series of Annie’s flashbacks (or possibly hallucinations). Through them, we learn how Annie’s son, Peter, became involved with Julie, an eco-feminist whose values conflict with Annie’s. When Peter breaks up with Julie, Annie is thrilled, but he remains disconsolate. Immediately prior to the play’s opening, Annie has attempted and failed to stop her son from re-uniting with Julie and engaging in a dangerous environmental protest. China’s Three Gorges Dam has burst, resulting in a worldwide flood, and Annie has tried to return home, but the highway was blocked by rising waters. Hoping she could paddle home, Annie boarded the kayak strapped to the vehicle’s roof. But the markers of her world have disappeared, and she now floats lost at sea. Of the play’s three characters, Annie is the only one shown to be disoriented, confused, lost, uncertain of particular memories—a gesture toward our society’s belief in the ubiquity of age-related memory loss.

“The figure of Annie can be read as an ageist construction that positions those who are no longer young as environmentally ignorant, and discounts trailblazing environmental activists… “

Annie is constructed to represent climate change and widespread ethical absenteeism. Her lifestyle values individualism, freedom, success and progress, and she remains unaware of the toxic byproducts that underpin it. Annie is enraged and offended by the many judgements she receives from Julie: “people have lives and habits and comfort foods and places they need to go. And that doesn’t change because you make them feel guilty and uncomfortable” (Hall 2011, 16). The figure of Annie can be read as an ageist construction that positions those who are no longer young as environmentally ignorant, and discounts trailblazing environmental activists such as David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, Erin Brokovich, and Winona LaDuke (to name a few).

The Unplugging by Yvette Nolan

In The Unplugging, similar to Kayak, the older generation is figured as dispensable at the play’s outset. Elena and Bern, the two central female characters, have been exiled from their village following a global power collapse that Bern dubs “the unplugging” (29). They are beyond child bearing age and considered unnecessary at a time when lack of food and growing disease challenge everyone’s survival. As Bern puts it, “The power goes off and suddenly we’re nothing more than breed mares” (21).

Scene from The Unplugging by Yvette Nolan
The Unplugging by Yvette Nolan, a 2015 Factory Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts Partnership directed by Nina Lee Aquino. Photograph (L to R) of Allegra Fulton (Bern) and Diana Belshaw (Elena) by Aki Pari.

The Unplugging never suggests that Elena and Bern’s generation acted alone to cause climate collapse and societal destruction. Rather, the disaster is positioned as the earth’s response to the accumulated lack of care by all its people: “no one knew where their food came from … our men refused to take responsibility for anything” (57). Elena and Bern squat in an abandoned cabin to withstand the winter, and Elena draws on her memories of survival skills taught to her by her grandmother: “we’d go out on the land. Check her traps, hunt, pick medicines” (13). This intergenerational Indigenous knowledge resurfaces to provide Elena and Bern with rabbit stew, moose jerky, onions and a host of other gifts from the nonhuman world.

“The play suggests that by respecting female elders, land-based knowledge will be retrieved and a new future way of being will be centered in deeper integration of and respect for the nonhuman.”

Interweaving anti-colonial temporalities, Nolan shows how the The Unplugging’s characters chart time by the moon, and enact between-scene, non-verbal interludes that describe the movement of celestial bodies in relation to the earthly and animal world: “Time passes, moving from Bear Moon, February, to Snow Crust Moon, March” (46), the stage directions note. Eventually the younger generation, starving and chaotic, seek out Elena and Bern and invite them back into the community as elder leaders, based on the abundant life they have created. Despite this past/future tension and epic temporal scale, the play unfolds according to a linear temporal structure, within the tradition of the tragedy-informed, well-made play; recognition and reversal occur bringing catharsis, the younger generation is redeemed, and a sense of world order is restored. The play’s implied future, however, is not a traditional return to normalcy. The play suggests that by respecting female elders, land-based knowledge will be retrieved and a new future way of being will be centered in deeper integration of and respect for the nonhuman.

Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Escaped Alone stages four female characters in their 70s and shifts between a present in which the women have tea in a garden, and a series of seven monologues, which ambiguously describe different apocalyptic pasts or futures. Unlike with Kayak and The Unplugging, in Escaped Alone, Churchill’s septuagenarian characters are all chronologically (not just relatively) old. Here the old women are cast as community rather than relegated to the status of “other.”

A scene from Escaped Alone, a play by Caryl Churchill
Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill, a 2019 Western Gold Theatre production directed by Kathryn Bracht, Photograph (L to R) of Anna Hagan (Lena), Tanja Dixon-Warren (Mrs. J), Elieen Barrett (Sally), Jenn Griffin (Vi) by Javier Sotres.

More so than the other two plays, Escaped Alone experiments with dramatic structure, language, and discourse to foreground the power imbalances and prejudices of a patriarchal, capitalist system, and their responsibility for environmental destruction. The play also goes the farthest in challenging old age stereotypes, specifically those surrounding old women. To achieve this, Churchill uses a range of dramatic techniques including fragmented dialogue, ambiguous time, temporal shifts, rapid imagistic turns from humor to horror, accumulation of surreal images, and scenic dislocation.

“More so than the other two plays, Escaped Alone experiments with dramatic structure, language, and discourse to foreground the power imbalances and prejudices of a patriarchal, capitalist system, and their responsibility for environmental destruction.”

The play features wild and contrasting apocalyptic monologues in which Mrs. J. describes landslides that create societies of subterranean mutants, money that leaks poisoned chemicals that empty cities, mass starvation because “eighty percent of food was diverted to TV programmes” (54), windstorms unleashed by property developers to clear out the poor, a virus unleashed from sugar developed from monkeys, and fires that birth new zero population charred countries. In their creative combination of facts and fears, these events exist in past, present and future all at once. The play offers no glimpse of a cathartic release in which world order is restored, and thus does not allows us to disregard environmental destruction or the horrors of ageism. Instead, one of the last moments of the play finds Mrs. J. repeating the phrase “Terrible rage” consecutively 25 times (74). In this world, disorientation becomes productive rather than pathological or a feature of aging. It is a conduit for an authentic response to a corrupt and violent world and signals a representation of female old age in tune with the environment as a whole. 

Works Cited

Churchill, Caryl. Escaped Alone. Nic Hern Books, 2016.

Hall, Jordan. Kayak. Samuel French, 2011.

Nolan, Yvette. The Unplugging. Playwrights Canada Press, 2013.

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Julia Henderson & Katrina Dunn

Dr. Julia Henderson is a Postdoctoral Fellow with Concordia University’s Department of Communication Studies and its Ageing+Communication+Technologies Lab. Her body of research considers narratives of aging and old age in contemporary North American theatre, and specifically analyses plays that challenge ageist beliefs and stereotypes. Julia’s writing about age and theatre has been published in The Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Theatre Research in Canada, Canadian Theatre Review, Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, Age, Culture, Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Geriatrics and the Thornton Wilder Journal. In 2019, her paper at the Trent Aging 2019 conference won the joint European Network in Aging Studies & the North American Network in Aging Studies emerging scholar award. Julia is also the Vice Chair of the North American Network in Aging Studies Governing Council. She recently co-guested edited the first special issue of Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches théâtrales au Canada that addresses age as an intersectional identity category to be released in November 2021. | Dr. Katrina Dunn is an Assistant Professor in the University of Manitoba’s Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media where she teaches in the Theatre Program. Her scholarly work explores the spatial manifestations of theatre as well as ecocritical theatre. She was twice awarded the Robert Lawrence Price for an Emerging Scholar by the Canadian Association for Theatre Research (2015 and co-won in 2017), and her 2020 dissertation recently co-won the Canadian Studies Network’s award for the Best Dissertation in Canadian Studies. Her work has been published in Canadian Theatre Review and Theatre Journal. She recently published a chapter in Routledge’s Theatre Pedagogy in the Era of Climate Crisis, edited by Conrad Alexandrowicz and David Fancy. Katrina’s long career as a stage director and producer has had considerable impact on the performing arts in western Canada and has been recognized with numerous awards.

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