Date of Degree
Other American Studies | Other History | Theatre History | United States History
Environmental History, Black Freedom Studies, Environmental Justice, Radical Theater, Anti-Nuclear History, Labor History
“Staging Nature” examines how theater was used as a means for expressing environmental concerns in moments of environmental crisis in the United States. I begin with The Federal Theatre Project’s national tour of a performance addressing the metabolic rift in the divide between the city and country with a focus on the devastation of farmland in the Dust Bowl in the late 1930s. At the heart of the dissertation are three theater groups that start in the 1960s during the rise of the modern environmental movement. Chapters on Bread and Puppet Theater show that they make a name for themselves leading demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and the giant Nuclear Freeze demonstrations of the 1980s. The Free Southern Theater, a cultural arm of the southern civil rights movement, engaged issues of environmental racism in New Orleans well before the rise of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s. Finally, El Teatro Campesino, the theater group of the United Farm Workers, took up issues of pesticide poisoning of farmworkers in the fields and the connection they drew to the toxic chemicals dropped on Vietnamese peasants and land as weapons of war, using their theater to raise issues of environmental racism.
Identifying these environmental concerns across three different radical theater groups highlights the importance of radical theater to the environmental struggles of the 1960s. Theater as a medium, as a collective forum, is a site of environmental consciousness raising, but also a site of formation of that consciousness. I show a history of the intellectual roots of the modern environmental movement that shows another origin story, using the dynamic space of performance to explore and name the crisis. This origin story is not based on the reading of books, pamphlets, and reports, but on the engagement through performance of complex ideas often performed by people facing the environmental crises of the day. By finding these early shoots of the later grassroots struggles, we see how the arts, theater in particular, give space and a forum, a fruitful medium, for identifying injustice, inequality, and crisis, and then focus attention to name it and begin to grapple with how to address it. We also see the way each group, in performing for an audience, exposes the collective crisis and helps identify that the problems individuals face is due to systemic reasons. The communal space of theater performance brings these atomized individuals concerns before an audience that can see their struggles as a failing of the system, rather than individual problems. Moreover, the connections shown between civil rights and environmental struggles suggest the need to incorporate civil rights history around environmental issues into our understanding of the rise of the various environmental movements in the 1960s, well before the birth of the environmental justice movement. This dissertation is a contribution to a growing discussion about how environmental consciousness was and is raised and how that consciousness is connected to action.
Wallenberg, Erik Barrett, "Staging Nature: Performing Environmental Crises in War, Housing, and Labor, 1935–1990" (2023). CUNY Academic Works.
This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Monday, September 30, 2024
Graduate Center users:
To read this work, log in to your GC ILL account and place a thesis request.
See the GC’s lending policies to learn more.