I keep thinking about Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
I’m not usually a post-apocalyptic fiction person, but Erika recommended the book to me several years ago by saying “it’s about art at the end of the world, and the things it can and can’t do to keep us together.” That’s more than enough, it turns out, to get me in the door.
I remember how sickeningly plausible Mandel made it all feel: the Georgia Flu. The collapse of society. The various reactions of America’s citizens—denial, adaptation, fanaticism, reinvention.
But the detail that really stuck with me was that the traveling theatre troupe at the heart of the narrative attempted to stage modern plays from time to time, and instead their audiences—even 20 years after the pandemic—kept demanding Shakespeare.
“People want what was best about the world,” explains a member of the ensemble.
I’ve consumed more Shakespeare in Quarantine than I have in the last ten years. Zina and I read Macbeth aloud to each other over the course of several evenings in the early days. Then we graduated to filmed productions through the National Theatre: Twelfth Night, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra. This week I’m back at it with Hamlet and the Donmar Trilogy: The Tempest today, and (if I play my cards right) Julius Caesar and Henry IV next weekend.
I don’t know that it’s about how good the plays are (though they are very good!) or how poignant it is that Shakespeare wrote and produced so many of them in the midst of plague-induced theatre closures (though he did!). It’s about how long they’ve been around.
I crack open an essay by Hélène Cixous and there she is quoting Van Gogh, who was reading the history plays shortly before his death in 1890:
“But what touches me […] is that the voices of these people, which […] reach us from a distance of several centuries, do not seem unfamiliar to us. It is so much alive that you think you know them and see the thing.”The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, vol. 3, p. 187
I need the weight of history right now—the notion that something, anything has been bringing us together to laugh and cry and consider what it means to be human for more than 500 years.
I guess I’m just hung up on art at the end of the world, and the things it can and can’t do to keep us together.