Writing the Inhuman: Eco-Spirits without Nature in Malevolent Creatures

by Nina Budabin McQuown

 

Fairies aren’t human. That’s been one of the key concepts we’ve kept in mind as Wit’s End Puppets has developed our current show, Malevolent Creatures. For us that’s meant spending some time thinking about what it means to represent non-humans. We’ve made some technical choices—representing adult humans with actors and fairies with puppets, for example. For me as a writer, trying to write non-humans with agency is one of the most interesting and important challenges that we might face as makers of art. We understand humanity as subjectivity, the capacity to say “I am,” and that’s why stories about the consciousness of trees and the memories of prairie dogs so often make people uncomfortable. If another being is understood to have consciousness, to know time, to feel pain, we have certain responsibilities toward it: maybe we shouldn’t be cutting down trees or shooting prairie dogs or boiling lobsters alive. What’s even more disturbing, of course, is that nothing really needs to change just because we understand trees to be conscious. Cognitive dissonance is always there to help us out. Humans are notoriously good at revoking the privileges of subjectivity from even their neighbors of the same species when it suits them to do so.

In European fairy-tales since the nineteenth-century, the question of humanity has been ditched entirely in favor of a display of morality, but that’s partly because these stories aren’t really about fairies at all. They’re about people, so they have good fairies and bad fairies. There’s Sleeping Beauty’s wicked fairy queen, and Cinderella’s good fairy godmother. These characters are “good” or “bad” according to human moral systems—do they encourage vanity or sex in young women, or do they reward the values of hard work and humility?

We tend to tell stories about the environment, too, as if they were stories about people: Owls versus loggers, pipelines and banks against native communities, cattle ranchers versus national parks. Human stories have good guys and bad guys, moral stakes and happy or unhappy endings that are based on human social structures and norms and timescales.  Growing up on Captain Planet in the nineties (it played on Sunday mornings, when little Jewish kids like me got to watch cartoons), I was raised with that view of environmentalism. There were the bad guys who like to loot and plunder, and the “you” that the show referred to constantly, an us who held the power to save the world by stopping pollution. The world we were supposed to save was “ours,” just like the power to save it—and the environment that Captain Planet described was ours too, a common resource for human beings whose lives and health were negatively affected by pollution. To put it another way, Captain Planet told a story of environmental advocacy based in human rights. Because humans need the land (for water, for shelter, for energy resources, for enjoyment, for food production), it’s their rights we’re defending in conservation efforts. That’s also often the way that we describe conservation in law. Take Juliana v. U.S., a law suit currently being brought by young people to challenge the USA’s inaction on climate change. They’ve based their case on the constitutionally guaranteed right to life, liberty, and property. That means that to make a legal case, they have to bring the radically planet-altering changes of global warming—the sixth extinction, rising sea levels, dead oceans—down to an impediment in the way of a group of individuals’ happy human lives. 

As we at Wit’s End now try to tell a story about environmental destruction for the sake of resource extraction, we find ourselves dealing with a story that challenges all of those features—that centers the inhuman in an even more prominent way than the stories of Black Annis or Selkie do.  The third part of Malevolent Creatures focuses on Tiddy Mun, a figure from the folklore of the Lancashire and Cambridgeshire fens who represents the whole murky, flooded, malarial, fecund aviary of the fen ecosystem as it was before largescale drainage projects destroyed it starting in the seventeenth-century. 

4502877_057c032e

Burwell Fen in Cambridgeshire during a flood. 

Yet though he’s certainly a defender of the earth, Tiddy Mun is hardly a champion of human rights. Instead of saving “our” world, he’s out to protect his own, and that means he’s ambivalent towards the humans who inhabit that world and are part of it. It’s Tiddy Mun who brings the floods that destroy houses and crops and lead to outbreaks of malaria, it’s also Tiddy Mun who listens when the people beg for those floods to end and Tiddy Mun who abates them. In the story that’s most often told about Tiddy Mun, he fights back against the destruction of the ecosystem he embodies by destroying the drainage equipment of the engineers who’ve come to drain the fens, killing the engineers themselves, and flooding everything until the common people appease his wrath.

TiddyMun

One visual interpretation of Tiddy Mun, by Susan Sorrell Hill.

The story of that drainage, which is a real historical event in seventeenth-century England, is a complex one. In it, the clarity of right and wrong—at least from the point of view of human beings—can be as murky as bog water. On the one hand, the drainage was a clear case of the wealthy and powerful destroying an ecosystem for their own financial gain. King Charles I wanted the fens drained to produce valuable farmland so that he could circumvent the financial control of a hostile Parliament, and local landowners just wanted to cash in. On the other hand, common people in the fens were not necessarily as mad about the fens’ destruction as they were about being cut out of their share of the profits and displaced by foreigners. Before the land was dried out, malaria was an enormous problem in the fens. The common people who lived there and made their living from fishing and fowling were displaced, but on the other hand, the Dutch engineers who performed the drainage were primarily refugees. As Huguenot protestants living in France and the lowlands, they had been persecuted with massacre and expulsion, and they found a sanctuary and a new life in the fens. The several sides to this story are reflected in its histories. In some of them, the fenmen are the heroes, fighting a losing battle against all the most powerful forces of their society. In others, Dutch refugees heroically persist in their drainage project in spite of the anti-progress and anti-foreign violence of the locals. 

So from the human perspective, the story of the fen drainage is as complex at least as a modern day tale of gentrification or disaster capitalism. From Tiddy Mun’s perspective though, it’s something else. As the story is told (in dialect, unfortunately) in an 1891 article for the journal Folklore, Tiddy Mun’s rage is against all humans, at least for a time. As the fens dry out, he begins by kidnapping Dutch engineers, but when more engineers come to replace them, he starts to persecute the locals as well. Fevers spread, harvests and livestock die, and so do babies. The people perform a ritual of appeasement to Tiddy Mun, pouring out bowls of water and asking for his forgiveness. It’s interesting to me that the ritual is meant to show Tiddy Mun that “Car-folk wished un well, an’ that a’d give un tha watter back if tha only could.” They’re aware that the water they pour out is just symbolic. They can’t turn the fens back into swamps. They can’t save that ecosystem or the spirits that inhabit it: “that poor au’d Boggarts an’ Jack o’ Lanterns wor clean delved away.” It’s almost a mourning ritual, both for the dead children lost to fever, and for Tiddy Mun himself. The story teller in this article agrees that Tiddy Mun is gone by the time of her telling: “Tiddy Mun’s bin frighted away wi’ tha new ways an’ gear.” 

That nothing is “saved” in Tiddy Mun’s story is part of what makes it so interesting to the company as we work on the third part of Malevolent Creatures. In recent studies of the rhetoric of environmentalist and “green” writing, critics have called out the way that nature is often treated as an object of human agency, something outside of human subjects that we act on to save or destroy. This idea of nature as “outside” is, as Timothy Morton has put it, “a fantasy.” We’re just as much a part of “the environment” when we’re sitting in our bedrooms at home or riding in climate-controlled airplane cabins as when we’re perched on top of a mountain, looking out at the clouds below.  When it comes to the world we exist in, there is no below. We can’t really save or destroy “our” world, but with radical changes to the ways that we understand what it means to be human, people might be able to start participating in a world that belongs to everything in it. Tiddy Mun’s is an important story in part because it’s a story not of saving the environment, but of human entanglement with the processes of an ecosystem. It’s a story with no good guys and no bad guys, one that can, perhaps, represent the being and agency of inhuman things, the way that we understand some of what the land says to us not because it speaks in our language, but because it’s what we are.

Advertisements

Black Annis Returns

We are very excited to be hard at work again on our show Malevolent Creatures! We first workshopped this piece in the summer of 2014, but it got put on hold for awhile as we focused on building and then performing Saudade. Now we are back at it, exploring the layers of meaning in stories featuring supernatural characters from British folklore.

The first segment of the show, which focuses on a witch from Leicestershire called Black Annis was developed and shown as part of a puppet slam at Black Cherry Puppet Theater in Baltimore this past month. Here are a few photos from rehearsals and the performance. Photos are by Cecilia Cackley and Bill Haas.

img_4774 img_4802 black-cherry3 blackcherry2

Next Steps

Puppets have to wait patiently until we're ready to work with them again.

Puppets have to wait patiently until we’re ready to work with them again.

We had our last story meeting of the summer for Malevolent Creatures this past week and we are heading into the fall with many new ideas and renewed energy. If you missed our first workshop in June, keep an eye on this space for more info about our next one. We hope to see you there for some magical puppet encounters!

August Grab Bag

#5 The website Bookriot has excited muppet arms for both books and Muppets!

#5 The website Bookriot has excited muppet arms for both books and Muppets!

A roundup of articles, links and videos that we highlighted on Twitter this month. 

1. The first book on puppetry I ever bought was by John Wright of The Little Angel Theatre in Islington, London. His wife Lyndie still carves puppets for them and this article about her is just lovely. If you go to London, try to see a show there.

2. As we continue to work on Malevolent Creatures, this website looks intriguing and will hopefully help out our research.

3. At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, the show The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant took a look at the upcoming Scottish independence referendum through the eyes of four Scottish fairies, including Selkie. Read a review here.

4. Yet another amazing interview with one of the giants of contemporary illustration and a special hero of ours, Shaun Tan.

5. And because really, most things should end with the Muppets, here is Bookriot with a roundup of literary-related Muppet antics. Enjoy!

Dramaturg’s Desk

Ana Cackley is a rising senior at the University of Virginia. She is an English and Drama major and served as dramaturg for the initial workshop of MALEVOLENT CREATURES this summer. Here are some of her thoughts on being in the rehearsal room for the piece. 

Ana researching on her ever-present laptop.

Ana researching on her ever-present laptop.

When I got asked to be the dramaturg for Wits End Puppets’ devised piece Malevolent Creatures, I was both thrilled and terrified. I’d never worked as a dramaturg before, let alone on a devised piece of theater. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. The only thing I really had to go on was that it was then called “The Fairy Project” — and fairies are a subject that I can and will research happily for any length of time. The sheer creativity of the project — a theater piece devised around the ways that humans interact with fairies, or mythological creatures — grabbed me instantly, along with the excitement and eagerness of the other researchers in the beginning stages of development.

Ana getting attacked by one of the rehearsal puppets.

Ana getting attacked by one of the rehearsal puppets.

After we had done the research on various creatures and chosen the three that we would be focusing on for the first workshop, I thought that my role in the show was done. I didn’t expect to be needed at rehearsals, or have things to contribute. I was surprised and excited to learn that there was a lot more for me to do and work on. Rehearsals were some of the most fun parts of my week, as I took notes, looked things up, and gave opinions on the work that was being developed in front of me. The happiness and sense of play among the actors was inspiring and fun to watch, particularly once the rehearsal puppets began to be used and things got a little crazy. The willingness to explore that I saw in rehearsals only made me want to find out more and more about such weird and interesting characters, and research obscure details like what Orkney seals smell like, and the weather in Lincolnshire during the 18th century.

With the help of Google, anyone can be their own dramaturg. But most of us don’t get to trawl through the Internet endlessly about such a fascinating topic, and with such amazing people to support and add to the process. Working on Malevolent Creatures was always an interesting, funny, and occasionally terrifying experience. I’m really grateful that I got to fill a somewhat arcane position for such a new and exciting a piece. I’m literally counting down the days until we get to do it again.

An Interview with Amelia Gossman

This week Wit’s End Artistic Director Cecilia Cackley interviewed artist Amelia Gossman about her experience working as an illustrator on Malevolent Creatures, our upcoming project based on British and Celtic folklore.  

Cecilia Cackley: When did you first learn about the character of Black Annis (aka Black Agnes)? What drew you to her?

Black Annis, artwork by Amelia Gossman

Black Annis, artwork by Amelia Gossman

Amelia Gossman:  As a kid, I was really into folklore and faeries. My best friend and I would look at Brain Froud books when we were eight and run around the woods looking for and trying to lure the creatures we read about. I believe in his book, “Good Faeries/ Bad Faeries” he gives a brief description of her. For my senior thesis in college, I wrote an analysis of Welsh/English folklore and I learned more about her in depth. I chose to write about her because bot only is her back story is really interesting, the added creepiness of cannibalism makes her, for me, one of the scariest creatures. And being scary is intriguing.

CC:  I know you did a project on her in art school. Can you describe it and talk a little about what it entailed?

AG:  I mentioned that I wrote about her for my senior thesis. My minor at MICA was Creative Writing, and for our final project we were given the freedom of writing about whatever topic we wanted. The analysis covered the origin of certain folktales and how those stories related to the current culture (i.e. faeries had kings, queens, and knights much like the British monarchy). I spent the entire school year gathering information from various sources and condensing that information in an organized way. A big challenge was targeting ONE area, so I stuck to the British Isles. It was just too much to include all the creatures I wanted to (that meant no Minotaurs, fauns, or kappas, just to name a few!)

Amy getting set with the rehearsal puppet of Black Annis. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Amy getting set with the rehearsal puppet of Black Annis. Photo by Patricia Germann.

CC:  What was the most interesting thing you learned about Black Annis in your research?

AG:  Here’s an excerpt of the paper [that I wrote] that focused on her!

The Scots also believe in Wicked Wichts of the Unseelie Court. These bogies were fearsome and inflicted many ills upon both man and beast. They were much more malevolent than the mischievous house spirits. Devilish monsters like Black Agnes would prey upon children. A hag of the Dane Hills near Leicester, England is a blue-faced crone with long claws and yellow fangs, sometimes taking the shape of a cat-demon. She is said to live inside of a cave she personally clawed out from the rocks. She eats the children who stray into the Dane Hills after dark, skinning them and devouring them, later scattering their bones around the hills and hanging their skins from the trees to dry. If children are in short supply, she snatches lambs from the pasture or even babies from the open windows of houses. 

I think her connection to cats was incredibly interesting. It’s not mentioned in the paper, but I remember reading about how a nearby town, lead by its mayor, would drag a dead cat through out the woods near her cave – I think as a warning to her. That’s a great example of folklore being incredibly ensconced in a town’s culture! I should’ve added that!

CC:  Did you approach the illustration for us differently than for your school project?

AG:  Definitely – while I had done research on her, I was able to add some of my own personal ideas to the illustration. I chose to add scarring to her mouth, her large hands and long body, and her ominous clothing – including a crown of bones. I liked having that freedom.

CC:  What was it like seeing the rehearsal puppet based on your illustration?

AG:  Amazing!! She had such a spooky presence because she was so large. I think I had an idea that the show would be almost Punch and Judy scale, and that she might be a little marionette, but I was thrilled to see that she was enormous!

CC:  Was there anything unexpected or surprising about what you saw in the rehearsals for Malevolent Creatures?

AG:  The integration of the audience and the performance was really cool, something I haven’t seen before. I don’t want to give too much away, but I liked thinking I would see a traditional show and being surprised by unexpected visitors. The performers are so talented and the puppets came to life, even though they weren’t finished. It was great!

Carol and Amy demonstrating with the Black Annis rehearsal puppet. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Carol and Amy demonstrating with the Black Annis rehearsal puppet. Photo by Patricia Germann.

CC:  Are there any other folklore characters you think you’d like to illustrate or write about?

AG:  Oh gosh, where do I begin?? I’ve used a lot of creatures in my work in the past (especially fauns, but those are Greek rather than English!). However I would love to illustrate more selkies, will-o-the-wisps, and kelpies.

The Wit’s End project Malevolent Creatures is currently in development for Fall 2015.  Get the latest updates by joining our mailing list or connecting with us on Facebook and Twitter.

Workshop Photos

Puppets are not for the faint of heart. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Puppets are not for the faint of heart. Photo by Patricia Germann.

We had a fantastic two showings of Malevolent Creatures a few weeks ago. If you were unable to join us, here are some photos of the puppets and the process. Check back soon for more information about the next development stage of this show!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.