But for how much longer if we ‘Don’t Look Up’?
By Herbert Rothschild
Next week Deborah and I will be in New York City. We have tickets to “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a revival of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play.
Wilder wrote it in 1942, when there was a very real possibility that the Axis powers — Germany, Japan and Italy — would triumph. It was his profession of faith in humankind. After the Antrobus family of New Jersey survives an ice age, a Genesis-like flood, and a catastrophic war that pits father against son, Wilder gives the following lines to the father: “We’ve come a long ways. We’ve learned. We’re learning. And the steps of our journey are marked for us here.”
According to a review of the new production, in it that affirmation is questioned. Another character, the sassy maid Sabrina (originally played by Tallulah Bankhead but this time by Gabby Beans in an all-black cast), asks, “How do we know that it’ll be any better than before? Why do we go on pretending?”
Given humankind’s current existential challenges, which the play has been revised to reference, the revival could hardly be more timely. The restart of the Cold War has revived the specter of a nuclear holocaust. And the enormous consumption of time, attention and resources by the war in Ukraine and others in this young century reduces the likelihood that we will effectively address climate change. Brown University’s Cost of War project estimates that our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone will eventually cost more than $8 trillion.
After World War II ended there were a spate of disaster films. Humankind doesn’t make it by the skin of our teeth in all of them. A “rogue star” destroys earth in When Worlds Collide (1951), although a few dozen earthlings escape to another habitable world. Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) ends with a total nuclear war between the two superpowers. That film was preceded in 1959 by “On the Beach,” in which a nuclear war has doomed everyone. And it was succeeded by “The Day After,” a made-for-TV movie aired in 1983 at the height of the global movement to end the arms race. Viewed by 100 million people on first airing, it depicted a post-holocaust world hardly worth inhabiting.
A recent offering in this genre is “Don’t Look Up,” which streamed on Netflix in December. Like “When World’s Collide,” its plot premise is the destruction of earth by another celestial body. Unlike the earlier film, however, the collision is merely a metaphor for any impending global catastrophe — most obviously, global warming — and its focus is the inability of people in this country to react appropriately to the threat. Like Kubrick’s film, “Don’t Look Up” is a satire. Its satirical target, however, isn’t a lethally irrational military rivalry and a few nutty people who manage it, but our entire society.
Why can’t we look up? One reason is that to the President, played by the incomparable Meryl Streep, nothing matters but her re-election. In that regard, the impending destruction of earth is merely one of the many things she’s got to worry about, and at first it isn’t a high priority. When the professor of astronomy and his graduate assistant who identified the threat come to the White House, her chief of staff says her people will give it some thought and get back to them.
Only when the incoming meteorite is visible to the naked eye does the administration act. They order a rocket built and launched to intercept and destroy it. But a powerful figure from the extraction industry tells the President he’s learned that the meteorite is a treasure trove of valuable minerals he wants to mine, so she orders the rocket to change course.
The most instructive satire, I thought, wasn’t of our politicians’ self-interest and their corruption by corporate power, but of our cultural inability to prioritize and focus. This general debilitation is hilariously represented by the hosts of a network morning news show. The professor and his assistant appear as guests and announce the terrible news. To their dismay, the hosts respond with banter and move on to a feel-good story, never ceasing to smile into the cameras. In a later broadcast, after the meteorite has neared, nothing is different.
Admittedly, it’s hard to concentrate on a threat that isn’t imminent. Many commentators have noted that, because global warming was originally slow-building and its effects not in our faces, it didn’t prompt the concerted public response that a sudden, devastating event, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, does prompt. But our atmosphere is now warming quickly, and the devastating consequences keep arriving. Nevertheless, climate change isn’t a high priority in the U.S. Recently, a Long Island University poll found that only 10% of likely voters ranked it first among their concerns heading into the mid-term elections.
Sadly, we have difficulty concentrating on anything for long. We consume a vast amount of mental data, and to hold our attention, they must be entertaining — meaning they must keep anxiety and boredom at bay. “Don’t Look Up” was entertaining. Presumably, the performance of “Skin of Our Teeth” will be as well. The challenge I’ve posed to myself is whether I’ll simply pass three more hours of my life in amusement or let the play test my faith and bolster my resolve.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.