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George Monbiot finds Dr Faustus the classic text for climate change. But there are other choices, says Robert Butler

faust poster

Which classic play has most relevance to our own time?

The answer would seem to be not one play, but two versions of one story. Each chapter in George Monbiot's new book Heat - How to Stop the Planet Burning, has an epigraph from either Marlowe's Dr Faustus (c.1590) or Goethe's Faust (1790-1832). The first quote from Dr Faustus establishes its pertinence: 'The God thou servest is thine own appetite.'

Georg Faust was an early 16th-century German magician and astrologer. After his death in 1540 or 1541, he quickly passed into legend.

In Marlowe's play, Dr Faustus strikes a deal with the Devil's servant Mephistopheles. He will be given 24 years to 'live in all voluptuousness' if, at the end of that period, he surrenders his soul to hell. Mephistopheles explains exactly what the consequences will be, but Dr Faustus refuses to believe him.

Monbiot writes, 'You could mistake this story for a metaphor of climate change.'

Monbiot might have found that several of Cassandra's remarks in Aeschylus's Oresteia were equally apposite.

Cassandra (Lilo Baur, left) is given the gift of prophecy and gets it spot on when it comes to foretelling the invasion by the Trojan horse, the death of Agamemnon and her own end. How many times (until very recently) must Monbiot, along with so many other climate-change activists, have felt like echoing Cassandra's words: 'Man? You are lost to every word I've said.'

As the scientific evidence mounted over the last decade, he might also have been tempted to quote Cassandra, 'No escape, my friends, not now.'

But there's another, more modern, classic which is a contender for the title. A number of commentators have alluded directly or indirectly to the Second World War. Al Gore writes in An Inconvenient Truth , 'There was a storm in the 1930s of a different kind: a horrible, unprecedented gathering storm in continental Europe'. Gore quotes the man who saw the storm coming, Winston Churchill, saying in 1936, 'The era of procrastination ... is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.'

NASA scientist Jim Hansen wonders if Americans in the future will have to deal with a legacy of guilt , as Germans have in our own time.

ecologist cover

The analogy to pre-war Germany, and the idea that very few people are reading the signs, is also made explicit in a recent edition of the Ecologist, which had a spoof front cover of Cabaret. The trademark bowler hat sits over an i-pod. Underneath the headline 'Electric Cabaret', it says 'Why we're partying like it's 1939'.

The action in Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye To Berlin, takes place in Berlin in the early-30s. In the foreground, there's the Weimar world of hedonism; in the background, there's the ominous rise of Nazism.

In one of the most pertinent exchanges in the play, which is currently running in the West End, the party-loving Sally tells Cliff that she's going back to work at the Kit-Kat Klub. 'Isn't it heaven?'

Cliff doesn't think so. 'You know, Sally, someday I've got to sit you down and read you a newspaper. You'll be amazed at what's going on.'


Photo credits

Poster of Faust from the Punchdrunk / National Theatre production, 2007
Lilo Baur as Cassandra in the National Theatre production of Oresteia, 2007

published in 2007

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