Divided We Fall: Reflections on Linguistic Conflict in Giancarlo Abrahan’s Play ‘Whistler’

By Camille Cuzzupoli

Language is a gift.

We don’t often think about what a marvel it is that someone can say “I feel hungry” and another person can understand their exact set of emotions based only on that tiny combination of words. Language is one of the most important mechanisms in fostering understanding between humans. By articulating how we feel, listening, comprehending, and responding in kind, we are able to collaborate and work together towards solutions for ourselves, our neighbors, and our world.

However, this isn’t how language tends to be understood in today’s culture, nor is this always how it is used. Language – the thing meant to bind people together – is often used to divide them. This is a problem that regularly manifests in political campaigns with popular slogans. “Defund the police” is a phrase meant to communicate the need to divert funds away from law enforcement and into more holistic alternatives and underfunded areas like education and the arts. But this isn’t what detractors hear. They misinterpret the slogan as taking away all money from the police force and letting crime on the street run rampant. Part of the reason this misinterpretation happens is because of the language we use. In order to engage in open dialogue with those who disagree with us, we need to cultivate arguments and rhetoric that they haven’t heard or already argued against. Active thinking and engagement is forcefully initiated.

Photo by Erick Zajac on Unsplash

I myself have struggled to feel understood my whole life. Whenever I have attempted to explain my emotions, opinions, or outlooks, it has always felt like nobody truly comprehended me. As an adult, I cope with this struggle by taking part in the aforementioned cultivation. I use very specific words and try to explain things in such a way that the other party can both digest and respond to what I am expressing. When it works, there is no greater feeling. When it doesn’t, it feels like the only thing left to do is to give up. But when it comes to talking about climate change, giving up isn’t an option. The climate crisis is the greatest existential threat humanity has ever faced; it is something we all have to agree on, and something we all have to be prepared to fight. 

Giancarlo Abrahan’s short play Whistler understands this all too well.

Whistler is about an island community suffering from the rise of automation and the depletion of resources, and the inevitability of having to leave everything behind to make way for the new. The play was written for Climate Change Theatre Action 2021 (CCTA), a worldwide series of readings and performances of 5-minute plays about the climate crisis, presented this fall to coincide with the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow. The prompt given to the playwrights was  “Envisioning a Global Green New Deal.” According to the CCTA website, “we encouraged [playwrights] to show us what their dream future looks like – and how we might get there.” Hailing from the Philippines, Abrahan wrote about human displacement as a consequence of environmental protection measures, the grief inherent in said displacement, and the struggles of making one’s voice heard to those who can’t or won’t listen.

Abrahan deserves massive props for his poetic sensibilities. The experience of reading a play can often feel incomplete, because plays aren’t meant to be read; they are meant to be experienced in performance. Without the visual and audial elements, a play often can’t have its full intended impact. Whistler is not one of those plays. It sits firmly between poetry and drama, and with its phrasing and expressions, creates a reading experience that speaks deeply to personal experience. One of the most potent passages is the Boy’s discussion of his island community,  and the rise of automation and its consequences:

BOY: The real trade, though, was squeezing milk out of our mountains. Like they were breasts. Calcium was very important then. It might still be today, depending on which doctors you ask. Except the world developed lactose intolerance. So we had to look for calcium elsewhere, and forget certain flowers. Heads had to learn to wear new hats, arms had to acclimatize to sleeves.

A siren wails. In new positions on the stage; the MEN and the BOY sit on their chairs.

Anyway, our mountains had been flat-chested for a while. And so we were given…

A WOMAN enters and gives envelopes to the MEN and the BOY.

WOMAN: A green new deal.

The MEN and the BOY open the envelopes.
On sheets of paper – transcriptions of their misinterpretations. (Abrahan 2)

Misinterpretation is a constant throughout the text of Whistler. When a Green New Deal finally comes, it is not understood as such. “Green new deal” is misinterpreted as “a grey nude eel,” “agreein’ you’d hell,” “agri, no deal,” and so on. It is necessary to the community, but it cannot be properly understood, and therefore cannot be properly utilized. Poignantly, the people who live on this island are often only one letter short of being on the same page. Take, for instance, the exchange between Woman and Boy:

WOMAN: You smell that? Oh, fresh air!

BOY: (Whistles) You mean, sweat air?

WOMAN: I did mean fresh.

BOY: But the sweat air, that’s me. (Whistles) Not just fresh. That’s me!

WOMAN: Well… (Sniffs) You neither look sweaty nor smell sour to me.

BOY: No, no, no…I meant SWEET air. (Whistles) That’s me.

WOMAN: Sweet and fresh, I didn’t know there was a difference. (3)

Whistler’s exploration of the consequences incurred from tiny misunderstandings is disturbingly reflective of patterns we see in society every day. Right-wing conservatives hear “Green New Deal” and interpret that as “the liberals want to take away your burgers,” and they parrot that interpretation so often that it overshadows the actual contents and intentions of the Green New Deal. It’s similar to a game of telephone; whatever the outcome is, it’s nothing like the original message. Scientists and activists are very specific with the language they use to discuss what climate change is, the kind of impact that it has, and the actions needed to fight it. The recently released IPCC Report is a perfect example of this; when the United Nations Chief describes the report as a “code red for humanity,” it’s nigh impossible to understand that as anything but a desperate, urgent warning. And yet, Twitter has already started to see detractors claim this plea is just liberal fear mongering – that scientists are exaggerating. For what purpose? Even they don’t seem to know.

So… how do we move forward? If we can’t communicate effectively, what’s left for us besides the end of the world? Is it too late after all?

No. It’s never too late.

If we can’t communicate effectively, we have to change our rhetoric. Instead of saying “end fast fashion,” we can say “improving working conditions in the clothing industry will lead to products being better and less waste being produced.” Instead of saying “climate change has caused displacement,” we can say “heads had to learn to wear new hats.” We can find a different point of view. Forge a new path. Choose a different tactic. Those who are against a climate revolution want us to succumb to climate grief. They want us to give up when we say “sweat” and someone else hears “sweet.” They want nihilism to bind our hands so that we can’t put them to work. They want to pollute our hope, because without hope, we have nothing.

We don’t have to let them do that.

(Top image: Siargao Island, Philippines. Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash.)

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Camille Cuzzupoli is a rising senior at Bennington College and summer intern for Climate Change Theatre Action. She studies dramaturgy, theatre history, and costume design, and has worked as a Field Work Term intern for HowlRound Theatre Commons and Actors’ Shakespeare project. As an artist, she seeks to encourage critical thinking, personal transformation, and social equity through the theatrical medium. Her work has been published on howlround.com and medium.com.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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