“The world unwinding”: Station Eleven, Shakespeare, and an artist’s-eye view of apocalypse

playbill in water in Station Eleven miniseriesDuring the covid-19 pandemic, two methods of escape for me have been Shakespeare and depictions of fictional catastrophes, so you can imagine my excitement when I learned that a novel that combines both — Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven — had been adapted into a miniseries.

Station Eleven depicts a catastrophic global pandemic that wipes out 99% of the earth’s population. Twenty years later, a small group of survivors travel from settlement to settlement in the Great Lakes region performing concerto music and Shakespeare plays. Written in 2014, the novel reads today as both eerily prescient and strangely hopeful, and not just because one of the novel’s guiding lights is William Shakespeare.

Both the novel and the miniseries begin with a scene from King Lear — another epic about societal collapse — in which the actor playing Lear dies from a heart attack during Act Four, just as the story’s deadly “Georgia flu” is beginning to devastate the planet. We soon learn the doomed actor — Arthur Leander is his name — is connected to many of the story’s central protagonists, starting with an ex-wife named Miranda who is also (if her name isn’t connection enough to The Tempest) from an island; the same one, in fact, where Arthur grew up in British Columbia. Jeevan, an aimless ex-photographer and would-be EMT, performs CPR on Arthur, unsuccessfully, but manages to save Kirsten, a child performer who plays a younger dumbshow version of Lear’s daughter in Arthur’s production and grows up to be a leading player in the Traveling Symphony, a roaming band of musicians and actors.

two men onstage hovering over a third man lying dead
Himesh Patel, Gregory Linington (center), and Gael García Bernal (prone) in Station Eleven. Photograph by Parrish Lewis/HBO Max

Mandel draws explicit connections between Shakespeare’s plays, the plague-ridden times in which they were written, and the post-plague world in which the Traveling Symphony is performing them. Playing the fairy queen Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kirsten ruminates on how this 400-year-old play, written in a pre-electronic era after two years of plague, is now being performed in a post-electronic era devastated by plague and filled with references to pestilence (“contagious frogs”) and how “rheumatic diseases do abound.” Shakespeare was “plague-haunted,” according to one character, living a lifetime “defined by” the pandemics that ravaged England, yet Kirsten “never feels more alive” than when she’s speaking his lines. “When on stage she fears nothing.”

The same is true for many of the characters, who find solace, comfort, and community in their art. (It’s surely not a coincidence that the center of this web of characters is named Arthur, since many of the novel’s plot lines begin by people literally doing things for Art’s sake.) Almost every character in the novel is a creator of some kind: painter, illustrator, writer, photographer, curator, historian, musician, composer, actor, even religious charlatan.

Miranda, for instance, before the Georgia flu hits, spends years toiling away at the graphic novel that gives the book and miniseries its title, writing the text and painting the artwork, with little expectation or even desire that it will ever be published. “It makes me happy,” she tells an obnoxious inquisitor. “It doesn’t really matter to me if anyone else sees it.” Her novel, a science fiction tale about the captain of a space station, provides refuge from her life, which feels like being “marooned on a strange planet.” In the miniseries, Miranda says, “I am at my best when I am escaping,” whether it’s into her art, or from difficult relationships and oncoming pandemics.

woman looking at a graphic novel
Mackenzie Davis in Station Eleven. Photograph by Ian Watson/HBO Max

How artists transform their lives into their art and create order out of chaos is Mandel’s main theme, and to explore it she doesn’t just reference graphic novels and Shakespeare. Station Eleven draws on all sorts of culture: science fiction; the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes (especially its recurring character Spaceman Spiff); classical music; William Butler Yeats; the old-school, pre-email pleasures of letter-writing by hand; the band R.E.M. (of course their song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” gets a mention); and Star Trek: Voyager, which supplies the Traveling Symphony’s tagline, painted on the side of their lead caravan: “Survival is insufficient.” Star Trek, of course, has its own connections to Shakespeare, and one member of the Symphony (“a double major in theater and music” in the Before Times) pushes back on the company’s limited repertoire. “Survival might be insufficient,” she argues, “but on the other hand, so [is] Shakespeare.”

A lot of post-apocalyptic fiction is filled with violence and danger, but Station Eleven doesn’t traffic (too much) in such melodrama. Both the novel and the miniseries are infused with touches of Shakespearean comedy and beauty. From its very first frame, the miniseries depicts the wreckage of civilization as a lush and verdant “brave new world,” showing once-crowded theaters and formerly-bustling cityscapes transformed into overgrown and hauntingly beautiful green spaces where survivors must discover their true selves. It also adds a scene where a Traveling Symphony fanboy is finally granted an audition and, not knowing any Shakespeare by heart, recites from memory Bill Pullman’s rally-the-troops monologue from Roland Emmerich’s film Independence Day (itself a modern update of Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V). And in the book, as Jeevan trudges through the Toronto snow, trying to escape the city and avoid other flu carriers, he thinks, “This is my soul in the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air,” which could easily be the first two lines of a beautiful post-apocalyptic sonnet.

man in a spacesuit from Station Eleven miniseriesThe miniseries emphasizes not just the novel’s Shakespearean content, but the playwright’s process. The grown-up Kirsten plays Hamlet to an appreciative audience, underscoring the parallels between the Dane’s grief and mourning and her own, while Hamlet’s play-within-a-play device finds expression in Station Eleven’s novel-within-a-novel. Doctor Eleven, the protagonist of Miranda’s story, says, “I stood looking over my damaged home,” an image only referenced in the novel as a panel on a page, but seen in the miniseries in his spacesuit, as real as the others, looking down on our ravaged planet from his god’s eye view. His omniscient viewpoint represents the artist’s eye view — Miranda’s, Mandel’s, Shakespeare’s, or any creator’s — who always sees the big picture while finessing the details.

Just as Shakespeare explored the fears of his own time through his plays, Mandel does the same in Station Eleven, which is a celebration of the power of pop culture and the urge to create art and community even in the wake of the most terrible destruction. (The New York Times calls the miniseries adaptation “the most uplifting post-apocalyptic show you’re likely to see.”) Miraculously, two copies of Miranda’s self-published graphic novel survive, becoming, like Shakespeare, a shared point of connection, even between adversaries.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but during troubling times, rather than obsess on how bad things are, I can’t get enough of depictions of how bad things can possibly get, especially if they involve Shakespeare. So during the holidays I’ll be eagerly awaiting the remaining seven episodes of Station Eleven because — like Miranda — I too am at my best when I’m escaping.


⇒Related: Connections between Station Eleven and the Folger collection

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