From Magma to Munch: The Science of Survival

by Jessica Allison

          Humans, as a species, worry too much. The rise of technology allows us to control many of our worries. Sickness can be squelched with modern medicine and our enemies can be knocked out with nuclear bombs. Scientists are even working on ways to wipe out any wandering space junk that gets too close to Earth. Despite this technology, humans have still not found a way to control tornadoes or tsunamis. Natural disasters are the closest comparisons to what the end of the world might be like—unrelenting disaster powered by the force of nature.

             I am one of three dramaturgs for Kevin Kingston’s production of boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb here at The Theatre School at DePaul University. In boom, Jules, a scientist, and Jo, a journalism student, are brought together randomly to face an apocalyptic event. One focus of my research is looking at some of history’s most destructive natural disasters as a way to explore how humans react in such situations. I’m hoping to get a sense of how our humanity comes out in these life-or-death scenarios and apply my findings to the end-of-the-world event the characters of boom experience.

            As I started my research, I remembered a book I read several years ago—Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester. The book details the history of the super volcano Krakatoa. Krakatoa, located west of the island of Java in Indonesia, erupted for the last time on August 27, 1883. Krakatoa was extremely active leading up to the final eruption—Dutch traders who set up camp on nearby islands in the 1870s left some records of Krakatoa’s warning blasts. Then, on August 27, Krakatoa erupted with such force that it not only exploded itself into nothingness, but also the island that the volcano sat on.

               The series of four explosions over the course of that day created massive tsunamis that demolished the tiny villages on the surrounding islands. Over 30,000 people died, but not from falling rock, ash, or lava; the force of the water from the tsunamis caused the majority of the deaths on that day. The ash from the explosion was carried around the world; there was so much ash in the atmosphere that sunsets worldwide were stained years afterward with a reddish hue. Global temperatures fell after the blast and did not return to normal until a year afterward. The sound of the explosion is considered the loudest in modern history—it was quite literally the sound heard round the world. Some scientists even say the force of the explosion was not unlike the force of the comet or meteor that collided with Earth and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

          Those who lived on the islands surrounding Krakatoa were focused on survival after the blast. While there was little the villagers could do against the massive waves, people tried to head to high ground or climb trees to avoid being swept away. When the first round of waves swept through most of the villagers thought it was safe; they did not consider that the waves would have to retreat back to the ocean, causing even more destruction. In this type of situation surviving becomes a basic human instinct, but the explosion of Krakatoa affected the entire world. What about those experiencing the effects of the eruption halfway around the globe?

           Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream has long been analyzed as a symbol of fear. The orange red sky could be attributed to the anxiety felt by the man in the painting. Another theory suggests that Munch actually did see a red sky—caused from the ash in the air from Krakatoa and he created a painting that has become a symbol of fear.

             Munch couldn’t control the color of the sky just like the villagers in Indonesia couldn’t stop the explosion of Krakatoa or the subsequent tsunamis. The entire world feared Krakatoa. There was the destruction it caused, of course, but the effects that spread were far less damaging. Why would people worry? Krakatoa was just one example of nature showing off. Lives were lost and destruction was widespread. But the most fearful aspect of natural disasters is our inability to control them.

          In boom, Jules attempts to exert control over the end of the world. He stockpiles food, supplies, and a partner to prepare for life in a post-apocalyptic world. It may be easy for an audience to judge Jules or think he is crazy for preparing for something that might not even happen, but Jules is no different from you or I. What makes him human is his need to survive.

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