A triangle of light, a single stool, and a vintage microphone lie in the centre of the room. Then you notice him. Dr. Karl Patterson Schmidt, staring intensely at the audience in silence. Clad in a snakeskin jacket, his silence begets the silence of the audience. And then we begin an exploration (or perhaps it is an exhortation) of the Death Diary of Dr Karl Patterson Schmidt.
Photograph by Keith Morris
The eponymous Dr. Schmidt was an eminent American Herpetologist who is portrayed in this performance by Dr. Tom Payne. Schmidt is now possibly most well-known for self-documenting his death after being bitten by a young boomslang snake in 1957. There are two particularly tragic, yet salutary, aspects to his diary of death. The first was that, despite his scientific expertise, Schmidt did not believe that the juvenile snake could produce a deadly dose of venom. The second was, because of his scientific training, he was keen to meticulously document his symptoms, even to the point of refusing medical assistance lest he should interfere with the results of his embodied experiment. Everybody Loses utilises the deeply ironic and disturbing case of Dr. Schmidt, and his embodiment of irrationality within the rational, as a form of morality (perhaps immorality) tale that speaks directly to contemporary human relations with our planetary home. Yet speaking directly is by no means the intent of this performance piece. This performance of a death bite weaves together science, comedy, song, drama, and prose that is at one and the same time intimate and yet sweeping, highly personal and yet geopolitical, embodied and yet planetary. Its effects on me were both profound and discombobulating.
Our first ventures into Schmidt’s diary sets the tone:
“4:30-5:30pm Strong nausea, but without vomiting, during trip to Homewood on suburban train. A first-hand report of an untreated bite has special value. Very special value-I think. I am feeling a little like I’m losing my mind. Worse for wear. Perhaps it’s the snakeskin suit”
Here, at least for me, Schmidt’s diary echoes the work of Charles David Keeling who began the assiduous monitoring of global average carbon dioxide from the lonely Mauna Loa volcano in the Pacific Ocean. His data, and the Keeling Curve it produced, are now our clearest signal of the declining climatic stability of our planet. Is this our first hand scientific account of an untreated environmental intervention at a planetary scale? Schmidt’s body here becomes planetary in it symbolism. But Schmidt’s tale also invokes the NASA scientist James Lovelock whose Gaia hypothesis led to the first scientific accounts of the Earth as a living body. What ultimately unites Schmidt, the Keeling Curve, and the Gaia hypothesis is not the scientific method, but how the scientific discoveries they embody (quite literally in Schmidt’s case) have been paralleled by a declining ability to act upon them. Schmidt’s stubborn refusal of medical help reflects humanity’s refusal to act decisively on climate change. Schmidt’s inaction is born of either a commitment to the scientific method, or an inability to think straight (or perhaps a mixture of the two). Our inaction is the complex product of certain psychological flaws and political economic norms, but is ultimately in spite of science not because of it.
Beyond the diary there are other themes that creatively weave their way through Everybody Loses, connecting together the particularities of Schmidt’s death diary and the signs of our dying planet. First there is the snake, “A boomslang with undivided rear plate. – a thirty-inch snake brought for identification to Chicago Natural History Museum by Mr. Truett of the Lincoln Park Zoo.” The biblical implications of the snake are, of course, evident it evokes Genesis, it evokes The Fall. But, in this performance the snake becomes so much more. In its naming, and “taming” under the herpetologist’s gaze it comes to stand for a nature transformed by human categorization and exploitation. At one and the same time, the snake represents nature “biting back” through climate instability, pollution vectors, and resource depletion: we hear of the ancient myths of a giant snake who once disturbed will “rise from the ground, wrap itself around the earth, and crush it. And that’ll be the end of this”. But the snake in the hands of Schmidt also invokes the ecological irresponsibility of mankind: why did he hold the snake so carelessly, so unthinkingly?
In scene 4 our focus becomes death and taxes. Death here operates on at least two levels. While we are engaged in a visceral and, at times, surreal account of Dr. Schmidt’s demise—“9:00pm – 12:20am slept well. No blood in urine before going to sleep, but very small amount of urine. Urination at 12:20am mostly blood, but small in amount. Mouth had bled steadily as shown by dried blood at both angles of mouth”— ecological death is never far away. What this performance is incredibly effective at conveying are the potential banalities of catastrophic ecological degradation. As with the gradual worsening of Schmidt’s condition we are left to ponder the ultimate consequences of the slow death of the planet. Many writing about sustainability today have described the emergence of environmental management systems which are predicated on sustaining gradually degrading ecological systems. In Everybody Loses we begin to discern the ludicrousness of thinking that gradual degradation will not ultimately be calamitous. Schmidt’s death is a slow and gradual one, but even though its steady nature allows him to document its course, it does not change the nature of his ultimate death.
Beyond death the only other certain thing is taxes. With an impromptu tax audit, we are reminded,“All of us. Every person. Every last one of us. Owing all that. That massive cosmic debt to the reaper and the HMRC/ATO/IRS. Owe all that, killing us all, and the weather”. While Dr. Schmidt owes a personal debt of death to the venom, our cosmic duty is increasingly understood in the terms of an ecological debt. Popularised in the 1990s, the notion of ecological debt has become a common way of conceptualising our collective relationships to the ecological systems on which we depend: ecological debt is the product of the resources we take out, and the pollution we put in to ecological systems, that outstrip those system’s ability to replenish and absorb. Everybody Loses interprets ecological debt as the product of the freedoms we enjoy, “the ability and access to global, local – hell even elevators or new sneakers – travel, and the billions of hours of self-produced, mass-produced, and all-the time on demand entertainment.”
Running through each of these deeper themes, Everybody Loses if characterised primarily by its embrace of the absurd. The absurd takes various forms from the constant contradictory qualifications that stream from the consciousness of the dying Dr. Schmidt, to the random banalities that enliven his monologue: “The road to hell… Is paved […] So, um, any shoes will do really. Loafers will do fine.” In its embrace of the absurd, Everybody Loses embodies all that is best about the Dadaist tradition. It embraces the irrational to shatter the rational veil of the capitalist-materialist complex, and reveal its absurdities. To paraphrase David Attenborough, anyone who thinks that we can sustain infinite growth on a finite planet is either mad, or an economist! Surely to get ahead of the absurd, we must first know absurdity.
The absurd is also evident in the particular deployment of humour that this performance utilises. It is the form of humour that makes you think about the nature and purpose of humour itself. First things first, Everybody Loses is funny. At one point Schmidt asks the audience, “How’s everybody feeling? I’m using a complex system of nerves, electrical and chemical releases, distributors, and receptors”. Funny, right? But humour is important within this performance not because it sooths, or massages our intellectual egos (in the sense that we get the joke). Here humour operates on the level of enabling us to recognise that we can see the absurdity, that we can even rise above it enough to find it entertaining, perhaps that we can actually do something about it.
Photograph by Keith Morris
If I am honest, watching The Death Diary of Dr. Karl Patterson Schmidt was a challenging experience. It expects a lot of the audience. But isn’t this what true theatre should be about. Everybody Loses is enlivened by an incredibly diverse, thoughtful, and thought-provoking script. Dr. Tom Payne’s performance of the eponymous Dr. Schmidt was eerily effective, committed, and strangely charming. If I have a criticism it would be that Everybody Loses can so easily lose you in its disorientating fabric. But this is a harsh criticism, given that its intent is to generate an effect of disorientation and confusion. The issue here then becomes a question of balance between the relative values of bewilderment and comprehension. As an artistic intervention within contemporary human-environment affairs, Everybody Loses is both original and unquestionably effective. It is gripping and intelligent and should offer inspiration to others engaged in bringing the performing arts and the ecological crisis into conversation.
At one point Dr. Schmidt asks the question, “Vox Pop. Is anyone here a reviewer. Suggestion. To whit: Five Stars. He was a good man. He was stimulating, and exciting. Both a true exchange, and it was good. Sharing our fortunes, and fates, and becoming one”. I find this self-assessment to be entirely reasonable.