There have been numerous pandemics throughout history that have affected the way in which society functions. Historically, pandemics have led to massive shutdowns, forcing people to become isolated from each other and their culture. The recent Covid-19 pandemic shows people who thought pandemics were a problem for less advanced societies that they can still happen despite modern-day technologies that have suppressed diseases from the past. Covid-19 massively affected many aspects of our society, from economics, product supplies, communities, culture, and the arts. Since mass gatherings were not allowed in many areas of the world during the height of Covid-19, cultural outings such as museums, galleries, and concerts were left at a standstill. It quickly became clear during the shutdown period of Covid-19 that mere physical survival is not sustainable. People need to have a feeling of togetherness and community, one that is easily obtained through the commonality of the arts among different people. In light of this, society had to learn of a way to allow the arts to survive despite the Covid-19 implications. Different avenues for the sharing of the arts were quickly discovered, such as at-home concerts and online gallery tours. Covid-19 shines a light that the arts and culture are essential for the survival of society.
The Covid-19 pandemic is such a massive event that many may have only imagined to be possible in a fictionalized world. Literature offers a lens into various possibilities of how society may react to different occurrences. Science fiction serves many purposes for the reader. In some cases, science fiction is a form of escapism from the real world’s issues. Being swept up while reading about interesting hypothetical scientific possibilities is often a major draw of the genre. With that said, science fiction is a very diverse genre that can sometimes delve into the literary realm. A popular subgenre of science fiction includes dystopian pieces that can often fall into speculative fiction. Speculative fiction, as a form, offers the reader possibilities of how the real world may change with various scientific discoveries, technologies, or diseases being introduced to society. As Marie Jakober (2007) argues:
Just as realistic fiction can help us understand an aspect of human life in all the complexities of a particular context, speculative fiction can help us understand it in a different way, by lifting it out of its familiar contexts and searching for elements that might be universal. (29)
An example of an effective science fiction speculative fiction piece is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel published in 2014. The novel mostly takes place after a pandemic hits the world and kills ninety-nine percent of the population. In order to cope with this new type of lifestyle, a group of people created the Traveling Symphony to keep the arts alive in the desolate new world. Further, Station Eleven focuses particularly on the Shakespeare plays King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a post-apocalyptic sphere.
Station Eleven serves as a vehicle for vast speculation when thinking about the possible consequences of a massive pandemic. Speculative fiction allows the reader to see various hypothetical outcomes of countless different technologies, social systems, diseases, and outer-space elements. Station Eleven explores the consequences of a hypothetical pandemic and how the world and society might be altered as a result of it. Of this sector of speculative fiction, Glyn Morgan (2021) points out, “Rather than seeking imaginary worlds in which to hide from anything that reminds us of our changed world, it seems many of us are choosing to explore how we have imagined global pandemics in years gone by.” Audiences are fascinated by looking at hypothetical tragedies to possibly obtain a new understanding of the inner workings of society. These tragedies have been kept at arm’s-length for the readers because apocalyptic-level disasters seem unrealistic in modern-day society. However, the recent Covid-19 pandemic has become a harsh reality, showing that perhaps the speculation in Station Eleven is not so far from a possibility. Thus, Station Eleven is a significant read for any individual due to the novel’s unique exploration of the arts—both communal and individual—showing how both spheres are essential for survival in times of crisis. Through a close analysis of Station Eleven’s depiction of the arts in a post-apocalyptic world, one can recognize the importance of the arts in relation to the current-day Covid-19 pandemic.
Summary of Station Eleven
To fully understand the significance of the arts (and Shakespeare) in the world of Station Eleven, one must first become acquainted with not only the novel, but also the particular plays mentioned in the work and the function of the arts during the Covid-19 pandemic. So that a foundation can be formed for the remainder of the project, one should have a synopsis of Station Eleven. Station Eleven opens with King Lear being performed by famous actor Arthur Leander as the lead and the protagonist Kirsten Raymonde as one of King Lear’s daughters. Arthur dies on stage, sparking the beginning of the Georgian Flu, which becomes a widespread pandemic. The novel jumps from “present day,” which is twenty years after the pandemic first appeared, to the very beginnings of the pandemic, which shifts from different perspectives throughout the story.
Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the arts in the post-apocalyptic world of Station Eleven is a traveling symphony that occurs during the “current day” of the novel. The Traveling Symphony has been on the road performing Shakespeare and classical music pieces to scattered communities since the third year after the beginning of the Georgian Flu (37). The tagline of the Symphony, and the novel, is “Survival is insufficient,” originating from a Star Trek episode, implying that there is more to life than mere physical survival. Technology and modern conveniences have vanished in Station Eleven, similar to how they did not yet exist in Shakespeare’s time. The members of the Traveling Symphony then lived a similar life to Shakespeare’s company in that they focused their lives on sharing the arts with the world around them.
The ability to perform the arts is clearly important to the characters of Station Eleven. When Kirsten and August are discussing what life was like in the before times in contrast to the current, Kirsten says this in response to August, “‘Sure, but in what other life would I get to perform Shakespeare?’” (135). Even though her life is not ideal in comparison to the before times, Kirsten still would not trade it, as she focuses her life on performing Shakespeare for others. While it is referenced that the Symphony performs other Shakespearean plays during their travel, the particular play in focus during “current day” in Station Eleven is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Symphony avoids performing plays such as King Lear to refrain from making “‘this place more depressing’” (44). Since King Lear is avoided by the Symphony due to the play’s depressing nature, one may conclude that the Symphony focuses so heavily on A Midsummer Night’s Dream because of the play’s comedic elements.
The Traveling Symphony in Station Eleven does not only focus on play performances. A portion of the Symphony includes an orchestra. At times, the orchestra is used to accompany the performed plays with music, creating a more immersive experience. Other times, the orchestra will perform concerts centered on classical music (268). Similar to Shakespeare’s performances, the musical performances also provide a means of escape for those living in the post-apocalypse. When Kirsten and August are traveling to rejoin the Symphony, they meet Finn, who claims, “‘I remember the Symphony…Can’t say I was ever much for Shakespeare, but that was the best music I’d heard in years’” (147). Music is another powerful form of art for humanity in the world of Station Eleven, and the same can be said about our own world. Music, even though not as often mentioned in Station Eleven as Shakespeare, plays as vital of a role in the survival of culture as other forms of the arts present in the novel.
Further, Kirsten collects some unnecessary items such as a paperweight, tabloids, and comics. At the end of the novel, the Traveling Symphony finds the Museum of Civilization, a place where “unnecessary” items of the past live. While Station Eleven does take place in an interesting post-apocalyptic world, the novel’s focus is not on the environment nor means of survival. Instead, the novel is focused on humanity and the arts’ relation to that humanity. Station Eleven’s focus on the arts and humanity is unique because physical survival is the typical focus in times of crisis. Arts and humanity are often neglected in discussions regarding apocalyptic-level events. The need for culture and humanity is forgotten, and that ends up not being sustainable, as shown throughout the novel.
If Station Eleven could be summarized into a thesis statement, it would be “survival is insufficient.” The arts are an essential aspect of the novel, with each narrative perspective tying back to the idea. Maximilian Feldner (2018) says this of the novel, “[Station Eleven] does not focus on survival, struggle, and conflict but rather examines the possibility and necessity of cultural expression in a post-apocalyptic setting, demonstrating the importance and value of art…” (166). Certainly, there are forms of violence and fighting in the Station Eleven world that is alluded to throughout the novel. However, Mandel makes the artistic choice not to focus on those negative aspects of the post-apocalypse. Instead, the survival of culture is highlighted in the novel, an idea that many do not consider in relation to the apocalypse. There is more to living than merely surviving. Station Eleven begs the question: what is the point of surviving if one does not live? Further, Feldner (2018) states, “…the music and the theatre make their [Symphony members] post-apocalyptic existence bearable. Culture has the important role of adding meaning to lives that otherwise would be reduced to mere survival” (176). Mandel allows for this perspective to be explored by her readers, as people highly focus upon physical survival in times of trauma. Mandel achieves demonstrating the idea that “survival is insufficient” by exposing how the arts positively affect people living in the post-apocalyptic world of Station Eleven.
Historical Connections to Shakespeare and Pandemics
There is a strong history of pandemics and the theatre. In Shakespeare’s own lifetime, London saw at a minimum five rounds of the bubonic plague, forcing citizens into lockdown, similar to the beginnings of Covid-19 (Harkup, 2020). Throughout the breakouts of the bubonic plague, theatres in London would be shut down. Erin Sullivan (2010) claims that “…the arrival of the plague meant the closure of London theaters, leading writers and actors to pursue new ways of selling their creative wares, such as touring the provinces…” (76). Past pandemics have forced people to become creative so that they may keep the arts alive. Because the theatres were Shakespeare’s livelihood, other means of performance had to be found. Shakespeare’s theatre company began traveling to smaller, more isolated communities surrounding London to perform Shakespearean works to other people safely during the plague (Miller, n.d.). Shakespeare’s theatre troupe The King’s Men made performance and the arts a priority, even in dire times. The theatre was able to prevail despite the closing of the London theatres. The King’s Men created a precedent that the show must go on, regardless of venue or hardships, a precedent that is reflected not only in Station Eleven, but also during the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, Station Eleven’s premise of a traveling symphony during a pandemic is not unfounded. Kathryn Harkup (2020) claims, “The theatre was an escape from everyday worries and audiences didn’t need reminders of the reality of terrible pestilence” (108). The arts provide an escape from reality for society, even in the sixteenth century. Throughout time, the arts have found a way to survive, despite the trials that society may face.
The plagues and general sickness during Shakespeare’s lifetime provide a major influence, even if not directly, upon Shakespeare’s writing in terms of themes present in the plays. King Lear first premiered in 1606 (Dates and Sources, n.d.), the same year of another major plague outbreak in London (Miller, n.d.). Much of the language and themes that Shakespeare utilizes in his plays, particularly tragedies, have an err of apocalyptic language, likely influenced by the plagues of his life. Charles Conaway (2021) echoes this sentiment: “Many scholars have examined the ways in which Shakespeare uses apocalyptic references, imagery and rhetoric in his plays and poetry…” (3). Rather than focusing upon various other writers of the past, Mandel chooses Shakespeare, not only for his cultural influence but also for what his works can reveal about the world of Station Eleven. Along with this, King Lear was written through the previous plague outbreak in 1604-1605, causing a strong connotation of the play and various underlying themes throughout the play (Miller, n.d.).
Unique forms of performance of the theatre and music are not the only way that pandemics have affected the arts. As pandemics cause massive shutdowns and widespread shut-ins, people have had more time to reconnect with the arts in their own lives. The aftermath of the Black Plague of the fourteenth century saw an influx of literacy rates and, in turn, literature (Caie, 2006, p. 27). While plagues cause a sort of mass destruction, they also provide a foundation for the rebirth of culture and society. In an interview for Willow Springs Magazine (Huggins et al., 2015), Mandel says, “[Station Eleven] wasn’t really about the end of the world; it was about what happens as people try to reconstruct a new world.” Clearly, Mandel wants to explore how society might be reborn after the apocalypse. Further, Jean Jost (2016) argues, “…[the] plague behind this momentous social collapse inspired a new brand of religious expression, literary production, artistic creation, and socioeconomic culture positively and negatively, forever changing the intellectual world” (194). There becomes a sort of cycle in which pandemics create a strong environment for the further development of high culture—literature, fine arts, music, and theatre. Not only this, but different works became highly influenced by the ever-present plagues of the past. The styles of the arts shifted as the plague became a form of inspiration (Jost, 2016, p. 195). Hardships in the world create a sort of cycle for renewal of culture throughout history. Again, the arts find a way to survive and persevere.
The Performing Arts in Station Eleven
The Shakespeare Plays’ Revelations of Station Eleven
There are specific artistic pieces that play a major role within the story of Station Eleven, particularly Shakespearean plays. Of Mandel’s choice of focusing upon Shakespeare, Feldner (2018) writes, “Shakespeare is suitable material, considering that he lived in a particularly plague-ridden time” (176). Mandel did not choose Shakespeare to be a focus of the novel without considerable thought. Philip Smith (2016) argues that “Shakespeare is shown to effortlessly bridge historical and cultural gaps—to unite past and future—because he speaks directly to the essence of that which is human…” (298). Mandel cleverly weaves Shakespeare throughout Station Eleven. Dieter, (an actor in the Traveling Symphony and best friend to the protagonist ) explains that ‘Shakespeare had lived in a plague-ridden society with no electricity and so did the Traveling Symphony’" (108). As society has regressed in the world of Station Eleven, there are many connections between the Traveling Symphony and the life of Shakespeare.
The novel asserts the importance of the arts within the plot by opening with the performance of King Lear. This performance of King Lear naturally leads the reader into the beginnings of the Georgian Flu. King Lear, a tragedy, displays Lear’s descent into madness. The play is filled with misunderstandings and miscommunications that harbor the environment for King Lear’s downfall. He becomes obsessed with which one of his daughters loves him the most. The only daughter that is truthful about her love for Lear is completely cut off from him. This is because she did not exaggerate her care for her father, unlike her sisters, so Lear believed her to care the least for him. As Lear falls into madness, his relationships with his other two daughters deteriorate, leaving him lonely. Upon learning of his daughter’s death, he then dies, of a broken heart.
Because King Lear was written in the midst of sickness and was premiered just before another major outbreak, Mandel’s choice of opening the novel’s event with the play is telling, setting the tone for the remainder of the novel. However, the play, as performed in the novel, ends prematurely, with Arthur Leander dying on stage in mid-performance. As Smith (2016) suggests, “King Lear, it seems, is fitting for the end of the world…In Station Eleven, the performance of King Lear appears to bring forth the apocalypse it describes” (290). Mandel meticulously chooses King Lear to open her novel, setting a somber tone.
Perhaps another connection that King Lear applies to the work done in Station Eleven regarding the arts is that King Lear was first performed in 1606, only a mere three years after a massive breakout of the bubonic plague in London (Singman, 1995, p. 52). Disease was an ever-present problem in Shakespeare’s life. Something monumental that is stated early within the novel is, “…this illness…was going to be the divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through his life” (Mandel 20). There is no returning to the lives that once existed prior to the Georgian Flu outbreak, which can be reflected in common feelings about our own Covid-19 pandemic.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The other play that has a significant inclusion in Station Eleven is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unlike King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream does not appear in Station Eleven until after the pandemic. The differences between the two Shakespearean works does not end there. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy rather than a tragedy. Like King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is based upon misunderstandings and miscommunications. Yet, the play displays the lightheartedness that can be gained from those issues rather than the possible tragic outcomes. A Midsummer Night’s Dream follows different humans that are tricked by fairies through the usage of magic and potions to cause the humans to fall in love with other people. The play then explores the comedic outcomes of these confusions. A Midsummer Night’s Dream closes with a poorly produced play within the play. Mandel’s choice of the work that takes a predominant place in the novel can reveal how the characters in Station Eleven view the state of their world and their society—the characters attempt to keep their lives and the lives of others as lighthearted as possible, avoiding the performance of tragedies like King Lear.
Of the plays, Smith (2016) states, “If King Lear heralds the apocalypse, then A Midsummer Night’s Dream heralds the possibility of rebirth” (294). Although Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel, it provides the reader with a sense of hope. The apocalypse in the novel provides a way for humanity and culture to be reborn, starting a new life for people and the earth. The argument of Station Eleven signifying a rebirth is repeated by Carmen Méndez-García (2017): “In comparison to other post-apocalyptic texts, Station Eleven is not quite as concerned with the violence immediately following the apocalypse but with a process of re-construction and rebirth…” (112). A Midsummer Night’s Dream is comedic in nature, a play that explores the complications of confusion. With a close reading of both Station Eleven and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one can see that Mandel carefully selects the play to be in focus as opposed to another work due to what an understanding of the play can add to the reading of Station Eleven. The play has fantasy elements, allowing the performers and audience to become immersed into another reality. Toward the beginning of the novel, the Symphony discusses which Shakespeare play to perform that night. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is decided upon, “‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ Gil said, breaking an impasse. ‘I believe the evening calls for fairies’” (44). With that said, escaping one’s reality is not the only reason why Mandel may have chosen A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be a central play within the novel. According to Smith (2016), Mandel may have also chosen the specific play because “Puck’s epilogue in A Midsummer Night’s Dream…emphasize the impermanence of theater” (295). Smith’s statements on A Midsummer Night’s Dream are relevant to show that Mandel is emphasizing the importance of the arts and theatre through her choice of play. Every artistic choice that Mandel makes in her construction of Station Eleven is deliberate to further the underlying argument of the novel that the arts are essential and important to human life. The repetition of the importance of the arts plays into the idea that “survival is insufficient.”
Lastly, another aspect of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to examine in relation to Station Eleven is which characters in the novel perform specific roles in the play. Kirsten plays Titania, the fairy queen (57). Titania, like Kirsten, plays a major role in the subplots of the play. Kirsten is the inner connection to the various plotlines that take place within the novel. For example, Kirsten has a direct link to Arthur, who, in turn, has a direct link to Jeevan, Miranda, and Clark, all of whom have their own unique storylines in Station Eleven. At the end of the novel, each of these storylines becomes connected in a sense through Kirsten, who finds the Museum of Civilization that Clark had founded. Clark and Kirsten realize that they are connected through Arthur, whose presence in Kirsten’s life directly affected her need to collect unnecessary items and express art. Similarly, Titania is behind the multiple plots in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as she is the queen of the fairies that places the spells on the people to confuse them. She is also directly related to the subplot of Bottom and his friends. Titania, like Kirsten, is the common thread that holds the multiple plots within their respective places together.
The Traveling Symphony’s Orchestra
Alongside Shakespearean works, the Traveling Symphony also performs classical music for the various communities in the post-apocalyptic world. The Traveling Symphony has orchestra members that will play music to accompany the various play performances that take place. Music provides a stronger sense of immersion for the audience watching the theatre performances. Music to the musicians is just as important to them as Shakespeare is to characters like Kirsten. For those that did not particularly enjoy Shakespeare, the music offers a welcomed escape: “The truth was, the clarinet hated Shakespeare…she loved the music of the Symphony, loved being part of it, but found the Symphony’s insistence on performing Shakespeare insufferable” (288). Many characters are identified in Station Eleven through which instrument they play in the orchestra. Their instrument becomes their identity. Music helps to provide emotion, tension, and a yearning for the audience of the plays that would not otherwise be as outwardly present. Just as watching a movie without background would feel awkward and incomplete, so would viewing the Shakespearean plays in the Station Eleven world. Having the music accompany the play performances allows the audience to feel a sense of return to normalcy, even if it is only brief.
In addition to the importance that music has on the musicians and audience of the Shakespeare plays, music is of equal importance to an audience on its own. While Shakespeare is often performed by the Traveling Symphony, the musicians perform nearly every night on their own (52). Although Mandel does not focus on the musical aspect of the Traveling Symphony as much as she focuses on the Shakespeare plays, it is still evident that music plays an important role in the survival of the arts. For the audience that does not particularly enjoy Shakespeare, classical music can provide a similar escapism effect upon them, “‘Can’t say I was ever much for Shakespeare, but that was the best music I’d heard in years’” (147). Both the music and the Shakespeare plays are significant in their impacts on the rebuilding society. Conaway (2021) argues in response to Mandel’s statement about the Traveling Symphony during her NPR interview:
In her novel, then, ‘the Beethoven symphonies, the Shakespeare plays, the things that we think of as the highest and most exalted expressions of our culture’ are performed by the Traveling Symphony in order to enrich the lives of the traumatised survivors of the viral apocalypse who comprise the touring group’s audiences. (5)
The performance arts in Station Eleven are playing their respective roles in the rebuilding of culture after the Georgian Flu. Even though ninety-nine percent of humanity was killed in the pandemic, the likes of Shakespeare and Beethoven continue to survive.
The Importance of “Unnecessary Items” and the Arts
Shakespeare’s plays and classical music are not the only means by which Station Eleven displays the significance of culture alongside physical survival in a post-apocalyptic world. The novel also explores a collection of “unnecessary” items through Kirsten and the Museum of the Past. These items may be classified as “unnecessary” because they do not contribute to one’s physical survival. Instead, the items add weight and use valuable space in the characters’ limited carrying capacity. Kirsten, who was present at Arthur Leander’s death, made it a sort of life passion to collect tabloids and magazines about the actor, creating a bridge for Kirsten to the past. Méndez-García (2017) argues, “The novel emphasizes the resilience of cultural objects in a brave new world where Shakespeare and obscure science fiction comics apparently coexist in terms of cultural importance” (111). Kirsten states that she does not remember much about her life before the Georgian Flu and does not remember anything about the first two years after the events of the pandemic: “…I have some problems with memory. I can’t remember very much from before the collapse” (113). In a way, the tabloids provide Kirsten with proof of her life experiences prior to the Georgian Flu. The tabloids are one of the few tangible remnants remaining from the time before, providing a sense of identity for Kirsten. Kirsten also develops a habit of searching for copies of Dr. Eleven, a comic book series within the novel written by Arthur’s ex-wife Miranda. When Kirsten was a child, Arthur had gifted her a copy of a volume of Station Eleven, sparking Kirsten’s interest in the specific media. Not only this, but Arthur also had given Kirsten a paperweight that was once Miranda’s.
Further, Kirsten holds onto the fragments of the past, of her childhood, and continues to carry those pieces years later. Kirsten’s possessions, all housed in her backpack, are as listed:
…in it she carried as little as possible: two glass bottles of water that in a previous civilization had held Lipton Iced Tea, a sweater, a rag she tied over her face in dusty homes, a twist of wire for picking locks, the ziplock bag that held her tabloid collection and the Dr. Eleven comics, and a paperweight. (66)
Kirsten’s hoarding of these pieces begins to show Mandel’s argument for the importance of “unnecessary” items and how they are, in fact, necessary for humanity. Once more, the notion that “survival is insufficient” is displayed in Station Eleven. Of the emphasis of unnecessary items, Feldner states, “Culture in the novel is not only represented by Shakespeare and the music the Symphony plays. Other cultural artefacts are similarly prominent. Kirsten, for example, always carries a snow globe and the Dr. Eleven comic books with her; items which appear to have no practical value” (177). While it might be physically easier for Kirsten to only carry necessities and more efficient to only use her time foraging for food and supplies, Kirsten’s mental health is supported by the arts, and those items remain a priority in their own right. Kirsten is not isolated in her need to collect these types of items. Another character in the novel who sees the need for past items similar to Kirsten is Clark, who created the Museum of Civilization in the airport (255). In this museum, Clark collects modern-day artifacts of times before the Georgian Flu to preserve for future generations. The unnecessary items become as important as the arts when it comes to humanity because caring about, enjoying, and collecting arts and various other items is what makes the characters of Station Eleven human. Again, the collection of “unnecessary” items is essential for the survivability of culture and humanity.
Station Eleven and the Arts During the Covid-19 Pandemic
The importance that Station Eleven places upon the arts is also reflected in our modern-day pandemic of Covid-19. Covid-19, similar to pandemics of the past, required a period of time for social distancing, which led to a massive shutdown of anything deemed as “non-essential,” which includes nearly everything except for grocery stores and medical care. Of these non-essential places being shut down, a massive institution affected was the performance of the arts. Nations across the world shut down theatrical and musical performances in response to the threat of Covid-19. Mass gatherings were outlawed, and people were highly encouraged to only leave their private homes for food and medical essentials. People were either told to work remotely or laid off from their jobs. According to a study conducted by Dimitris Zavras (2021) about people’s feelings in the beginnings of Covid-19, people between 16-54 years old are “more likely to be described as a feeling of uncertainty.” As Covid-19 progressed, there was an ever-present feeling of uncertainty in society. Governments would lift restrictions for a week to only reinstate these same restrictions a week later. People became fearful for their own survival, not only from a health perspective, but from a mental and financial perspective as well.
Further, Covid-19 caused people to feel a heavy sense of isolation. One’s only connection to the outside world was through the means of the internet. People no longer had the luxury of physical personal connections with one another. The isolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic influenced a mental health crisis across the world. According to Rabah Kamal et al. (2021), people faced many mental health issues from various effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly being isolated. While some people took advantage of the isolation by working on creative projects, others felt a major disconnect from society. Activities that were previously commonplace for people became an unreachable luxury. The feelings of uncertainty and loneliness became prevalent across societies in the world.
It did not take long after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic for people to see that physically surviving was not enough; mental health is just as important. While people were surviving physically, they were not surviving socially, as the elements of culture were quickly unobtainable to society. It began to become evident that physical survival was not enough. The arts provide a way for society to connect on a common scale. From an article published by Rice University, Kenn McLaughlin is quoted, “‘And through this virus pandemic [Covid-19] we’ve seen more examples of how everyday folks and professional artists alike need to express themselves to others to combat loneliness and depression’” (Cook, 2020). Even in Shakespeare’s day, both royalty and the common people enjoyed watching the plays. Since there was no way for people to gather together physically for the sake of the arts, alternative solutions were devised. Each of the high culture arts—music, fine arts, and theatre—has their own unique ways of survival during Covid-19 lockdowns.
The first significant art form that found a way to survive during Covid-19 is music. Music is a very powerful art because it has the power to connect people from many cultures, regardless of language and social boundaries. Since the lockdowns prevented any forms of social gatherings, events such as concerts on a larger scale and open-mic nights on a smaller scale were canceled across the world. Highly popular musicians such as Chris Martin, John Legend, Dave Grohl, and more performed concerts from their own homes for the public (Frank, 2020). Musicians found different means by which to perform these concerts. For the most part, the musicians would livestream their performances on either Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok. Many musicians would play more acoustic-style sets and incorporate their audiences into their performances. The musicians achieved allowing the audience to feel involved by taking requests from the viewers and responding to comments made throughout the concerts. With this, the musicians allowed their audiences to become members of a community, helping to reverse the isolation effects of the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Second, artists and art galleries/museums found their own ways of helping the fine arts survive during the Covid-19 pandemic. Like the previously mentioned musical performances, venues for the fine arts were also shut down during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Artists could no longer share their artwork with the world as they had before. To combat this issue, some artists have begun to video record their creative process to share with others on the internet (Indrisek, 2020). This non-traditional sharing of artwork creates a virtual community for the artists and those following their works. Likewise, art galleries and museums found ways for the public to still enjoy their various art collections while isolated in their own homes. According to an article written by Rachel Levin (2021), many institutions housing art exhibitions have created virtual tours of the art galleries. These tours can be in the form of either videos or blog-style posts. People, then, could still experience the art pieces, albeit virtually. Of course, virtual tours are not an equal solution to the issue of not being able to view art pieces in person; however, it was the only way for fine arts to survive and to continue to be enjoyed by the public. The fine arts have found a way to survive amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lastly, theatrical performances, like the other arts, were massively shut down due to the Covid-19 lockdowns. Similar to the other arts, the theatre was shut down to prevent mass gatherings of people. One cannot perform a play without an audience, so the lockdown posed a massive issue for the theatre. Even so, the theatre prevailed through the Covid-19 pandemic. Like the other arts, the theatre took a couple of different approaches to ensure its survival. One approach to theatre was online groups and communities created to share classic Shakespearean works with one another. An example of this is “Socially Distant Shakespeare,” a group hosted on Facebook. Each week the members decide upon a different Shakespeare play to read on a live stream to the group. Different group members volunteer to read for different characters in the play to help the members of the group feel more involved and connected. Another way that the theater has survived is through fully virtual performances of plays. According to Sequoia Carrillo (2020), high schools, in order to continue their theatre arts programs, will host plays online for students and their families to watch. Education in regard to theatre is significant enough for the development of children to continue, even virtually. Lastly, the theatre has also taken the classical approach to share performances in the midst of a pandemic: conducting outdoor, socially distanced performances. While not ideal, outdoor theatrical productions allow for the public to continue to experience that form of art (Moore, n.d.). Like the other arts, the theatre has found a way to survive through past pandemics and Covid-19.
Since there are so many creative ways people have continued the arts in society, clearly the survivability of the arts is essential to society. One’s health was at the top of importance during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, people were quickly becoming depressed and isolated when only focusing on physical health (Kamal et al., 2021). To counteract this issue, people have found ways to stay interconnected with one another through the means of the arts. While virtual concerts, galleries, and theatre productions will not completely substitute in-person experiences, the survivability of the arts and culture takes precedence. The only way for that survival is through the means of the various virtual avenues to share the arts. Although there are numerous negative aspects to the pandemic, according to Michael Brice-Saddler (2020), “When The Washington Post asked readers how they’ve used their time under quarantine or stay-at-home orders, more than 250 people responded with stories about learning to play instruments, trying culinary techniques and tackling other creative endeavors.” In a way, Covid-19 has allowed for a rebirth of connection for people and the creative arts.
By analyzing past pandemics, Station Eleven, and the Covid-19 pandemic, one can see the many interconnections each of these elements have. Even though Station Eleven is a speculative fiction piece, the novel has proven to be closer to reality than one may have thought upon its publication. During the Black Death, the bubonic plague outbreaks of Shakespeare’s time, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the fictional Georgian Flu, the arts have such an importance on culture and society that they continue to survive and persevere throughout the difficulties. Mandel’s take on how the arts will look in a post-apocalyptic world is not unfounded. Prior to Covid-19, one may read the importance of the arts in a post-apocalyptic world as unrealistic since the arts are an unnecessary aspect of physical survival. Yet, as Station Eleven displays, “survival is insufficient.” Toward the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdowns, the public began to see this notion in their own lives. Without culture and arts, people started to feel depressed. So, ways to combat the lack of cultural experiences during Covid-19 lockdowns were created. Similarly, in a post-apocalyptic world lacking societies and technology, the Traveling Symphony found a way to continue and recreate culture. Clearly, it is not unrealistic that Station Eleven focuses on the survival of the arts since pandemics in the real world have also forced people to find ways to continue the joint sharing of experiences of the arts.
Likewise to the connections of the survival of already created arts in pandemics, there is another connection between Station Eleven and real pandemics. During the Black Death, an insurgence of artistic pieces was created due to the massive lockdowns that the pandemic caused. Shakespeare wrote poetry and plays during the various lockdowns in London in his lifetime due to the bubonic plague. Along with this, Covid-19 lockdowns have allowed people to reconnect with their creative sides without the distractions of everyday life. Diletta De Cristofaro (2018) argues this of the choice of apocalypse in Station Eleven in relation to the arts:
We tend to think about the apocalypse as a catastrophe of enormous proportions and overwhelming consequences, something which, then, brings about a dystopian post- apocalyptic scenario. But apocalypse, from the Greek apocalyptein, etymologically means to unveil or to reveal, and the revelations of the traditional apocalyptic paradigm are intertwined with time and utopia. (3)
With this, De Cristofaro (2018) is signifying that in Station Eleven’s case, the apocalypse offers a new beginning for society and culture, similar to the resurgences of the arts in real-world pandemics. There are no longer modern-day distractions to separate the art from the artist. This idea is echoed by Kirsten when she is happy with her life, even in a post-apocalyptic world, because she can devote it to performing Shakespeare’s plays (135). There are numerous connections between Station Eleven and the Covid-19 pandemic.
As exposed throughout this essay, the occurrence of the Covid-19 pandemic has allowed for a new reading of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Further, reading Station Eleven as speculative fiction during the Covid-19 pandemic can enlighten one about the importance of the arts in her own society. Morgan (2021) argues, “…[speculative fiction] is a rich repository of ideas against which we can weigh our COVID-19 experiences.” There are numerous underlying connections between Station Eleven and the Covid-19 pandemic. Those in the novel realize that mere survival is not enough, just as those who experienced the Covid-19 lockdowns realized the same notion. The arts are essential in both Station Eleven and the real-life Covid-19 pandemic. Mentally, society cannot survive without them. The survival of arts and culture is vital for the well-being of society. It is not unrealistic to make the arts important to protect. Clearly, people need arts and culture to continue feelings of community. Through having background knowledge of past pandemics and the modern-day Covid-19 pandemic, Mandel’s Station Eleven has a larger underlying meaning in terms of the focus on the arts in the novel. The arts are what set us apart from other species. There is an innate need to share creativity with one another as a means to escape one’s present situation. Thus, it can be concluded that the survival of humanity is not enough; the maintenance of arts and culture is essential for the survivability of society as a whole.