The Dust vs. The Land
About The Storm in the Barn
The Storm in the Barn by Eric Coble takes place in Kansas in 1937 during the peak of the dust bowl. The play begins with men and women stepping forward to tell stories but is constantly shut down by each other. Until a young boy about 11 years old starts by telling when the world turned to dust. The lights change, and we meet Jack, an 11-year-old boy from Kansas. Jack gets bullied by two older boys from his town, Ray and Frank, for being small. As they are picking on him, there is a dust storm that Jack gets caught in. Luckily he makes it home safe, but his mother and father are not happy that he didn't take shelter. During this confrontation, a doctor at their home tended to Jack's older sister, Dorthey, who developed dust pneumonia. Due to the new and rising conditions from the dust, families are forced to leave their farms. Because of Dorthey's worsening condition, Ma thinks it would be best for the family to pack up even though it means leaving their home. There hasn't been rain in over three years, there is no crop, and the animals are dying because of the dust. They no longer have the resources to survive as they did before the dust storm. Jack is drawn to the locked barn doors of a family who recently just left town. As his infatuation grows for the barn, his desire to end the drought and suffering does too. Each time he visits the barn, he makes a discovery that will draw him back again. His father and sister have warned him, but he feels that he is drawn to the barn to save the land. On his final visit to the barn, Jack meets the Storm King, who keeps the rain to themselves because the people's desire for rain generates power for the Storm King. After almost being drawn to death, Jack escapes and can retrieve the valise. Jack gets the valise with all his strength, and as it opens and floats into the sky, rain begins to fall. The town is ecstatic, and Jack and his family no longer have to leave.
The term ecohubris was coined by Downing Cless. Cless defines the term as "an excessive zeal to control or dominate nature, acting without limits and with a sense of being above nature, as though one were a god" (160). The term itself is in Greek Tragedies seen through the combination of nature and power. Ecohubris is a way to highlight ecological issues in a play by looking at environmental imagery. It has been seen in numerous plays, including Greek tragedies, and has transitioned into modern playwriting. In Greek plays, ecohubris is seen in characters who asserted power and dominance to benefit themselves. In modern plays, the situation is similar, where a character uses their control over nature to benefit themselves while hurting others. In The Storm in the Barn, ecohubris is seen directly in the Storm King's character and the farmers. Without rain, they are left with no control of their crops, people are forced to move, and sickness spreads because of the dust. But on the other hand, the Storm King holds all of the power. He is the one keeping the rain from the land. Looking at The Storm in the Barn through an ecohubris lens allows us to see how power and nature do not always align when someone thinks they are in control.
The character that embodies the most ecohubris entities is Storm King. In Greek tragedies, we have seen how characters who believe they are more potent than nature fail. Storm King feeds off of the begging and complaining from the people who live in their town. Storm King says, "Once upon a time.. the Rain refused to fall. The Rain refused to serve. And the Rain.. became powerful. Once upon a time, the Rain took a new form, and held this form… And the Rain… became a King'' (44). During this part of the scene, we realize that the Storm King has too much power and does not see how it is hurting the communities. This is the most prominent part of the play where eco-hubris is as this character embodies human characteristics and controls nature because they are nature.
Other aspects of ecohubris
There are other aspects of The Storm in the Barn that subtly incorporates the notion of ecohubris. For example, when Pa does not believe that Jack is capable because he did not grow up farming like his father, he uses his power to undermine his talents. Because of how Pa treats Jack, we see Jack strive for perfection in his father's eyes. Unlike the Storm King, Pa's views change once Jack gets the rain to come back. In a review of The Storm in the Barn from the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Elizabeth Bush mentions Pa and Jack's relationship. She says, "Eleven-year-old Jack has a particularly hard row to hoe; he's bullied by the local toughs and pretty much tossed aside as useless by his trouble-hardened father." This sentence describing his father as trouble-hardened is a way to observe his behaviors through an eco-hubris lens, but how one is when one person has control of all of the power. Storm King's actions because of greed have forced Pa's demeanor towards his son to change.
Pa and Jack's relationship is not only hostile at home but also in public. Because there are no crops, the town's men are forced to go out and kill jackrabbits. Jack asked his father and other men in the town to join them but was quickly turned down. The men in the town view themselves to be more potent than an eleven-year-old boy, which forces Jack to prove them otherwise. Because of their power trip, they were going out and destroying nature rather than thinking of ways to preserve it. In the article "Karen Hesse and Matt Phelan Discover the Dust Bowl," we learn part of the original background of the story. Matt Phelan says, "I began to imagine what the experience of living in the Dust Bowl must have been like through the eyes of a kid. . . The rain had gone away. But where?". This is an exciting statement when thinking about each character, especially Pa, and how farmers were acting during this time of despair.
Cless describes ecohubris as "an excessive zeal to control or dominate nature, acting without limit and with a sense of being above nature, as though one were a god" (160). Storm King fits perfectly into this definition when we see him in the barn with Jack. On the other hand, Pa and the men desire to control nature but lack their main ingredient. But when we look at the women in the show, they are controlled most by those who possess eco-hubris characteristics. When Ma is talking about growing up on the farm, she says, "My daddy and my brothers worked harder than anyone. They planted wheat. The wheat came up… same story pretty much for your pa's family, too" (28), this quote shows that the story stays the same. The women do not take part in farming but are most affected by the dust.
There are many different areas in The Storm in the Barn that could be perceived as a form of eco-hubris. Although many may be subtle, the most important figure that represents eco-hubris, Storm King, did an excellent job showing what having so much power can do to one person.
One of the most important things to think about when putting on a production of The Storm in the Barn is what life in Kansas was like in 1937. And how this differs from what it was like before the dust storm. The dust storm of 1937 did indeed happen in Kansas in the early 1930s. It wasn't until later in the decade when they finally got rain. This was precisely how it was told in The Storm in the Barn, which shows us that the dramaturg thought it was important to have truth behind the natural disasters. At the beginning of the play, we see Dorthy, Jack, and Mabel talking about their neighbors who left during the storm and abandoned their houses and barns. This happened in 1937 to many families due to illness and poverty. Like the Talbot family, they moved to California in search of work. Before the rain came, we knew that Ma had talked to Pa about leaving for their children's safety, but that wouldn't be possible until Pa could get the car to run. The droughts and dust took over these families' lives, giving them no choice but to leave the land they loved. In 1935 there was a large cloud of dust that came over Kansas at 60mph. People frantically were looking for shelter in fear that the dust would catch them. In the first scene of The Storm in the Barn, a large cloud of dust is coming towards Ray, Frank, and Jack, and they each run in hopes of shelter. We know that Dorthy has gotten caught in the dust, which gave her "dust pneumonia." During the dust bowl, those impacted by the dust were advised to stay inside their homes because it was unsafe. Dorthy was not the only young girl forced to stay inside for years waiting for the rain to come.
Dust pneumonia was not the only sickness that resulted from the dust storm. In the 1930’s conventional farming was seen as the norm because they were easy to transport. This used more land than was necessary, which the dust storm took away. Sustainable farming methods on the other hand have less of an impact on the land. It would have been beneficial during this time if farmers could see how their conventional methods were hurting the land around them rather than preserving it. The convernational farming method allowed the contamination from the dust to spread because of how wildly it spread over the land. Because of this it was very prevalent that there was nothing that you could do to prevent getting sick. The dust was so strong that there was no way to ensure that it didn't get into your house. Because of how small the dust particles were, they could compile in someone's lungs quickly. Since modern-day antibiotics were not invented, dust pneumonia killed many people. Other common illnesses seen during the dust bowl were respiratory infections, sore throats, and measles. The dust and lack of technology made it very difficult for people to battle these illnesses hence why Pa and Ma were so angry with John when he was out in the storm because he could have come down with something like Dorthey.
The Kansas Dust Bowl of 1937 was portrayed well in The Storm in the Barn. Each aspect of the play that had a relationship to the dust bowl was based on factual information. The dramaturgy of this play was able to pinpoint specific elements that they saw incorporating truth would give the character a connection to their land.
Bringelson, Carin, and Nick Glass. "Karen Hesse and Matt Phelan Discover the Dust Bowl." School Library Monthly, vol. 26, no. 3, 2009, pp. 27. ProQuest,
Bush, Elizabeth. Review of The Storm in the Barn. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, vol. 63 no. 4, 2009, p. 165-165. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/bcc.0.1362.
“Dust Bowl.” Kansas Historical Society, https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/dust-bowl/12040.
“Health Effects of the Dust Bowl.” Bulb,
Trimarchi, Maria. “What Caused the Dust Bowl?” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 6
Wild, Stephi. “BCT Continues Its Best-Selling Season with the Storm in the Barn.” BroadwayWorld.com, BroadwayWorld.com, 30 Nov. 2017, https://www.broadwayworld.com/boise/article/BCT-Continues-its-Best-Selling-Season- with-THE-STORM-IN-THE-BARN-20171130.