Grasses of a Thousand Colors
A Satirical Synopsis
Grasses of a Thousand Colors is a fantasy-like memoir of a doctor, Ben, who creates a genetically modified rice, Grain Number One that modifies the diet of herbivores and alters their appetite to feed after other animals, which reduces their need to eat plants to diminish the pressure of a dwindling plant supply. Within this production, Ben reads from his memoir and narrates about his life through his sexual excursions displaying his desire to dominate nature physically and metaphorically. Ben vividly details his stories of infidelity which span not just within the human sphere but also the natural world. In this three-part play, we go into Ben’s world of carnality and how his sexual obsessions overlap with his impulsion to dominate the natural cycle of the world. Throughout the play, we explore how Ben’s obsession eventually leads to his eventual demise.
Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors explores the interrelationship between humans and nature in an extraordinary and unorthodox way. Shawn points out themes of human domination of earth as well as its ascendance over other animals and how nature resists that power. Michael Billington frames Shawn’s play well in his theatre review stating, “Shawn's point is clear: that nature always fights back and that the punishment for interfering with animals, by encouraging them to live off each other's corpses, is that animals will ultimately interfere with us.” Billington encapsulates the underlying discourse and subtle motif within the play. Shawn alludes to how when human activity interferes within nature that it will always win in the end and fight back much worse.
When discussing this theme within the production, Vinson Cunningham illustrates this in his New Yorker article, Class Distinction, in saying “At heart, it's an ecological exploration— human and animal and vegetable are slipping into an uneasy equality. Nature, just like the human working classes, has a righteous vendetta and the numbers to win a war”, basically demonstrating that there is a war between the human world and the natural world. This war is seen through the violent human interference on natural habitats for other animals in nature. “Human activities have caused the world's wildlife populations to plummet by more than two-thirds in the last 50 years, (Rott)” showing how our relationship with nature is also plummeting. In the last decade alone,), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the extinction of 160 species. This is the decade after in which Wallace Shawn chooses to write Grasses of a Thousand Colors (2009) where he displays human domination over other animals in a more metaphorical way. Wallace Shawn approaches the writing of this play with the mindset that human civilization has created a system that not only exploits nature but each other.
He is quoted in an interview with Paul Holdengraber when referring to civilization that “it would have been better if it had never developed, that it unleashed and brought with it hierarchy and the subjugation of unlucky people and violence and the brutality that has characterized our history.” This shows why Shawn makes certain decisions in creating his character Ben because he displays that violence and brutality, but it is shifted in an erotic and peculiar way. He discusses this exploration in an interview with Arnis Rītups, saying “Things happen in my most recent play, Grasses of a Thousand Colours, that could never happen on Earth, that are like a fairy tale—things that are interesting to me.” It is very prevalent that realm in which Grasses of a Thousand Colors explores not similar to Earth but the ideas within the production reflect Earthly conflict and discourse.
Una Chaudhuri introduces a term anthropocene in her article, “Anthropo-Scenes: Theater and Climate Change” in order to understand the role the human plays within Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors. The concept of anthroposcene essentially re-conceptualize the notion of the role of humans and frames us as a geophysical force. This is the framework in which Chaudhuri examines Grasses of a Thousand Colors in saying, “it confronts new problems of scale born of emerging ecological realities (Chaudhuri 2)” in other words, Grasses utilizes a fantasy world to present the trivial ecological tragedies that occur within our true reality with his satirical approach. He uses Ben as a hyperbolized reflection of human hegemony on the natural world and how it leads to our eventual tragic downfall if we don’t realize the effects of our interference. Chaudhuri goes further with even mentioning “Shawn’s character presents the human encountering itself biologically, en route to thinking itself geophysically (Chaudhuri 13)” In other words, for the human to understand their impact on nature they must first understand their true symbiotic connection to nature and other animals in order to create continuity between the human and non-human spheres (Chaudhuri 13).
Downing Cless defines ecohubris, in Ecodirecting Canonical Plays, 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; try to control and exploit nature for their own power and profit (Cless 160)”, essentially describing it as the compulsion to interfere with the untended cycle of the natural world. In an interview with On the Issues, writer and activist, Carol J. Adams describes the essence of ecofeminism, especially vegetarian ecofeminism, by saying, “Manhood is constructed in our culture in part by access to meat-eating and control of other bodies, whether it's women or animals.” Ecohubris reflects the disconnection to nature while ecofeminism reflects the symbiotic relationship humans have to nature specifically women. Grasses of a Thousand Colors examines ecohubris and ecofeminism by exploring the role humans play within nature, as a reflection of our patriarchal-dominated society through its extravagant portrayal of the protagonist.
“man has two basic needs—the need for food and the need for sex. (Shawn 18)” is the central ideal in which the protagonist of Grasses of a Thousand Colors, Ben, lives. Throughout the play, we see Ben’s obsession with control of the natural cycle of food and even of sex. Ben carries himself with this utter confidence and cockiness as if the world revolves around him. He even goes as far as saying that “yes, of course, my dick is my friend, and, actually, my dick is my best friend, and in a certain way, it’s my only friend.” making it very clear where the bulk of his critical decisions are based around. This is seen through constant infidelity throughout the play. His willingness to leave one sexual relationship to another shows his disregard for the natural process of wedlock or faithfulness. He is always willing to feed his desires which overlaps with his obsession to control nature.
This ecohubristic characteristic of control is seen through Ben’s creation of a genetically modified rice that alters the diet of herbivores and causes them to eat other animals or even each other. Ben further explains that
once the capacity of the animals for processing various foods had changed, simple Pavlovian conditioning then led them to change their former eating habits as well, and we soon saw the pressure on the planet’s dwindling supply of plants and pasture land being drastically alleviated, while animals that could be used as basic nourishment for humans were suddenly multiplying in astounding numbers. (Shawn 16-17)
Grain Number One is a prime example of Ben’s zeal to control nature. He directly creates a chemical compound that completely alters the food chain just for the benefit of the human world. Obviously, this domineering invention does not just allow Ben to control nature but also exploit it for money. Ben goes as far as saying “No one who hasn’t made money can possibly imagine how exciting it is. If you haven’t experienced it, you just can’t know how much pleasure you can get from receiving enormous checks…I just felt that everything, everything, was there to be taken. Whatever I wanted, I could have. It was all for me (Shawn 27-28)” which shows his obsession with money, power, and control. His obsession blinds him to the harmful effects of what he is doing as well as his effect on the process of the natural world and the consequences of that. Ben’s ecohubris leads to a disconnect between humans and other animals. Shawn presents this through the side effects of Grain Number One. On page 49 of Grasses of a Thousand Colors, Robin, Ben’s lover, is explaining how the public is worried that nature will just adapt to his compound and potentially fight back in harmful ways to the human species such as sickness. This ends up being the cause of Ben’s tragic downfall which shows the ways in which nature resists our attempts to dominate it.
Ben’s sexual obscenity is a reflection of the claim of ecofeminism that Greta Gaard outlines, in Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay, which is the understanding of the connection between the oppression of nature and women. This is seen through how Ben exploits all the women within his life and defines them by his sexual excursions with them. Ben not only manipulates nature, but he also manipulates the women, even cats, in his life sexually. He thrives to have control over anything he desires. An example of this is seen in his relationship with his adulterer, Robin, who describes one of their sexual encounters where Ben makes her watch him masturbate, “it was pitiful how much he wanted me to find in watching the act, how much he himself wanted to find in doing it. (Shawn 51)”. This shows how Ben always tries to control external factors that fulfill his desires even if those factors coerced him into doing it. These external factors can include his genetically modified chemical that he forces into the environment which alters the natural food chain, or his sexual desires that he forces on women and even with a cat. The latter explores how Shawn presents the ecofeminist view of nature and women as being synonymous with the exploitation of a patriarchal society.
Ben’s sexual relationship with Blanche, the white cat, is a metaphorically and physically representation of how humans essentially exploit animals. Greta Gaard comments on this relationship in saying
linkages among sexism, racism, and speciesism; on the recognition of flesh-eating as a form of patriarchal domination; and on the basis of the culturally constructed associations among women, animals, people of color, and nature that are used to subordinate these groups in Western patriarchal thought (Gaard 127)
Gaard comments on how the oppression of women to the oppression of nature overlap within a patriarchal-dominated society. This is what makes Shawn’s sexual portrayal of women and animals so powerful within this play because it shows that how we treat our women is how we treat the environment and challenges to want to do better.
In conclusion, Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors demonstrates society in the shoes of Ben and how our ecological arrogance can have negative effects on the environment and each other. Shawn comments on how those in power are willing to do whatever it takes to please their greed even if it's harmful to the environment. Ben’s ecohubris is an example of human domination of nature which overlaps with the ecofeminist connotation with the domination of women with the domination of nature. Both aspects work well in presenting an extravagant demonstration of how human malevolence toward nature will eventually lead to our demise if we realize it too late.
Billington, Michael. “Theatre Review: Grasses of a Thousand Colours / Royal Court Theatre
Upstairs, London.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 May 2009,
Chaudhuri, Una. "Anthropo-Scenes: Theater and Climate Change" Journal of Contemporary
Drama in English, vol. 3, no. 1, 2015, pp. 12-27. https://doi.org/10.1515/jcde-2015-0002
CUNNINGHAM, VINSON. “Class Distinction.” New Yorker, vol. 97, no. 21, July 2021, pp.
Gaard, Greta. “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women
Studies, vol. 23, no. 3, University of Nebraska Press, 2002, pp. 117–46, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3347337.
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Holdengraber, Literary Hub, 4 Aug. 2017, https://lithub.com/wallace-shawn-on-the-
Rott, Nathan. “The World Lost Two-Thirds of Its Wildlife in 50 Years. We Are to Blame.” NPR,
Shawn, Wallace. Grasses of a Thousand Colors. Theatre Communications Group, 2014.
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