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  • Writer's pictureJacob C. Shuler

Giving Life to 'The Death of Gaia Divine'

Updated: Sep 15, 2018

"From dust to dust we live our lives with glitter thrown between -- and it's far less bitter when it's drenched in glitter -- but to dust we must one day return."

Image features a print of Ivan Albright's 1929 painting "Into the World Came a Soul Called Ida" on permanent display at The Art Institute of Chicago.

Did you ever hear the one about the two Australopithecines taking tea together in their paleolithic cave? Probably not; it's the premise for a play that was never completed as such. But it was the inciting image for what would later become The Death of Gaia Divine, which will open at The Greenhouse Theater Center on January 16th, 2019.

The play's first scenes were a bored college student's doodled response to an Archaeology class he couldn't wrap his head around. In 2011, I turned to art to explain away the leaps I couldn't quantify in science. What would our ancestral fire-starters have to say about fossil fuels? What would the fall of twin skyscrapers mean to the nomad? If a cave-painter came to America today, would we make them learn English?

In its early gestation, The Death of Gaia Divine (then affectionally Untitled) included scenes of imagined early hominid sounds that were meant to give way to the invention of human language.

"Mmmmm. Muh. Muh-Meh-Maw. Mmmaw. Aw, Be, Ced-d-d DAH, daw. Aw. Mmm."

The piece then fell forward from the invention of language and on its way it crashed into the invention of agriculture, the invention of god, the invention of knitting, and landed on the invention of love. The discovery of a 2010 study on Neanderthal compassion took the story in a new direction. "From Homininity to Humanity" articulates four stages in the trajectory of "evolved" emotion. Essentially, these stages can be summarized as:

  1. Awakening of Empathy

  2. Compassion Infused with Rationale

  3. Commitment

  4. Compassion Extending to Strangers

The trajectory of these four stages ranges from six million years ago to around 120,000 years ago. They provided a formative rubric to transform ideas into plot and a solid set of rules to for which to attach action to the shells of two early characters: Woman and Man. However, as the story started taking shape, it became clear that it could only go so far. What next? Had we left our evolution at an extension of compassion to strangers? A quick survey of today's headlines would suggest otherwise. I saw the need for a fifth stage in emotional maturation.

This stage I prescribed:

5. The Censorship of Human Emotion


I came back to the idea of language that had first lit a spark in me. Some suggest that language as we understand it today only developed 100,000 years ago. This then puts the final published stage in emotional development 20,000 years earlier. But did language then have no consequences on the way we process and relate to our feelings? Or has our ability to not just show but tell changed the way we feel entirely?

Words create dichotomy and in that they are both things of beauty and powerful weapons. Words now allow us to articulate what is and is not acceptable love. Words tell us who is and is not a citizen. Words can condemn criminals but absolve sinners. Words can proclaim peace but propagandize war. Had the first spoken word been "yes," I would have to imagine the second to be "no."

This journey, now, from awakening to censorship told a more complete story of love and loss between the Man and Woman; a story that is still theirs even in the play's most recent draft. But a love story is never all these characters were meant to tell. They were meant to tell a human story to explain away the leaps I couldn't quantify in science. A third character weaseled their way into those early drafts; an observer of their evolution. The character's original form and function were vague and amorphous; neither here nor there. They watched the love story unfold and commented from a place of omniscience, speaking to the greater significance of compassion. Gaia Divine was born.

"The Evolution of Gaia Divine", sketch by Jacob C. Shuler

Gaia Divine pulled the story out of the stone age and into the stage age; an invented post-apocalyptic 1960s reality that abandons our early caveman characters in a harsh landscape of theater seat cushions, sequined costumes, and Judy Garland records. From here, I hope, the characters are able to speak more truthfully to our present while representing our past.


The Death of Gaia Divine has followed its own evolution and left some stories behind. My mind often returns to those embryos, and some day I have to think my pen might too. The clock indisputably moves us forward, but it isn't always easy to look back and claim "progress." There are things in our politics today that there shouldn’t be. There is money, there is religion, there are lies, and there is hate, but there is one thing largely lacking that there that should be present: compassion.

How have we come so far only to drop compassion; an attribute that 120,000 years ago was so core to our human development?

Evolution is a slow process not unlike script-writing. A new draft isn't always a better draft, but it undeniably grew out of the draft that came before. A good final draft comes from looking back upon the collected record of past sticky notes, scenes, and scripts to determine if the product you plan to put upon the stage is the truest representation of the playwright's intent.

How are we today representing the intent of our writer (be that writer a god, a Gaia Divine, or a chance encounter between two particles in space that provided the building blocks for all life to come)?

As time moves forward, how do we ensure our humanity is moving forward with it? And if we've gone too far to bring it back, is it possible for us to start again?

"Benji reads verbs in their past-tense, scripted sepulchers. Things to do have all been done. Inaction waits held hostage by a repertoire of reflexes."

We hope to see you all at The Greenhouse Theatre Center this January, and to start a dialogue about these and other themes during our post-show talkbacks or here in the comments of this blog.

January 18 - 26, 2019


Spikins, Penny, et al. “From Homininity to Humanity: Compassion from the Earliest Archaics to Modern Humans.” Time and Mind, 2010.

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