Why Are So Many Fictional Utopias as Terrifying as Dystopias?

I’ve never been good with numbers, but it’s not hard to determine that if you combined the history of utopian and dystopian art in a single equation, your end result would be certain doom. Despite utopia’s definition as “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect,” both are completely bleak as portrayed across the arts. Dystopias are incredibly common centerpieces in all forms of art — and they’re rarely created with an optimistic ending in mind. More often than not, a dystopian scenario involves an attempted rebellion that is quashed by the seamless evils of The System in place, asserting that uprisings are futile and that insurgents are ultimately indoctrinated or killed. When they succeed, it’s only a matter of time before they create a mirror society to that which they were fighting.

You’d think, then, that the antonymic “utopia” would yield art that’s in opposition to the cynicism of dystopian art. But that’s generally not the case. For “utopia” — in such (mostly excellent) works as Martha Marcy May MarleneThe Giver, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples TempleBig Love, Wayward PinesEnlightenedNever Let Me Go, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, Dogville, Dogtooth, The Master, Edan Lepucki’s CaliforniaSavage Messiah, and The Village — now seems almost synonymous with “cult,” and “cult” is of course synonymous with “brainwashing,” “mass suicide,” and, as The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt puts it, “weird sex stuff.” When you Google something like “utopian film,” the results all but ask: “Did you mean dystopian film?”

It was with that notion in mind that I took an interest in seeing the The Upper Room, a play by Rady and Bloom, presented at New York’s New Ohio Theatre (through June 12). The company has been noted for its earnestness, sweetness, and humanist touch, even as it explores some of the darker aspects of life. The Upper Room is a 75-minute ensemble experimental musical whose tunes put an electronic spin on folk-y (and, sure, cult-y) chants, and whose story centers around a commune whose mores are rooted, vaguely, in Christianity and vegetables.

The characters of The Upper Room have escaped a literally sinking society: Venice and New York are now submerged, and they’ve banded together on a Maine island to eat seasonal produce, swim in the rising ocean, and chant around a large table. The commune is shaken when one of its own disappears. Slowly, all of the members of the society begin noticing bodily shifts which seem to signal that they’re adapting to an underwater existence. When their lost member returns to them with a walrus head, they suddenly realize what’s up: they’re evolving.

In watching this play, we bring in all of our abundant, engrained ideas of what lurks behind the copacetic veneer of utopia. For that reason, when a character (played by Catherine Brookman, who composed and performs all the soaringly layered music) disappears, it doesn’t seem a stretch to wonder if she was murdered by the leader. But the ambiguity of this play is, on the flip side, sustained by its own sweet development history. While the audience comes at it with the cynicism of a history of false utopias, the play itself was conceived through something that sounds like a micro-utopian dream: Brian Rady and Jeremy Bloom (the founders of Rady&Bloom Collective Playmaking) have been collaborating since college — when they also became a couple.

Brian Rady & Jeremy Bloom
Brian Rady and Jeremy Bloom

It was when they were in Maine “immediately following [their] outdoor dance-y, drinky wedding” that they stumbled upon a sign pointing to “The Good Life.” It wasn’t pointing towards an abstract idea, but rather a physical center for a purported “good life” hand-built by Helen and Scott Nearing. Here, residents are “guided by the principles of kindness, respect and compassion in relationships with natural and human communities.” And so, with this, alongside the writings of Iris Murdoch and Karen Blixen and hoards of selkie/mermaid legends, as inspiration, they created The Upper Room.

What I was hoping to find in this play (and ultimately found, despite its failure to live up to all of my qualitative expectations) was a non-sinister utopia — the rare kind glimpsed in works like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, where the drama is not created from within the fabric of its all-female utopia, but rather from a sudden external, male imposition. I wanted this because I noticed, from the second I saw the poster for The Upper Room — of a group huddled in meditation around a table — that my first assumption was that this gathering was clearly the site of something truly twisted. Something like this:

Still from 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'
Still from ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

False utopias — art’s favorite variety — tend to be more sinister even than dystopias, because they initially present themselves as Solutions. The key difference — the thing that makes these communities seem utopian at first — is that they’re typically extra-societal. Their sylvan or generally remote settings start by providing a sense of beauty and a return to simplicity, of de-corporatization and a sort of society-wide re-personalization. But that woodsy setting also soon reveals its happy micro-society to be a smaller version of exactly what went wrong elsewhere: notably, leadership as pure megalomania. The “personalization” created by the smallness of most utopias means that tyrants can physically govern — they can actually oppress people with their own bare hands. (John Hawkes’ Patrick, the leader of the Catskills cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene, for example, uses rape as an initiation ritual for the titular character — whom he also named as another assertion of his authority.)

And the woodland promise — the optimism of the marriage between humans and nature, of a return to nature as a symbol for wiping the slate clean — soon reveals itself to be a trap. In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Lepucki’s California, the central communities have built spiky ramparts (The Village‘s in the form of a spiky “creature,” California‘s in the form of actual massive “Spikes” made from sharpened detritus of a former society) to keep residents in and the outside world out. The below-the-surface tyranny of “utopias” — insomuch as they’re often small and rural — is also in some ways more direct than in urban, bureaucratic dystopias. These two prevalent forms of nightmarish society in art are disheartening because they suggest that imagining anything better than the status quo will lead to one of two options: either living in an urban center controlled by labyrinthine forces (which represent extremes of the private of public sectors) put in place only to keep you oppressed, or moving to the woods, donning braids, and getting sexually assaulted.

Cover Image from Edan Lepucki's California
Cover Image from Edan Lepucki’s ‘California’

The arresting cover of Lepucki’s (who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) California has stuck with me in the year-and-a-half since I read her highly unsettling novel. The image seems to sum up both how utopias are portrayed (askew, isolated for the purposes of control) and the universal skepticism towards utopias.

This notion often makes for excellent, disturbing art: the very idea of utopia — the perfection of a system — challenges what’s at the core of narrative art: the need for conflict. Because if you’re creating a genuine fictional utopia, the conflict has to come from outside the system. And so dystopias and false utopias are far more feasible when it comes to fiction — just as the plights of real-life cult followers suggest that they are when it comes to life. Perhaps one of the scariest questions to confront is: How much is the need for hardship and conflict in the structure of narrative art reflected in real life? How much does the masochism of reading the most relentlessly dark stories play into what we crave in our own lives? One of the takeaways of Six Feet Under was when Nate — a newly minted funeral director — is asked, “Why do people have to die?” And he responds: “To make life worth living.” It resonates, but perhaps only because we’ve never known anything else. How much do we want our systems to remind us of what’s “worth it” by threatening the death of our freedoms, and how much is this just complacency based on the way humans have always lived?

The prevalence of such messages can’t be good for for social change. And for once, I wanted to see a real utopia.

By virtue of its title alone, The Upper Room‘s intentional community could be seen as concealing a suicide-cult bent: “The Upper Room” refers to the Cenacle, the location of the Last Supper. And when the participants eat one last dinner before potentially becoming walruses, one can’t help but affiliate “walrus” with “death” and “dinner” with “cyanide.” And so the play tests the audience’s jadedness: Will we remain staunch in relating this story back to other artistic portrayals of the failures of intentional communities — are we seeing just another, particularly cutesy suicide cult? Is their maritime rebirth just a projection of their dubious beliefs? Or, on the flip side were these people actually chosen (to become walruses)? And even if they weren’t, if the rest of the world can’t avoid sinking, is it such a bad thing that they’re sinking, with absolute intent, together?

The Upper Room provides an interesting counterpoint to most art about utopias, because it allows the viewer to oscillate between their own conflicted ideas about whether utopia is a) unachievable and false, or b) only too often portrayed as such. In the days since I’ve seen it, in my mind, all those characters have been both corpses laced with poison and gleefully hideous walrus-folk. It’s allowed my mind to waver between my taste for hopelessness in art and my increasing search for a perhaps naive hope in life. Sometimes the Kool-Aid looks simply delectable.