Refusing the Reproductive Imperative: Sex, Death, and the Queer Future in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s boom

Apocalyptic narratives, based on fears and fantasies about the end of the world and the destruction of humanity, often turn on a character’s success or failure in producing or protecting a child. In such dramas, the survival of a child represents humanity’s hope for the future, and characters go to great lengths to ensure the existence of the next generation. As Lee Edelman has argued in his critique of the ideology underlying such narratives, “reproductive futurism” mandates that the fight for the child is the fight for the future, thus privileging reproductive heteronormativity and stigmatizing the non-reproductive or queer as “the negativity opposed to every form of social viability.”[1] Indeed, certain anti-queer ideologies, based on a loose mixture of biblical narrative and Darwinian theory, argue that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are inherently detrimental to the survival of humanity. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that most apocalyptic narratives see queer people as, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, to blame for the destruction of the human race.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s widely-produced comedy boom [with a small b] (2008) invokes the dictates of reproductive futurism but playfully subverts them, astutely “queering” the typical end-of-the-world fantasy by placing the fate of humanity in the hands of two characters who fail to reproduce.[2] This apocalyptic sex farce follows the travails of a gay male biologist and the female journalist who refuses to have sex with him, even though they are literally the last people on earth. Nachtrieb’s play was originally developed at Brown/Trinity Playwrights Repertory in Providence, Rhode Island, and then premiered off-off-Broadway at Ars Nova in New York City in March 2008, directed by Alex Timbers. Nachtrieb’s 90-minute, one-set, three-character comedy soon had dozens of productions, from major regional theatres such as the Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., to smaller alternative venues in Ithaca, Iowa City, Dallas, and Pasadena. The Theatre Communications Group (TCG) cited boom as the most-produced play of the 2009-2010 season,[3] and by the beginning of 2015, it had over 100 productions in the US and abroad—including Argentina, Germany, Malaysia, and Mexico.

Most theatre critics reviewed boom enthusiastically, admiring its synthesis of farcical humor and apocalyptic themes. Many noted the “edgy” and sexy energy of the comedy, praising it as “screwball,” “oddball,” and “wacked-out,” but had difficulty articulating the play’s more thoughtful underpinnings.[4]  Ben Brantley of the New York Times astutely recognized the play’s concern with “our enduring fascination with and need for myths about the beginning of life as well as its end,” while Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune myopically dismissed the play because he didn’t find it “credible.”[5] Critics tended to reference the fact that Jules is gay, but they did so parenthetically, as if his homosexuality were simply a funny obstacle to the goal of reproduction. In failing to understand how Jules’s homosexuality functions in the play, theatre critics overlooked the ways in which this wacky comedy presents a challenge to widely-held assumptions about reproduction and the role of queer people in creating the future.

Staging the Apocalypse: A Future Without Queers and Queers Without a Future

Stories about the end of the world appear in many societies and in many eras, and they inevitably bear the traces of the cultures that produced them, expressing anxieties over real world problems such as war, nuclear destruction, disease, environmental disaster, racism, and poverty. In plays, films, and novels about the apocalypse, the narrative’s optimism or pessimism about overcoming such problems often depends on whether a child, as symbol of the future, survives. For example, both Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942) and Liz Duffy Adams’s Dog Act (2004) are apocalyptic comedies that contain hope for the future, concluding with the birth of a child or the promise of heterosexual mating.[6] In twenty-first century cinema, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), based on the novel by P. D. James, and John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009), based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, both offer a grim but hopeful story in which a child survives in a hostile and decaying world, thanks to the sacrifices of a heroic father or father figure.[7] A bleaker future, marked by the failure of reproduction or the death of a child, is depicted in plays such as Endgame (1957) by Samuel Beckett, Marisol (1992) by José Rivera, and Fucking A (2000) by Suzan-Lori Parks.[8] In Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), a mother desperately tries and fails to save her young son from the coming apocalypse, and the film ends with the world evaporating in a blinding white light.[9]

In these apocalyptic plays and films that focus on the fate of a child, LGBT characters are typically not central to the story of the future. The diminishment or absence of LGBT people within many fantasies of the future is not surprising, given the powerful rhetoric that situates queer people as antithetical to the future of families, the nation, and humanity itself. Such anti-queer rhetoric relies on three key arguments to create the link between queer sexuality and the end of humanity: 1) the wrath of God against a society that tolerates queer sexuality, 2) the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among men who have sex with men, and 3) the non-reproductive nature of same-sex relations. The struggle against such rhetoric can be seen in the political sphere, where the gay rights movement has fought for the decriminalization of same-sex relations, the health and dignity of those living with HIV/AIDS, and the rights of families headed by LGBT people. In the realm of culture, queer theatre artists have created plays that often ask more complex questions—and, in some cases, offer more subversive answers—about the queer future. In the American theatre, one can see how plays have responded to each of the three key anti-queer arguments that link LGBT people with the end of humanity.

Certain religious leaders interpret the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19) as evidence that God will eradicate whole populations, not simply for being homosexual, but for tolerating homosexuality within the culture at all. Therefore, anti-gay forces have blamed the very existence of queer people within U.S. borders for everything from hurricanes and earthquakes to terrorist attacks—as prominent televangelist Jerry Falwell famously did in the days immediately following September 11, 2001.[10]  In some cases, the “threat” posed by the existence of LGBT people extends to the destruction of life on this planet as we know it. Take, for example, Harold Camping, a Christian minister with a popular radio show, who predicted the end of the world would occur on 21 May 2011.  As Scott James wrote in New York Times, Camping believed that this destruction would occur because “God has been angered by mankind’s sins, like the growing acceptance of homosexuality.”[11]

In response to the use of religious ideology to vilify queer people, some plays have attempted to reclaim religious narratives for LGBT people, including Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi (1998) and Paul Rudnick’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told (1998).[12] Although both plays employ elements of camp, they also contain sincere attempts to undermine the religious rhetoric that imagines queer people as “abominations” who will bring about destruction. McNally’s play depicts a gay man whose life parallels that of Jesus Christ, ultimately bringing grace and salvation to other queer characters. Rudnick’s comedy imagines a gay couple, Adam and Steve, first in the Garden of Eden and then in modern-day New York City, with Adam eventually serving as a sperm donor for a lesbian who gives birth, allowing a lesbian couple and a gay couple to collectively raise the child. When Adam asks what destroyed Sodom, Steve simply answers, “Tourists.”[13]  Both plays have proven popular in productions around the country, but they have also met with protests and even death threats. To reposition queer people on the side of creation rather than destruction within the biblical narrative is a subversive and therefore controversial act.

The devastation caused by AIDS has also figured prominently in cultural narratives about apocalypse. During the relatively brief era between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism, Peter Coviello wrote that “AIDS unseated nuclear warfare as the defining apocalyptic threat to American health and security” and also brought about “the full-scale and unilateral vilification of homosexuality.”[14] Coviello emphasizes the political ramifications of this shift, noting that “the epidemic thus presents to the American public a threatened civic apocalypse whose undeniable menace tacitly sanctions the mobilization of any number of state forces.”[15] The most acclaimed and influential play to confront the relationship between AIDS, government, and the future is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992), which boldly imagined a gay man with AIDS at the center of a cosmic battle over the fate of humanity on earth.[16] Angels call on Prior Walter, a drag queen suffering from the effects of a weakened immune system, to become a prophet who will tell humanity to stop moving forward, but Prior refuses this prophecy and instead declares, “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens.”[17] It’s not people with AIDS, but rather greed and self-interest, that threaten the ideals of America, and Kushner imagines Prior Walter and other queer characters moving into the future as part of the national fabric.

The third major argument that conflates queer sexuality and the apocalypse focuses on reproduction. Studies of LGBT families have shown that “37% of the more than 8 million LGBT adults in the United States report having had a child,” proving that, while queer sexuality may not be reproductive, many queer people are.[18] But anti-gay arguments assume that when it comes to the Darwinian drama of the perpetuation of the species, queer people—and the acceptance of queer people—will lead to a biological “dead end.” This rhetoric can typically be found in arguments against the political rights and social acceptance of LGBT people, as seen in a 2011 editorial by conservative columnist Jeffrey Kuhner in the Washington Times:

By its very nature, homosexuality cannot fulfill the primary function of sex: procreation and the reproduction of the human race. It is inherently a socially barren act. A homosexual society is a childless one—doomed to extinction.[19]

In the homophobic imagination, queer people are assumed to have no role in the future, and, indeed, they play an active role in destroying the very possibility of a future, because they do not bear children.

The theatre has contradicted this notion of “childless homosexuals” by offering numerous representations of LGBT parents, many of them appearing in the most widely produced gay plays and musicals. In some cases, bisexual characters have children from previous heterosexual relationships, as in Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968); and many plays depict gay and lesbian lovers taking parental roles in relation to the other partner’s biological child, as in Jane Chambers’s Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (1980), Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s La Cage aux Folles (1983), and James Lapine and William Finn’s Falsettos (1992).[20] Other plays depict gay characters as non-biological parents: as able helpers to their heterosexual friends, as in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958); as foster parents, as in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (1982); and as adoptive parents, as in The Kid (2010), a musical based on a memoir by Dan Savage.[21] Some plays show queer families going through the biological process of pregnancy and childbirth, including Paula Vogel’s And Baby Makes Seven (1993) and Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide… (2009).[22] All of these plays serve to construct queer people as reproductive and involved in nurturing children.

But must queer people reproduce or raise children in order to be seen as legitimate members of society? Can non-reproductive people serve only to signify the end of humanity in our fantasies of the future? The future of queer people and the role of queer people in the creation of the future—known among cultural critics and scholars as “queer futurity”—have been much discussed in recent scholarship. In particular, queer theorists including Lee Edelman, José Estaban Muñoz, and Jack Halberstam  have contributed new perspectives on our understanding of queer futurity. In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004), Edelman argues that, symbolically, queers are presumed to be outside the reproductive social order, and therefore stand in opposition to the innocence, goodness, and hope for the future that “the child” symbolically represents.[23] In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009), Muñoz, while acknowledging the need to resist the reproductive imperative, argues against the homonormative politics of pragmatism that simply demand a place at the existing table.[24] Instead, Muñoz looks to art and performance as inspiring utopian visions of a queer future that is neither heteronormative nor homonormative. In The Queer Art of Failure (2011), Halberstam ingeniously finds optimism in “queer failure,” since the queer’s lack of success by heteronormative standards, including reproductive sexuality, can create resistance and viable alternatives to the dominant culture and ideologies.[25]

These theories of queer futurity will help illuminate how Nachtrieb’s boom wrestles with dominant ideologies about sex, reproduction, and the future. In this comedy, Nachtrieb subverts and rewrites the apocalyptic narrative by recasting the usual roles, creating an end-of-the-world play with no parents, no children, and no new-born infant. Instead, it gives voice to the queerly non-reproductive and examines their role in making—or unmaking—the future.

Apocalyptic Sexuality: Exploding the Reproductive Imperative

The play boom takes place at a museum existing in the distant future, where Barbara, a vivacious but rather harried middle-aged docent, welcomes us to her exhibit. Here we can watch two very lifelike automatons enact the historical struggles of Jules and Jo, a man and woman surviving in an underground research lab after the rest of human life has been destroyed by a giant comet hitting the earth. Standing behind her futuristic operating console, Barbara serves as emcee, stage manager, dramaturg, chorus, and musician for this exhibit-performance. She is, perhaps, an unreliable narrator, and her supervisors, displeased with the dramatic license she’s taken over the years, decide to shut down her exhibit. We are watching the final run of an exhibit about humanity’s final run on earth. Except that humanity clearly did not end, because Barbara stands before us, evidence of the survival of human beings into the future. She is simultaneously the mother-creator of this exhibit and the child-creation of the forbearers depicted in the exhibit. Near the end of the play, however, we learn that Jules and Jo did not reproduce. So how is it that Barbara exists in the future?

At first boom seems to be a play about sex, but it soon reveals itself as a play about reproduction, which is not the same thing. Jules is a graduate student in biology who has discovered that human life is about to be destroyed by a giant comet hitting earth, but he is unable to convince his fellow scientists of his findings. Desperate to save humanity, he places an ad on Craigslist for a woman who is interested in “intensely significant coupling” (18). Jo arrives at Jules’s lab, which he has converted into a bunker stocked with food and baby supplies—and there are also four fish in a tank, which quietly bubbles away through the entire play. Jules, because he is socially awkward and terminally unhip, might be described as a “nerd,” and his role as the New Adam is further complicated by the fact that he is gay. Jules has never had sex of any kind before, but he identifies himself as homosexual—based on what he clinically describes as the “non-randomness of [his] erections” (19).

Perhaps one of the reasons Jules has never had sex is that, as a biologist, he sees sex strictly as a matter of reproduction; indeed, he seems terrified when Jo first enters and demands the “world changing” sex promised in Jules’s ad. The comedy of the aggressive woman chasing the demure man is an inversion of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, in which the male is ardent and the female is coy. This transgression of normative gender roles indicates the play’s queer leanings, and Jo expresses a very queer understanding of utopia when talking about sex. She explains to Jules the thesis of her current journalism assignment:

Random sex as the last glimmer of hope in a decaying society.… No past. No future. All that matters is the moment. [Two people] meet to fulfill each other’s carnal needs, to find a moment of freedom, release, of sensory bliss that makes them forget how motherfucked up everything is. In no-strings sex, hope is still possible. (19-20)

As José Muñoz reminds us, “Utopia lets us imagine a space outside of heteronormativity,” and here Jo (a straight woman with a masculine sounding name) recognizes the limitations of the present, eschews what Muñoz calls the “pragmatic politics” of neoliberal progress, and finds hope in a “no-strings” sexual ethos usually associated with non-reproductive or queer sexuality.[26]

Once Jo realizes that this gay man is not what she expected, she attempts to leave, but she is stopped by the sound of the apocalypse. As Barbara dramatically plays the timpani, a low rumble grows louder and louder, finally exploding in a deafening boom. The stage then goes completely dark and silent, with only the fish tank still lit and bubbling, until Jules’s generators kick on and we see that both Jules and Jo have survived. Now the play turns from sex to reproduction, since the future of humanity depends on it, and the roles are reversed as Jules pursues the reluctant Jo.

“We have to rebuild the human race!” cries Jules (32). Jules has completely absorbed the mandates of what Lee Edelman describes as reproductive futurism. Edelman argues that The Child is the fetishized symbol of the heteronormative social structure, and that “queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children.’”[27] Jules, even though he is a gay man, is fighting for the child who represents the future of humanity on earth, the comic version of Clive Owen’s character in the film Children of Men (2006), who heroically risks his life to protect the world’s only infant. But Jules is no Clive Owen. He’s a bumbling nerd who comes up with ridiculous ways to try to impregnate Jo, each of them laughable failures, involving turkey basters, a booby-trapped toilet, and scenarios employing alcohol and a Jake Gyllenhaal mask (39). Even while his crazy schemes to create a child are farcical, the comedy is darkened by the fact that Jules is trying to force Jo to have a baby against her will. Around the time that boom was frequently produced across the country, America witnessed a spike in attacks on women’s health and reproductive rights, which rekindled debates about a woman’s authority over her own body, especially when it comes to questions of sex and reproduction.[28] In depicting Jules’s treatment of Jo, this play gives us a woman who is essentially a victim of kidnapping, attempted rape, and what Margaret Sanger famously called “enforced motherhood.”[29]

To comprehend why Jules, an otherwise affable loser, is doing these horrible things, it is helpful to understand him as the disciple and representative of biological science. Darwinian orthodoxy holds that men with all their sperm are supposed to be promiscuous, but women with precious few eggs are supposed to be choosy. As biologist Joan Roughgarden writes, the theory of sexual selection holds that “a male is naturally entitled to overpower a female’s reluctance lest reproduction cease, extinguishing the species.”[30] In other words, the importance of that great Darwinian goal, the perpetuation of the species, trumps a woman’s right to choose and her authority over her own body. Nachtrieb’s play puts Darwin to the test by taking its inherent fear about the death of the species at face value: if the perpetuation of the species literally depended upon an act of sexual coercion, would it be “natural” and morally acceptable? The play’s answer is clearly no. It satirizes Jules’s mania for reproduction, and the fact that he is a gay man shows how ideologically constructed (rather than “natural”) this mania actually is. He tries to play the role assigned to him by Darwin, but he fails in the act.

Which raises the play’s trickier question: Why does Jo refuse to reproduce?  Unlike Jules, she is heterosexual, but she won’t play the role assigned to her in the Darwinian scheme and instead takes on the role of Edelman’s anti-child queer. Jo bluntly states: “I hate babies. They bother me physically, philosophically, and symbolically” (33). In refusing motherhood, Jo embodies what Edelman calls “the negativity opposed to every form of social viability” or, in Freudian terms, the death drive.[31] After the boom of the apocalypse, her death drive goes into overdrive. Against Jules’s insistence on the continuation of the species, Jo argues that “Maybe it’s time to end our reign of terror and die and decay and become soil.… Look at all the acts humans commit across the planet with casual, unconscious cruelty. We deserve to be blown up” (34). Furthermore, faced with the end of the world, Jo actually wishes to die—but she has an over-developed self-preservation instinct that renders her unconscious whenever she is in physical danger, and therefore she cannot cause harm to herself. So Jules needs Jo to create life, and Jo needs Jules to end her life.

In this fight between Jules and Jo, between reproductive futurity and the queer death drive, the audience can perhaps see the dramatization of an internal conflict. What is the role of the queer person in reproductive futurity?  If you are the last man or woman on earth, do you accept or refuse the imperative to reproduce?  That imperative is supported by strong forces, including scientific, religious, and political discourses, and Jules represents the acceptance of that duty. Jo, on the other hand, represents what, as José Muñoz reminds us, Herbert Marcuse called “The Great Refusal,” the protest “against the repressive order of procreative sexuality.”[32] One of the ironies of the play is that the expected social roles have been reversed: the gay man sides with reproductive futurity, while the straight woman declares the Great Refusal.

This refusal to reproduce has long been a theme in Western culture, and even a cursory glance at a few key examples will show the wide range of possible significations that can be found in these repudiations, which might be sinful, mad, virtuous, or revolutionary. God slew Onan because he “spilled his seed on the ground” in order to avoid impregnating his dead brother’s wife (Genesis 38:8-10), and many early Christians, certain that the End of the World was at hand, believed there was no point in producing children, preferring instead to focus on spiritual salvation.[33] The women of Aristophanes’s classical anti-war comedy Lysistrata (411 BCE) declare a sex strike, refusing to create children “borne but to perish afar and in vain” in the war.[34] The melancholy prince of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601) shuns Ophelia by telling her it would be better to be locked away in a nunnery than “be a breeder of sinners” (III.i.122). In modern drama, the heroine of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1891) chooses suicide over motherhood, and Tennessee Williams’s Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), despite his family’s desire for him to produce an heir, refuses to create new life with his wife, Maggie.

Resistance to “enforced motherhood” has been important throughout the history of the feminist movement, with many battles fought over contraception, sex education, abortion rights, and women’s authority over their own bodies. But the significance of motherhood can be especially fraught within various feminisms. Some writers take an essentialist view of the ability to mother as a source of empowerment, often despite the oppressions of patriarchal “pronatalism,” while others have viewed pregnancy and child-rearing as enslavement within the patriarchy, as a hindrance to female agency and autonomy.[35] Scholar Joyce Meier illuminates this tension when she writes about the social conditions behind the refusal of motherhood in African-American drama and literature, from Angelina Grimke’s Rachel (1906) to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). In these narratives, women choose “sexual abstinence, abortion, and infanticide as strategies of resistance” against a racist social order that subjects black children to slavery, lynching, and poverty.[36] Audiences attending boom may find their understanding of Jo’s refusal of motherhood shaped to some extent by their familiarity with the drama of non-reproduction as it has played out in history, religion, feminist theory, and fictional representations. Ultimately, the play validates Jo’s “queer” choice not to reproduce, and Jules relinquishes his agenda of reproductive coercion.

Jules and Jo have spent the entire play fighting about their personal responsibility to perpetuate the species, and in the end Jo wins the argument. Knowing that they can survive for only so long on limited supplies, they open the lab door, letting in the floods created by the comet hitting the earth, and presumably they drown. The final twist of the play [spoiler alert] is that this suicidal act is what actually perpetuates the species. Those four fish, silently swimming in their bubbling tank throughout the whole play, are now liberated by the flood, becoming the ancestors of humans like Barbara, who will exist 65 million years later—which, not coincidentally, is the span of time between the extinction of the dinosaurs and the emergence of homo sapiens. So Jules and Jo did save the human race, each in their own inadvertent way, since he nurtured and cared for those fish, and she liberated them. But inadvertent is the key word here. Both Jules and Jo are Darwinian failures, but by chance their failures lead to Barbara’s future.

This, then, is the play’s argument: the future itself is queer, and the line from Point A to Point B is not a straight path. In her final speech, Barbara reminds the audience that the existence of humanity depends upon “millions and millions of lucky coincidences” and that “the world will just keep on spinning and moving and changing and adapting” (52). Here Nachtrieb seems influenced by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who argued in his best-selling book Wonderful Life (1989) that homo sapiens are “a tiny twig on an improbable branch of a contingent limb on a fortunate tree.”[37] Gould notes that “small and apparently insignificant changes” can impact the future in substantial ways,[38] and his theory of contingency posits that evolution does not follow an inevitable path of “progress” but is instead the result of “a staggeringly improbable series of events… utterly unpredictable and quite unrepeatable.”[39]  Although finding the dramatic and ironic potential inherent in this contingent view of human existence, Nachtrieb also contradicts Gould’s thesis by creating a fantasy in which millions of years of evolution are, in fact, repeatable, resulting in human beings who create museums, play musical instruments, and tell stories about their origins.

Endings and Beginnings

The play boom mocks our human arrogance for presuming that we could control the destiny of the species even if we tried, and while we are obsessing about the cataclysmic boom, it would be wiser to listen closely and appreciate the constant bubble of nature and life that either will or will not carry on, either with us or without us. Traditionally, tragedy wrestles with fate and ends in death, while comedy ends in (heterosexual) marriage and celebrates life. In its own way, boom mashes the two genres together, finally accepting fate and death, but also bringing together Jo and Jules as a non-reproductive “couple” who accidentally create new life. Nachtrieb crosses the fine line between tragedy and comedy by highlighting the slippage between endings and beginnings, and our inability, because we cannot know the future, to distinguish between them. Other plays about our fears of annihilation, including The Skin of Our Teeth and Endgame, are built with cyclical structures, ending as they began and promising, if not the hope for new life, at least the hope for one more day. One can also see the conflation of beginnings and endings in the popular misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar and its “prediction” of the apocalypse in 2012, which falsely imposed linearity on a cyclical system, seeing “the end” in what is actually a new beginning.[40] Similarly, that moment when Jules and Jo open the door is simultaneously the end of one world and the beginning of another. Barbara’s museum exhibit presents both a tragedy and a comedy, a tale of death and birth, of the end and the beginning.[41]

Nachtrieb, who double majored in theatre and biology at Brown University, has written a play that tests conventional notions about the perpetuation of the species, and in doing so he also challenges the reproductive imperative that has often been used to hinder the social inclusion and political equality of LGBT people. Like much of the best science fiction, boom does not directly address political issues but creates an imaginary world that allows the audience to consider more clearly the ideology at work behind a defamiliarized reality. While many plays provide depictions of good gay parents in response to the accusation that homosexuality is a biological dead end, boom challenges the very premise of that accusation. In the process, it also addresses the situation of anyone, regardless of sexuality, who may not comply with the reproductive imperative. Perhaps this is one reason why the play has been particularly successful at smaller “fringe” and university theatres that tend to attract younger audiences, who may be questioning how sex functions in their own lives and what they may or may not “owe” to the future.

Of course people who choose to reproduce or raise children are contributing to the future, and I don’t believe that this play (or this essay) is meant to diminish the important role of parents, no matter the sexuality or the relationship status of the parent. Instead, I believe the play expands our understanding of who contributes to the future, including those who do not biologically reproduce but may help to build the future in other ways. Jules, for all of his neuroses, is not selfish, and we see him nurture the fish in his lab, caring for them even under the most dire circumstances. Jo’s radicalism and commitment to her own liberation ultimately lead to the liberation of those fish, too. So within the play’s fantasy, the ideal is a combination of responsibility to others (Jules) and a commitment to individual liberty (Jo), and when these two characters finally unite, they inadvertently fulfill their “destiny” as the new Adam and Eve. It’s also worth noting that Jo’s journalistic habit of writing down all of her experiences in Jules’s lab leads to the creation of the documents that will serve as the historical basis for Barbara’s museum exhibit. Language, knowledge, and narrative are among the gifts that Jo gives to the future.

Through this fantasy of apocalyptic doom and new beginnings, boom engages with arguments about the position of queer people in society and in the future, especially around the question of procreation. Nachtrieb’s play is ultimately a comedy because, while it threatens its non-reproductive characters with doom, it also liberates them from the burden of the reproductive imperative and exonerates them for their “failure” to procreate. Seen from this perspective, Nachtrieb’s utopian fantasy aligns with Halberstam’s view that “under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.”[42] The play directly argues against the use of reproductive futurity as an ideological weapon to enforce conformity or oppress the non-conforming. If nature is indeed based on chaos and chance, then the burden of mandatory reproduction is lifted, and all our anxieties about our duties to Darwin and to the future vanish. Once they accept their failure, Jules and Jo can finally embrace each other and face the end—which is actually a new beginning—together.

Unlike apocalyptic narratives that focus on the production or protection of a child, boom gives the stage to two non-reproductive characters who give voice to their fears and anxieties about reproduction, and then are ultimately relieved of them. Nachtrieb’s play argues that 65 million years in the future, the rhetoric of the reproductive imperative, which says that queers have no role in creating the future, is just so much insignificant noise. None of us can know our role in creating the future. The deafening boom of “the end” may not be as momentous as we imagine, perhaps not even meriting a capital B. Meanwhile, from the quiet but persistent bubbling, new worlds beyond our expectations may emerge.[43]


Jordan Schildcrout is Assistant Professor of Theater & Performance at SUNY Purchase.  He is the author of Murder Most Queer: The Homicidal Homosexual in the American Theater (University of Michigan Press), and his scholarship has been published in Theatre Journal, Journal of American Culture, and Journal of Popular Culture. He also works as a dramaturg, most recently on a revival of Paula Vogel’s And Baby Makes Seven at the New Ohio Theater in New York City.


[1] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 9.

[2] Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, boom (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2009). All subsequent references are incidated in parentheses.

[3] “Top Ten Most-Produced Plays,” Theatre Communications Group. (accessed 19 January 2015).

[4] Nelson Pressley, “The Elements Unite to Create Woolly’s Boom; Production Crackles with Quirky Writing, Earnest Characters,” Washington Post (12 November 2008), C4; Bert Osborne, “When A Blind Date Predictably Goes Boom: Comedy About Two Outcasts a Change for Aurora Theatre,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (23 September 2009), D1; Kerry Lengel, “Offbeat Boom Delivers Apocalyptic Belly Laughs,” Arizona Republic (1 November 2009), AE4,, (accessed 19 January 2015).

[5] Ben Brantley, “Meeting Cute on the Eve of Destruction,” New York Times (21 March 2008), E3. Chris Jones, “Not With a Bang at Next Theatre, but a Muddle,” Chicago Tribune (16 September 2009), 3.3,, (accessed 19January, 2015)

[6] Thornton Wilder, The Skin of Our Teeth, in Three Plays (New York: Harper Perennial, 1985); Liz Duffy Adams, Dog Act: A Post-Apocalyptic Comedy (New York: Playscripts, Inc., 2009).

[7] Children of Men, directed by Alfonso Cuarón (2006; Universal City, CA: Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2007), DVD; The Road, directed by John Hillcoat (2009; Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2010), DVD.

[8] Samuel Beckett, Endgame (New York: Grove Press, 1958); José Rivera, Marisol (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1994); Parks, Suzan-Lori, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Fucking A.” in The Red Letter Plays. (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2004).

[9] Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier (2011; Los Angeles, CA: Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2011), DVD.

[10] John F. Harris, “God Gave U.S. ‘What We Deserve,’ Falwell Says,” Washington Post (14 September 2001) C3.

[11] Scott James, “From Oakland to the World, Words of Warning: Time’s Up,” New York Times, 19 May 2011, (accessed 14 June 2012).

[12] Terrence McNally, Corpus Christi (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1999); Paul Rudnick, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told (Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2000).

[13] Rudnick, 85.

[14] Peter Coviello, “Apocalypse from Now On,” in Queer Frontiers: Millennial Geographies, Genders, and Generations, ed. Joseph A. Boone et al. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 42, 50.

[15] Ibid., 50.

[16] Tony Kushner, Angels in America: Perestroika (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1994).

[17] Ibid., 148.

[18] Gary J.Gates, “The Real ‘Modern Family’ in America,” CNN, 25 March 2013, (accessed 10 January 2014).

[19] Jeffrey Kuhner, “Obama’s Homosexual America,” Washington Times, 24 February 2011. <> (accessed 13 June 2012).

[20] Mart Crowley, The Boys in the Band (New York: Samuel French, 1968); Jane Chambers, Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (New York: JH Press, 1982); Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein, La Cage aux Folles (New York: Samuel French, 1987); William Finn and James Lapine, Falesettos (New York: Plume, 1993).

[21] Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey (New York: Grove, 1959); Harvey Fierstein, Torch Song Trilogy (New York: Samuel French, 1982); Patrick Healy, “A Gay Adoption Becomes a Musical,” New York Times, 6 May 2010. (accessed 26 January 2014).

[22] Paula Vogel, And Baby Makes Seven (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1993); Michael Feingold, “Review: The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, with a Key to the Scriptures,” Village Voice, 11 May 2011, (accessed 26 January 2014).

[23] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[24] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

[25] J. Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[26] Muñoz, 35.

[27] Edelman, 3.

[28] “Editorial: The Campaign Against Women,” New York Times. 20 May 2012. (accessed 13 June 2012).

[29] The entrapment and coercion of women for the sake of reproduction in a decaying future society was most famously imagined by Margaret Atwood in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), made into a film starring Natasha Richardson in 1990. In this dystopian future, a patriarchal fascist authority categorizes women as wives, whores, or handmaids, who must bear children in a form of reproductive servitude.

[30] Joan Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 168.

[31] Edelman, 9. An interesting example of the refusal of motherhood in an apocalyptic narrative can be found in the 1967 Czech film The End of August at the Hotel Ozone. After a nuclear war which seems to have killed off the world’s male population, a band of feral young women roam the countryside, killing animals for food and vandalizing the remnants of a dead society. At an abandoned hotel, they come across an old man who represents culture, domesticity, and the possibility of reproduction. In the end, the women murder the man and continue on their way through the countryside. The film seems to be a horror show about men’s fear of empowered women, but I believe a resistant feminist reading is also possible. Thanks to Susan Stryker for bringing this film to my attention.

[32] Muñoz, 134.

[33] Elizabeth Abbott, A History of Celibacy (New York: Scribner, 2000), 48.

[34] Aristophanes, Lysistrata, trans. Jack Lindsay (London: Fanfrolico Press, 1926), accessed through Project Gutenberg, <>.

[35] Ann Snitow, “Feminism and Motherhood: An American Reading,” Feminist Review 40 (Spring 1992), 32-51; Katharyn Privett, “Dystopic Bodies and Enslaved Motherhood,” Women: A Cultural Review 18:3 (2007), 257-281.

[36] Joyce Meier, “The Refusal of Motherhood in African-American Women’s Theater,” MELUS 25:3-4 (Autumn-Winter 2000), 117-139.

[37] Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 291.

[38] Ibid., 287.

[39] Ibid., 14.

[40] G. Jeffrey MacDonald, “Does Maya Calendar Predict 2012 Apocalypse?” USA Today, 27 March 2007, 15 January 2014).

[41] This slippage between apocalypse and genesis is neatly depicted in the poster design for the Woolly Mammoth Theatre production in Washington, DC. The image shows a group of comets approaching the surface of the earth—or perhaps a group of spermatozoa approaching an egg. The “heads” of two comets/spermatozoa form the double “o” of boom, signifying both the end and the beginning in the same graphic.

[42] Halberstam, 2-3.

[43] I’d like to thank Nick Salvato and Sara Warner for inviting me to present an early version of this essay at the Resoundingly Queer Conference at Cornell University. I’m grateful to the editors Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson for their support, and to David Foley, Libby Garland, and the anonymous readers at JADT for their extremely helpful suggestions during the revision process. This article is dedicated to all the scientists in my family and to my partner in the fishbowl, David Zellnik.




“Refusing the Reproductive Imperative: Sex, Death, and the Queer Future in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s boom” by Jordan Schildcrout

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 27, Number 1 (Winter 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: Phoebe Rumsey
Editorial Assistant: Fabian Escalona

Advisory Board:

Bill Demastes
Amy E. Hughes
Jorge Huerta
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf
Esther Kim Lee

Table of Contents:

  • “Refusing the Reproductive Imperative: Sex, Death, and the Queer Future in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s boom” by Jordan Schildcrout
  • Just Saying Our Goodbyes: Elegies’ Queer Interventions into the History of 9/11″ by Michelle Dvoskin
  •  James Purdy as Playwright: A Retrospective Reading of Day After the Fair and The Paradise Circus” by Michael Y. Bennett
  • “Sur la Pointe on the Prairie: Giuseppina Morlacchi and the Urban Problem in the Frontier Melodrama” by Andrea Harris

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York NY 10016



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