Utopian tales have been told for centuries. More recently, an opposite sort of story has predominated, called the anti-utopia or dystopia. It often takes features of contemporary society to their extreme logical conclusions to demonstrate possible consequences of today. The Hunger Games series of novels and films form a prominent contemporary example, but there are many others.
So in these terms, is Aristophanes describing a utopia or a dystopia in his play The Birds? Scholars gathered in San Francisco in 1990—about eight years before Culture Clash produced their version—to discuss this question (among others.) The traditional utopian view was seriously challenged by those who consider it dystopian. One scholar called The Birds a classical precursor to George Orwell’s The Animal Farm. Another points out distinct differences between Aristophanes and Plato's utopia in The Republic (Apparently the two didn't like each other.)
Since then the anti-utopian view predominates. But there's still scholarly division on this point--maybe it's basically utopian.
Still, the two wanderers at the beginning of The Birds are definitely looking for a society more to their liking. The walled city in the sky built by the birds (Cloud Cukooland) isn't an impossible dream: it successfully forces the gods to bow to its power. But there are many complications.
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner proposed a now- famous thesis that the American character was forged by confronting and conquering the western frontier. Others however have pointed out that the frontier was a movable dream that eventually became the same old nightmare.
On Long Island from New York City, in an ever-widening concentric circle around Chicago, all along the new freeways in southern California, and most everywhere else in America, suburbia sprouted in the 1950s and 1960s. That these were to be utopian alternatives to the city was an explicit promise, most vividly preserved in one of the new highways built expressly as express lanes carrying commuters from New York to suburbia: the Utopia Parkway.
But the highways themselves were immediately overcome by reality. Noting that “expressways opened in 1952 were by 1955 carrying the traffic load that had been forecast for 1985,” author Robert Caro observed that these highways, “of dimensions literally unknown in history, could be opened one month—and be filled to absolute capacity the next.”
|Suburbia by David Shankbone|
Fictionally, the unconscious habit of polluting utopia was extended to “the final frontier” by various science fiction writers, notably Ray Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles.
Utopia has often been ridiculed as naive fantasy, as the name Cloud Cukooland now implies. But the notion of creating a utopia became suspect in itself in the 20th century due to the utopian pronouncements and horrific consequences in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China in the Cultural Revolution, and Cambodia under the Kymer Rouge. The temptations of attaining power is an important theme in The Birds, reflecting Athenian imperialism. It is even more explicit in the Culture Clash adaptation.
But even though utopia has possibly its worst press in history today, some contemporaries (including science fiction writers like Kim Stanley Robinson) still insist on the need to imagine utopias in which humanity consciously confronts its current problems, including those self-delusions that turn utopias into dystopias. They are needed partly to provide models of a better future, and partly to provide the hope that might motivate attempts to work towards it. Even creators of dystopias are warning against thoughtless acceptance of new technologies and old patterns of behavior.