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The chorus of frogs in Lincoln Center Theater's production of "The Frogs"

Animal Acts for Changing Times
By Una Chaudhuri

The fabulous frogs currently cavorting on the Lincoln Center Theater stage belong to a long line of theatrical animals that have delighted audiences since theatre began, momentarily distracting them from the antics of that most self-absorbed of animals, the human being. While Cats has now ceded its appearance of immortality to The Lion King, the live camels, sheep and donkeys of the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall persist through generations, part of a tradition that links Sondheim's frogs to their originals in ancient Greece and, beyond them, to the sacrificial animals of the rituals from which theatre itself arose. (A note in the Playbill for Edward Albee's recent prize-winning animal play, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, noted that the Greek word for "tragedy" translates literally as "goat-song." More on this Playbill later.)

But the frogs accompanying Nathan Lane on his journey to Hades in The Frogs have one striking new feature: They are not only gorgeous to behold but also unexpectedly naturalistic, even scientifically precise. The brilliant colors and varied markings on their costumes seem to be based on careful empirical observation, and to celebrate the marvelous diversity of the real creatures they represent (who happened this summer to be the subject of a special exhibit a few blocks away, at the Museum of Natural History). Intentionally or not, designer William Ivey Long has subtly departed from the long-standing practice of distorting the animal figure on stage--usually in the direction of cuteness and sentimentalism. These frogs are dazzling and entertaining, as stage frogs should be, but the inevitable anthropomorphism of the stage animal seems to be tempered, in their case, by a powerful connection to actual animality, and so to the mystery of the non-human.

Historically, however, the theatre has not had much use for the mystery of the non-human. As one of the many arenas* in which we obsessively contemplate ourselves, theatre has, like the other arts, relegated animals to its metaphorical margins. By and large, in the theatre as elsewhere, human animals have been interested in their non-human cousins chiefly as mirrors for themselves. The Playbill mentioned earlier, for instance, offered an easy out for anyone interested in ducking the shocking subject of Albee's play: interspecies sex. Speaking of goats as symbols of the "powers of procreation, the life force, the libido, and fertility," the article did to the goat what drama--indeed what art in general--usually does to animals: turns them into metaphors. Even the most powerful animal presences on stage have a hard time resisting the urge of their interpreters (whether spectators or playwrights, directors or critics, actors or dramaturgs) to recast them as symbols of human behavior and allegories for human preoccupations. So Albee's Goat is "really" (as some people have insisted to me) "about homosexuality," just as Ionesco's pachyderms are really fascists, O'Neill's hairy ape is really the proletariat, and Peter Shaeffer's Equus is really a pagan god.

More generally, animality stands in for all that is repressed by culture, as exemplified by Albee's earlier animal play, The Zoo Story, in which Peter and Jerry wage territorial battle over a bench in Central Park until they discover what their alienated urban existences have so agonizingly repressed: that they are animals. A similarly metaphoric use of animality is evoked by Pinter's remark about the famous "menacing" quality of his plays: they are, he said, about "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet."

But no matter how quickly the animal presence is contained by anthropomorphic moves, the passage from human to animal and back again is always thrilling, complicated, full of possibility. Shakespeare captured it in a single line: "Bless thee, Bottom! Bless thee! Thou art translated!" The human encounter with animality is both terrifying and exalting. For the actor who embodies it, like Bottom, or for the spectator who witnesses it, like Quince, it is like crossing into another country, hearing a strange language, experiencing a frightening recognition that is at the same time a delicious bafflement.

The animals who have shared the stage with human actors through the ages--usually only as verbal images and references (drama, like language itself, teems with animal imagery and simile), sometimes as costume, movement and behavior, and occasionally in their own organic persons--have generally been taken for granted, no more attended to or specially considered than their countless offstage counterparts. The history of human interaction with the non-human has been a remarkably unselfconscious, even thoughtless one.

In recent years, however, perhaps in response to the accelerating extinction of species and certainly galvanized by the animal rights movement, cultural consciousness about animals has undergone a sea change. An emerging field of academic inquiry known as Critical Animal Studies looks at the myriad cultural practices through which people relate--today and in the past, here in the West and elsewhere in the world--to the non-human animals with whom we share the world: practices like pet-keeping, zoo-going, meat-eating, hunting, cock-fighting, bull-running, wildlife protection, endangered species re-population, pest-control, animal rescuing, animal experimentation. The list is endless. Some rare, some ubiquitous, some deeply controversial, some habitual and utterly normalized, some culturally specific, some universal, these practices encompass a vast array of sites and events: zoos, circuses, rodeos, farms, dog shows, cat fanciers clubs, race tracks, fur-shops, slaughter-houses, puppy-mills, research labs, crime scenes. That list is endless, too.

To become aware of the complicated ideas and feelings generated by these practices is to acquire a new lens for seeing the role that animals have played in our stories and entertainments. From Aesop to Disney, talking animals have been used to delight and instruct, and the most satisfying lesson they teach is the tacit one of human superiority. They are a kind of language we use both to flatter ourselves as well as to denigrate our enemies. To call someone an animal is the easiest way to insult them (and then to justify mistreating them). Moreover, if we say that it isn't right to treat human beings (say, the Abu Ghraib prisoners) like animals, we may be tacitly agreeing that it is all right to treat animals in that way (that is, cruelly). This ideological use of animals is frequently seen in conservative crusades: In the recent national debate about gay marriage, for instance, many right-wing radio hosts warned that the next stage in the slide into immorality would be inter-species marriage. If we give in to the homosexuals, they wailed, can dog- and cat-lovers be far behind? The animal is always the final appeal for the moralistic defenders of "humanity."

Lately, however, a new understanding of animality has been manifested in the arts. In painting, film, literature, photography, video and theatre, animals seem to be "speaking back" to human culture, rejecting the rhetorical exploitation they have endured for so long. These new representations are challenging us to think anew about animals and about our relationship to them. Taken together as a phenomenon, or trend, these new "animal acts" suggest that the lives of animals are not as distant or unconnected to ours as we think--that they are not, as the title of Caryl Churchill's disturbing animal drama puts it, so "far away." They seem to be proposing, too, that animals are not figments of our imaginations: they have independent existences and real lives as rich as our own. (Perhaps this awareness also accounts for the amazing costumes of the Lincoln Center frogs; it certainly accounts for my reaction to those costumes).

To listen to animals, and to represent them in new ways, does not, by any means, require strict naturalism. Science, after all, is just one of the cultural discourses that operate upon animals, and is far from capturing the vast mystery of what the Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee calls, in the title of one of the greatest animal fictions of our times, The Lives of the Animals. A wildly imaginative, even farcical style can bring contemporary animality into view just as vividly as scientific naturalism. For example, one animal play that was part of this summer's Fringe festival in New York City, Noah Haidle's Kitty Kitty Kitty, featured brilliantly nonsensical costumes: the red-suited felines of this play were as far from the cuddly Disney norm as the Lincoln Center frogs, but in the direction of inspired silliness rather than naturalism.

Haidle's proliferating kitties, cloned by a mad scientist (to cheer up his suicidal cat!), cleverly evoked a disturbing feature of animality that the household pet helps us to forget: that animal identity is inherently plural. Not only do animals exist in herds, packs, swarms and flocks, but there are countless species of animals, outnumbering their self-styled "paragon" by billions. In this regard the names of the cloned cats--each new clone has an additional "Kitty" added to its basic generic name, resulting in dialogue containing long strings of the familiar bi-syllabic endearment--is a delicious send-up of the biblical story of Adam naming the animals, one of many myths we humans have used to shield ourselves from the scary fact that there are so many of them, and* so few of us, that we need them and therefore must "know" them, while they can be essentially indifferent to us.

Some recent animal plays, such as Mark Medoff's Prymate, A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, Elizabeth Egloff's The Swan and Mabou Mines's Animal Magnetism, to name just a few, have provided rare opportunities for actors to explore and convey other ways of being--to answer, through performance, a version of the question now famous in Animal Studies, asked by American philosopher Thomas Nagel: "What is it like to be a bat?" Nagel's 1974 article opened up a discussion that holds much promise for theatremakers--actors, playwrights, designers, directors--looking for larger frameworks within which to locate their explorations of human life.

Phyllis Frelich and Andre De Shields in Mark Medoff's "Prymate"As the chimpanzee in Prymate, for instance, Andre De Shields delivered a performance crafted of such acute observation, humility, affection and generosity that spectators actually shared in some of the inter-species relationality that the play was about. Like a modern-day shaman, the actor used the body and spirit of the animal to lead us on a journey into another order of existence, one that our organisms still remember, even if our social identities do not.

Sadly, De Shield's brilliant performance could not overcome the clamor of offence taken by those who could not get past the actor's race. Yet it was precisely the risk the production took in casting a black actor as an ape that made it so much more interesting than the rather conventional drama of ideas the play otherwise was. In taking this opportunity to face down the racist stereotype from within, as it were--that is, by fully embodying the being of the animal rather than merely mimicking its superficial behavior--De Shields added empathy to the acting convention that has for so long denigrated animals as well as the "othered" groups to whom they are compared.

Early in the last century, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats cast his vision of a coming new age in terms of a powerful image: "What rough beast," he asked, "its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" The lumbering animal evoked by Yeats was one of many signs that the optimistic humanism inherited from the Renaissance was unraveling. The conviction that man was, as Hamlet says, a god-like "paragon of animals" was giving way to a less flattering characterization, in which animality played a larger role. Today, another vision of the human relation to animality is emerging: not a simple substitution of the animal for the divine in the definition of humanity, but rather a questioning of the price we have paid for our historical insistence on our separation from animality. The Elephant Man's cry of self-assertion--"I am not an animal; I am a human being"--has echoed through our culture for centuries as the sheerest common sense, habituating us to the falsehood at its heart: the notion that "human being" and "animal" are not embedded categories but mutually exclusive ones.

For theatre as for the other arts, the process of reclaiming our close relation to animality requires an interest in animals as themselves. It requires that we guard against and deliberately avoid the anthropomorphism that comes so easily to us. Whether animal experience is explored physically (as De Shields did in Prymate) or through language and imagery, as happens in many other plays (including Far Away), the important move is in the focus on animals as and for themselves, and on how we human beings have lived with them, used them, loved them, or simply taken them for granted.

The rewards of sharing the stage with those with whom we share this planet are considerable. To be willing to imaginatively enter into animal being while acknowledging its radical unknowability is to let go of political and psychological certainties, to question the assumption of human superiority, and so also to dislodge the systems of preference and privilege that sustain oppressive social distinctions based on race, class, gender and nation. In this sense, the animal is the latest figure to be enlisted in the ongoing exploration of identity that has defined progressive politics in the past several decades.

Brett Leonard's recent Guinea Pig Solo and Tracy Letts's Bug both work from an acute consciousness of the shared spaces and destinies of human and non-human animals. A contemporary rewriting of Georg Büchner's prescient classic Woyzeck, Leonard's play literalizes (and, in its title, names) a practice that Büchner had glimpsed as being part of the disastrous foundation of modernity: animal experimentation. While Büchner's soldier is at the mercy of a mad scientist, Leonard's Gulf War veteran is embedded in a baneful but banal medical model that systematically animalizes humans. The play teems with animal references ("elephants, rats, caterpillars--who gives a shit?" is a typical one) and with accounts of strange animal behavior (established through cruel experiments). The "proven scientific facts" we hear about various animals ultimately position the American soldier in a continuum of brutal exploitation--a chain of command, if you will--that tethers him, like a laboratory animal, to hopelessness and exploitation. The web of animal practices the play invokes leaves no doubt that human "guinea pigs" like the protagonist are a byproduct of (among other follies) an insane disregard for other living creatures.

In Bug, a different order of animality throws a dark light on American experience: Here the main character--also a Gulf War veteran--suffers from the paranoid delusion that he has been infected with microscopic organisms, which now swarm under his skin. Like the alien invasions that gave the 1950s Cold-War culture its ideal allegory, the subcutaneous infestation is a suitably creepy metaphor for both our increasingly pharmaceutical way of life as well as the infiltrations of terrorism.

The art critic John Berger once said that the main animals visible in the modern world--zoo animals and household pets--are monuments to their own disappearance, screens for the oblivion to which we have confined all species except our own. The stage critters we've spotted may be something similar: the ever-more-endangered species of non-human making a series of farewell appearances. Certainly that was the explicit message of another of this past summer's great theatre events: Theatre de Complicité's The Elephant Vanishes. The mysteriously disappeared animal of this title seemed to represent precisely Berger's view of the zoo animal, especially as its gigantic video image loomed monumentally behind the stage. But the extraordinary way in which the missing animal was brought to life--by the slowly moving bodies of five actors, each also moving a chair to evoke the beast's massive limbs--suggests another possibility. These new animals may be part of a search for new ways to think about our place in a changing world, at a frightening time. The city that was the real subject of Complicité's production--a hyper-techno Tokyo of speed, lights, noise, violence, junk food, ads, slogans and insomnia--epitomizes the present. The futuristic human-machine hybrids so beloved of the past century's movies and pop culture robots and cyborgs and aliens have little more to offer us. They have produced both terror and solace, alienation and understanding.

A renewed regard for our ancient companionship with other animals may provide something equally complex but more humane.

[Editor's Note: By special arrangement, this article is appearing simultaneously in and American Theatre.]

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