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
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.
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
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 HotReview.org and