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Theatre and Animals: Erasure and Renaissance.

Central to human existence has been the animal. In all of human history, from the dawn of evolution to ancient rituals and rites, and now in production and food industries, the relationship between animals and humans has been an ongoing, complex, and controversial one. The notion of reality, limited to human understanding, is sought to be recreated and evoked through drama and theatre. By that, theatre must involve the animal but poses an interesting question about its role. The dramatic relationship between the two is often forgotten, far from the obvious, anthropocentric uses of animal symbolism and imagery. What comes under scrutiny is whether theatre is truthful and ontologically tied to the reality it seeks to convey, especially regarding the natural world in which all human expressionism is based. It seems that either it excludes the presence of the animal altogether or includes it so far as an entity without any autonomy and agency, as a trope for humankind.

The animal is tied to the politics and culture of human society. In theatre, the Hellenistic traditions that concerned animistic worship permeate through its traditions, that now reflect (and influence) the modern dualism of humans and the animal, which always lead to the latter's death: as a sacrifice, food, and resource. At the root of this is tragedy, which always centers the decline of a protagonist to depths of unrepairable measure, below the threshold of humanity, where the 'other' exists; the female other, the racial other, the queer other, and ultimately, the animal. Tragedy and its influence on modern theatre mark the downfall of the animal in society.

An animal about to be slaughtered is a metaphor that most suits each character in tragedy. The butchered meat portrays this sorrow, as every person that suffers is also meat (Castellucci, 2000, p. 25).
Image 1: An example of tragedy's focus on human plight: a depiction of Ajax's suicide (c. 400-500 BCE), from Sophocles' greek tragedy 'Ajax' (5 BCE). In this scene, Ajax is overcome by shame after realising he was tricked by Athena into slaughtering the Greek army's cattle.

The birth of tragedy marks the erasure of the animal as an autonomous being (Castellucci, 2000). It is believed that pre-tragic western theatre tradition concerned 'matter', where all forms of life and reality were constitutionally weighted. Such performance links to feminine dynamics that, too, at the birth of tragedy - whether as consequence or coincidence is up for debate - became 'othered'. This form of expression deals with matters of the mysteries of life and death. It concerns the "dynamics of an artistic expression which rediscovers a relationship with real life – from birth to ritual – and which operates beyond the linguistic sphere" (Castellucci, 2000, p. 24). The life and death of animals are significantly tied up in the performance of reality in nature, as opposed to its sacrifice, literally or otherwise, as symbolic and metaphoric to the plight of humankind as seen in tragedy.

Two things are critical in delineating why the animal – not as a figure, metaphor, or trope - was lost from the theatre. The first is to understand that its loss occurred when it became 'othered'. In the transition to modernism, where reason and humanism thrive, the demotion of the animal to the status of inhumanity becomes apparent (Baudrillard, c1994, p. 133). Modernity is characterized by a betrayal of the divine and revered status that previous ages conferred on animals. It is suggested that animals are the only category of other that modernity has not succeeded in rendering discursive (Chaudhuri, 2017; Baudrillard c1994). This 'silencing' and othering occurred in much the same way it did to women, children, queer, disabled, and 'primitive' (non-white) peoples. This exile that ultimately places the animal in the most degrading position of all occurs because of the fundamental fact about them - which accounts for the boundless cruelty they face in the real world- which is that they do not speak (Chaudhuri, 2017, p. 37). What has degraded the animal so far away from even the other 'others', is that it does not yield to the discursive imperative of modernity (Chaudhuri, 2017). Whereas modes of communication and interpretation have been created to understand othered collectives, such as the disabled and children, animals have not been afforded such luxury. Arguably, because of the existence of language, messages can be deciphered from these groups if desired (Baudrillard, c1994).

Image 2: A performative act on behalf of the elephant. PETA protesters guised as elephants to protest the use and mistreatment of elephants in the circus in Detroit (2019).

In modernism, the infancy of animals - from the Latin infans = unable to speak (Castellucci, 2000) - is an obvious obstacle to their participation in theatre. However, the 'silencing' of animals, rooted in their othering, portrays a much more damaging reality. It suggests that the body and presence of the animal are inadequate and insignificant, disregarding the value of its nature. It becomes purposely excluded as an entity of agency or authority to avoid the awkwardness of the reality that their physicality presents. From the origins of theatre to its modernity, the only way the animal is maintained is in its relational position to mankind. Ultimately, the animal has been and continues to be viewed through man's consciousness and understanding (if it is at all to be considered) and can only serve the purpose of representation. In the evolution of theatre, this culture and attitude to animals are retained and subsequently worsened as rationalism, modernism, and humanism continue to center the human experience above all things. So that when the human-animal relationship is encountered in the context of theatre, which seeks to reflect the reality that shapes it, it is evident that the animal remains doomed to a "paradoxically vociferous fate: since they will not speak, they are ceaselessly spoken, cast into a variety of discursive registers, endlessly troped" (Chaudhuri, 2017, p. 37).

Ruth Carney's 'The Lemon Princess' is an exemplary model of the difficulty surrounding presenting human-animal encounters. A contemporary play that deals with the consequences of Mad Cow Diseased (BSE) that plagued the British population in the '80s-'90s. It is based on the true story of Rachel Forber, who died in 2001 from a neurodegenerative condition variant: Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which BSE causes. The play focused on the harrowing and heartbreaking tale of lives wrecked by a government more concerned with protecting farming and business interests than making public the research of scientists who were increasingly convinced that BSE in cattle posed serious health risks to the population (Gardner, 2005). 'The Lemon Princess' is the perfect playground to theorize the limits of theatre and the subjectivity of animals, the prior presenting a reality that involves yet negates and voids the latter. It demonstrates the modernist problem, which excludes the animal's voice, and continuously observes the animal's plight from a human perspective, that is, the tragedy around BSE, being interpreted solely by the depth of horror it caused for humans.

Image 3: Courtesy of Rex Features. Millions of cattle slaughtered in Britain due to mad cow disease panic.

The true focus of the play deals with the inadequacy of human society. Thus, there is not much hope for the animal's plight to be truly registered, as it becomes once again utilized, to be overshadowed and forgotten. Although powerful and useful as it reflects an actual reality, such theatre mimics much of the same attitude towards the cattle during this BSE crisis. It is demonstrative that in all human-animal encounters, consistently, profound identifications are found, and at the same time, violent rejections and contradictions are played out. The 'awkwardness' that the animal's presence produces in theatre is that countless facets and zones of various identities within the human-animal encounter are essential to the identification of mankind. Only so far, however, to serve the linearity and interest of mankind, where there are countless rejected and modified facets that create excluded sites and otherness. Without considering the animal's well-being or representation, this encounter simultaneously creates and destroys unities and is all together fragmenting and conjoining, further perpetuating the perception of the animal as relational rather than as equal or counterpart. The animal's plight is not the same as that of the human, albeit the BSE crisis was equally as tragic for the animal. Naturally, as tragedy dictates, the animal's loss is only a projection of that of man.

Nevertheless, a further reading of this play may show its effectiveness in reminding the audience what is forgotten and lost in the human-animal encounter. These excluded sites bear the guilt of the loss of animal life, which in the '80s – '90s counted as a loss of meat, food, and resource and more of an inconvenience that cost the loss of human life. Such human rationalism has turned animals into "beasts of burden" and "beasts of consumption" (Chaudhuri, 2017, p. 37).

From the postmodernist and posthumanist movements comes a form of theatre known as eco-performance, which exclusively adopts and focuses on ecological thinking. There is an emphasis on moving away from the typical, anthropocentric views of the animal solely as representations, where the animal is forced to perform for us and to incessantly serenade us with our fantasies (Chaudhuri, 2017). Eco-performance confronts social and cultural attitudes within the ecological crisis and, by virtue, challenges the work of mimesis. It is the counter to realism – modern theatre's most successful aesthetic (Chaudhuri, 2017, p. 36), where the technology of artificial replication and reproduction generates seductive and spectacular versions of reality. In realism, nature appears awkward, imperfect, inexpressive, and uninterestingly silent (Chaudhuri, 2017). The urge to reintroduce animals and their imperfect, non-anthropocentric (non-human) presence in productions of reality is an attempt to re-evaluate theatre and move away from the reproductive economy.

In realism, human ingenuity can manufacture every single one of nature's inventions with technology and engineering (Huysmans, 2003). Such an approach does not tolerate the animal and instead re-invents its mechanical counterpart. Post-modernism is, to the animal, a denunciation of Cartesian dualistic thought and oppositional taxonomies in such mechanistic creation. It permits the animal's dynamic and complex involvement, which redraws its history from pre-tragic representation and creates the 'post-modern animal' (Chaudhuri, 2017). In answer to the ecological crisis, there is a new form of eco- and ritual performance called 'animal rites', which attempts to engage with, diagnose, and heal the historically complex relationship between humans and animals. It is a praxis beyond the human (Chaudhuri, 2017). A good example is Rachel Rosenthal's 'The Others' (1985, 2000), that masters the ability to portray 'non-human' animals and to reflect on the equal horror and beauty of the role they play as humans in their social and cultural construction in society. She does so by intricately tracing the histories of animal representation, drawing on their complex relationship with humans to deconstruct the boundaries of human understanding.

Image 4: The first page of 'The Others' script, written and performed by Rachel Rosenthal (1985, 2000).

Rosenthal does so by using real animals on stage, presenting them in a sequence of their representations as irrelevant, inferior, and finally independent beings and agents in paradox to their human constructs and representations. Rosenthal invokes Cartesian theory, the presentation of the first animal seen: the mechanical dog, and an ode to realism. Followed by real animals on stage, which arrive to deliberate their relationality to that of human existence in various ways. Finally, Rosenthal reins in on human exceptionalism, where she juxtaposes the stereotypical presentations of animals acted by humans while the animal 'spoken of' is on stage, creating an awkward separation that breeds guilt as a self-directed emotion, and encourages an outward awareness and responsibility. Redrawing the timeline of the human-animal relationship, she aims to expose its representation's anthropological and anthropocentric bias, effectively evoking an ecological malaise that must be addressed in the direct presence of the animal. Such works secure the animal's position and autonomy back in the world of theatre and, more importantly, in theatre's future. The challenge faced is not to elicit the animal as a prop of its demise while doing so. The challenge is to "not be afraid to be wrong, but embracing the 'panicking fear […] of 'being there' on the stage" (Castellucci, 2000, p. 25), to return to the root of theatre: the body and its "being not perfectible" (pp. 25-6). The hope is that in the human embrace of non-conformity, the animal will find its place in support of that, allowing nature to play its own significant role among the rest.

Bibliographical Sources

Baudrillard, J. (c1994). Simulacra and Simulation . Ann Arbor, Mich. : University of Michigan Press.

Burt. (2005). John Berger's "Why Look at Animals?": A Close Reading. Worldviews: Global

Castellucci, R. (2000). The Animal Being on Stage. Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 5(Issue 2: On Animals), 23-28.

Chaudhuri, U. (2017). Chapter 2: Animal Rites, Performing Beyond the Human. In U. Chaudhuri, The Stage Lives of Animals: Zooësis and Performance (pp. 31-48). London: Routledge.

Gardner, L. (2005, February 12). The Lemon Princess. The Guardian: Theatre.

Huysmans, J.-K. (2003). Against Nature [A Rebours 1998]. (t. R. Baldick, Ed.) London: Penguin.


Religions, Culture, and Ecology, 9(2), 203–218.

Ridout. (2006). Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems. Cambridge University

Rosenthal. (2000). "The Others" Performance Research, 5(2), 92–107.

Tait. (2018). Performing Species Kinship and Strange Emotions. Performance Research, 23(3), 92–99.

Visual Sources

Image 1: The suicide of Ajax. (ca.). Public Domain.

Image 2: PETA. (2019). PETA protesters.

Image 3: Rex Features. (2018, October 19). DISEASE OUTBREAK What is Mad Cow Disease, what does BSE stand for and are outbreaks of it dangerous to humans? The Sun.

Image 4: Rosenthal, R. (Director). (2014, August 5). The Others: Performance conceived, written and performed. Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 5(2), 92–107.


Author Photo

Gina Darwin-Gitonga

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