Martha Henry’s ferret

The 2012 production of Cymbeline at the Stratford Festival reminds me of the last time I saw Cymbeline at the Festival. It is 2004 and I am sitting in the audience at the Tom Patterson Theatre, out walks Martha Henry — who is arguably one of the best actresses of her generation — she is playing the part of the (evil) Queen. She opens her mouth to deliver her lines and I have no idea what she is saying. I am absolutely mesmerized by the fact that she is wearing around her shoulders a live (live!) ferret (ferret!). This for me is the quintessential upsurge of the real.

This blog takes its title — “Upsurges of the Real” — from an observation made by Bert O. States  in his 1985 book Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: The Phenomenology of Theatre (Full citation below). In one section of his book, States is particularly concerned with staged-objects that do not easily give up their real-world status to become fictionalized. That is their ontological status as “real” is very stubborn and is difficult for the audience to perceptually efface. He describes this special class of objects has having a high degree of “en soi.” He writes, “[At such moments], the floor cracks open and we are startled, however pleasantly, by the upsurge of the real into the magic circle where the conventions of theatricality have assured us that the real has been subdued and transcended” (States 11). As examples, he lists ticking clocks, live flame, running water, children and animals; to that list I would add alcohol, money or other very valuable objects, and celebrities. (See my article on metatheatre and Renaissance celebrities).

In this way, States provides a very lucid and poetic description of the basic situation. Some objects retain their “realness” in an of themselves. There is some quality inherent in these objects that causes the “real” aspect of the object to be more interesting to the audience than its fictional aspect. Thinking back to my last post, we might say that the duck is just much more compelling of our attention for the rabbit for some reason. One partial reason for increased audience interest in the real aspects of a given object relates to issues of control. Certain objects — like children and animals — are unpredictable, they are not really solidly under the control of the fictional framework. We are curious to see if they will behave. Even if they do, we are still attached to these objects through their real-world technique (a good performance — Well done!) rather than as fictional entities in the story. Likewise, fire, water, money and alcohol, also present an element of unpredictability and risk. (As an audience member, I might be actively worried about something or someone catching on fire. Or I might be thinking “I wonder how they do that”) Celebrities are (we hope) neither unpredictable nor dangerous — so what is going on here. I think in this case the point of audience interest is partially related to technique. (Will Keanu Reeves actually give a good performance as Hamlet?) But also some part of audience interest is related to presence. And this I think is the key point going forward with other real objects. There is something for the audience simply in the experience of being in the presence of the real thing. And this attachment to a specific real thing goes beyond the desire for live performance that Saltz talks about (although that is part of it too). There is something deeply paradoxical about this attachment to the real in a persistently fictionalizing medium like theatre. Other art forms don’t behave this way.

Again I have managed to restate the problem…but without answering my own question. (Good problem though!)

Works Cited

States, Bert O., Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1985).

Stephenson, Jenn. “Singular Impressions: Metatheatre on Renaissance Celebrities and Corpses” Studies in Theatre and Performance 27:2 (Summer 2007) 137-153.


2 responses to “Martha Henry’s ferret

  1. Pingback: I’m nobody. Who are you? | Upsurges of the Real: a performance research blog·

  2. Pingback: Jumping through the fourth wall: realism and/or the real | Upsurges of the Real: a performance research blog·

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