Another View on Theatre Animals

This invariably happens when I am in the reading phase of a research project. I will encounter an article or chapter or book that from the library catalogue sounds like absolutely the perfect thing — sometimes this is a pleasurable anticipation (wonderful to find an insight that fits my thinking) or dread (worried that someone has already published my key idea). But when I get to the article with the perfect title, it turns out to be something completely different, so divergent in its method or scope that it is set aside, the promise unfulfilled. This was the case with Nicholas Ridout’s chapter on animals in Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems.

Ridout initially considers three possible reasons for the audience’s discomfort with animals on the stage. First, it is against  the animal’s best interests. It doesn’t want to be there. Unlike human performers it has not willingly entered into the theatrical contract. Second, the presence of animals is not what we expect. Theatre is not about animals (unlike a circus). Finally, the animal doesn’t know what to do, “is not capable of performing theatrically by engaging a human audience in experimental thinking about the conditions of their own humanity” (Ridout 98). Having aired these three ideas, Ridout returns to his core perspective which is principally Marxist to think about animals in theatre in terms of the labour relations and power dynamics inherent in this situation.

He cites Michael McKinnie who describes the work of the actor as an alienated wage slave: work is very restricted in time, repetitive, badly paid, the actor is alienated from self by speaking someone else’s words, subject to intense scrutiny by the employer, etc. (Ridout 100). But, as he notes by contrast the thing that they portray is usually the fully rounded character, rich with subjectivity that is the birthright of the bourgeoisie. Performance of such characters therefore succeeds in hiding the means of production — we see plays, not work. Coming back to animals, Ridout concludes, “what the children and the animals do, therefore, is point through this neurosis to the alienation of the actor and to the economic conditions of her presence on the stage” (101).

So… although I appreciate this argument very much in the context of inter-human performance relations, (I think Ridout’s first two chapters on stage fright and the shame of the audience who is caught consuming the work of actors being foolish are wonderful. So interesting and stimulating to thinking about what audiences are doing!) ultimately, I am not sure that this cuts through to the heart of why animals create a perceptual problem on the stage, at least in terms of constituting the conditions of theatricality that I am especially interested in.

Ridout does however mention at one point, quoting an unpublished paper by Michael Peterson, that animals on the stage lead us into an encounter with the uncanny. Ah! Now this I think will be very useful. As it describes an upsetting or disturbed audience reaction to that moment of the too-real approaching reality but not quite, the uncanny may well be a contributing factor — especially as we think about animals (and children) not as themselves but precociously anthropomorphized into humans (or at least adult humans).

A future post on the uncanny, I think….

Works Cited

Ridout, Nicholas. Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.


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