Una Chaudhuri on The Stage Lives of Animals

By Jordan Williamson

Earlier this year, Prof. Una Chaudhuri published The Stage Lives of Animals: Zooësis and Performance (Routledge). The book collects 11 of her essays from the last 15 years on animal studies and theater, along with an “Animalizing Interlude,” Zoöpolis, “a collaborative project located at the intersections of urban theory, site-specific eco-art, and animal studies.” On either side of the interlude are Prof. Chaudhuri’s essays, charting “the evolution of [her] term zooësis from its early focus on the figure of the animal to an increasing interest in the idea of species life, including the species life of human animals.”

One of the chief pleasures of the book is watching this evolution. Prof. Chaudhuri defines zooësis in her preface as “the discourse of species in art, media, and culture.” The term “echoes both Platonic poesis and Aristotelian mimesis,” but it is also “more directly inspired by gynesis, a term proposed in the 1970s by feminist theorist Alice Jardine to refer to “the putting into discourse of ‘woman’” in such a way that valorizes the “feminine, woman, and her obligatory, that is, historical connotations.” Prof. Chaudhuri’s term, then, is a capacious one, aiming to encompass “the ways the animal is put into discourse: constructed, represented, understood, and misunderstood.” Her term, she hopes, might contribute “to new modes of thinking and writing that would valorize the animal and bring a heightened ethical attention to human-animal relationships.”

The book’s 11 essays nicely trace the increasing power of zooësis. Her earlier writings like “(De)Facing the Animals: Zooësis and Performance” and “Animal Geographies: Zooësis and the Space of Modern Drama” explore the use of the animal to establish the category of human at the expense of our ability to “face” the animal as an animal—that is, without anthropomorphizing it. The later essays, particularly “Bug Bytes: Insects, Information, and Interspecies Theatricality,” “The Silence of the Polar Bears: Performing (Climate) Change in the Theater of Species,” and “War Horses and Dead Tigers: Embattled Animals in a Theater of Species,” turn to the “theater of species.” The theater of species, another coinage of Prof. Chaudhuri’s, refers to theater that “create[s] a new awareness of and experience of human life as species life, a mode of being as fully defined by the material and biological factors of existence as by sociopolitical or psychological ones.” In Tracy Letts’s Bug, for example, the “non-visual elements of theater,” especially “those we associate with insects: vibration and sound,” are manipulated to both “resemble and diverge” from the “spectator’s lifeworld”—the world as processed by a species.

The project of the theater of species is an urgent one: Prof. Chaudhuri sees it as critical that we “restage” the drama of our own involvement with animals “and give voice to the shared animality on whose recognition the future of so many species depends.” This notion of urgency gives the book a welcome rhetorical charge: Prof. Chaudhuri a few times invokes the “laugh test” that anyone working in animal studies faces when asked about his or her work, but her essays make clear that this is anything but a laughing matter. In its most ambitious terms, her project involves the “destabilization, if not the overthrow of anthropocentrism,” an increasing necessity in light of accelerating climate change.

Anyone interested in this project would do well to read The Stage Lives of Animals, as would anyone not yet familiar with animal studies. Overall, the 11 essays offer an easily digestible, if discomfiting, look at an emerging and important field of study. Part of what seems worthwhile about the book, too, is the way that it establishes something like the beginnings of a canon for the “theater of species,” or just for animal studies, particularly in theater. The essays have all been published independent of each other, so there is the occasional overlap in primary and critical texts between them, but the book provides an important introduction to a unique body of literature, including The Goat by Edward Albee, Bug by Tracy Letts, Far Away by Caryl Churchill, and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph, as well as art installations like Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson’s nanoq: flat out and bluesome and Prof. Chaudhuri’s own collaboration with Marina Zukrow, Zoöpolis. There is also, of course, a growing body of animal theory that Prof. Chaudhuri draws on helpfully, from initial contributors to the field like Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard, to contemporary practitioners like Jacob von Uexküll. Seeing this field come together, and especially reading Prof. Chaudhuri’s lucid and vital work in it, makes The Stage Lives of Animals an indispensable text to the ambitious project of animal studies. This book, in fact, makes the reader optimistic that we can find a more equitable and responsible way to exist on this planet with our fellow species, even as it outlines the difficulties we face in doing so.