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A grotesque act of ventriloquism: Raising and objectifying the dead on stage

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As a real-life figure who was extensively written about in medical journals after his death, but whose voice is entirely absent from the historical record, the character of Tarrare presents the theatre-maker with a number of ethical and artistic considerations. In documenting Tarrare’s life through puppetry and opera, Wattle and Daub engaged in both a literal and a metaphorical act of ventriloquism, wherein we put our own words into the mouths of the dead. Drawing on Levinas’s ethics of the ‘other’ and Salverson’s reflections on the ethics of documentary theatre, this article interrogates The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak as an example of documentary theatre and explores the unique opportunities and challenges presented when using puppetry to represent the historical ‘other’.
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© Tobi Poster-Su, 2020. The definitive, peer reviewed and edited version of this article is published in Applied
Theatre Research, Volume 8, Number 1, 1 July 2020, pp. 45-56(12), https://doi.org/10.1386/atr_00025_1
A Grotesque Act of Ventriloquism: Raising and Objectifying the Dead on Stage
Tobi Poster-Su
Figure 1: The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak. Puppeteer Tobi Poster-Su. (Photo:
Barney Witts)
“What you are doing is unethical. How can you stand there and say that this human being
ate a baby?”
It was one of the more urgent critiques of a work-in-progress that I have encountered
throughout a career built on robust and frequent interactions between audience and artistic
process. An audience member was taking me to task for what he saw as a flagrant disregard
for the legacy of an othered, medically non-typical historical figure. A historical figure for
whom, in a partly-documentary work exploring his dehumanisation, objectification and
monstering, we had taken the decision to portray as a somewhat monstrous-looking puppet
who was indeed presented eating a toddler. Throughout the remainder of the life of the
project in question, I have probably returned to this person’s comment more than any other
critique of the work.
The project in question was the puppet chamber opera The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the
Freak (2015-2017), for which I co-wrote the libretto and originated the title role as
puppeteer. If the above critique had not already indicated this, the title alone should make
clear that this is a show which treads some disquieting ethical territory. This article, through
reflection on the relationship of the work to the historical record, unpacks some of the ethical
issues around presenting the stories of historical Others and explores how puppetry might
function as a tool with which to make visible the various ethical and artistic tensions within
fact-based theatre.
My company, Wattle and Daub, has a particular interest in little-told stories from the margins
of history. Inevitably those margins are inhabited by those who are somehow othered. That I
am drawn to these stories is perhaps unsurprising: as an artist and academic of colour, I have
navigated both artistic and academic spaces with a frequent awareness of my own marginal
status. As a mixed-race artist, I’ve often wondered how my own experience of liminal spaces
has contributed to a desire to explore the murky territory of half-forgotten stories of those
stuck between history and hearsay. It goes without saying, however, that one person’s
otherness is not analogous to another person’s, and I am not convinced my own experiences
of marginalisation particularly qualify me to tell the stories of other marginalised individuals.
While the puppet opera is certainly a form which demands a degree of artistic license, there
are elements of The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak which can be considered as
documentary theatre, though it must be said we did not think of the show in these terms as we
created it. Tarrare was a real-life historical figure, an 18th-century polyphagist: someone who
has an excessive or pathological desire to eat. Tarrare was also a soldier, spy and sideshow
freak, who exhibited himself on the streets of Paris where he would perform grotesque feats,
such as swallowing corks and stones and eating cats whole before regurgitating the skin and
fur. Towards the end of his life Tarrare was ejected from a hospital wherein he was being
treated on suspicion of having eaten a toddler. After his death he became the subject of one of
the world’s first pathological autopsies. The entire archival record of Tarrare’s life consists of
his medical record and autopsy notes, recorded by Baron Percy, a military surgeon who
treated Tarrare, and published as Mémoire Sur la Polyphagie in the Journal de medecine,
chirurgie, pharmacie &c (1805). No record whatsoever exists of Tarrare in his own words.
With this in mind, as both a librettist and a puppeteer on the project, I was aware that in the
creation of the show I was in more ways than one engaging in an act of ventriloquism. If the
image that that conjures, of me putting my own words into the mouth of a person who is now
dead and unable to speak for themselves, is rather grotesque, I don’t think it is wholly
inaccurate. I would not be the first person to use ventriloquism for such macabre ends; Steven
Connor (2000), in his comprehensive study of ventriloquism, relates the case of noted 19th-
century ventriloquist Alexandre Vattemare, who caused panic by appearing to make the dead
bodies in a Paris morgue cry out for help. Connor points to the close historical ties between
ventriloquism and spiritualism, both of which may appear to give voice to dead bodies. As a
company we have always been quite troubled by the ethics of our manipulations of both the
bodies and words of the dead; I don’t think that this ethical discomfort has been resolved in
the life of this show, nor would we expect it to be.
Ventriloquism as metaphor
A number of scholars have recognised the potential of ventriloquism as a metaphor for the
insidious manipulations inherent in collaborative autobiography or ethnographic study of the
other. Thomas Couser (1998) refers to the inherently ventriloquistic nature of collaborative
biography, suggesting that collaboratively produced biographic works on both celebrities and
ethnographic subjects are likely to owe as much to their writers as the subjects, and that the
imagined balance of power (that the writer is at the behest of the subject) may in fact be
reversed. Jackie Huggins and Kay Saunders (1993) refer to the ethnographic ventriloquism of
non-Aboriginal researchers working in the field of Aboriginal studies, suggesting that their
cultural assumptions will always shape the form of the recorded narratives. Michael Jacklin
(2005) draws on Couser, Huggins and others in tracing the repeated deployment of
ventriloquism as a metaphor for collaborative life writing, particularly with reference to the
ethical issues inherent in the textualization and publication of anthropological life histories of
Indigenous peoples. Jacklin acknowledges the value of the metaphor and the many instances
or exploitative, imperialistic and appropriative collaboration with marginalised subjects, but
ultimately concludes that to apply such a metaphor to all collaborative life writing
oversimplifies the inherently relational nature of testimony and reifies the subordination of
Indigenous voices.
Of course, the texts which Couser, Huggins and Jacklin discuss are not entirely analogous to
the libretto of the show. In these texts, collaborative writing refers to writing produced in
collaboration with an actual living subject, not an author’s imaginary resurrection of one.
Perhaps a more analogous process exists within historical fiction. Helen Davies (2012)
explores the frequent deployment of ventriloquism as a metaphor in critical discussion of the
works of contemporary writers of neo-Victorian literature such as A.S. Byatt and Sarah
Waters, as they channel and resurrect the voices of the past. To Davies, such metaphors are
marked by a ‘lack of engagement with what ventriloquism might actually mean’ (2012: 6),
again suggesting that as a metaphor which contains multiple fuzzy meanings, it risks
oversimplification. As a puppeteer, it occurs to me that such oversimplifications and elisions
are perhaps inevitable; how many scholars of ethnographic biography or historical literature
have themselves performed the complex and layered processes required to bring voice and
life to an inanimate object?
I would suggest that The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak exists somewhere in the
space between historical fiction and collaborative biography in its interweaving of first
person narrative with historical account. What is notable in this instance is that within the
artefact of the show, the metaphor of ventriloquism is realised in stark physical terms: the
audience witness me laying hands on a simulacrum of the body of Tarrare, inserting my hand
into an incision at the base of his skull, and invisibly manipulating his mouth, in order that he
appears to speak my words.
From the mouths of puppets: the libretto
Tarrare is a particularly voiceless historical figure, both mute within the archives and
someone who within his own lifetime was objectified and dehumanized by sideshow
audiences, the medical profession and the Prussian soldiers who captured and tortured him.
What then, to make of our attempt to find a voice for him through song and puppetry?
In a songwriting process marked by extensive historical, archival and medical research,
funded by the Wellcome Trust and in collaboration with a pathologist, a historian of
disability and medical students, Tarrare is necessarily the character whose voice is least
directly influenced by any of this research – the least documentary element of the work.
Baron Percy’s libretto for example, includes not only detailed information but also turns of
phrase from my shaky, google-aided translations of Percy’s original paper and from the
earliest English language account of Percy’s writings in The London Medical and Physical
Journal (1819).
As a counterpoint to these claims to diligent research I must confess that the opening line of
the opera was taken almost verbatim from the Wikipedia article on Tarrare, which states
‘Tarrare's gullet was found to be abnormally wide’ (2020). I suspect this phasing is drawing
on Jan Bondeson’s (2004) account of Tarrare’s life and condition, in which he declares that
‘the gullet was uncommonly wide’. While I tended to try to work from Percy’s own words or
contemporaneous accounts which drew heavily on them, in this instance Percy’s words had
been ‘the buccal cavity and the oesophagus formed a rectilinear canal; so that a cylinder of 20
and even 30 centimetres could be introduced there without touching the palate’ (1805: 98).
This didn’t seem punchy enough to open the show, and the almost onomatopoeic, retching
quality of the word ‘gullet’ – one of those words which seems entirely sonically suited to its
meaning – proved impossible to resist.
What follows are three extracts from the libretto of the opening number The Gullet is
Abnormally Wide, which Percy sings as he conducts a robust autopsy on the body of Tarrare,
alongside the source material which prompted them.
The gullet is abnormally wide
The body is filled with pus
A fact which accounts for the rapidness of
decomposition
His body, as soon as he was dead, became a
prey to a horrible corruption. The entrails
were putrefied, confounded together, and
immersed in pus.’ (Bradley et al. 1819: 204)
The putrefaction soars
A stench that could cut through flesh
Unsurprising that the resident doctors have
refused to dissect him
His body was so corrupt that they hesitated
to open it… It was impossible for M.
Tessier [the resident surgeon], as well as for
his pupils, to resist the stench of this corpse
long enough to carry out the inspection’
(Percy 1805: 97)
There's an unprecedented width to his jaws
His molars are worn away
The cheeks so distended that at least a
dozen eggs could be kept in
His cheeks were sallow, and furrowed by
long and deep wrinkles: on distending them,
he could hold in them as many as a dozen
eggs. His mouth was very large; the molares
[sic] were much worn away (Bradley et al.
1819: 205)
The text, then, is based on Percy’s findings at a series of greater and lesser removes from his
original voice. Percy writes, in French. I translate, but my translations are filtered through my
21st-century-brain. Perhaps I get closer to Percy’s original sense with Bradley’s (1819)
English account of Percy’s findings written only 14 years later? Bondeson and the nameless
contributors to Wikipedia write in an entirely different register to Percy, but arguably their
text connects me more directly with his findings. What slippages and manipulations of the
historical record are taking place even before I begin to take artistic licence? These multiple
layers of transformation bring to mind Couser’s (1989, cited in Jacklin, 2005) account of the
writing of Black Elk Speaks, a collaborative autobiography produced by Lakota Elder Black
Elk and John G. Neihardt, an American writer. Jacklin, in his discussion of ventriloquism in
collaborative life writing, in which he summarises the process thusly:
Black Elk spoke in Lakota; his words were translated into ‘Indian English’ by his son;
these were then rendered into Standard English by Neihardt dictating to his
daughter, who recorded the translation stenographically, producing a transcript which
Neihardt later edited.
(2005: 6-7)
For Couser, there is something insidiously and problematically ventriloquistic in the process,
conflating as it does ‘two consciousnesses (and in this case languages and cultures) in one
undifferentiated voice’ (1989, cited in Jacklin, 2005: 7). Couser is concerned in this instance
about white American cultural imperialism; I would suggest that the stakes are considerably
lower in our attempts to produce text in a sort of posthumous collaboration with the arguably
relatively unmarginalized figure of Baron Percy. Nevertheless, given our attempts to find
some kind of authentic voice for Percy involved similar processes, I find it instructive to view
the text that we ultimately produced through this lens.
Alongside his actual historical self, the character of Baron Percy was also directly influenced
by encounters and conversations we had with living members of the medical establishment.
Percy’s final soliloquy in particular was partly stolen from a medical student’s out-loud
grappling with the ethics of their profession; his strikingly self-lacerating question ‘isn’t there
something inherently monstrous in all medics - to be able to see human beings as a collection
of parts and symptoms?’ became a core thread in the character and overall narrative.
Throughout the play, there are numerous points where words from the archive, be it Percy’s
writings, contemporaneous medical texts or interviews with modern medics, creep verbatim
into the libretto, and enter the world through the mouths of singer and puppet, separate on
stage but bound together by invisible cords of lip-synch.
Tarrare, unlike the dawning of pathological medicine or the doctors working at the vanguard
of this newly codified science, was such an unknown quantity there was a sense in which it
felt important to preserve a sense of mystery about him, even as we eviscerated and laid bare
the historical archive surrounding him. In that respect his text was more impressionistic - we
were concerned with symbols and metaphors that this endless hunger or emptiness offered.
While it seems almost redundant to point out the parallels between Tarrare’s experience of
the world and what 21st-century late capitalism demands of its subjects, these parallels
undoubtedly played a part in the meaning we began to excavate and construct through the
text. At the same time, conversations with our collaborators threw open a number of vital and
still-timely questions about agency and victimhood in people who exhibited themselves. As a
result it felt hugely important that we did not reduce his status purely to that of a victim, even
though the historical record reads more or less as a litany of awful things which happened to
Tarrare from birth to death. It was this impulse which led to us writing the song Bring me the
Hog, an alternately angular and lush ode to his own hunger, which deals with the
transcendent and ecstatic elements of his existence:
There's a fire in my belly
And the teeth in my mouth are as num'rous as stars
There are scars
And my body will devour
My mind within the hour
The furnace will be fed
Though the food turns to ashes in my mouth
Give me tripe for my belly
Every corpse of each beast in every abattoir in France
Has no chance
To satisfy my hunger
All that flesh to tear asunder
Bring me the hog! I’ll split its skull and drink the brains
A dog! I will tear its flesh till none remains
While this was partly inspired by Percy’s claims that ‘The dogs and cats fled at his
appearance, as if they had guessed the fate he was preparing for them’ (1805: 92-93) and that
‘he went to the abattoirs and remote places, to dispute with dogs and wolves their vile scraps
[…] he was surprised in the hospital mortuary, satisfying his abominable hunger’ (1805: 96),
some of the imagery here also recalls Ovid’s account of Erysichthon:
A desperate desire to eat possesses his famished jaws and burning belly… What
would feed a city, or satisfy a people, is not enough for one… as the devouring flames
never refuse more fuel, burn endless timber, and look for more…
(1960: 777-842)
This was an intentional allusion – however it was not until revisiting Percy’s (1805) original
paper on Tarrare for this article that I noticed that he also references Ovid in his introduction
to the case. Clearly we were not the first people to see Tarrare’s hunger in mythic, even
heroic, terms. Tarrare’s relationship to his hunger here is of course pure conjecture; for me
there was a great artistic pleasure in having the freedom to present him as a sort of
otherworldly figure, rendered almost holy but the purity of purpose of his hunger.
What does it mean, then, firstly to put a series of wholly constructed and often slightly
abstracted words into the mouth of a real life historical figure, surrounded by characters and
text that are far more grounded in research, and secondly for that mouth to be constructed of
fabric and plastics? What might the impact be on how an audience read and engage with the
performance? There is little in the show to signal either the veracity of the other characters’
text or the mendacity of Tarrare’s.
Storytelling and audience
Beyond simply the question of what Tarrare might have said, is the question of what Tarrare
might have done. Returning to the plot point that I opened with: no-one knows if Tarrare
actually did eat a toddler. Clearly if we wished to make Tarrare as sympathetic as possible the
straightforward answer would be to proceed on the assumption that the hero of our show
absolutely did not eat a toddler. However, it struck us that the more interesting possibility is
that the hero of out show might somehow eat a toddler in a way that does not make him
monstrous or indeed compromise our ability to see and to empathise with him (stay with me
here; it makes slightly more sense on stage than it does on paper). What if there is a
compelling and all too human reason that somebody with the bizarre pathology of our hero
might, under a particular set of circumstances, consume a toddler without ever having
intended any harm?
I will not divulge the specifics of how we answered these questions except to say that a) it
was vital that Tarrare did not kill the toddler and b) it was also essential that however the
effect of him eating the toddler was created, it had to be non-naturalistic. In all of the reviews
and audience feedback that we have received, I do not think anyone has suggested that this
plot point in any way interfered with the empathy that was felt for Tarrare. Had Tarrare, and
for that matter the toddler, been portrayed by a human, I think it is almost impossible
audiences would have felt the same.
This brings me to the crux of this reflection. On the one hand, representing a human being
with a puppet is inherently dehumanising. Throughout the duration of the performance, we
objectify and dehumanize Tarrare in the most literal sense. Indeed, the conceptual framing of
the show is that Baron Percy and his medical assistants are telling the story in the aftermath
of Tarrare’s autopsy, using assorted cadavers to re-enact Tarrare’s life story (this may
compromise my claim that the other characters behave in a manner entirely dictated by
historical record, but I am referring more to the dialogue than the framing). Throughout the
show, the assistants manipulate and manhandle the bodies of the characters, occasionally
with an intentional lack of care that arguably serves as a metaphor for our occasionally
irresponsible handling of the lives of these historical figures.
On the other hand, as hinted at above, the overwhelming reviewer and audience consensus
was that Tarrare was both a tragic and a relatable figure, that the show enabled audiences to
empathize with and care for this deeply othered historical person. These responses to the
performance suggest that many found that the use of puppets helped them engage with lives
that might seem challengingly ‘Other’, with one review suggesting that the show made
‘recognition of our shared humanity with those who are different from us […] remarkably
easy’ (A Younger Theatre 2017). I am both interested and troubled by the suggestion that
otherness may somehow be more relatable when portrayed by an object (manipulated by a
less-othered performer) than in the real world, and by my own complicity in this.
I also have questions about the nature of the empathy that Tarrare’s ‘tragic’ story generates in
the audience. Are audiences truly recognising a shared humanity, or are they simply
projecting their own emotions onto the imagined suffering of an unknown Other? Writing on
the privileging of descriptions of suffering by anti-slavery activists, Saidiya Hartman (1997:
20) argues that a focus on identification with suffering produces an empathetic response that
privileges the self at the expense of the Other, an erasure which she calls the ‘violence of
identification’. This links to Elin Diamond’s (2007: 403) notion of ‘the violence of ‘We’’,
which suggests that spectatorial identification with the Other may be both narcissistic and
imperialistic in its insertion of the self into the experience of the Other. This chimes
interestingly not only with Couser (1998) and others’ concerns regarding ventriloquism in
collaborative ethnographic autobiography, but also with a particular mistrust of the concept
of ventriloquism which Connor traces to the late 18th century, wherein the word
ventriloquism began to indicate ‘a violence towards the one that is ventriloquised, or reduced
to the condition of a dummy… [Ventriloquism] might involve reducing others to the
condition of objects’ (2000: 297). Again, I am struck by how literally these fears are realised
in our treatment of the historical figure of Tarrare.
Ethics of representation
Julie Salverson, writing on the ethics of documentary theatre, identifies an ‘aesthetic of
injury’ (2001: 122) in which loss and trauma are privileged and the complexities of the real-
life Other are compressed into an intentionally tragic portrayal of victimhood, charges which
could absolutely be levelled at our portrayal of Tarrare. However, I suspect that Tarrare’s
portrayal by a puppet complicates this at least somewhat. In an earlier essay on community-
based documentary theatre, Salverson (1996: 184) writes about the ‘lie of the literal’,
suggesting that by privileging authenticity, often at the expense artistic or formal
experimentation, theatre can create an illusory veracity in which malleable and complex
stories may become a single, stable narrative and the Other may become fixed either as exotic
and unknowable or ‘just like us’. I suspect that puppets (alongside the distancing effect of the
operatic form) may make visible the extent to which the theatrical presentation of the person
is not in fact the person, and that of the story is not in fact the story.
Drawing on Levinas’ ethics of the Other, which dictates both a responsibility to the Other
along with a recognition of the absolute alterity of the Other, Salverson (2006) suggests that
theatre should facilitate an encounter with the Other which acknowledges that the Other is
essentially unknowable, rather than attempting to create sentimental empathy through
identification. The latter approach, Salverson argues, produces only a superficial engagement
with the Other in which the audience is able to self-righteously congratulate themselves on
having been moved.
Paradoxically, I would suggest that the use of puppets may lend itself to either outcome, since
while puppets are demonstrably not part of most people’s understanding of a shared ‘we’,
they offer a particularly effective canvas on which to project the self. Indeed, rereading the
previously quoted review, perhaps one of the most problematic identifications concerning
Tarrare might be that between Tarrare and his puppeteer “whose pained sympathetic face
hovers behind his puppet throughout the show. [When he] gasps violently for breath as
Tarrare tries to expunge himself of what he has consumed, the anguish is palpable’ (A
Younger Theatre 2017). Here I have to acknowledge that while the artistic and dramaturgical
arguments for and against the (visible) puppeteers mirroring their puppets were discussed at
length, the ethical implications of this mirroring were not considered. It is an uncomfortable
realisation that this practice of mirroring the puppet’s pain (which was partly a practical
consideration – producing the required effects was often at least slightly physically
uncomfortable) may have encouraged audiences towards the kind of narcissistic self-
congratulatory identification with suffering I may myself have been experiencing as a
puppeteer.
Rena Heinrich (2018) asserts that the mixed-race experience entails a kind of double-
liminality, where the mixed-race subject exists in the liminal space around two cultures
simultaneously. This allows, or perhaps enforces, a constant slippage between multiple
boundaries of race as the mixed-race subject navigates various consciousnesses and
identities. If, as asserted by Laura Purcell-Gates (2019) in her examination of puppets and
gender, the form of puppetry can be understood as inherently liminal in that puppets
simultaneously occupy multiple states of being (dead/alive, human/object), perhaps the
increasingly popular trope of the visible puppeteer offers an analogous double-liminality
where, in addition to the multiple states inhabited by the puppet, the puppeteer occupies the
middle ground between visible character and the invisible mechanics of the puppet. This
slipperiness is compounded by the liminal status of the hybrid figure of the puppet/puppeteer
in which it is unclear who is playing the character, who is operating or assisting the character,
or if the separation exists at all.
Puppets and subjectivity
Perhaps, puppeteers aside, puppets can be understood to offer a kind of decentred
subjectivity, whereby, stripped of the biographical and individual associations that a human
performer will inevitably bring to the stage, they allow an audience greater freedom to project
their own feelings and ideas onto a character. This connects with Dennis Silk’s (1988)
conception of Thing Theatre, in which he argues that things have the potential to wield more
power as performers than human beings because their possibility has not been diluted by the
accumulated baggage of a human life.
As an object rather than a subject, and possessing a uniquely dead/alive quality, puppets may
be able to stand in for more than the individual character they present. Matthew Isaac Cohen
(2007: 130) has written about instances of destruction and violence against the puppet body
wherein the puppet may function both as a surrogate for actual victims of violence and in a
more broadly metaphorical sense, asserting that puppets “can provide powerful lessons in
how to deal humanely with other people” in part due to the symbolic possibilities presented
by their repeated destruction and reanimation. Further to this, I suspect that puppets and the
operatic form, when used to explore documentary or even verbatim text, offer a distance and
a defamiliarisation that discourages audiences from literal readings of the text, perhaps even
obscuring the documentary nature of the material. This is of course likely to be linked to the
fact that the material properties of the puppets lead us as theatre makers to stage works in
much less literal fashion than if we had been working with human performers.
If the audience perceives text differently from the mouth of the puppet, then what of the act
of writing – are there specific considerations and possibilities when writing a libretto for a
puppet? Of course, the question is arguably based on false pretences – In Tarrare the libretto
is the one part of the performance not performed by the puppet or puppeteer but rather by a
singer, also visible onstage. I was, however, writing for a character embodied by a puppet.
Perhaps the most significant impact of the materiality of the character is not what we did
write, but what we did not. It is hard to imagine that a human performer playing Tarrare
would have been written as mostly worldless until the climax of the first act – if this had been
the case, the muteness would read as a condition or at very least a very pronounced character
trait. Somehow, as a puppet, Tarrare’s muteness is invisible until we first hear his
disarmingly pure soprano. This in part allowed us to acknowledge the most significant gap in
the archive concerning Tarrare – his earlier life. Beyond that, Tarrare’s early silence seems to
reinforce the idea that this is an object presenting a person, albeit a person who may have
registered as little more than an unusual object to many of those around him.
Of course, the distance between presenting Tarrare as objectified, and objectifying Tarrare
may be vanishingly small. Indeed, one extremely well-reasoned review suspected the show
itself of being every bit as exploitative of Tarrare as the historical characters around him
were:
We, the educated and liberal 21st century Tobacco Factory audience, are not here to
find it funny that a man once ate a cat. Only we do.
[…]
It might well be that this is where the genius of the production lies, that the cast and
creative team have really cleverly co-opted the audience into being exactly who they
said they would never be: the people who enjoy freak shows. But it’s hard to detect
exactly what is deliberate and what is not.
(Waugh 2015)
It is an entirely well-placed concern (though I should note, briefly, there is another entirely
separate discussion to be had regarding the central assumption here of the exploitative nature
of freak shows – this is beyond both the scope of this article). If there is a deliberate aspect to
this casting of the audience, it certainly is not born out of a desire to implicate them in this
manner without also implicating ourselves. Rather there is an attempt to make visible the
various tensions that exist between exploitation, ventriloquism, condescension and
celebration in a sincere attempt to relate a life story. If the audience do find themselves
enjoying the freak show, I hope at least that this is not an uncomplicated experience.
Expanding outwards then, what unique possibilities might puppetry offer to makers of
documentary and historical theatre? How might puppets enable audiences to connect with
real-life characters? What are the risks we take in using puppets in this manner?
Puppets occupy a uniquely liminal space not only between life and death, but also between
representational and symbolic. It is hard to place a character played by a puppet – are they
presenting an individual, an archetype, an idea? Any theatre which deals in facts and real
people can both be enriched and undermined by a form which by its very nature destabilizes
meaning. Perhaps, as we watch artists construct the life of a real human being, there is always
a value in anything that reminds us that what we are witnessing is a construction, with as
much artifice as the hidden hand which manipulates a puppet into apparent speech.
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Connor, S. (2000), Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism. Oxford University Press
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Theater 31.3 (2001) 119-125 It is late afternoon in the early 1990s. I am one of almost thirty people at a Theater of the Oppressed workshop led by Brazilian director Augusto Boal. We have come from across Canada, some new to this kind of theater -- some, like myself, practitioners for many years. Everyone is tired, excited, disoriented, curious. Boal ends the final exercise, smiles, and tells us the session is over. Then someone involved with the workshop asks us to form a circle and join hands. We have been doing what we're told all day, happily embarking on a succession of games and exercises. Glad for once not to be the teachers, the leaders, we are pleased to oblige. The organizer then asks us to repeat: "We are from near, we are from far, we are one. We are one." I open my mouth, start to repeat, and become immediately uncomfortable. Something inside me refuses this glib recitation of unity. I sense discomfort in the friend and colleague beside me. Later in the evening he asks me, "Isn't it strange? Here we are, a group of people who fight oppression every day. Myself, I have survived torture, imprisonment, exile from my country. And yet I couldn't bring myself to speak up, to say, 'No, excuse me, I don't wish to repeat this phrase that makes me so uneasy: We are one.'" This essay is about entering into a relationship with what is unlike oneself; it explores what happens when such a relationship occurs as a public theater event. I am writing within the context of a now well-established Canadian theater practice that considers itself a community-based movement for social change. I'm specifically interested in the performing of testimony, in processes through which artists and cultural workers listen to stories of violation and violence and translate them into theatrical form. Canadian social studies, human rights, and language curricula in both schools and community-based projects increasingly use testimony from survivors of violence. Theater making that engages with people's personal stories has become mainstream, almost trendy. It is no longer enough -- if it ever was -- to assume that theater is by its very nature about connection; now those of us who practice theater that engages with people's accounts of violent events must articulate the nature of that contact. I want to explore how theater operates as an ethical space in which a relationship between detachment and contact occurs. When, I wonder, is the meeting of lives (the narratives we construct, intuit, and perform about ourselves) about a contact that consumes the other person and reduces them to our terms? When, on the other hand, is it a contact that lets us come together differently and binds me deeply to another without collapsing either the "I" or the "other" into a totalizing "we"? Is there a conceptual language through which artists and educators can negotiate our representative and pedagogical practices? Without a language that brings together questions of ethics, mimesis, and testimony we are left with an atmosphere of mystification and cannot clarify how performances operate to educate, to envision, to relieve pain, or simply to reinscribe stories of victimization. Several weeks after a play and video I produced and wrote with refugees in Toronto, Are the Birds in Canada the Same? was finished, one of the men who had been involved met me in a coffee shop to discuss how difficult the project had become for him. Before he would talk, he looked at me intently and asked, "There is something I must know. Will you tell me please what all this has meant to you?" I can't forget his question. The kind of theater I am discussing involves personal contact between survivors of violence and the artists who direct, animate, or in some way perform their stories. What is my part in forming their accounts into testimony, into performance, and what does it mean to me? If as an artist and educator I presume to talk about ethical relations, I must consider the kind of person I am or may become, the me exposed...
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Theatre Topics 6.2 (1996) 181-191 Since the early eighties, I have worked as a playwright, theatre animator, and arts educator. Much of my work is in community-based popular theatre, and involves creating theatrical events through acts of storytelling in which some or all of the performers are members of the target communities. Though popular theatre as a named genre has only emerged in Canada during the past fifteen years, it has achieved a large degree of acceptability and wide public interest. Recently I have noticed that, together with the tremendous vitality, engagement, and indisputable learning generated by popular theatre projects, there are nevertheless certain uncomfortable elements that seem to repeat themselves. These include: Observing these patterns has led me to question how much I understand of what is involved in the act of listening to and telling "risky stories" (Simon & Armitage-Simon), by which I mean stories that include and embody acts of violence. In this essay I will discuss difficulties that arose on a project involving refugees in Toronto. The broader context of the article is my concern with what in Canada is an enthusiastic but perhaps not always carefully considered use of personal narratives in classrooms and community organizations. I will address the significance of form and structure to storytelling and to popular theatre's potential for advocacy, healing, or harm, and consider how the power of images may provide "containment" and an environment where difficult histories might be witnessed. As artists and educators, we must continually ask ourselves: in what context are risky stories being told? Within what frameworks did they originate? And what is the cost to the speaker? Taking responsibility should extend beyond an ongoing inventory of who we are as individuals to an understanding that there are stakes for those with whom we work -- stakes that exist, but are never more than partially knowable. Thoughtlessly soliciting autobiography may reproduce a form of cultural colonialism that is at the very least voyeuristic. This is particularly true when the voice of the artist or educator herself goes unexamined; or, when the choices students or project participants make for speech are privileged over choices made for silence, neglecting the highly complex negotiations that are involved in the politics of knowing and being known. In "Beyond Psychoanalysis," Ora Avni describes a character in the Elie Wiesel story "Night." Moshe the Beadle has been taken from his home by the Nazis, survived the murder of his convoy of foreign Jews, and returns to warn the others. But those to whom he returns do not, and more importantly, cannot believe him. Accepting his story would disrupt the very foundations of what they understand to be human. This story illustrates the ancient dilemma of the messenger and the audience. According to Avni, Moshe's return to town is an attempt to reaffirm ties with the human community of his past, whose integrity was put into question by the incomprehensibility of what he had witnessed. Avni is very clear about why it is essential that this messenger speak, not privately to a friend, but publicly to the community network to which he seeks readmission: The enormity of such a re-imagining of identity implies the cost to both the messenger or storyteller and the listener, something at stake "that defies storytelling, 'lifting to consciousness,' or literalized metaphors" (213). To bring this man and his story into the story line of their history compels the...
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PART I: POWERS 1. What I Say Goes PART II: PROPHECIES 2. Earth, Breath, Frenzy: The Delphic Oracle 3. Origen, Eustathius, and The Witch of Endor PART III: POSSESSIONS 4. Hoc Est Corpus 5. The Exorcism of John Darrell 6. O, that Oh is the Devill: Glover and Harsnett PART IV: PRODIGIES 7. Miracles and the Encyclopedie 8. Speaking Parts: Diderot and Les Bijoux indiscrets 9. The Abbe and the Ventriloque 10. The Dictate of Phrenzy: Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland PART V: POLYPHONICS 11. Ubiquitarical 12. At Home and Abroad: Monsieur Alexandre and Mr Matthews 13. Phenomena in the Philosophy of Sound: Mr Love 14. Writing the Voice PART VI: PROSTHETICS 15. Vocal Reinforcement 16. Talking Heads, Automaton Ears 17. A Gramophone in Every Grave PART VII: NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT 18. No Time Like the Present Works Cited Index
Review: The depraved appetite of Tarrare the Freak, Wilton’s Music Hall
  • D Rubins
Rubins, D. (2017), 'Review: The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak, Wilton's Music Hall', A Younger Theatre, https://www.ayoungertheatre.com/review-the-depraved-appetite-of-tarrarethe-freak-wiltons-music-hall/ Accessed 7 October 2019.
Race and role: The mixed-race Asian experience in American drama
  • R M Heinrich
Heinrich, R.M. (2018), 'Race and Role: The Mixed-race Asian Experience in American Drama', Ph.D thesis, Santa Barbara: University of California.