Fighting Nature: Travelling menageries, animal acts and war shows

Sydney University Press

Throughout the 19th century animals were integrated into staged scenarios of confrontation, ranging from lion acts in small cages to large-scale re-enactments of war. Initially presenting a handful of exotic animals, travelling menageries grew to contain multiple species in their thousands. These 19th-century menageries entrenched beliefs about the human right to exploit nature through war-like practices against other animal species. Animal shows became a stimulus for antisocial behaviour as locals taunted animals, caused fights, and even turned into violent mobs. Human societal problems were difficult to separate from issues of cruelty to animals.

Apart from reflecting human capacity for fighting and aggression, and the belief in human dominance over nature, these animal performances also echoed cultural fascination with conflict, war and colonial expansion, as the grand spectacles of imperial power reinforced state authority and enhanced public displays of nationhood and nationalistic evocations of colonial empires.

Fighting nature is an insightful analysis of the historical legacy of 19th-century colonialism, war, animal acquisition and transportation. This legacy of entrenched beliefs about the human right to exploit other animal species is yet to be defeated.

“Peta Tait brings to the book an impressive scholarly command of the documentary material, from which she draws a range of vivid examples and revealing analyses of human–animal confrontation in popular entertainments ... The book is written with verve and clarity, and will be of interest to a wide readership in performance studies and cultural history.”
Professor Jane R. Goodall, Western Sydney University

“When does fighting end and theatre begin? In this fascinating study, Peta Tait – one of the most prominent authors in the Performance/Animal Studies intersection – explores animal acts with a particular focus on confrontation. The sites of the human–animal encounter range from theatres, circus, and war re-enactments investigating how the development of certain human fighting practices run in parallel with certain types of public exhibits of wild animals.
Tait’s account is ... preoccupied with understanding what kinds of animal representation and understandings of nature were being created through these spectacles, and given their great popularity, how influential they were in contributing to key developments in contemporary conceptualizations of nature and animals.
Through its investigation of animal presence in real battles and re-enacted ones, and its examination of animal acts including wild animals in which the real and the performed are regularly blurred, Tait also challenges established divisions between historical accounts and artistic depictions of animals, actuality and representation.”
Dr Lourdes Orozco, lecturer in Theatre Studies, University of Leeds
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About the author

Peta Tait FAHA is Professor of Theatre and Drama at La Trobe University and Visiting Professor at the University of Wollongong, and author of Wild and dangerous performances: animals, emotions, circus (2012).
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Additional Information

Sydney University Press
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Published on
Aug 10, 2016
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History / Modern / General
Nature / Animal Rights
Performing Arts / Circus
Performing Arts / General
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In Performing Emotions, Peta Tait's central argument is that performing emotions in realism is also performing gender identity. Emotions are phenomena that are performable by bodies, which have cultural identities. In turn, these create cultural spaces of emotions. This study integrates scholarship on realist drama, theatre and approaches to acting, with interdisciplinary theories of emotion, phenomenology and gender theory. With chapters devoted to masculinity and femininity specifically, as well as to emotions generally, it investigates social beliefs about emotions through Chekhov's four major plays in translation, and English language commentaries on Constantin Stanislavski's direction (of the play's first productions) and his approaches to acting, and Olga Knipper's acting of the central women characters. Emotions exists as social relationships; they are imagined and embodied as gendered. Tait demonstrates how theatrical emotions are predicated on social performances and vice versa. In Chekhov's plays, which came to dominate a twentieth century theatre of emotions, characters interpret their emotions intertextually in relation to other theatrical and fictional narratives of emotions. Tait here interrogates these plays as sustained explorations of the inherent theatricality of characters expressing emotions from their phenomenological awareness. A theatrical language of gendered interiority is produced in the acting of emotions in Stanislavski's early realistic theatre. Alternatively, remapping the performances of emotional bodies can destabilise the culturally constructed boundary separating an inner, private self and an outer, social self in culturally produced geographies of emotions. As Tait shows, emotions can be performed as indivisible spatialities. Performing Emotions integrates theories of theatre, gender identity and emotion to investigate how sexual difference impacts on the representations of emotions. The book develops an accumulative analysis of the meanings of emotions in twentieth century realist drama, theatre and acting.
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