Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Rachel Rosenthal Is an Animal

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Rachel Rosenthal Is an Animal

Article excerpt

Animality is at the core of much of Rachel Rosenthal's performance art and painting. Looking to the work of Rosenthal (as well as Plato, Shakespeare, Rauschenberg, and others), this essay is an attempt to understand the intricate relationships among the artist, the animal, the audience, and the notion of performance itself.


AUTHOR: The animal is first philosophy, first performer, first image, first sound, first love, first being. This first part is to be read aloud.

ROSENTHAL: (Stands) "Communicate! Communicate! My deep preference is always to chuck it all and go live with the animals in the bosom of the Earth. I keep putting it off in order to perform pieces that bring the Earth into conscious focus" (Rachel 196).

AUTHOR: We're grateful for deep lack of freedom. Procrastination in a myopic world. (Crumples up the paper in his hand, looks with shame to see who is watching, throws it into the PIT which is decorated as a grave, takes a new piece of paper and starts writing.)

ROSENTHAL: (Laughing at first as she stands even taller. Then startled, frightened.)

  "I am a primate.
  Timid. I hide in the branches, in caves, behind rocks.
  I'm naked. I can't defend myself. I am scared.
  Many of my people die of a crunched skull--the leopards ..."
  ("Rachel's" 121)

(She reaches down into the PIT and retrieves the skull--a hollowed head of cabbage--from earlier scene. She holds it aloft in one hand.)

  "To be or ..." (130).

KAFKA: (Rising) "A parable: Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial vessels dry; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance and becomes a part of the ceremony" (Collected 7).

(Cue leopards.)

In the fall of 1980 Rachel Rosenthal began performing with a rat. Tatti Wattles--in Bonsoir, Dr. Schon!, riding on Rosenthal's head, tangled in her still-present hair--took to the stage as if he had been born for it. He was soon a star. Rosenthal, for her part--and as always--put on a show. At one point, she detonated little fireworks, spun, yelled, and screamed: "I am a vampire!" And in the panic of the performance, Tatti left his nest of hair, slid down Rosenthal's face--claws marking and tearing her cheek, blood streaking to her neck--and settled on her shoulder. His work quick and true, the rat made of Rosenthal a bloody beautiful human-rodent hybrid, eine schone Fledermaus, transforming her before the audience and giving her wings.

ROSENTHAL: "Tatti had a good sense of timing [...]. [He] had a great stage presence [...]. He loved being in the limelight and never hid or presented his backside. All the photos show him, handsome, looking directly into the camera. In performance, he always knew where his light was" (Tatti 37,50). (She tosses the cabbage back into the PIT.)

In later versions of the production, Rosenthal would construct a miniature bat costume for Tatti and swing him through the air. They were vampires together in those years.

When Nicholas Ridout recalls how he once saw a mouse cautiously and apparently improvisationally make an entrance from downstage left in a London theatre's production of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, he uses it as an opportunity to think through how worries about animal exploitation in the theatre point to the real exploitation of the human actor on stage. "The theatre is all about humans coming face [to face] with other humans and either liking it or not liking it," explains Ridout. "The animal clearly has no place in such communication [...]. It should not be there because it does not know what to do there, is not capable of performing theatrically by engaging a human audience in experimental thinking about the conditions of their own humanity [...]" (58). The rodent, for Ridout, is a sign. Though he struggles to "let the animal be" and not "commit the act of violence of putting it on stage as a sign" (61), its exploitation is, inevitably, but a symbol for the human actor's exploitation on stage. …

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