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On watching live animals in plays.

Several years ago, I tutored a group of football players who were trying to write a performance review of the musical Gypsy.  The only thing they could remember enjoying about the play was the appearance of a live black sheep halfway through the show.  (As much as I try to wrack my brain, I cannot for the life of me remember why a black sheep has a role in Gypsy… was it a goat?  a lamb?)

A Sheep; Unknown; Crete, Greece; 1510 - 1520; Pen and red lead and iron gall inks, watercolors, tempera colors, and gold paint on paper bound between wood boards covered with probably original brown calf; Leaf: 21.7 x 15.6 cm (8 9/16 x 6 1/8 in.); Ms. Ludwig XV 2, fol. 12

Detail of an early sixteenth-century sketch of a sheep from Crete, Greece.  Unknown artist.  Click the sheep for a full, detailed record from the Getty Museum.

“I loved that little sheep,” one of them said.

“That sheep was amazing,” said another. “Did you see its blue bow?”

Why do audiences giggle with pleasure when they see a living animal—a dog, a horse, a pig—in a play?  Do we love it because the animal, who has no real capacity for “pretending,” is entirely out of place on a stage full of pretenders?  Or is it delightful to us simply because animals are delightful?

Those football players fixated on the most real thing they saw in the play, the thing that could do nothing except be there—living, playing, munching on sheep food.  In cases like this, the actors have serious competition.  The presence of a living, non-human animal in a play heightens the artifice of everything around it, especially the humans.

Maybe live animals should be left out of plays more often than they are.  Maybe we would do better to have a human play the dog (or sheep, or pig, whatever the case may be), like Nana the St. Bernard in the musical Peter Pan.  The actor playing Nana really does steal the show.  (And, yes, I write this with full knowledge that the play Sylvia has just been revived on Broadway, in which a young woman plays a dog without any sort of “dog costume.”)

It’s hard to compete with a little black sheep in a blue bow.

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