babar the elephant
By Roberta Barker
In his Poetics, written in the fourth century BC, Aristotle argues that one of the distinguishing characteristics of human beings is our love of imitation. From childhood, he observes, we love to watch skillful mimicry; from childhood, we learn from mimicking those around us. We are animals who imitate and whose imitations give birth to new possibilities and new realities. Theatrical performance lies deep, deep down in our DNA.
My personal experience has certainly supported this vision. One of my earliest memories (perhaps itself an imaginary construction, a mental imitation of the stories I have heard) is of being taken to see a theatrical version of Babar the Elephant. I was about three years old. In my mind’s theatre, I can still see the large, graceful shapes moving around the stage in a blur of grey and bright green. I know now that the actors in this show had taken on the daunting task of imitating not one but two creatures simultaneously: the majestic African elephant and the noble European bourgeois. I flinch now at the contradictions involved, but at the time I could not have cared less about Marxist or post-colonial critiques of Babar; I was simply enchanted. I stood propped against the back of the seat in front of mine, starring raptly at the stage for the duration of the show. Only once the final curtain call had ended did I dissolve into tears, like Adam and Eve thrust out of Eden by the implacable angel with the flaming sword: “Mommy, make it come back! I want to go back!” I couldn’t bear for that beautiful world onstage to slip away from me. At the end of a great performance, I still feel the same reluctance to let go.
Ancient Greek theatre was born from the worship of Dionysos: a god of wine, of ecstasy, of the moment of transformation where one stands outside oneself and sees one’s everyday life in an entirely new light. He was a joyful and a loving god, but also a cruel and a suffering one. As Euripides’ Bacchae shows us, he did not scruple brutally to destroy those who defied him; and as a child he himself endured dismemberment and death at the hands of the Titans, only to rise again. Fittingly, the art form through which his acolytes adored this twice-born god invited its participants to take pleasure in watching stories re-told, human destinies re-lived, behaviors twice-behaved on stage. But it also confronted them, not only with tales of human mortality (Oedipus, Antigone, Iphigenia, and the whole gang), but with a practical demonstration of transience. Once the ceremony, the performance, was over, it could never return in quite the same form again. Theatre’s imitations strive to replicate, to re-animate, and to help us understand the world around us—but as they live briefly and fade away, they also remind us of how fleeting that world is. Nevertheless, the traces they leave behind them—the playtexts that record words spoken onstage; the masks, props and costumes loving stored away; the gestures and intonations passed down by one generation of actors to the next—allow theatre to function as a language that speaks across time, between generations, beyond death.
I think as I write this of the many, many beautiful performances I have been fortunate enough to see in my life so far: of all the little moments, the theatrical details, in which I have recognized a truth I had seen pass by me many times on the street but never understood fully until I saw it recreated onstage. I think of hearing Racine’s alexandrines delivered by the actors of the Comédie Francaise and of seeing the stunning gestures of The Peony Pavilion performed by the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Company. I think of Tom McCamus and the late, great Peter Donaldson in Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Stratford Festival in 1995, showing us Edmund Tyrone striking his brother Jamie full across the face and then embracing him on the follow-through from the blow, without a beat between the gestures. I think of watching the 250-year-old theatrical machinery at the Castle Theatre in Cesky Krumlov move the beautiful eighteenth-century painted flats back and forth, conjuring first an enchanted garden and then a hall of mirrors, back to back. I think of Hattie Morahan as the eponymous heroine in Katie Mitchell’s production of Iphigenia at Aulis at the Royal National Theatre, bringing the terror of an ancient teenager facing death vividly into the twenty-first century, and of Will Keen as the Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, his hands, his voice and even his ankles trembling with a mixture of unconquerable shyness and unstoppable passion: both actors effectively calling the long-dead back from their graves to live again on the stage. I think of the moment last summer when, watching Antony bid farewell to Cleopatra in the Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s astonishing production of Shakespeare’s Roman Tragedies, I turned to my husband and said, “We will never see that scene done better than that, in our lives,” and he responded, “I was about to say exactly the same thing.” Great theatre is both an admission and a defiance of loss. Through the most fleeting acts of mimesis, it grasps passing moments of being and shows them to new audiences, new performers, so that they may to be continuously rethought, remade, and transformed into new creations.
We are fortunate to be a part of this ongoing history of exchange and transformation. Evoë Dionysos! Long may the twice-born god be worshipped.