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Lion tamer Claire Heliot poses with her arm draped over a lion's mane
Lion tamer Claire Heliot (author's collection)

We talk to Peta Tait, author of Fighting nature, about animal performers, opportunistic showmen, and the particular challenges and excitements of working with theatrical ephemera.

Fighting nature brings together two fields: performance studies and animal studies. Have you always been interested in both? What led you to your interest in animal studies?

My academic specialisation is twentieth-century theatre and drama. Performance studies is an extension of these areas and I write about body-based performance in particular. This led me to consider animal performers over the past decade in relation to the pro-animal politics of animal studies. I should say that this interest has been influenced by academic colleagues who have become friends.

In Fighting nature, you show how 19th-century animal acts reflected deep-seated beliefs about animal–human relations and the right of humans to exploit other species. How much do you think our attitudes have changed in the decades since?

One of my main concerns is that ideas about the right to hunt and capture other species with state-of-the-art weaponry gained momentum during the 19th-century, then became entrenched during the twentieth century and fueled the ambitions of hunters everywhere. While the scale of animal exploitation, especially in food production, has expanded rapidly and is now unprecedented, the display of animals for entertainment was initially also a driving force within this whole process.

You describe how colonial audiences, including in Australia, responded differently from audiences in Europe and the USA to some types of performance, for instance to women appearing in lion-taming acts. Why was this?

I was surprised to discover that women performers appearing in lion acts were banned during the 1890s in Australian and New Zealand, despite half a century of their appearances in England, Europe and the USA. There was a far greater sensitivity in the colonies about the public status of women in relation to dangerous exotic animals. Despite the contradiction of colonial women working hard physically, this could be attributed to a belief in femininity as a civilising influence on what was probably a tough masculine fighting culture.

You draw extensively on archival research – newspaper reports, theatre programs, advertisements, first-hand accounts. What was involved in tracking down this material? What are the biggest joys and challenges of archival research?

The great joy of hours spent in obscure archives is always a surprise discovery; for example, the banning of women tamers or the extended argument in nineteenth-century newspapers against animal acts. The biggest challenge is that live theatrical performance was ephemeral and menageries and circuses were even more so. Even if a menagerie or a performance toured widely, there is not always sufficient accompanying archival material about the performance for it to be analysed.

There are so many larger-than-life characters in Fighting nature, particularly among the performers, tamers and promoters. Do you have a favourite personality, animal or anecdote of those you uncovered in your research?

Isaac Van Amburgh was clearly a clever showman and astute businessman since there were discrepancies between the promotion of his act and the viewers’ descriptions. Most tamers seem opportunistic and ad hoc in their endeavours but the male trainers who emerged in the 1890s were clearly using insider knowledge of animal behaviour and personality. I particularly like the performance of Clare Heliot because she seemed to rise to prominence without being employed by an established organisation such as a Bostock menagerie or the Hagenbeck’s trading and entertainment empire.

You outline how animal acts changed and grew over the course of the 19th century. What would a spectator at a typical menagerie have encountered in 1850, and how had this changed by 1900?

In 1850 the spectator could see half-a-dozen exotic lions and tigers in a small cage and a plucky tamer entering the cage with them. They might have been lucky to see an elephant in a handful of travelling menageries, which generally had fewer than fifty animals. By 1900 there were tens of thousands of captive animals in menageries; an average menagerie would have at least 25 cages as well as tethered animals. For spectators at the circus, Hagenbeck’s had trained carefully chosen individual lions and tigers with suitable personalities to do complex movements and even to sit in close proximity with other species, including elephants.

You show in Fighting nature how popular entertainment reflects socio-political events, at the same time as it shapes public understanding of those events. A hundred years from now, what kinds of entertainment will historians be analysing in order to understand 21st-century Australia? What will they discover?

I hope that travelling entertainment is mostly about human performers. I am aware of a revival of horse and rider shows in Australia, which suggests continuity with circus. But zoos now have a conservation function and they are gradually changing their spatial arrangements. I would like to see all animal species have sufficient space in which to roam and move about according to their needs – even if they have been bred in captivity.

A lion rides on the back of an elephant pedaling a tricycle
Poster for Carl Hagenbeck's circus, circa 1895 (Wikipedia Commons)

Do you prefer silence, music, or something else when you’re writing? Do you have any writing rituals?

I write in silence and my best working time is in the morning, so writing first thing is my ritual. (There are days when I have to force myself to work.)

What are you reading now?

I continue to read about emotion and performance, which is my longstanding fascination. But I recently read and viewed Hannie Rayson’s play Extinction, which is a really strong and accessible text about polluting industries and the problems facing animals right now in Australia.

Peta Tait FAHA is Professor of Theatre and Drama at La Trobe University and Visiting Professor at the University of Wollongong. Fighting nature: travelling menageries, animal acts and war shows is out now from Sydney University Press.

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