To Men of All Beasts
Tom McGrath's play Animal, first produced at the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh in 1979 is one of Britain's finest post-war plays -a wonderful demonstration of what physical theatre can achieve, what it can articulate about the human spirit. But try to find a published copy of the script or even a photo of the production and you get a sense of how undervalued the play is.
The boldness of the title announces its uniqueness.
Think of the context.
The 1970s was - in Britain at least - pre-eminently a decade of political theatre. Howard Brenton staged The Romans in Britain using that episode as a metaphor of the British occupation of Ireland, and this was a common modus operandi of the decade. In Scotland this re-making of history was paralleled in the work of Donald Campbell and Hector McMillan. New work was intelligent. committed, engaged.
There were touring companies like 7:84 and Red Ladder, feminist triumphs like Trafford Tanzi, and plays which brilliantly deconstructed everything from comedy (Trevor Griffiths' Comedians) to gender roles (like Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine).
Key words were dialectic. Debate. Analysis. Language.
Against that background McGrath created a show about a tribe of prelinguistic anthropoids. The audience sat and watched the ape-like hominids groom, fight, console, compete, mourn, communicate, murder, and think. There was virtually no text.
The result is something which was arresting, experimental, ambitious and pathfindingly good.
In the thirty and more years since it was first produced it has done the opposite of dating; it has become more present. This is partly because of changes in sensibility to do with the place of human beings in the world. The fact that we are animals has begun to settle deeper in our minds. Davina McColl can sit on the Big Brother sofa with an analyst and talk about alpha males and grooming strategies and body language, confident that a popular audience will accept and enjoy this kind of chat.
And intellectually Darwin is more deeply embedded in our thinking. Since the 1980s academics and scientists have begun to fulfil the prediction he made in The Origin of Species that in the future human psychology would be based on a new foundation - "the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation." His hypothesis that our minds must have evolved to solve the problems we encountered as animals and then as hunter-gatherers is now supported by a large body of evidence and has developed into a thriving academic discipline called evolutionary psychology.
But where was McGrath coming from when he wrote this play and why is it so different from the 1970s theatrical norm?
I think it's a legacy of the 60s. McGrath was a beatnik. In 60s London he did smack like others in the same crowd , edited the counter-culture newspaper International Times, knew Alexander Trocchi, read his poetry alongside Ginsberg, played jazz piano, was invited to think-ins by R.D. Laing. The keyword was expeirment. Experimental. Experimenting.
It was a world where people continually asked the big questions like "Who us? What us? Why us?" That's what you get in Animal. He's asking "At what point do we become human?" and the play is set up as an experiment in both the poetic and scientific senses of the word. It puts three species on the same stage – apes (The Barbs), humans, and a hypothetical in-between species of ape-like anthropoids, one of which (one of whom?) is more advanced and tries to communicate with his fellows by drawing a diagram on the ground of a tree (he’s trying to direct them to food). Nobody gets it.
It’s a lot about loneliness, the play. Successive drafts held by the National Library of Scotland reveal that originally the humans had much more dialogue which was subsequently cut and it is this lack of text that creates room for the audience to bond with the anthropoids. We have to study them closely because we know nothing is going to be handed to us on an expositional plate and because subconsciously we are trying to find the words for what the anthropoids are experiencing but can’t themselves express. For the sadness. The loss. Fear. Wonder.
There are moments where poetic licence allows us to hear what the hominids might be thinking or feeling. There’s a wonderful chant they sing as night comes down (“deep deep dark depression/deep dark deep depression/dark deep deep depression”) and a reflective prose poem about mortality.
We have seen the bones exposed in the sun
The squirming maggots, the feeding eyes and tongues.
The utter stillness when the life has gone.
We cannot name it but we have seen it.
And we know where it touches us.
I struggle to understand what theatrical influences were behind this play. I think the radical experimentalism of the play comes out of the 60s but its relationship to the audience does not. Much of the theatrical experimentation of the 60s was about challenging and offending the audience by outraging conventions - as if the artists were trying to establish a moral and intellectual superiority over the audience.
Or even if you think of the wonderful funny surrealism of the People Show Cabaret - that show was self-consciously a countercultural entertainment for an alternative audience. It's the kind of entertainment that McGrath loved - adored - but not the kind he wanted to write. Deep down he was a working-class Rutherglen boy who wasn't interested in an elitist or exclusive audience of any kind; even in his most radical experiment he is reaching out to everyone on earth.
It seems to me that Animal has no theatrical predecessors and - so far - no progeny either.
I think it's waiting.