Glancing Sideways Through ‘Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale’
This article takes the theme ‘contamination from above’ as a prompt for analytical and playful reflection on a new work for theatre titled ‘Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale’-a supernatural tale of encounter with the Australian wilderness, in which the wilderness ‘answers back’ as a provocative (and failed) chorus of three red foxes. From an ecological perspective, in Australia the European red fox is commonly considered a lasting contaminant from Great Britain in the 1800s. Recognising the so-called ‘animal turn’ in contemporary thought, the article points out the role of language in abstracting and distancing ‘animal’ from ‘human’, while acknowledging the inevitability of an ‘upright’, human-centred world view. Through the proliferative text of ‘Undercoat’, the article also and at times self-reflexively explores the ‘shape-shifting powers of language in performance’-powers capable, perhaps, of subverting the ‘obstructive dualisms’ of the anthropocentric view.
The ‘Animal Turn’; Paradox; Difference
With all seriousness, for a moment. ‘What is it? […] Get me a lever so I can […] open, turn, get perspective, show and tell, quicken, surprise, take delight, change my mind. […]’. In her searching study I Shudder to Think, the late poet, performer, director, and dramaturg Margaret Cameron celebrates ‘levers’—levers made from words, ‘propositions that act as levers,’ are amongst the artist’s generative tools and tricks—for delaying decorous closure, releasing her from inhibition, opening her to approach ‘the unperceived’ in thought and on the page, in movement and sensation (Cameron 2016, 11–25, 57). Here below, ‘contamination from above’ serves as such a lever. The following is a conscious experiment in discursive speed and movement, devised in a mood of pleasurable exhilaration: a writer ventures a reading of her own script before the usually more prudent reading that begins with the gathering of performers, and the corporeal dynamic between them (Cameron, Young, and Troup 2005, 307).
GLANCING SIDEWAYS THROUGH ‘UNDERCOAT: A PARAFOXICAL TALE’
Stumbling across the phrase ‘contamination from above,’ I intuit an opportunity to edge back alongside a text completed of late, and glance through it. The text is a prickly new work titled ‘Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale,’ written for performance in seven scenes (Troup 2014). ‘Contamination from above’: what a lure! The phrase is premised, of course, on uprightness. It suggests the globe of the human head nodding from a standing height of, say, 175.6 centimetres, the skull dipping upwards and downwards on that uppermost of spinal vertebrae, the ring-like bone known as the atlas. Nodding sagely (or sagely at first), because any notion of contamination tends towards a moral of some kind. Probably this is inevitable. But the moral, at least, may not be what you think.
Ruber tha ruder Chicken Fox [enters in front of main curtain, or downstage to one side, so as to be seen alone. Marking a simple dance, recites, partly to self, as though ‘testing out’ the song for pleasure]:
Remember Hen-ny Pen-ny
loud bird, she was, and can-ny,
‘sky is falling’ she chirped she clucked
and now we know the plan-et’s f-f
falling low on luck—
earth’s down on green, ozone and cool
far-too-dependent on fossil fuel.
Remember Hen-ny Pen-ny,
that bird, turns out, was no-one’s fool, no
crying wolf, catastro-phiser,
nor blithe-hyping rhapso-diser;
her refrain ‘the sky is falling’
was farmyard talk for global warming—
loss of ice and the biodiverse
in an ever-expanding universe,
but in our sphere there’s no rehearsing,
it’s terse now, anthropogenic climate change is re-arranging
what’s strange about the rain, vege-tation, civilis-ation,
what’s collapsing, what can thrive, drive,
skive, flock, or re-stock
at five-to-midnight on the doomsday clock.
Remember Hen-ny Pen-ny
opportunity knocked, she was hit with the know,
stirred, sent word to Cocky-Locky and co.,
—even so, ’cause this is the truth,
the good brood hen, her sooth and hunch,
all ended with-in rea-son (though end-ed out of sea-son) as
Foxy-Loxy’s feathered lunch (Troup 2014, 1–2)!
The moral may not be what you think, although ‘Undercoat’ is accidentally congruent with the so-called ‘animal turn’ in contemporary thought (Gross 2012, 1–8). A work of imagination, it is constantly encroached upon by improbable biological facts. For instance, did you know that, of all urban areas worldwide, Melbourne has the highest density of foxes per hectare (‘Plan’ 2010)? Let that remain an open question; ‘estimates of fox abundance are hampered by [the animal’s] nocturnal and cryptic behaviour’ (DEPI 2014).
UNDERCOAT is inspired by Nicolai Gogol’s story ‘The Overcoat’ (1842), which remains amongst the most elusive of literary creations. Another source for UNDERCOAT is the short story ‘The Red Fox Fur Coat’, a vivid elaboration on aspects of Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ by contemporary Portuguese writer Teolinda Gersão, first published in English in 2004. In Gersão’s tale, a ‘humble bank clerk’ suddenly covets a magnificent fox fur coat seen in a shop window. As she pays for the coat in instalments, she finds herself gradually transforming; having acquired the coat, she drives away from the city, and makes her first leap as a wild animal ‘into the depths of the forest’.
But what happens to this creature if her first, joyous leap is thwarted? UNDERCOAT starts from this question—and transposes it to an Australian landscape, where the European red fox now inhabits all states and territories. Since its introduction to Victoria in the mid-nineteenth century, the red fox has helped to define the terms by which the Australian wilderness can (or cannot) exist. Flourishing these days in the urban fringe, the red fox in that environment has no predators; the main cause of death is collision with motor vehicles (Troup 2014, iv).
So, for the European red fox in urban areas, the main cause of death is collision from above with a mass of metal, glass, and rubber (Soulsbury et al. 2010, 69). How often are foxes on the good side of the law? These days, an anthropocentric view (at a height of say, 175.6 centimetres) tends to vilify the species vulpes vulpes. The red fox is commonly abstracted as a motor vehicle hazard, a vector of rabies, a slayer of pets, including domestic poultry—also, in Australia, as a lasting contaminant from Great Britain in the 1800s (Abbott 2011, 525), a vertebrate pest, a threat to biodiversity conservation. We could sidestep further details, leaving this manner of categorising, perhaps, to insurance companies and government agencies. As Nicolai Gogol’s digressive narrator observes, ‘it is better not to mention’ such bureaucracies (Gogol 1917, 29).
‘Undercoat’ certainly calls down a few of Aesop’s high-minded tales that feature the speaking fox. Still, if there is a moral to ‘Undercoat,’ I have wished that it defy gravity and stern rectitude, and share in the unruly ambiguity bestowed by Jean-François Lyotard, in his Postmodern Fables: ‘after a short story, a fable or a tale, sketch or exemplum, a moral draws out an unpretentious, localized, and provisional bit of wisdom, soon to be forgotten. Morals often, heedlessly, contradict each other. Together, they make a rustling of maxims, a cheerful lament: that’s life’ (Lyotard 1993, vii).
SPLENDID SPEECH (AND DOGGEREL)
Back to the bad rhyme that forms the Prologue to ‘Undercoat’ (and also, by the way, the final Reprise). The realm of the supernatural is presumed, and Ruber snatches at the ancient, cumulative tale of Henny Penny. This dancer-singer-narrator is a fox, traditionally objectified as the ‘villain’ to Henny Penny’s ‘victim.’ The folktale’s reliance on sing-song repetitions has been appropriated for an ambitiously topical retelling; a nearly tongue-twisting commentary on fears of imminent disaster linked with global warming. Conceivably this introduces a farfetched frame of reference for ‘Undercoat.’ At another level, by the same exaggerated frame, together with uneven phonetic effects, the Prologue announces the subject of ‘Undercoat’ as language itself—the simultaneous strain and pleasure of its excesses in concerted speech. Naturally, because ‘Undercoat’ takes the absurd liberty of anthropomorphising no fewer than three foxes.
How can these characters not declaim? Archetypal psychologist James Hillman describes speech as the essential ‘human form of display.’ In elaborating, he gives us the brilliant maxim ‘giraffes and tigers have splendid coats; we have splendid speech’ (Hillman 1989, 295). Each of the trio of foxes in ‘Undercoat’ constantly, indiscriminately ‘tries on’ in her speech prosaic fragments and poetic allusions. She does so in the presence of a fourth character, named She. Half-fox and half-human, She is strident at first, ‘bemoaning the interruption or inhibition of a metamorphosis from woman to she-fox’ (Troup 2014, 3).
She is clearly part-transformed into a red fox, the outer costume including some fur on at least one arm and shoulder. Except for the end of scene VI, scene VII and the coda, She is immobilised from the waist down in the rusting mound of a small car. The car has tipped violently to one side, so that the driver’s door opens more or less upwards, like the door of a hatch. She’s upper body is thrust through the open window of the driver’s side. A handsome fox tail is visibly caught in the driver’s door, which is jammed closed and askew. While immobilised, and specifically until scene V, She’s lower body is over-identified with that of the car; whenever the car is approached or touched in any way, She responds, often flinching or recoiling.
Ruber tha ruder Chicken Fox wears a feather boa made of chicken feathers; is the youngest of the three red foxes and so has the greater exuberance and agility; is the wariest of She, and spiky in attitude. Ruber speaks and chants rhythmically—or raps.
Ranger is conspicuously the trickster; easily distracted, easily reactive, quick-speaking, and, especially after hauling the garbage bags offstage (scene III), can be ostentatious with salvaged ‘props’ and elements of costume.
Fox Vobiscum is an equanimous old she-fox; nearly always speaks with gravitas, can be imperious and ponderous too, to the annoyance of Ruber and Ranger.
Ranger, Fox Vobiscum, and Ruber only gradually garner confidence to draw near to She and the car. This said, it is important to sustain the physiological and circumstantial contrast between She and the three foxes, in that Ruber, Ranger, and Fox Vobiscum are rarely still; the full length and breadth of the stage is fox territory, within which they are nearly incessantly moving in some way. This quickness is also witnessed whenever the speech of one fox character interrupts that of another. Even when holding a particular stance, their alertness to the environment is palpable; as wildlife ecologist Henry J. David has written, ‘the fox is a wiry, highstrung creature’, and an ‘indolent fox’ a contradiction. The three foxes do not touch one another—an expression of the dispersal and solitariness of the adult animal (Troup 2014, iv–v).
The three foxes come to surround She, as foxes might surround their prey when hunting cooperatively. However, for much of ‘Undercoat’ the foxes refuse a collective voice; they are a capricious chorus at best, seemingly stepping in and out of the action at whim. Each character has her style of splendid speech, part of the task of gathering personhood to all four. Whereas Ranger can be ostentatious with material props, Ruber is most persistently and swiftly ostentatious through her verse, in scene II, for example (Troup 2014, 7), with bookish citations:
Snow-White, Sleeping Beauty, Goldi-locks?
F-fantastic Mister – ? [points to self and poses]
Or, as exemplified in the Prologue, with awkward rhythms brought about by long words, and dense argument:
but in our sphere there’s no rehearsing,
it’s terse now, anthropogenic climate change is re-arranging
what’s strange about the rain, vege-tation, civilis-ation […]
An omnivorous, opportunistic animal declares herself an omnivorous, opportunistic reader. Remember that in biological terms, the European red fox is classified in the family Canidae, as are domestic dogs. Thus should you be tempted to describe Ruber’s part as ‘doggerel,’ I could offer no good riposte. This is Ruber’s individual expression of ferocity and autonomy. ‘Low,’ too, might be the literary status of the pun, but ‘Undercoat’ gladly stoops to the wordplay of puns—hence scene titles such as ‘What the Fox?’ (scene I), and ‘Best Fox Forward! (Paradox)’ (scene VII). This stooping could equally be interpreted as a bow, a respectful bending towards the marvellous versatility of the earth’s most widespread wild carnivore (Soulsbury et al. 2010, 63), and the proliferative, shape-shifting powers of language in performance.
THE DREAM, THE FACE, THE JAW
What of She’s speech? Her lines are less audacious, at times no less circuitous, yet more earnest, gradually opening into a different resonance, as avowed by scene V.
v. the (obligatory) dream
[Directly to the audience.] Divested of whatever is superfluous—the (obligatory) dream.
[Scans the sky, sways gently.] A pink sky, like a girlish cheek.
A horizontal spine, close, close to the ground.
[Warming to the reverie.] The near-soundless grace of steady, rhythmic footwork through trembling grasses.
Swish swish, swish swish swish, swish swish swish
The windscreen wipers won’t move fast enough as curtains of rain roll around the old car, curtains of spring rain. Behind me, through a subdued sunset, a huddle of soaring apartment blocks. There is no-one left to talk to. I know I’m losing my way, can’t compare the dangers of stopping to those of willing the car forward, in low gear, forward to an end of the road, a corroded construction site beside a scrap of woodland.
A fox pads across the asphalt, spotlit by the car headlights, underbelly, chin, and tail-tip gleaming white as it glances back. The rain slows and slides around the fox as though curbed by the animal’s charisma, the vigour of this elemental in another way. Then, racing some scent, the fox is a bolt of lightning striking out across the plain. Force taking shape, pouncing again on survival.
Swish swish, swish swish swish, swish swish swish
Rain rocks everything in velvet arms. Behind me, inside the car, a long, slender, rough tongue licks a crimson gash, teeth tear a hind leg caught and already bruised in the jaw of a steel snare. Unflinching, the fox is gnawing through its own bone, carnassials rasping against it. Nothing can intrude upon this sovereignty.
Rings of crystal and dust, and a scorching at the centre—each instrument has converged that will have made me.
Swish swish, swish swish swish, swish swish swish [Cloud gradually covers the moonlight during this refrain, plunging all the stage into intense shadow. For a breath the scene glitters with countless tiny eyes caught blinking in the changed light.]
[With fervour.] These are urgent hours. How is it possible not to love that which has saved your life? (Troup 2014, 17–18)
The dream is obligatory because the dream will break us past the myriad words and images encountered down to this moment, past the competitive commotion of rap, dialogue, punning, and repartee, into an embracing stasis. In the formal, dramatic arc of ‘Undercoat,’ scene V is a keystone. Through the last lines of scene IV, ‘a new quiet ensues, and is allowed to deepen’ (Troup 2014, 16). By scene V, from the hush, but without searching, She has already reached the underworld, a place ecstatic and violent—the ‘School of Dreams’ as conjured by Hélène Cixous, where opposition between inside and outside is cancelled, and ‘there is no explanation’ (Cixous 1993, 81). Dreams, after all, underlie the idea of the supernatural. They are as richly resistant to explanation as they seem amenable. By dreams we are bound to acknowledge the inexhaustible mysteries of transformation. The sudden intimacy of her dream (with its ‘pink sky,’ ‘trembling grasses,’ the rain’s ‘velvet arms’) binds She to the peculiarity of her metamorphosis, even to the prospect that this may ‘fail.’ The following scene, scene VI (Troup 2014, 19–25) entertains such a possibility, titled ‘Similar Cases of Metamorphosis That Have Succeeded.’
Scene V. What is that rustling? With nowhere further to drive to, and ‘no-one left to talk to,’ She becomes a guest of another living being. She ‘sways gently’; softens, and is roused to offer undeflected attention to thisfox, her specificity, tensile radiance, and then her sensate body in perilous agony. ‘Nothing can intrude upon this sovereignty’: the dream recognises this fox shaping her own destiny, her agency manifest in each cut of carnassial teeth against legbone. Here with She we are witnessing ‘the logos of energy’ in which everything participates, ‘good and bad alike’ (Klein 2014, 160-61). ‘Rings of crystal and dust, and a scorching at the centre’: ‘everything’ carries impersonal, cosmological associations. It carries also a refusal to foreclose meaning through obstructive dualisms, the logic of immobile concepts. As Ruber variously insists throughout ‘Undercoat,’ ‘it’s not what you think.’ This undersong surfaces abruptly in scene II (Troup 2014, 8–9), in the lines
bad and good and neither nor,
perdition’s a matter of definition;
[pointing thumb over shoulder at She] so what’s her condition?
Notice more. The dream sensitises She to behold the face of the fox. James Hillman considered that beyond our self-confident projections, and as their antidote, ‘all things show faces, the world […] a physiognomy to be faced.’ ‘The world’ here is akin to Klein’s ‘everything’, thoroughly inclusive, everywhere and animate, one of inter-connectedness, events, objects, the built environment and nature—‘a display of self-presenting forms,’ that ‘show the shape they are in’ (Hillman 1989, 99). Without suspense, without fear, She is drawn closer to the face of this furred, bleeding creature that is striving for freedom to stink, and to snarl, and to nourish itself. Shefocuses awareness on the harsh vigour of the fox’s jaw. Georges Bataille has provocatively contrasted ‘the significant role of the animal’s jaw’ with the height—and presumed eminence—of the human skull:
The mouth is the beginning, or, if you prefer, the prow, of animals. In the most characteristic cases, it is the most living part, in other words, the most terrifying for neighbouring animals. But human beings do not have a simple architecture like animals, and it is not even possible to say where they begin. Strictly speaking, they start at the top of their skulls, but the top of the skull is an insignificant part […] (Bataille 1988, 14).
Scene VI of ‘Undercoat’ will find She ‘wide-eyed, unhurriedly,’ reaching towards a large locust ‘with open mouth, perhaps to nuzzle—or try swallowing it.’ She will be seen becoming receptive with and by ‘the most living part’ of the fox. Her chewing can be literal: disengaged from any figurative relationship with ruminating worry, the over-thinking that seems to take place in the protected, planar dark of the human head, behind the eyes, both symptom and containment of distress. Gradually, through the seven scenes of ‘Undercoat,’ She is divested of the ‘bristling doubt’ that she bewails at the outset of the work (Troup 2014, 4). Later—spoiler alert!—with Ruber, Ranger, and Fox Vobiscum, She will be ‘tantalised’ by a swarm of locusts that advances across the stage, ‘its rolling motion and the flashing of wings together resembl[ing] the turning of a mirror ball above’ (26).
* * *
To have written ‘Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale,’ and now to have attempted an oblique glance through it: both have been risky undertakings. Inevitably I have retained an uprightness, a view perpendicular to the plane of the horizon. From my standing height of 158.2 centimetres—beneath the current averages for Australian men and women (ABS 2013)—perchance I have merely managed to engage the second of the cervical vertebrae, the axis bone. Below the topmost vertebra, or atlas, the axis allows the human skull to rotate from side to side. It makes possible the lateral shaking of the head. Paradoxically, this gesture of refusal can be constructive; a gesture of cheerful lament (a human-centred perspective is fated), and a fresh rejoinder. For you too must long to appreciate the life of an animal and its environment, without condescension?
The writing of ‘Undercoat’ began with a refusal to demonise or sentimentalise the foxes with whom I share local parklands and rubbish bins. It began with delight in Teolinda Gersão’s gripping story (2004, 9). And a terrible knowledge. With apologies to Gersão, in this post-pastoral age of anthropogenic global warming it is no longer so simple to imagine driving straight ‘to the edge to the forest’, and ‘plunging off into [its] depths’, with a howl of pure ‘pleasure and joy.’
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The writing of ‘Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale’ was assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body. In December 2015, in Melbourne, ‘Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale’ will be part of La Mama Theatre’s annual Explorations season of investigative and experimental theatre.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License.
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