“All Right: Where Am I?” Looney Tunes Animation As Modernist Performance
By Evans, Alex
Replete with modernist tropes, Chuck Jones’s 1953 cartoon, Duck Amuck, dramatizes that most pressing of modern preoccupations-the often-threatening relationship between the body and its environment. Heroically toting a rapier in a medieval forest, Daffy Duck’s background jarringly runs out, becoming an inhospitable white void. At Daffy’s indignant request, the artist provides idyllic farmland, and after a quick change of costume, Daffy adapts to the surroundings of postwar agricultural Americana. And yet, the environment shifts again, to locate him in frozen arctic wilderness. Warm clothes follow; a tropical background confounds. Changed again, and again, Daffy finally finds himself back in the hostile void. At this point, his body itself begins to be forcibly redesigned. Daffy will become mute and then surprisingly voluble; will be erased piecemeal; and then will disappear altogether, returning only to be physically reconfigured as a surreal, four-legged creature-all the time spluttering complaints and curses.
The cartoon presents us with that modernist archetype, the isolated individual who attempts in desperation to adapt to a constantly changing environment, during which process his body becomes increasingly mutable and, eventually, disposable. When Daffy demands to know, “All right-where am I?” this refers not to his location, but to the “I” itself-erased in his entirety, only his disembodied voice remains. The end result of his attempts to re- accommodate himself to a shifting environment has been the loss of the body entirely. Paul Wells has argued that aspects of animation might be seen to:
Aspire to the condition of an inner state rationalised by external mechanisms, constructing narratives which reveal some of humankind’s deep-rooted fears in the modernist era. These are chiefly anxieties about relationships, the status of the body, and advances in technology, all of which evoke threat and disorder. ( 16)
Wells is quite right-and anxieties about “the status of the body” suggest that we might read this in terms of explorations of performance. Animation, as we see perhaps most pressingly in Duck Amuck, offers a unique way of treating the “performing” body: it presents singular opportunities for bodily distress and distortion- after which, the body snaps, twangs, or ker-poings back into place. According to Richard Thompson’s seminal work on the Road Runner series, this tendency manifests an obsession, not with death or extinction itself, but rather, with “resurrection, transfiguration” (217). And yet, what this corporeal transfiguration also tells us, of course, is that there is really no body there at all. The performing body is an always hidden, although repetitively revealed, absence at the center of the animation-and most particularly, in the Looney Tunes cartoon.’
Setting the Terms: Critical Frameworks
It seems important at this point to set the limits of this study. The bringing together of Daffy Duck and Samuel Beckett might tend to suggest that my aim in this article is to provide yet another “proof” of the interconnectivity of high art and low culture. Not so: Esther Leslie’s recent Hollywood Flatlands-Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde, has presented an impressive and intellectually rigorous consideration of the substantial overlap between modernist “high” art and “low” culture in the field of animation, in which she demolishes in particular those caricatured debates that begin with the precept that “high culture and popular culture have been-for so long-enemies” (v). After all, in performance-my focus here-many of the wildest extravagances of the modernist avant-garde avowedly renewed and reinvigorated themselves through re-engagements with popular theatres from the commedia dell’arte, to circus and acrobatic traditions, and Far-Eastern puppet theatres.2
Moreover, I do not propose here to discover whether Daffy Duck (or even Chuck Jones) is a true modernist. The search for a truly critical modernism is another cottage industry in scholarly studies of modernist-era work, and one which may do more to limit the “sayable,” and indeed the thinkable, in the critical work we undertake, than to enable it. J. Hoberman argues that works such as “Duck Amok [sic]” (34) which manifest clear modernist tropes and tactics provide an “authentic vulgar posi-modernism” (40), debased and divested of critical engagement, rather than anything we might laud artistically and intellectually. Certainly, Hoberman is correct that the relationship between the modern and postmodern in these works is an interesting one, which I address at the conclusion of this paper; however, I find Hoberman’s tone unhelpfully snobbish (“not totally infantile” is his sneering assessment of one of his less despised animated works), and perhaps as a result, somewhat reductive. In general, of course, it is no coincidence that arguments over “true” modernisms tend to exclude the intellectual possibilities and political positions available to a variety of- mostly working class-subjects throughout history, across classes, geographies, and cultures.
Perhaps more reasonably, it has been claimed that an approach which shoe-horns together the politicized avant-garde and the populist avowedly counter-revolutionary does an injustice to the overt politics of the practitioners of modernism as movement.3 As Dana Polan notes in his important paper on Duck Amuck, there is an obsessive reflexivity, a self-awareness of the productive mechanisms of animation and filmmaking, and indeed, artistic production itself (662), manifested in many Warner Bros. cartoons-and yet, to scrutinize the cartoon solely from this perspective may lead to a formalism bereft of historical and political analysis of content (664).4 He is right, of course, that this would be unsupportable. However, there also might be dangers in too clear a separation. Not least, the politics of the modernist movement are by no means unified, and many aspects are far from desirable. To laud modernist practitioners for their overt politics per se might suggest an uncritical endorsement of, say, Italian Futurism, fascism and all.
The approach I take here is a return to the methodology of Raymond Williams, whose analytical concept of the “structure of feeling” may continue to provide some use in critical engagements of just this sort. Williams explains of the term:
“Feeling” is chosen to emphasize a distinction from more formal concepts of “worldview” or “ideology.” It is not only that we must go beyond formally held and systematic beliefs, though of course we have always to include them. It is that we are concerned with meanings and values as they are lived and felt and the relationship between these and formal and systematic beliefs are in practice variable. [...] Methodologically, then, a “structure of feeling” is a cultural hypothesis. (Marxism 132)
While Williams’s concept is famously vague (“difficult,” he says), it may go some way toward allowing us to consider an overlap of meaning or expression between texts that demonstrate formal similarities, without proposing either an entirely apolitical, or over-optimistically political, formalism. Rather, Williams’s formal analyses, in works such as his seminal Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, analyze forms in their socio-political context, and may even be able to posit certain kinds of resistance, without the need for theorizing a self-aware authorial political consciousness, or indeed, anything so explicitly developed as a class consciousness or an ideology. What I propose for the purposes of this study, then, is a broad “modernism” that manifests a structure of feeling associated with the accelerated modernity of the twentieth century. The advantage of this approach is that it allows us to draw congruences between texts which might be rendered incommensurable by a more rigidly programmatic-or elitist-criticism.
In this article, then, I interrogate certain performance projects of theatrical modernism, alongside cartoons from Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes stable. The work I present here is merely an overview of possible points of departure for studies of the intersections between modernist performance theory and animation. This means that, by necessity, I merely scratch the surface of the many areas that would reward more detailed attention. I hope very much that the paper will spark such further work and analysis.
Is Beckett Quackers?
I shall begin by bringing into conjunction postwar modernist Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and the aforementioned Duck Amuck. In Godot, Vladimir and Estragon seem at the mercy of external forces which, while absent, seem to persist in their hold. During the ultimately self-inflicted, yet strangely unavoidable process of waiting, characters are forced to undergo all manner of horrific trials, including captivity both physical and mental, abortive suicide in which the only positive outcome is auto-erotic asphyxia, vicious beatings, and blindness; and this, all in the name of an external, unseen figure. There is, of course, Esslin’s well-worn observation that “the subject of the play is not Godot, but waiting” (49): at the center of the play is absence. Meanwhile, in the same year that Beckett’s Godot appears (or rather, fails to),5 Duck Amuck’s Daffy suffers a similarly ignominious fate, as his body is remo\ved, metamorphosed, stretched, and poked, with much angry spluttering on his part, by some unseen force. As such, at least initially, Duck Amuck too proposes an absence remarkably reminiscent of Beckett’s scenario: who is Daffy’s unseen tormentor/creator? Will he be revealed?
Daffy’s predicament is also very different, of course-although not, on closer inspection, as radically so as we might imagine. The unknown creator figure, hell-bent on the duck’s torment, is certainly figured more clearly, more “presently” than Godot in the directness of his attack on the protagonist. Unequivocally addressed by Daffy, the tormentor’s eraser erases, pencil redraws and reconfigures, in remarkably Judeo-Christian acts of vengeance that make very clear the existence of an outside creator figure: Daffy looks for all the world here like Job. Where Beckett’s Godot provides only doubt regarding the key figure’s existence, or perhaps, apparently groundless hope in absence, in Duck Amuck and the Book of Job, we have at least one certainty: that this dethpicable external creator exists. Does this give Duck Amuck an incorrigibly theistic, decidedly unmodernist certainty at its center? Not necessarily. First, it is worth noting that Godot’s nihilism is by no means a given: perhaps the best known readings of Beckett’s play suggest “Godot” as indicative of some external certainty on which the characters might rely. And yet, the waiting predicated on absence has been read as a resistant Christian hope and faith in salvation in the wasteland of postwar Europe (Esslin 55), just as it has been read as a kind of Sartrean bad faith (60).
Furthermore, placing the cartoon in the context of other animated works, we find that the structure of presence and absence in Duck Amuck represents a considerable departure from the history of animation/live-action interactions. “Trick” films involving the real- time interaction of an animator and his celluloid progeny form some of the earliest and definitive engagements with the animated medium: J. Stuart Blackton’s 1900 film, The Enchanted Drawing, for example, presents an artist drawing a caricature, which then begins to draw itself (in Wells 13). More famously, Hollywood animation from Warner Bros. and Disney would often involve animated characters in machinations and entanglements with live action actors, and in earlier Looney Tunes works, poor old Daffy had already been drawn in real-time, and poked and prodded to sibilant indignation, by live- action animators. In such cases, the role of the flesh-and-blood artist is the central image, while the punch line in Duck Amuck is the revelation in the final frames that Bugs Bunny-Ain’t I a stinker?-is the artist. The textual reflexivity that this proposes is arguably anything but reassuring: the idea that the responsible figure is, not some external creator, but rather, just another light- show, a piece of celluloid, is similar only to the idea that, in the play Beckett might have written, Godot finally arrived, but turned out to be just another lost, desperate, indigent. An anticlimactic presence can mean as much-or rather, as little -as absence.
In Waiting for Godot, the body is sordid, and grotesquely flawed. Feet smell, breath stinks; birth is death, a journey from one misogynistically evoked trench into another. And yet, as Alain Robbe- Grillet would have it, this work reminds us, partly as a result of its very somatic redolence:
The condition of man, says Heidegger, is to be there. The theatre probably reproduces this situation more naturally than any of the other ways of representing reality. The essential thing about a character in a play is that he is on the scene: there. (108)
Pain and debilitation, after all, remind us that we exist- although that factor alone may be small comfort. Progressing through Beckett’s works, we find the disintegration and degradation of the body rendered more visually, and with greater resonance: in Happy Days (1961), Winnie’s body is gradually buried in a mound of earth. The body may be “there,” but its usefulness becomes ever less, its power diminishing as she loses the ability to turn her head to see if her husband is alive, or to use her gun to end her existence. Winnie becomes a head alone, but this is by no means the end of Beckett’s experiment: in his film, Not I ( 1973), Billie Whitelaw is reduced solely to mouth chittering and breathlessly emoting. Meanwhile, in Duck Amuck, we find at one point only Daffy’s yellow maw, still protesting, still muttering and cursing. Eventually, increasingly persecuted and contorted, Daffy’s body is extinguished altogether, and all that remains is a complaining voice.6
Robbe-Grillet’s 1965 essay regarding “presence” ends with the writer wondering cheerfully whether Beckett “has more surprises in store for us” (116). And, typically biting the critical hand that fed him, Beckett had indeed: presence was emphatically out in Breath (1969), which formed part of Kenneth Tynan’s long running London West-End revue show, Oh Calcutta. The piece comprises only the recorded sounds of aspiration and expiration, accompanied by rising and falling light, over a stage strewn with garbage. As a piece of theatre, this work intentionally strips away almost all of the things that constitute that practice, just as does Duck Amuck with the conventions of the cartoon. Tracking the development of Beckett’s work leads us through bodily decay, to erasure, and finally, absence-and indeed, we see the same process enacted in Duck Amuck. (It would of course be only an act of pure mischief to suggest that Duck Amuck achieves in seven minutes what took Beckett sixteen years.) At Daffy’s nadir, in that moment of greatest significance to the themes I consider here, we find his body erased entirely: Beckett’s “Breath” and Duck Amuck’s Daffy ask the same question: “All right, where am I?”
There have been, throughout the twentieth century, fervid attempts to find an essence of theatre, which, at least since the 1960s have foregrounded a reliance on “the body in space”:
I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to take place. (Brook 11)
For Brook, the body in space is part of that undeniable essence that, it is hoped, makes theatre ineradicable at a time when it seems anything but. And yet, Beckett’s “Breath” shatters both Brook and Robbe-Grillet’s notions, as the embodied presence that Robbe- Grillet had quite reasonably argued as the sine qua non of theatre is tested to extinction. Perhaps, then, we are at least left with Brook’s “empty space”-albeit emptier than he imagined. “Breath” goes even further, however: in a sense, it also removes space. Beckett’s space is not, in fact, empty-”Breath” is bound by a necessary presence in its situation in a theatre, in “real” space. Nevertheless, in a way, the stage in “Breath” becomes something less than a space: after all, we might argue that the assorted trash on stage seems designed to enforce a caustically nihilistic absence of anything else: that there is nothing, just in case we were to think that we should be admiring the pristine stage in itself.
And what of Duck Amuck”? As with the absent tormentor figure, there are certainly differences between “Breath” and Daffy’s tour de force. Maurice Noble’s spectacularly expressionistic, modernist background designs seem far from the arguable minimalism of Beckett’s stark trees and blasted muddy wastelands, or trash strewn vacuums. But the possibilities for extreme spatial reconfiguration represented in Noble’s more expressionistic designs are always reminding us of an absence again: a stage, a real world, can never manifest the hypertrophie, light-speed formal reconfiguration Daffy’s environment undergoes, just as a real body does not boing back into shape after the ignominies the Duck’s body suffers.7 Moreover, Duck Amuck, in extremis, presents that howling white void into which Daffy is dropped, prior to his own erasure. Duck Amuck, too, removes body and space, at its most formally challenging, at the limits of its representational testing.
The Hole Where the Thing Would Have Been
Jean Francois Lyotard has observed that the “modern” text seeks to represent the presence of the unspeakable by a contrarily enforced, and foregrounded, absence:
I shall call “the Modern,” the art that devotes its “little technical expertise” [...] to present the fact that the unpresentable exists. To make visible that there is something which can neither be seen nor made visible: this is what is at stake in Modem painting. [...] Kant himself shows the way when he names “formlessness, the absence of form” as a possible index to the unpresentable. [This] “negative presentation” [...] will, of course, “present” something though negatively. [...] It will [...] enable us to see, only by making it impossible to see; it will please only by causing pain. (122)
What Lyotard calls the “modern” in art, then, is that representation effected by the substitution of empty space where the referred item might have been. We might consider, for example, the “Add Colour” paintings of Fluxus artist Yoko Ono, that comprise Perspex sheets, into which has been cut the outline of a stylized sunrise, overlaid on white paper. In this transparency on white, representing only an outline, we see the sublime otherwise unpresentable, rendered only by “index.”
What, then, could be a more “modern” representation of the body in space than the animation? Character animation owes its existence- its central trope-to an enforced absence. Every cartoon character is an index of performance: like Ono’s sunsets, like Malevitch’s white squares, it is the hole where the thing would have been-where that hole is embodiment in space. Can we not then read all character animation as, in some ways, a quintessentially modern respo\nse to performance? Indeed, might it not be read as the quintessentially modern performance?8 As we have seen, the animated body, its absence always foregrounded by its impossible elasticity, is continually tested to extremes, and the same can be said for the space of the animated “performance.” In a strategy perhaps more literal, even more effective, than that available to Beckett, the animation also refuses a place in which a body might exist.9
Reading animation in this way is an unusual approach, to say the least. Indeed, the “embodiment in space” paradigm is now so pervasive in both critical and professional dramatic discourses that some may see the argument as preposterous. We have tended in the dramatic arts, partly for reasons of self-preservation, to see live- action film as a kind of poor relation to live performance; to see the flickering of light on screen, re-producing the “action” of a film as a degraded shadow of an original embodiment. It is merely a residue of the real business of performance. If live action film is itself a kind of refusal of performance, then, what could be further from that embodied object than the animated film; a work which refuses so strongly even that original embodiment-however debilitated by its mechanical reproduction? It is true, of course, that there is-only-the residue of a performer in the voice of the animated character, often registered in a mode entirely compatible with classical Hollywood film, however, my sense is that this serves only to highlight that absence: we would speak, after all, of a “disembodied” voice. These may all be seen as reasons that animation is anything but performance, then. But it is for precisely these reasons that, as performance, it is so perfectly modernist.
My feeling overall, then, is that animation, particularly that of Looney Tunes type, does indeed have much to offer the study of modernist theatrical preoccupations. Bringing embodied performance into conjunction with its own animated negative makes clear the historical and cultural processes, and the structures of feeling, afoot in the theatre and performance of the modernist era itself. This is not to argue that animation “is” performance in some absolute way-we should be careful of, as Williams puts it, “taking terms of analysis as terms of substance” (129). Rather, I suggest that analyzing the two using the same categories and concerns might reveal interesting things about both, and Duck Amuck and “Breath” form here a particularly overt example of this juxtaposition’s potential.
Poor Materials: The Mechanics of Modernist Theatre
The absence of the body in modernist performance was by no means new to Beckett, of course-indeed, it had been a relatively frequent deployment in modernist avant-gardist performance. Edward Gordon Craig’s ber-marionettes-newly ennobled and enlarged puppets, hoped to be able to live up to the transcendent grandeur of his manifestos for largely unperformed work-were intended to take over where the actor had “failed”:
In order to make any work of art we may only work in those materials which we can calculate. Man is not one of those materials. The whole nature of man tends toward freedom; he therefore carries the proof in his own person that as material for art, he is useless. [...] The marionette appears to me to be the last echo of some noble and beautiful art of a past civilisation. [...] We must study to remake these images-no longer content with the puppet, we must create an Uber-marionette. The ber-marionette will not compete with life, rather it will go beyond it. (Craig 150-53)
Some of us will, of course, recognize this as a perfectly directorial fantasy, in which actors never ad-lib, step off their mark, or enter into ill-fated romantic affairs that wreck the opening night. But there is more: alongside the ability of the ber- marionette to extend and exceed the body’s physical limitations in terms of general impressiveness and Nietzschean-Wagnerian theatrical presence (itself partly a response to the rise of the cinema, in which an actor’s effective image takes on an authority of scale), the ber-marionette is also something that will not disappoint the all-powerful creative vision of the modernist artist in the way that a body might. An aspect of the modernist theatrical project that recurs in various theories, Craig’s suggestion is that “man,” and the “body” are, after all, “materials,” for “use.” Worse, both are “poor” materials-and poor materials do not end happily in modernist discourses of production.
This idea of absolute control over the performer evokes various modernist tropes and actualities of somatic control, some of which are, of course, deeply worrying. According to Aleksei Gan, a theorist of the Russian Constructivist movement:
Art Is finished! It has no place in the human labor apparatus.
Labor, technology, organization!
The revaluation of the functions of human activity, the linking of every effort with the general range of social objectives
That is the ideology of our time.” (299, his emphasis)
By the time Stalin had been in power for some years, the few Russian Constructivists who had escaped torture and murder by the Man of Steel’s thugs must have been in little doubt that this was true. However, as Gan’s manifesto shows, the Constructivists, prior to the dashing of the dreams of the revolution, had seized on ways to embrace the aesthetic and artistic practices that a modern, technological, socio-economically “scientific,” worldview might suggest. One of many modernist engagements with theatrical methodology and process in the name of production, Constructivist theatrical practitioner Vsevolod Meyerhold’s practice of “biomechanics” was designed to ensure that the ideology of the times was played out upon the body. An artistic rendering of the ideas of F. W. Taylor, biomechanics suggests that the piecemeal fragmentation of labor into time and motion studies-a literal segmentation of productive labor of the worker-could apply similarly to the methodologies of theatrical performance.10 As its name suggests, the practice involves both the scientific mechanization/rationalization of the use of the body on stage, and a perfect unity between man and machine, befitting the Modern age.11
John Berger has influentially suggested the direct comparison of Walt Disney and Francis Bacon:
The surprising formal similarities of their work-the way limbs are distorted, the overall shapes of the bodies, the relation of figures to background and to one another, the use of neat tailors clothes, the gestures of hands, the range of colours used-are the result of both men having complementary attitudes to the same crisis. (qtd. in Pummell 174)12
The crisis to which Berger refers is, of course, that of alienation in late capitalist modernity-and indeed, this intersects significantly with the kinds of anxieties about the body in both modernist theatre and animation that we have been considering here. Simon Pummell takes Berger to task: “It is true that both men are positioned within a crisis, but [...] a belief that their work uncritically and directly transcribes alienated social behaviour is inadequate” (ibid.).13 For all that Berger’s observations betray snobbery and vulgar Marxist predilections, however, a pressing question might indeed be whether the animated character itself is a figuration of inhuman modernity-whether late capitalist or totalitarian communist. As Terry Eagleton acknowledges:
The new, post-metaphysical subject proposed by Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, the Unmensch, emptied of all bourgeois interiority to become the faceless mobile functionary of revolutionary struggle, is at once a valuable way of thinking ourselves beyond Proust, and too uncomfortably close to the faceless functionaries of advanced capitalism to be uncritically endorsed. In a similar way, the aesthetics of the revolutionary avant-garde break with the contemplative monad of bourgeois culture with their clarion call of “production,” only to rejoin in some aspects the labouring or manufacturing subjects of bourgeois utilitarianism. (72)
These possibilities meet in the animation, just as they do in the performance of the time: Taylorism, after all, inspired both Henry Ford and Joseph Stalin, alongside Vsevolod Meyerhold. Joyful transfiguration and sadistic transformation sit side by side: as ever, that is the “dark side” of modernity -and modernism-that haunts both texts and criticism in the field. Perhaps, in the face of changing technologies and political systems, from industrialization, mechanization, and an artistic recognition of the potential for erasure, came the need to strategize these kind of “modern” approaches to the performer. There is a realization that somatic change may be the only alternative to absolute erasure, but the extreme-and the logical conclusion of that process-may be ultimately a kind of self-immolation. The end-point of biomechanics, after all, may be just mechanics.
My sense, then, is that we should read a continuum between performance and animation in modernism: from absolute embodiment, to paradoxically absent presence, moving through transfiguration and somatic distress. Character animation represents both presence and absence; forcible change, and absolute extinction, all at once, and perhaps no modernist theatre is able to realize this in quite the way that animation can-even if Beckett comes close. What I suggest is that animation and the types of modernist theatrical performance I describe here share in many ways what Beckett called the “shape of an idea” (qtd. in Esslin 52). The reason for this congruence is that, as a broader consideration of historical and cultural developments in this area suggests, they also share, as Williams would have it, a “structure of feeling.”
A Grim Tarantella?
Performance has often been studied by theorists as a constant process of presence and absen\ce, and an action directed toward an inevitable disappearance. Hence, it has influentially been seen to speak of a perpetually deferred, but nonetheless imminent, death (Wolska 85). This theoretical talk of death and performance was produced at a time when history was being unkind to theatre, and the “deathly” turn in theory is in itself evidence of the most anxious structures of feeling in postwar modernist performance: the obsession with ontological significations of transhistorical abstracts such as “life” and “death,” as much as Brook and Robbe- Grillet’s posited essences of theatre, are partly an attempt to arrest, erase, undo, a particular kind of “becoming”: the processes of history, of socio-economic and cultural change.
Alexandra Wolska has recently taken issue with this framework, however: she suggests more cheeringly that performance should rather be celebrated as a state of becoming, using the Bugs Bunny cartoon to make her point. Taking Bugs’s theatrical antics alongside those of a fringe theatre performance, she argues that, rather than a constant skin-of-the-teeth forestalling of imminent extinction, existing in the limina between presence and absence, and hence “on the borderlines between life and death” (David Russell in ibid.), the activities of the rabbit remind us of the excitement of transformation that takes place in performance practice. In doing so, Wolska, perhaps unknowingly, recalls Thompson’s transfiguration: this should be read, not as death, but as a process of transformation, resurrection. Still, if Bugs is caught in the delight of theatrical becoming, he is also undeniably-perhaps more than anywhere else in the spectrum of theatrical and cinematic arts- utterly absent. This in itself is what permits the transfiguration.
According to Peter Brook:
We talk of the cinema killing the theatre, and in that phrase, we refer to the theatre as it was when the cinema was born, a theatre of box office, foyer, tip-up seats, footlights, scene changes, intervals, music, as though theatre was by very definition these and little more. (11)
There is another reason that we ought to look at Warner animation in a way that is informed by theatre and performance studies, and I think it is this that Wolska picks up on: it is simply that Warner cartoons consistently, obsessively, reference theatre. Like the works of Beckett, the cartoons consistently reference the physicality and rigid logicism (and alogism) of the rhythmically derived patterns of music hall and burlesque routines, even when they do not-as so often they do-represent those acts of theatre in themselves. I think we can observe theatricality’s hypertrophic, perhaps anxious, and certainly, nostalgic, presence at precisely this site of its own erasure. Looking, after all, at seminal cartoons from the Warner stable, we find, for example, What’s Up Doc (Robert McKimson, 1950), which tellingly presents the rabbit’s ascent into the Hollywood firmament through vaudeville and music hall productions: theatre becomes film, and the celluloid rabbit keeps dancing. In Rabbit of Seville and What’s Opera Doc, meanwhile, we observe a hypertheatricality on its own terms-existing with a scenographic grandeur (in the latter), and a slapstick accuracy (in the former) greater than perhaps we could ever find a “real” theatre producing.
What Looney Tunes cartoons seem so often to represent, then, is a rampant enthusiasm for theatre-and one that is rendered by a constantly, nostalgically, referential theatricality. I say this with the greatest of awareness that animation is directly connected- that is, materially, historically-with the end of the theatrical institution. Not least, these animations might be seen to speak of the overwriting of popular theatrical forms, such as vaudeville, by the cinema. Warner cartoons would often be watched, after all, by audiences in music halls or theatres converted into cinemas: in this sense, cartoons take place, quite materially, at the site of the erasure of theatre. But perhaps we might suggest that that audience would also see an increasingly exaggerated version of the very (theatrical) practices that the cinema did much to erase: the animated “short,” placed before the main film, can be seen as the constant, almost compulsive, remembrance of those popular theatrical traditions under erasure; almost as a kind of residual capsule of what has gone before. Of course, there is no room for a “pure” performance, as Brook imagines it, in the character animation, because the body in space has expired. Instead, alongside the ghosts of embodiment in these hyperactive, metamorphic, automata, we find the traditions, various instantiations and manifestations, cultural and historical practices of theatre-those items (footlights, music, and so on) that Brook seems to imagine are surplus to requirements. This theatricality, then, is most alive at the very site of perhaps the most vicious blow in the theatre’s “killing”: we might say that the structure of feeling most enacted in the Looney Tunes cartoon is a kind of haunting. (Brook brings out the dramatic in all of us.)
Perhaps it is anything but surprising that the ground-zero of theatrical erasure would also be the site at which that erasure is most compulsively contested, and energetically resisted, by theatricality- those signifiera of performance. In the Looney Tunes cartoon, we see theatricality represented in this ecstatic, compulsive, perhaps anxious form, even if, ultimately, this must be achieved in absentium: the signified is gone, and all that remains are its signifiers. At this point, it would be impossible not to acknowledge the potential for a postmodern, rather than modernist, reading. Are we not left with a simulacrum: a hyper real replacement for the body in space that can achieve what the outmoded fleshy original cannot? Does not the cartoon entail an achievement of positive signification through hyperbole that the modernist text can represent only indexically-invoking the second part of the paradigm that Lyotard mentions: that “the postmodern would be that which, in the moderns puts forward the unpresentable itself ‘ (124)? It is unavoidable to observe here that if the modernist representational impossible is finally achieved in the Looney Tunes cartoon, it may be only through an engagement with the post-modem. Bringing theatre and animation into conjunction, if nothing else, may demonstrate a certain strategic continuity of the modem and the postmodern: from change, to erasure, to simulacrum.
We encounter here, I think, a meeting of both impossibility and its achievement; of excess, and absence, and this recalls again certain approaches to the theatrical practitioner who began this discussion. According to Jeffrey Nealon:
Rather than revolving around a lack, [Wailing for] Godot, as I read it, revolves around an excess of meaning and possibility brought about by the liberating notion of play. [...It is,] as Derrida describes it, a postmodern play, “a play whose other side would be the Nietzchean affirmation, that is the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and the innocence of becoming.” (quoting Derrida 526)
Nealon suggests in his article that there is a tendency for critics to produce from Godot modernist readings of what he sees as an essentially postmodern text; however, there are of course elements of both here, in that grim tarantella of hypertrophic presence in the face of absence: the slapstick tramps awaiting their absent friend, the rabbit vaudevillian dancing in the absence of himself. Nealon’s article suggests Godot is precisely a transitional text between the modern and the postmodern: “this affirmation of a non-centred world, this rejection of the grand Narratives, this celebration of play and language games is what most sharply separates the postmodern from the modern,” he says; but nevertheless, as we see here just as in Godot, a “sharp separation” seems less apparent in texts themselves than in theory. In Duck Amuck, after all, we are presented with both absolute absence and excessive presence: from the howling white void to the slide-show quick change of multiple picture postcard backgrounds and angular expressionist abstractions; from the disembodied duck to the four- legged, daisy-headed something. Elsewhere, the rabbit dances before the supposedly superfluous red curtains, all the time implicitly asking, not just “What’s up doc?,” but “All right-where am I?”
Chuck Jones’s What’s Opera Doc (1957) and Rabbit of Seville (1950) were my first experiences of theatrical performance-a truly postmodern phenomenon in itself, of course-and these works cemented and conjoined my interest in both animation and theatre. They have remained a strong influence on my sense of what theatre means. What this has also entailed, however, is that when I experience real- world theatre, I have a tendency to be crushingly disappointed-it is never like the rabbit said it would be. Still, if theatre is to avoid its own death, perhaps Bugs Bunny, theatrical simulacrum or modernist impossibility, can show us the way. What Wolska’s article seems to suggest is that this spectral pretender may be able to be reintroduced, and appropriated, by that which it mimics-live performance itself. Not least, it may be a way of remembering popular theatres (such as vaudeville and music hall) that are now entirely erased. I find this heartening in many ways-such reincorporation is not solely a facet of cynical postmodernism, but of living culture itself.
1 I refer here to certain of both the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of cartoons produced by Warner Bros., which are now subsumed by the studio under the singular branding.
2 As Leslie notes, the “popular culture versus high art” debate has also been held “over and over” (v)-it is surely time to move on instead to the critical possibilities that inclusive paradigms in mod\ernist studies might allow us.
3 Jones describes Bugs Bunny, after all, as a “counter- revolutionary”: the only Marx he means Bugs to recall is Groucho (Jones 10-11).
4 Polan refers here to Brecht’s reading as aesthetic formalist in 1970s film studies, achieved often by entirely discounting the content of his work (664).
5 We should note in this remarkable co-occurrence that by this point in history, certain arguments seem not to hold water when it is suggested that “popular” modernists are simply playing catch-up to the real artists, as we might more persuasively argue, perhaps, for the popularized surrealism of Dough for the Do-Do (1949) (itself a remake of Porky in Wackyland ).
6 Elsewhere in the cartoon, of course, Daffy’s voice too disappears, just as it is repeatedly transfigured, becoming the roar of a machine gun, and the braying of a donkey. For all that a classical indexical registering of Daffy’s voice remains in the body’s absence, elsewhere we find aural dissociations just as we do in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, or No I. Just as for Beckett’s performers, no part of Daffy is safe: voice or body, audio or visual.
7 Indeed, Noble’s gravity-defying designs generally manifest their own impossibility-see in particular the work on the classic Duck Dodgers in the 24th Century (1953) and its descendents, or the spectacular postwar modernist architectural design of Bugs Bunny’s home in the connecting segments of The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979).
8 Duck Amuck’s role in my work here is as an unusually oven expression of this indexical erasure-the same function fulfilled by Breath in Beckett’s oeuvre.
9 We should note at this point that, in the reality of the artistic experience, neither “Breath” nor Duck Amuck could remove everything, absolutely. There is a necessity in Lyotard’s formulation, after all, for an “index”-otherwise, absence is just absence, that is, nothing rather than nihilism. To signify “nothing” needs “something.”
10 See Meyerhold, quoted in Braun 198. For a fuller consideration of biomechanics, see Law.
11 For images of Constructivism’s stage sets, see Goldberg (44,47). Viewing these images of man and machine in perfect synchrony, there might be, for some, an uncomfortable sensation that the workers are, in fact, being used by the machines: not least, given the sheer physical dominance on stage of these large, quasi- penal machineries.
12 This is not intended to be a flattering comparison, of course- Berger’s attack relies on the idea that nothing could be more appalling than a comparison of “artist” and animator.
13 On Disney’s politics, see Leslie (80-157), who points out, for example, that animation was often seen by political modernists as precisely revolutionary-its plasticity of form and the like suggesting to some the absolute change of reality.
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University of Canterbury, New Zealand
Thanks to Alan Sinfield, Philip Armstrong, and Alistair Davies for their helpful comments and suggestions on drafts and versions of this work. A version of this paper was presented at the Centre for Modernist Studies at the University of Sussex, UK, in October 2004, and I am grateful for the helpful response I received at that presentation.
Copyright Salisbury University 2007
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