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5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked – Susan Yankowitz and Madame P.: The Clyde Fitch Report

December 16, 2010

The Brown Tweed Society is pleased to welcome new contributing partner Leonard Jacobs, Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, who will routinely weigh in with news from the New York theater scene and ongoing arts issues.

Before I type, write, think or shed another word, I have to apologize to playwright Susan Yankowitz. Let me explain.


Several weeks ago, I was approached by publicist Jacky Agudelo regarding a new play by Yankowitz called The Tragical-Comical Trial of Madame P and Other 4-Legged and Winged Creatures. The play also has a neat subtitle: “a multi-media phantasmagoria-in-progress.” I was immediately intrigued.

What’s more (and with direction by Daniella Topol), the piece would incorporate myriad approaches (“actors, songs, animation and interactive video”) to dramatize the centuries-long history of animals that have faced criminal trials. There’s even a book, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, first published in 1906, dealing with the subject. (The book also has a subtitle: “The Lost History of Europe’s Animal Trials.”)

Fortunately, the play received some neat coverage (click here) when it was presented on Nov. 29 and 30 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College.

Here is a little bit more verbiage from Agudelo’s press release:

O’ the glory of the Middle Ages! The Spanish Inquisition, the boiling-in-oil and the elaborate ritual of bringing animals into court to try them for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder! The accused beasts — cows, dog, cats, sheep, goats, rats, bees and even termites — were provided were defense counsel, held in the same jails as humans, sometimes even given human garb to wear in court and, almost always, sentenced to death by hanging in the public square.

Interestingly, these strange but true tales of animals in court continue today in all corners of the globe — from France where a Great Dane named Scooby was a courtroom witness during a 1996 murder trial to the 2010 on-camera bust of a talking parrotfor acting as “look-out” for a Colombian drug cartel to the 2009 arrest and trial of a goat in Nigeria for armed robbery.

I mean, who could resist this? I know I couldn’t.

But, alas for me, and as I noted in temporary post on the CFR (now removed), the last two weeks were very consumed with family stuff, namely my parents’ move from New York to a sunnier and more southern state, which happened on Wednesday. It was wall to wall packing and boxing and, unfortunately, not much else. I’d enjoyed, I should note, a very nice conversation by phone with Yankowitz, who presumably knows more about animal prosecution now than anyone, and we agreed that she would contribute a 5 Questions piece to the CFR in the form of an interview with Madame P. She is totally game (pardon the, um, pun) and really kind.

Who is Madame P? Glad you asked. According to the press materials, she was “an enormous sow who was tried for the murder of an infant in 16th century France, along with her alleged accomplice, a dog named Lilah.” Pork jokes abound, yes, but what I found especially exciting was how clearly Yankowitz sees the comedy, absurdity and the immensity of the subject, all operating simultaneously within the same play. 

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Visit Leonard Jacobs and The Clyde Fitch Report daily for for more posts on arts, theater and politics. Follow the Clyde Fitch Report on Twitter at @clydefitch.

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