This deeply peculiar image sparked my academic passions. What structures allowed trained chimpanzees to circulate as global capital in the early twentieth century? Why was the death of a performing chimpanzee considered a referendum on the value of life itself?
My current research focuses on animal performance and discourses of animality during the vaudeville era (roughly 1880s – 1920s). I analyze how processes of taste formation and racialization were mediated by these seemingly frivolous theatrical events.
At the height of their popularity, performing animals appeared in over half of all big-time vaudeville bills. They were a sub-genre of “sight acts,” which comprised about one third of a bill. Yet, sight acts and animal acts in particular have received virtually no attention in academic books on vaudeville. My research fills this gap in our understanding of an iconic performance tradition that established the structures of twentieth-century popular entertainment production and reception.
Animal vaudevillians were much more than diverting novelties shoved at the end of shows for audience members who chose to stay in their seats. Animal vaudevillians’ fur, feathers, and anthropomorphic antics created discourses of animality that mediated audience members’ own humanity and embodied a simultaneous ambivalence and nostalgia for nature in the increasingly urban and industrial United States.