5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Susan Yankowitz and Madame P.

Photo credit: Nina Yankowitz

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

Photo credit: Nina Yankowitz

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.

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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:

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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 parrot for 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. Together, Yankowitz and I thought an interview with the aforementioned sow would give the CFR coverage a sheen of cleverness while offering Yankowitz herself, writing in character, an opportunity to outline on her own dramaturgical insights. As it worked out, some questions were more pertinent to Yankowitz, some more pertinent to the pig. I loved how Yankowitz, um, didn’t muddy things up!

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So here is the interview. Please, please, dear readers, keep the play firmly affixed to your radar, because I do think it’s going to come around again for our collective consumption.

And now, 5 questions Susan Yankowitz and Madame P have never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Why do you so often write about the voiceless — the deaf-mute in Silent Witness, the aphasic Anna in Night Sky and now animals — when you are so articulate?”

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2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Why do you keep writing for theater when you could write for television?”

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Is your work going to live after you?” and/or “What is the meaning of life? Please answer in one sentence.”

4) Madame P, in Susan Yankowitz’s play there are scenes depicting your trial for the murder of an infant in 16th century France. Did you feel the trial was fair and just? How could the French justice system then have been fairer to you? Any words you’d still like to share with the court?
I honestly believe that my trial was unjust at its core. The law had absolutely no flexibility or understanding when it came to pigs or other animals; it just squeezed us into the system as if we were humans. Well, of course you’d prosecute a woman who killed a baby! But me? What did I do wrong? Everyone knows that a pig will eat anything. I was just obeying my God-given nature. I didn’t know it was a child; I didn’t even know that eating it would cause its death! In fact, I don’t even know what death is! But that’s the word that kept cropping up in my trial. My lawyer did his best for me but, face it, a sow can’t compete for sympathy with a mother who’s mourning her infant.

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5) Madame P, we’d love your view on more recent animal trials. Should Lorenzo, lookout parrot for a Colombian drug cartel, stand trial? What should be his defense? As for the Nigerian goat arrested for a 2009 armed robbery, is that just persecution or is there a case?
Lorenzo was just parroting his master’s voice, which is what parrots do, so I think his defense is obvious. You don’t put the gun on trial for shooting someone, do you? Although in my time, and in many periods before and since, objects were prosecuted. For instance, quite recently in China, 15 wooden idols were tried and condemned to decapitation for falling off a ledge and causing the death of a military man. The viceroy residing at Fouchow ordered the culprits to be carried out of the temple and brought before the criminal court of that city, which, after due process of law, sentenced them to have their heads severed from their bodies and then to be thrown into a pond. The execution is reported to have taken place in the presence of a large concourse of approving spectators. And there are plenty of other cases like that. As for the Nigerian goat, I hear that he was a shape-shifter. Whether he should be prosecuted or not will depend on how shifty he is in court.

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Bonus question:

6) Susan, picking up on the final part of question #5, what’s your stance on animal-rights laws? More broadly, by what mechanism should society ensure animals aren’t needlessly persecuted? Should it be through the law? Through education? Through animal revolt?
I’m just a playwright. I pose the questions, and leave the answers to others. Which is why I’ve invited experts to discuss these issues and any others evoked by the play after the presentations. Unfortunately, Madame P won’t be with us for the debate. But I believe there will be several passionate voices to speak for her.