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When is a Dog not a Dog?
When it’s a Crab.
As anyone who’s seen Shakespeare in Love can testify, The Two Gentlemen of Verona will always be “that one with the dog.” It’s true. I have told subscribers after speaking events that Two Gents is our next show, only to be met with blank stares.
All I have to say is one word, “dog,” and their faces immediately crinkle with pleasure.
Launce and his dog Crab. This is not only the most memorable part of the show but one of the most memorable scenes in all of Shakespeare. It is a scene Beckettian in its minimalist genius and unanimous in its ability to make an audience laugh. A man and his dog, alone onstage. Just what is it about Launce’s monologue with his dog Crab that so delights and teases the imagination?
The answer is simple yet profound, and it comprises the subject of one of my favorite essays on the theatre: “The Dog on the Stage: Theater as Phenomenon,” by the late theatre scholar Bert O. States. According to States, it’s quite clear: we are delighted, when we watch Two Gents, to be watching a dog that is so…doglike. “An animal can be trained or tranquilized,” writes States,
but it cannot categorically be depended upon. There is always the fact that it doesn’t know it is in a play; consequently, we don’t get good behavior, only behavior. In productions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona Launce’s dog Crab usually steals the show by simply being itself. Anything the dog does—ignoring Launce, yawning, wagging its tail, forgetting its “lines”—becomes hilarious or cute because it is doglike.
A dog is a dog. It is perfectly, naturally itself in all contexts, whether in his doghouse or on the stage. But when placed on stage the animal’s innocence produces a kind of comic double vision for us, the audience. We view the dog as a performer, all the while implicitly understanding that it is a real dog, acting the way a dog does. The fact that it is able to perform, without knowing, is a kind of miracle, an intrusion of sublime reality upon the artificiality of stage behavior. Many a Launce throughout theatre history has felt their mind race in improvisatory frenzy when Crab has licked their faces or lifted his leg, throwing the already charged atmosphere of a theatrical performance into momentary, exciting disarray. “The theatre,” writes States, “has met its match: the dog is so blissfully above, or beneath, the business of playing, and we find ourselves cheering its performance precisely because it isn’t one.”
This paradox between acting and being is eternal for actors. The best of them seem to have an unconscious knack for existing onstage without quotations or affect. Marlon Brando was doglike, in the best of ways. But for most of us, attempting to appear relaxed onstage is somewhat like a high school mathlete attempting to calculate pi, another artificial formula that seeks to emulate nature. It is a process, once begun, never to be stopped.
Launce, or rather Shakespeare, was aware of this fact, centuries before it appeared as academic theory. And he thought it was funny. As Launce points out, in a moment of existential confusion, “the dog is himself, and I am the dog.” How right he is. The theatre really is a dog’s world. If only we could be so lucky.
As always, send notes and queries to DLichtenberg@ShakespeareTheatre.org.