Monkey Theater

Source: Walter Benjamin (trans. Howard Eiland), ‘Monkey Theater’ in Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Cambridge, Mass./London: The Belknap Press of Hadvard University Pres, 2006), pp. 142-143

Text: “Monkey Theater” – to the adult ear, this name has something grotesque about it. Such was not the case when I first heard it. I was still quite young. That monkeys must have looked rather strange onstage was a consideration wholly overshadowed by this strangest of all things: the stage itself. The word “theater” pierced me through the heart like a trumpet blast. My imagination took off. But the trail it pursued was not that which led behind the scenes and which later guided the boy: rather, my imagination sought the trace of those clever, happy souls who had obtained permission from their parents to spend an afternoon in the theater. The entry led through a gap in time – that uncovered niche in the day which was the afternoon, and which already breathed an odor of the lamp and of bedtime. On entered not in order to feast one’s eyes on William Tell or Sleeping Beauty – at least, not only for this reason. There was a higher goal: to occupy a seat in the theater, among all the other people who were there. I did not know what awaited me, but looking on as a spectator certainly seemed to me only part of – indeed, the prelude to – a far more significant activity, one that I would engage in along with everyone else there. What sort of activity it was supposed to be I did not know. Assuredly it concerned the monkeys just as much as it would the most experienced theatrical troupe. And the distance separating monkey from man was no greater than that separating man from actor.

Comments: Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German philosopher, essayist and cultural commentator. His idiosyncratic memoir of observational pieces on his Berlin childhood was not published in collected form in his lifetime, and not until 1989 in a form that most closely matches the author’s intentions.

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