Researchers shed light on the first-ever English novel with theatre performance

What would animals say about the world if they could talk?

This funny, satirical one-hour performance was performed alongside Crooked Dances in at The Other Place in 2019. It emerged from a collaborative process between artists and academics responding to the first ever English novel by William Baldwin. A tall tale of magical attempts to understand the language of cats, with unique artworks representing the cat-world by artist Penny McCarthy.

2 cats talking for sitefinity
Image by Penny McCarthy
Image by Penny McCarthy © Penny McCarthy Browse and license our images

More about the event

The world’s first ever English novel – a little known satire of magic and religious controversy written during a time of immense political and social change across England and Europe – has been brought to life by researchers at the University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam and Sussex.

The novel, Beware the Cat, was first written in 1552 before many of the more well-known early modern writers published their first work. It tells a tale of witchcraft, religious controversy, and talking cats in a bid to help us imagine what animals might say about the world if they had the ability to talk.

Centred on the grisly alchemical experiments of a rambling priest seeking to understand the language of cats, the story asks a question that has provoked humans across the ages: do birds and beasts have reason?

Professor Frances Babbage from the University of Sheffield’s School of English and Dr Rachel Stenner from the School of English at the University of Sussex have worked with Terry O’Connor from UK theatre ensemble Forced Entertainment and Penny McCarthy from Sheffield Hallam’s Fine Art department on a project to adapt the novel into a theatre performance for audiences across the UK to see. They were joined in this piece of collaborative research by Dr Bob McKay, Dr Bill McDonnell, Dr Robyn Orfitelli and Professor Adam Piette

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