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Inanimate Selves, Alternate Realities

On the International Festival of Puppet Theater

Puppet Theater. Engraving by Giovanni Volpato after a painting by Francesco Maggiotto, ca. 1770. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Puppet Theater. Engraving by Giovanni Volpato after a painting by Francesco Maggiotto, ca. 1770. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul,” says the Book of Genesis. What God did is not so different from what puppeteers do, using humble materials to model their own images, and then breathing finite life into those figures.

Since the ninth century B.C., when the first puppet performances of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were introduced in religious contexts in India and China, the puppeteer’s art has smacked of sanctity. Herodotus describes sacred fertility figures operated by wires and strings that fascinated the Greeks, and Plato uses puppets for powerful metaphoric purposes in his Laws. The shaman is a puppeteer, and so in a metaphorical sense is the priest, who, before the eyes of his congregation, transforms the inanimate wafer and wine into the living flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

Puppets are a form of idolatry; they are things that are alive and yet not alive, and so they fascinate us in much the same way as do viruses, the painting of the Black Madonna that weeps, U.F.O.’s, robots, Lenin in his mausoleum or dreams and mirages. In medieval Europe, puppeteers were regularly attacked by the Church for violating God’s privilege. The principle of animism, of an object infused with meaning beyond its material self, becomes the principle of metaphor, and puppets are perfect metaphor.

“Grace,” the great German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist wrote in On the Marionette Theater in 1810, “appears to best advantage… in the mechanical puppet, or in God.”

There has been a great increase in this high-art notion of adult puppet theater in the United States over the last 20 years as vanguard American artists have turned to the medium, and as work from countries where puppetry was never ghettoized for children has been brought to the New York stage. The most important venue for new puppet work is the biennial International Festival of Puppet Theater, produced by Cheryl Henson, Leslee Asch and the Henson Foundation. The fourth festival opens Wednesday.

All this is happening in a year when critics have hailed Julie Taymor’s puppet-dominated Lion King as one of the best shows on Broadway; when Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique has sold out for three months at Here, a downtown performance space; when a puppet ballet to Aaron Copland’s 1939 World’s Fair composition, “From Sorcery to Science,” produced by Eos Music, attracted attention from the dance and music worlds. Major directors, including Lee Breuer, Ping Chong, George C. Wolfe, Martha Clarke, Robert Lepage and Andrei Serban have all incorporated puppetry into recent productions.

In the first quarter of this century, puppets gained a substantial audience as children’s entertainment when they were presented by Tony Sarg, who also made the balloons for the first Macy’s Day Parade in the 20’s. The tradition he began was popularized with the advent of television and the successes of Charlie McCarthy, Howdy Doody, Kukla and Ollie, and Bert and Ernie. There is pleasure in presenting puppets to children, who are often still uncertain about what is living and what is not. Adults have in the past signaled their canniness by disdaining the animated inanimate as a trivial entertainment. They equate believing in the life of puppets with believing in the Easter Bunny. But in the last 25 years, puppetry has edged quietly into the mainstream.

The modern American puppetry movement really began with the Muppets’ fantastic success at attracting adult audiences. This was followed in 1980 by the ground-breaking World Puppetry Festival in Washington, which brought together hundreds of puppeteers from around the world. Since then, puppetry has grown ever stronger. The National Endowment for the Arts recognized it as a distinct art form in the 80’s, and in that decade the MacArthur Foundation gave “genius” awards to two puppeteers, Ms. Taymor and Bruce D. Schwartz.

The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta has grown steadily since it was founded in 1978, and this year Cal Arts in Los Angeles has set up the $600,000 Costen Center for Puppetry and the Arts, a program that will train artists in all areas of puppet theater design and presentation. Several universities in the United States now offer graduate degrees in puppetry arts.

Puppetry has now triumphed over “foolish literalism,” and its possibilities hold fascination for technicians and theorists alike. George Bernard Shaw wrote, late in his life, “Their unvarying intensity of facial expression, impossible for living actors, keeps the imagination of the spectators continuously stimulated… there is nothing wonderful in a living actor moving and speaking, but that wooden headed puppets should do so is a marvel that never palls.” Eileen Blumenthal, puppetry’s outspoken theorist and a professor at Rutgers University, says: “Human actors still come in a paltry range of sizes and shapes. They can endure only modest physical action without sustaining unacceptable damage. And the performing artist and the character, using the same body, inevitably get all tangled together.”

Playing with this matter is the center of the new puppetry: what is mechanism, what is authentic, what is sheer trickery? These questions are now brought to the forefront. The magnificent American puppeteer Roman Paska wrote, “The puppet’s inherent resistance to realism, which previously obstructed its acceptance as a respectable art form in the West, has now become its principal raison d’etre.” Indeed, to watch a puppet show today is to watch both the puppeteer and the puppets.

The experience of an audience at a play involves transference: we project ourselves onto the actors and their narrative. Freud pointed out that a neutral object is the best subject for transference, and the unmoving expressions of puppets made them richer for projections than the living actor could be. Peter Schumann, founder of the Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theater, writes, “Words are attached to faces which don’t move externally and so are all the more obviously able to produce meaning.” He goes on to refer to puppets as “applied sculpture.”

John Bell, the dramaturg with Mr. Schumann’s company, says that in conventional theater the audience’s attention is “focused on the performer, whose own attention, according to Stanislavsky-based theory, is also focused on his body and inner being.”

“In performing object theater, on the other hand, both the performers’ and the audience’s attention is focused on the object,” and this, he says, is the basis for the puppet theater’s complex relationship to realism.

Puppet theater does not seek a permanent or total evisceration of the lines between the living and the unliving but the blurring of those lines. You are not supposed to think that a bit of cloth or papier-mache is alive; you are supposed to know that it is not alive and yet respond to it with the emotions you ordinarily reserve for living things. Sometimes it is better to weep for a puppet than to weep for a man; sometimes metaphor is more profound than literalism; sometimes art is better than reality.

As the relationship between the “real” and the “artificial” obsessed early industrial society, one artist after the next approached the subject, from E. T. A. Hoffmann (whose Sandman became the ballet Coppelia and the Olympia act in the opera The Tales of Hoffmann) to George Sand, who established an internationally hailed puppet theater (for which she sewed the puppet costumes herself); from Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Vassily Kandinsky and members of the Bauhaus, all of whom built puppets, to Shaw and Lorca, who wrote for them. Georg Buchner has one of his characters declare that hanging a man in effigy is better than hanging him in fact, as the deed is done and the man is unharmed; the effigy puppet here is better for many purposes than the human it represents.

Punch Hangs the Devil, 1841. From Punch Magazine, Vol. 1. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Punch Hangs the Devil, 1841. From Punch Magazine, Vol. 1. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Modernism is refusal: elimination of costumes and props, of broad spans of time, of plot, of language. But the most radical gesture is the elimination of actors. In 1908, Edward Gordon Craig, the designer and theatrical theorist, proposed that puppets should replace actors entirely. “The Uber-marionette will not compete with life — rather will go beyond it… . It will aim to clothe itself with deathlike beauty while exhaling a living spirit,” he wrote in a text dear to the hearts of many puppeteers. In this spirit of sanctity, Josef Krofta, the founder of Czechoslovakia’s Theater Drak, recently said, “We need to remind ourselves often that the word ‘to animate’ does not mean ‘to make move,’ but rather ‘to give a soul to,’ from the Latin word ‘anima.'”

While Craig spoke of puppetry as a “descendant of the stone images of the old temples,” the puppeteer Hanne Tierney has pointed out that all art has folk (and often religious) origins, and that what has happened to puppetry in the last two centuries is much like the evolution of music, from folk song and chant to the full complexity of classical composition to the post-modern revisiting of worldwide mystical roots. Contemporary radicalism in puppetry, too, is often signaled by a return to ancient sources; Asian and African puppetry traditions, for example, never denied the nonhuman status of puppets.

The medieval European puppets — Punch, Petroushka, Pulcinella, et al. — were used to represent and heroize the common man. They “hoodwinked the law, were contemptuous of book-learning and the upper classes, and beat their wives with gusto,” according to Ms. Tierney. Mr. Schumann writes, “Their asocial status acted also as their saving grace.” Much later, in the Communist period in Eastern Europe and in Russia, puppet theater was reborn as a mode of social protest. Subject to far less censorship than the theater, puppet stages became sharply politicized and fiercely independent. International puppetry enthusiasts put together an important puppetry festival in Bosnia in 1996. Puppetry activism (“more relevant than Waiting for Godot, anyhow,” one Bosnian said) is highly energetic and populist.

The two determining external developments for modern Western puppetry are materialism and movies. Henryk Jurkowski, the great Polish puppetry scholar, talks about the “dictatorship of objects in everyday life,” within which we develop intimacies with what we own. Modern puppeteers often forgo the use of manufactured puppets in favor of found objects, and they tend to demonstrate their art in their ability to project life onto anything. The pathetic fallacy comes true in their hands; the brick tires of holding up the building, and the kitchen blender suffers waves of nausea. “As long as someone, or something, moves, a relationship is immediately created with the atmosphere around it,” writes Ana Maria Amaral, a puppetry professor in Brazil. “A static object has an accumulated energy.”

The effect of movies on puppetry has been compared to that of photographs on art. “Before films,” says Ms. Blumenthal, “puppetry was the only theater able to manipulate scale, and this remains one of its fortes.” A puppet is a subtle mechanism to be used in performance: most of the dramatic tricks can be achieved in the new medium (no problem now to have representations of people flying or burning), and so the older one must find a new way by exposing its underlying structures. Following the Japanese Bunraku tradition, the invisible puppeteer is now often quite visible, but if the puppeteer is a skilled performer, he becomes less human, less interesting, and ultimately less visible than the puppet he manipulates. Mr. Paska writes that the purpose of hiding the puppeteer was never to create the illusion of a perfectly unmediated reality; it was to create the illusion of live theater performance, to suggest “the mechanical autonomy of the puppet” rather than the naturalism of his situation.

There is a down side to all this high-art seriousness. New “puppet theorists” write prose full of sentences like “The puppetness of an object is determined by use, not latency, and is a renewable, not permanent quality… the signifying puppet dematerializes into pure simulation,” and “In the puppet theater sculpture serves a quasi-narrative purpose, if narration is understood as the revelation of an inner world and if we allow the possibility that the narration hinges on and is inspired by the sculpture.” Puppet criticism is almost as mystifying as deconstructionism. But the sheer materiality of the puppets themselves means that this rhetoric falls away in the face of performance.

This year’s gigantic festival will reflect all these tendencies, traditions and radicalisms. Each of the individual shows should be interesting in its way, but what will be most interesting will be to see several shows, to dip into the language of modern puppetry. Contrasting the achievements of various performers, one finds that some of these abstract-sounding issues are really very concrete. One is seduced by the work, every time in a different way. In our culture, so much preoccupied with belatedness and exhaustion, the vitality of this medium is particularly invigorating.

Many of Broadway’s biggest successes are revivals and many of Hollywood’s top films are remakes, but though the story of Pinocchio may supply an armature for generations of puppet work, puppeteers are not repeating their inspiration. They do not have the leeway to do so; in this tightly curated festival, the breadth and depth and height of the puppet arts is paramount.

Some of the performances should be breathtakingly realistic, so that one wants to do what Don Quixote did and rush onto the stage and battle with the clay-headed dolls. Many of them will be emotional. Puppet artists are fully aware of the complexity of their medium: as Mr. Paska has said, they are “out on a limb between the angel and the machine.”