Text by Kenneth Gross
Sunday, March 31, 2013
The Madness of Puppets
What is this thing that I recognize, that seems to know me, when I come upon it on a street corner, in a park, or in the shadows of a theater, moving up on that small stage? What is this creature that burrows out of shadows, into the light, a remnant of something, hardheaded, often squeaking and ugly, moving with such odd, unpredictable motion, or just lying still, folded up on itself, a little warm, patiently gathering strength for some new movement? I wonder about the world in which this creature lives. I wonder more what it knows about our world.
The madness of the puppet. It lies along a line or spectrum of things. It might be a very ordinary form of madness. The madness lies in the hidden movements of the hand, the curious impulse and skill by which a person’s hand can make itself into the animating impulse, the intelligence or soul, of an inanimate object—it is an extension of that more basic wonder by which we can let this one part of our body become a separate, articulate whole, capable of surprising its owner with its movements, the stories it tells. I call it madness, but it is perhaps better called an ecstasy. It lies in the hand’s power and pleasure in giving itself over to the demands of the object, our curious will to make the object into an actor, something capable of gesture and voice. What strikes me here is the need for a made thing to tell a story, to become a vehicle for a voice, an impulse of character—something very old, and very early. The thing acquires a life.
The madness will also have something to do with the made puppet itself, so often a crude and disproportioned thing, with its staring eye and leering teeth, its tiny hands, the impossible red or blue of its face, barely human in form, like a monster or mistake, a fetus or a corpse. The madness lies in the wild actions that come to belong to that object, that seem, indeed, proper to it: its rhythmic dance, its talent for trickery, its speed of attack, its delicate way with a stick or bit of paper, its skill in disappearance and reappearance. Characters human and inhuman, close to objects. In this theater, what looks like a wooden block or ball, a bundle of rags, a thin silhouette of perforated leather, assumes a voice and personality. In the right hands, a mere strip of paper moved by a string, yielded to accidents of air, can do it. All acquire intentions, what looks like will, even if this belongs to things we think can have no will. All acquire different souls and spirits, all have different stories to tell. They are able to enter into our histories, and reenact our histories.
Then there is the intense, often mysterious quality of the audience’s fascination with these wooden actors, and with the seen and unseen face of the puppet show. Fear there can be, also an unsettling delight, the trace of the intimacy we can achieve with alien things. The playwright Paul Claudel, in 1926, described a puppet show he saw in Japan, though it sounds as much like a performance of the French clown puppet Guignol: “And behind—it’s so amusing to keep well hidden and make someone come to life; to create that little doll that goes in at the eyes of every spectator to strut and posture in his mind! In all those rows of motionless people only this little goblin moves, like the wild elfish soul of all of them. They gaze at him like children, and he sparkles like a little firecracker!” There is something in the puppet that ties its dramatic life more to the shapes of dreams and fantasy, the poetry of the unconscious, than to any realistic drama of human life. That is part of its uncanniness, that its motions and shapes have the look of things we often turn away from or put off or bury. It picks out our madness, or what we fear is our madness. It creates an audience tied together by childlike if not childish things. It is amazing, the scream of children trying to warn Punch that there is a crocodile hiding behind him, a creature who disappears instantly below stage every time that Punch turns around to catch a glimpse of him. Keeping watch on the audience that watches a puppet show is often part of the fascination. François Truffaut’s 1959 film The 400 Blows, as an interlude in its picture of wounded childhood, contains a stunning few minutes of footage showing the faces of an audience of young French children watching a puppet show of Red Riding Hood, each face distinct yet part of a unified sea of wonder. They are wildly absorbed by what they see, crying out warnings (“Le loup! Le loup!”), elated even by their fear for the puppet heroine set upon by a puppet wolf.
Puppet theater has its ambivalences. It can produce less touching forms of fright, a sense of mere creepiness, not to mention a sense of its being something trivial or contemptible. One of Goethe’s Venetian Epigrams (1796) suggests a more violent response: “I fell in love as a boy with a puppet show; / It attracted me for a long time until I destroyed it.” That too is part of the madness I would describe. It is not quite the same as the act of “putting away childish things.” There’s something so loaded, so odd about the very word “puppet” in English that it can’t help but evoke divided responses in those who hear it, even those who are themselves involved in the art. The word derives from the Latin pupa, for little girl or doll, a word still used in entomology to describe the mysterious, more passive middle stage of an insect’s metamorphosis, as the larva is covered in a chrysalis, and awaits reemergence as a winged thing. Such an analogy has some resonance, and yet the word “puppet,” itself a diminutive, still sounds a little like a child’s word, as well as being a word for a child. Used metaphorically, it gets applied to a thing or person both insignificant and subjected to the power of others—not a word people will readily apply to themselves. In Shakespeare’s time, “puppet”—sometimes “poppet”—might be an endearment, but also a term used to derogate both actors and servile politicians, or to mark a woman as a painted seductress, even a prostitute. “Fie, fie, you counterfeit, you puppet, you!” cries Helena to Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, thinking she has stolen her lover. English Protestant reformers employed the word to mock the Roman Catholic use of images and relics, the ceremony of the Mass, indeed, the whole architecture of Catholic ritual. The homemade dolls found in the possession of accused witches, allegedly used to inflict harm by magic, were also called puppets.
This book invites a double vision. The puppet and the idea of the puppet move together here, the actual and imagined, or unknown, puppet, the visible and invisible puppet. I want to trace the sources of the theatrical fascination of puppets, their peculiar powers and limits onstage, but also to touch on broader questions about artistic making. Hence it is that when I describe certain aspects of puppet theater—its ardent indecorums, its talent for metamorphosis, its dismemberings of language and transformations of scale, its materiality, its commitment to giving life to the unliving, its negotiations with death and survival, its love of secrecy and shadows, its literalness, its fundamental strangeness—I want also to convey how these find mirrors in other forms of poetry and fiction, as well as in dramatic art more generally. If the wooden actor holds up a stark mirror to actors of flesh and blood, it also offers a resonant image of our broader relation to the words we speak, their forms of life and death, our relation to material objects, as well as to our own bodies. This is why my descriptions of actual puppet shows are so often folded together here with thoughts about imaginary and figurative puppets, or puppetlike beings, that appear in writings by, among others, William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, Emily Dickinson, Carlo Collodi, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Russell Hoban, Seamus Heaney, and Philip Roth, in the work of visual artists such as Joseph Cornell or Paul Klee, or in a film of Ingmar Bergman’s. In their works we glimpse the fictive puppet as quester, soldier, trickster, survivor, child, angel, animal, and ghost, even as puppeteer. All of these connections help me to take the measure of the puppet as a metaphor of human making, a form of life. A wooden head opens up strange worlds.
Text by Kenneth Gross
Text by Kenneth Gross
Excerpted from pages 1-10 of Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life by Kenneth Gross, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2012 by The University of Chicago