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.
In describing the puppet in performance, I have looked at a number of different styles of puppet theater, both Western and Asian. This includes work in established traditions, such as Japanese Bunraku, Indonesian shadow theater, and the Punch and Judy show, along with a range of ambitious, experimental work by contemporary artists. One can trace among puppets, however different their mechanisms and features, curious genetic links, hidden bloodlines, as between beetles and butterflies, dogs and dolphins. Some varieties are hardy and adaptable, of great antiquity, others rare or long extinct, flourishing only in specialized environments, among the rigors of a desert or the florid tropics. I want to evoke here both the shared lines of relation and the great variety of work being done in puppet theater—from low farce to epic drama, from delicate romance to avant-garde satire. But I have not tried to be encyclopedic or systematic. Rather, I’ve dwelt on a relatively limited number of performances, focusing as much as possible on works that I have seen myself, often in eclectic juxtaposition. I have left unmentioned many living traditions and artists, even ones I admire. Also, in pursuing my subject, I have touched only lightly on this theater’s long history, which is richer than readers may suspect.
In Europe, for instance, the written evidences of the puppet theater reach back thousands of years, to classical Greece, at least, where shows involving both cast shadows and marionettes offered ready metaphors to Plato. Ancient Chinese, Arabic, Indian, and Javanese texts offer glimpses of puppet theater from millennia past—shadow puppets, marionettes, and hand puppets, both sacred and popular. There are traditions in which the puppet is an almost magical, tabooed entity, at once vitalizing and dangerous. At times, the puppet shares with the mask a power to give form to gods and demons, to the spirits of the dead; it is a tool to convey the substance of ancient truths. In such cases the manipulator, even the puppet itself, can take on the guise of a priest or shaman. At moments in its history the theater of puppets has also competed openly with its larger rival, as in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, where wooden players might take up any drama that was performed by human actors, in addition to the puppets’ more traditional repertory of Nativity and Passion plays, saints’ tales, the stories of Faust and Don Juan, clown sketches, and burlesques. It was for the puppet theater that the seventeenth-century Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote his stark romantic tragedies, texts which opened up new opportunities for human actors.
Within modernist and avant-garde theater, too, puppets and the idea of the puppet—and versions of the manikin, the human doll, the automaton—played an important role for many playwrights, often by challenging traditional ideas of acting and dramatic realism, as Harold Segel has richly shown. Puppets crept into the imaginings of Georg Büchner, August Strindberg, Maurice Maeterlinck, Alfred Jarry, Arthur Schnitzler, Oskar Schlemmer, Karel Čapek, Fortunato Depero, Antonin Artaud, Michel de Ghelderode, and Federico García Lorca, to name only a few. Some developed work explicitly for puppet actors, others made plays for human actors whose character, movements, or mode of being might mirror those of puppets. You see this latter in de Ghelderode’s grotesque, clown-filled Passion plays—this playwright thought that puppets gave him a key to drama in its pure and savage state—or in Maeterlinck’s ghostly scenes, “petites drames pour marionnettes,” as he called some of them, plays which evoke a world of innocence and violence, peopled by creatures whose words and actions are compelled by forces that remain unseen. One extreme example of a human theater invaded by puppets is The Dead Class, staged in 1975 by the Polish director Tadeusz Kantor. Here, a cast of grotesque, aged figures—all human actors—circled rows of old wooden school benches with a compulsive, mechanical, and tormented motion, all carrying blank-faced, half-ruined manikins representing their dead childhood, objects held in ways variously tender, idle, desperate, and cruel. It is a theater in which dead things, even a kind of dead acting, are asked to reanimate the stage.
And yet for all of its importance at certain historical moments, at other times, or at the same times, puppet theater has led a more marginal existence. Peter Schumann, founder of the Bread and Puppet Theater—a troupe that has had its own long career and wide influence—archly observed that in general puppet theater is something whose history is “easier researched in police records than in theater chronicles,” an art, if not one of outright failure, that yet prefers “its own secret and demeaning stature” to any grander public notice. Indeed, for much of its history, if it has not been seen as something primarily for children, puppet theater has often been taken for a lower order of theater, part of a world of unliscensed street performers, mountebanks, charlatans, and circus sideshows, a theater form that is debased, unsophisticated, unliterary, ephemeral, though also crudely seductive. And yet such marginalization offers advantages. That “secret and demeaning stature” has made it possible for puppeteers, in some historical contexts, to take up a repertory of otherwise forbidden works—as when players in Tudor England performed with puppets those Medieval Passion plays that Protestant authorities had banned for human actors, or when nineteenth- or twentieth-century puppet troupes (Schumann’s among them) staged shows too politically raw for the commercial stage. At the close of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, a show of tiny, raucous, farcical glove puppets, drawing its energies from a lowly popular theater, offers an ironic mirror of the larger world of human fixation and folly.
What such a range of incarnations reveals about this theater is also something I have tried to clarify here, though I have no final theories on the matter, or any overarching historical narrative of my own to propose.
The hand of the manipulator travels from puppet to puppet, stuck inside one and now another form of cloth, or picking up and putting down the strings or rods of many different figures. It is the closest thing we have in the ordinary human world to the transmigration of the soul from one body to another, or from one creature to another. The puppet artist is likely to be himself or herself a wanderer. In many cases contemporary puppet theater remains, as it was in the nineteenth century, an itinerant art, with small companies moving their portable, homemade worlds from venue to venue, town to town, country to country. It fits then that this book began to be written wandering, during a period of travels and sojourns abroad that started in the autumn of 2007 and continued through much of 2008, predominantly in Italy and Germany, with briefer but crucial stays in Switzerland, France, Israel, and Bali. I remember sharply the changing views from the many desks where I sat and wrote—narrow city streets, suburban lawns, gardens, mountains, seacoasts, ancient walls, even a rice paddy. And I remember the many different theaters where I found myself watching puppet shows, or things not quite puppet shows, many brilliant and moving, many banal, some awful in their cuteness or, by contrast, in their pretense of radicalism. There were large theaters and small, some grandly fitted out, but just as often a little makeshift, stages fitted into other kinds of buildings and chambers, or playing spaces entirely temporary, a mere framework set up in a public square, a garden, or a temple porch. They were mysterious as all theaters are mysterious, and then always familiar.
As important as the shows were conversations with the artists. As I traveled, I was increasingly drawn to the voices of performers themselves, often eloquent, full of stories about their training, their teachers, their lives with the puppets, their moments of illumination. It was absorbing, while I listened, to watch their mobile faces, their bright eyes, and remarkable hands, to keep track of where their thought, pleasure, wonder, uneasiness, and sometimes anger and shame might lie, to note when the old child or old master broke through. One German puppeteer talked movingly about the multiple birthdays of a puppet, the many souls that go into it during its history of being imagined, shaped, and finally put on stage, then seen over time by many audiences—he spoke of the residue of life in old puppets, who never quite die. A young puppetry student in Stuttgart talked about how she learned to know a puppet only after she had destroyed and remade it several times. It was striking to hear exactly the same language about the electric shock of taking a puppet in hand from an avant- garde performer in France and a maker of sacred shadow shows in Bali. A collector of antique puppets in Rome ardently drew out the links between Pinocchio and Mussolini. And in a café in Jaffa (between intervals of bright sun and torrential rain), I listened to a story about the poet Dennis Silk—of how, after hours of rambling talk about puppets in a vast, darkening classroom, he used a hidden string suddenly to move a plastic chair at the back of the space, to shock his solitary student into thinking about the life of objects. Some of these conversations took place backstage, or in a studio. If I was lucky, while we talked, the artist might take up a puppet and for a moment make it live, showing me a certain kind of movement or a trick of voice, and then simply set it down unmoving on a table, suddenly the stranger in being left unanimated. These encounters have found their way into the book, in both explicit and unspoken ways.
What I saw during this space of time was not new to me. I have watched a great variety of contemporary performances using puppets in the past two decades, including vital and moving work being done closer to home, in New York and Los Angeles, in Toronto and rural Vermont. These shows have stayed strongly in my memory and fed this book. Still, the concentrated experience of traveling and writing, the range of performances I was able to see in Europe especially— and perhaps something in the European audiences themselves, who were more at home with puppet theater of all sorts, traditional as well as modern—all this changed my sense of the work I knew, helped me to see more clearly its possibilities and limitations, as well as the threads that connect it to other arts.
This work of watching, talking, and writing has been interwoven with much reading. I have drawn widely here on the varied literature of puppet theater, but it has been equally bracing to reenter books that focus primarily on the work of human actors, and to find just how strongly these discussions continue to resonate for wooden ones—books that describe the wonder and wound of the actor’s presence onstage, or the almost independent life of the actor’s gestures and words, or the ghost of mechanism that haunts the actor’s emotional expressiveness. For all its differences, puppet theater does what all theater must do. And then there were many books having little or nothing to do with puppet theater that often took on different guises in the context of this work; there were unexpected conversations about puppets to be had with these texts, or a sudden sense that I’d been having one all along. A single example may serve here: I have read and reread for many years Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, with its moving descriptions of the apparently abstract, even dead agents in allegorical writing as more like daemons, or resembling robots, automatons, and obsessional persons, persons driven by a fixed idea, at once free and bound within their hyperstructured worlds. Taking it up again while working on this project, the book suddenly seemed to be itself a theory of puppet theater, or suggested ways that a theory of puppets might be a theory of literature, as well as a theory of life.
One last thing to say before going on: Some readers of this book will know a lot about the kinds of performances I have described here; many, I know, will not. They may have seen the violent antics of glove puppets like Punch and Judy, but not the operatic battles of armed Sicilian pupi; they may have watched Japanese Bunraku puppets, but not the forms of gods and demons that perform in Balinese shadow theater. While a theater of puppets aimed at adult as well as child audiences has become much commoner in the United States and abroad, some of the contemporary shows I’ve described will seem equally strange: stark adaptations of plays written for human actors, wordless scenarios acted by ordinary objects and outsized manikins, by fragile, dancing cadavers and histrionic frogs, shows with casts of bright clowns, slim wooden angels, and naked masks, or just expressive bolts of cloth, shows that unfold fables of discovery and loss, freedom and restraint, visibility and invisibility, in some of which puppets and living actors share the stage in startling ways. My own words and a few pictures will give these substance, I hope. But I would also ask readers, as they try to imagine these performances, to bring into play their own memories of puppets and puppet shows they have seen. I would ask them to think of performances they might have glimpsed on the street or in a park, at a carnival or a child’s birthday party, on television or in a film, or to recall puppets they themselves made and played with as children, the particular worlds these figures helped to create or re-create—however rough or fragmentary the memories are, however much they mix up wonder and delight with a sense of something infantile or embarrassing. I have sought in this book to evoke some very basic things about the puppet theater and its implications. Thus, even the ambivalences it can evoke, the shudder of shame and fear, are worth holding on to.
“No one better illustrates the evolution of academic literary criticism into poetry than Kenneth Gross. . . . He dreams and muses, offering endless insights into the strange and archaic world of puppets, inanimate things breathed to life. This is a book of literary mysticism, rich with accrued culture yet never weighed down by it. . . . Gross’s Puppet held in the hand may be a dead thing, but it glows with life.”
“You have in your hands a uniquely beautiful book, a book of uncommon brilliance and lucidity. It is as wondrous as the theaters of marvels it describes; its leaps and mutabilities provide a thrilling adventure in imaginative thinking. ‘How are we devoured by the things we make?’ it asks. ‘And when might that devouring save us?’ My copy burns brightly on my favorite shelf, beside The Poetics of Space, Eccentric Spaces, and In Praise of Shadows. . . a treasure!”
“Kenneth Gross explains why puppets are so powerful and why puppetry is such a vital part of our culture both past and present. His book is the site of a constant flow of sharp observations and insights. It is part of the exciting exchange of ideas about objects in performance that is influencing the practitioners of contemporary theater in general and puppeteers in particular.”
“After three readings, my enthusiasm must take the form of a warning, even of a prohibition: do not read Kenneth Gross’s energetic, expert, and exhaustive essay as if it were merely—merely!—an ecstatic encomium; on the other hand (the puppeteer’s constant cry), do not treat this learned and lyrical study as if it were no more than a reference book, though it has all the beneficent earmarks of that dread convenience. Read it as you always meant to read the Bible: by chapters, by pages, persistently by sentences, readily pausing to concur, to contend, to wonder. . . . You will find the author has done that much for you, thereby achieving—by a labor of years as well as of love—the Sacred Book of an entire human undertaking, one which has ensorcelled us for all the recorded ages of what the author calls uncanny life.”
“Intriguing, inquisitive, and erudite. . . . Gross is particularly illuminating about the passionate intensity or violent hunger for being that seems to be the particular characteristic of puppets; it is as though, as the fossilised form of human longing, the puppet longs in turn, vividly and vivaciously, for the life that can never be its own. The most telling insight is about the puppet’s intrinsic poverty. For Gross, the puppet is so poor, so close to the condition of deprivation and fragility, that it seems perversely, unnervingly, and triumphantly unkillable. The puppet cackles in the face of death, because it has been killed and revived so many times over. . . . A canny and alert examination of the mechanics of animistic and magical thinking.”
“I for one cannot resist a book whose first chapter is entitled ‘The Madness of Puppets,’ with its surely intentional subliminal reference to Metallica. What does a puppet, the English-prof author wonders, know about our world, and why is it keeping quiet about it? . . . The puppet, Gross notes, is political (they were banned in Mussolini's Italy) and demonic. He cites Sesame Street, Cervantes, Kafka, Russell Hoban and Philip Roth, and offers his own morbidly delightful list of ‘Fables for a Puppet Theatre.’ . . . As one eventually emerges from this hall of puppets, everything seems charged with potential life. I watched my pencil, uncertainly.”
“[Gross] gets to the heart and soul of what the puppet is, referencing a broad range of sources, from folk puppet traditions to high art, literature and opera. It is an impressively detailed book, illuminating aspects of puppetry such as the problem of the puppet and voice. . . . As a puppeteer I found the book inspiring and richly detailed. . . . A book for puppeteers, intellectuals and anyone who is fascinated by puppets and wants to explore this fascination.”
“Readers are taking a journey with Gross—one with many curious side trips and satisfying stopovers. . . . Each new topic is a treasure trove of glittering characters and precious stories. . . . Puppet is a dense, fascinating read. Gross is not only well read but well-traveled and personally acquainted with most of the puppetry artists featured in his extended essay.”
“This is the sort of book you can return to and find inspiration and food for thought, as well as information about an uncanny subject.”
“Puppets have figured in movies and novels, ballets and plays and operas, and the world of animated cartoons is not very far removed from the puppet tradition. It’s an almost limitless world of wood and wit and paper and fabric and art and imagination. As Gross shows us, it can be dark as sin or bright as love.”(Pasatiempo)