By Wren, Celia
Commonweal , Vol. 125, No. 17
Do away with the actor," proclaimed the theatrical innovator Gordon Craig in the early years of this century, "and you do away with the means by which a debased stage realism is produced and flourishes." Then, in a passage that has given the creeps to drama students ever since, he went on to demonstrate the inferiority of human actors to puppets, "descendants of a great and noble family of images, images which were made in the likeness of God."
In a country where most of us associate puppetry first and foremost with Kermit the frog, the art form holds less exalted status, and puppets can seem childish--modified toys. But other cultures boast richer traditions, and artists all over the world are creating adventurous works using puppets--with and without the help of human actors.
The vibrancy of this work was splendidly showcased in New York this September when the Jim Henson Foundation sponsored its biannual International Festival of Puppet Theater. The Henson Foundation, founded by Muppet creator Jim Henson, exists to promote puppetry in the United States. To this end, it makes grants to artists, and every other year sponsors the festival, which includes international acts primarily for adults. This year's smorgasbord, representing sixteen countries, included pieces as diverse as a multimedia dramatization of William Hogarth's Rake's Progress, a meditation on South Africa's post-apartheid Truth Commission, and a contemporary tribute to the ancient Indonesian art of shadow plays.
Most of these works ventured into experimental territory, but one entry did represent a more conservative strain. Making its U. S. debut, the Japanese company Youki-za, which was founded in 1635, illustrated the elaborate and highly stylized traditional Japanese art of marionettes. Youki-za performed three pieces, including the operatic Meiboku Sendai Hagi: Tale of the Loyalty of Goten Masaoka, a play often staged in kabuki theater. Wearing black, with black veils wrapped around their heads, the puppeteers coaxed six-inch marionettes, clad in elaborate silk costumes, through a tale of murder and betrayal during the reign of a shogun. Humor glinted here and there through the solemnity: during an impressive battle scene, a samurai's weapon sliced a warrior clean in half, and the two halves hopped awkwardly off into the wings.
Quite different in tone and scale was Lion Dance, a wordless selection that featured a twelve-inch dragon with a gold head, white whiskers, and a turquoise silk coat. With Youki-za patriarch Magosaburo Youki XII guiding the strings, the puppet pranced on stage and cavorted, scratching its ear with its hind foot like a cat, biting its tail, and snapping at butterflies, to the audience's amusement.
Moments like these draw attention to the contradiction that puppets embody: they are simultaneously animate and artificial. A marionette dragon is marvelous to watch because it moves as if it were living, but we still laugh when it scratches its ear--because it is funny to watch something not alive act as if it were. Sigmund Freud observed that the presence of the familiar within the strange, the hint that the inanimate is living, creates the "uncanny." The word usually implies something frightening, but Freud's observation helps explain why puppets can be so droll, as well as so eerie.
The spookier side of puppets was on display in a particularly provocative festival selection, created by the celebrated puppet artist Roman Paska. Dieu! God Mother Radio splices an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's 1589 play The Massacre at Paris with a disquieting vision of a cosmic radio station. The puppeteer Massimo Schuster, looking like a mad monk with his wild beard and long white robe, roamed up and down two racks of marionettes, which he periodically seized, toyed with, and replaced. …