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  • The Madness of Puppets
  • Kenneth Gross (bio)

What is this thing that I recognize, and that seems to know me, when I come upon it on a street corner, in a park, or in the shadows of a theater, on that small stage? What is this creature that burrows out of shadows, into the light, a remnant of something, hard-headed, 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 sort 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, a thing without life. It is an extension of that more basic miracle by which this one part of our body can become a separate, articulate whole, capable of surprising its owner with its movements, the stories it tells. It lies in the hand's power and pleasure in giving itself over to the demands of the object, the curious will to make the object into an actor, something capable of gesture and voice, with a will of its own. (I call this a madness, but it could as well be called an ecstasy.) It will have something to do with the made puppet itself, so often a crude and disproportioned thing, with its staring eyes and leering teeth, its tiny hands, the impossible red or blue of its face. The madness lies in the wild actions that come to belong to that object, that seem native to its being—the figure's abrupt or rhythmic movements, its appetite and speed of attack, its [End Page 182] talent for trickery, its delicate way with a stick or bit of paper, its skill in disappearance and reappearance.

Then there is the intense, often mysterious quality of the audience's fascination with these inhuman actors, and with the seen and unseen face of the puppet show. The playwright Paul Claudel once described the scene at a Japanese puppet theater (though he might just as well have been writing about a show of Guignol, the tricky, impish, ironic clown of French popular puppet theater): "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 for all its concreteness, the puppet's motions and shapes have the look of things we often turn away from, put off, or bury. It creates an audience tied together by child-like if not childish things.

There is an element of transformation, even of abuse or theft of function, in the way that puppet theater takes up and makes use of material objects. The spirit of metamorphosis means that, on the puppet stage, everything is liable to become different from what you think it is, even as the puppets remain nothing but themselves. I have seen puppet shows in which a crocodile's jaw was made out of a ballet slipper, the head of a ghost shaped from a cast-off glove, a clown's agile body made from a pair of scissors. Some readers will remember the scene in Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, where the little tramp, dreaming of a dinner with his beloved, is able to extract such ballet-like grace from a pair of forks stuck...


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pp. 182-205
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