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Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 46, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 551-554 | 10.1353/cdr.2012.0037

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Toward the end of Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life, Kenneth Gross evokes the unusual environment in which puppetry exists:

It is a space where unexpected forms of life emerge, assert a form, shift shape and then disappear, not a vast space, not a great wilderness or a grand palace, but like some rumored corner of an old house, or some neighborhood in a city that you stumble across by surprise, where people under the shadow of war or poverty engage in commerce of peculiar sorts, trading in strange goods and using odd currencies, feeding unaccountable and suspect appetites.


In Puppet, Gross attempts to articulate the essence of the creatures that inhabit this space, their special nature, and our attraction to them. Each chapter is an encounter with a few particular examples of puppetry, sometimes from traditional forms, like Japanese bunraku or Sicilian rod puppets, and sometimes from innovative contemporary artists like Janie Geiser or Germany’s Ilke Schönbein, who are exploring the boundaries of this world in new ways. Each chapter also provides a meditation on aspects of puppetry that captivate and puzzle us, leading to more profound consideration of the puppet’s relationship to art and life. As Gross explains, “The puppet and the idea of the puppet move together here, the actual and imagined, or unknown, puppet, the visible and the invisible puppet” (4). Puppet is at once a book of personal reflections—based on Gross’s own experiences with objects in performance, with literature that draws on the metaphor of the puppet, and with individual puppeteers—as well as an exposition on the nature of puppets, in all their variety, and how they work on the imagination.

Chapter 4, “The Fate of Hands,” for example, begins by proposing the hand or glove puppet as the “extension and tool of our will” (51) because of the palpable presence of the human hand inside the puppet’s body. The hand puppet transforms a part of the self into a separate, distinct entity even as it remains inseparable from the puppeteer. Furthermore, “The poetry of the connection between hand and puppet is so intense in part because of the range of ways in which we live in our hands, and in which our hands connect us to the world” (52). This observation brings Gross to the work of the famous Russian puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov, who, in his Attitude to a Lady, used simple balls on the index finger of each of his otherwise bare hands to act out a scenario of courtship and seduction. Gross articulates the complexities inherent in this simplest of puppets: “What you feel is the presence of a composite or double body, animate and inanimate at once, a relation perhaps echoing some image of a soul within a body, though never simply—it may be a body within a body, or a soul within a soul” (55). Gross builds on these insights to inform his reading of Philip Roth’s novel Sabbath’s Theatre, in which the main character is an aging puppeteer. While Sabbath’s hands once had a special seductive life of their own, with age their powers have withered, “[a]nd the hardening of the puppeteer’s hands keep pace with the hardening of the poet’s own art” (59). Gross finds that the novel “reminds us that puppets offer a refuge for fantasies otherwise exiled” (60) and ends his chapter, “What I wonder is whether any actual puppet theatre could translate what the novelist’s language seems to know” (62). Gross’s full circle of reflections, from the unique expressive possibilities of hands in the art of puppetry, to the way Roth’s novel redeploys those realities, and the metaphors they embody, in a different artistic sphere, mines the riches buried in the reciprocal connections between the puppet as both stage object and literary metaphor.

While chapter 4 explores the physical presence of the puppeteer’s body, chapter 5, “Wooden Acting,” focuses instead on the puppet as object and objects used as puppets. Gross begins weaving his way into this new web of ideas with a commentary on Kleist’s famous essay “On the Marionette Theater” and its...

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