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The Actor Occluded: Puppet Theatre and Acting Theory

From: Theatre Topics
Volume 6, Number 2, September 1996
pp. 109-119 | 10.1353/tt.1997.0014

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Theatre Topics 6.2 (1996) 109-119

Imagine that a puppet is onstage, with its operator standing in full sight behind it: "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" the operator says, speaking not for himself (though a rogue and peasant slave he may be), but for the puppet he controls. As the operator has the puppet point a hand offstage in reference to a character who has just exited, he continues:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? (2.2.534-41)

The lines, of course, are from Hamlet. But I must forgo the pleasure of discussing Shakespeare except to say that when, shortly, I ascribe a theory of acting to Hamlet, I do not mean to be advancing any suggestions about the actual nature of Elizabethan acting, of which we know all too little. Rather, the burden of this article is to ask: who, if anyone, is the actor in this puppet performance, and what ramifications follow for acting theory? Let me be clear that although I will be speaking primarily of puppet performance, my main concern here is with acting theory in general. I want to use the example of puppetry to suggest that we should conceive of the actor as the producer of the signs that communicate a dramatic character, rather than as, necessarily, the producer and the site of those signs; and I want to suggest that this conception of the actor implies an inescapable tension between the producing and the siting of signs that contradicts the virtual disappearance of the actor behind the created character -- a disappearance that Hamlet seems to note while considering the Player who suits his whole function "with forms to his conceit." At issue in this essay is the intrinsic nature of acting: I will propose that in all acting, the person of the actor is exposed even as it is occluded by the site of signification.

So: who is the actor in our imaginary performance of Hamlet? Might there be no actor in this (or, by extension, any other) puppet performance? If one defines the actor along the lines that Hamlet seems to imply, this conclusion logically follows. Hamlet's definition -- at least as I imagine it -- would emphasize the living being, the corporeality, of the actor as a signifying presence in front of the audience; it would maintain, to use the terms I have just introduced, that the actor is at once the producer and the site of signification of character -- or, we might say, the producer and the site of performance. By such a definition of the actor, our puppet performance of Hamlet is without an actor, for while the operator's corporeal being produces the signs of character, those signs are sited on the puppet, whence the audience of our imaginary production perceives them. There is no actor, in other words, because the two aspects of acting -- production and siting -- are split between operator and puppet.

Can there be drama, which for the purposes of this discussion I will limit to performance before a live audience, without actors? One leading dictionary, apparently unwilling to accept the possibility, solves the problem by defining the puppet in terms of performance in "mock-drama," implying that since there are no actors onstage, there can be no proper drama (Funk and Wagnalls). But in our puppet performance of Hamlet, let us imagine, we have already seen Hamlet on the ramparts with the Ghost, and been introduced to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; we will soon see the Players and their aborted play, Claudius vainly at prayer, and the climactic blood bath, all presented in full, with appropriate movement and speech, on the stage, to the audience. How is this "mock-drama"? The only meaningful difference between our Hamlet and a more conventional Hamlet is that in the former, the puppet, rather than the actor, is the site of signification. Does this difference...

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