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  • Gertrude Stein's IdentityPuppet Modernism in the U.S.
  • John Bell (bio)

Donald Vestal's 1930s puppet theatre production of a Gertrude Stein play, Identity, or I Am I Because My Little Dog Knows Me, marked a confluence of Midwest modernism, the resources of the Federal Theatre Project, the development of American puppet theatre as a modernist art form, and the coincidental presence of Stein, Vestal, Thornton Wilder, Bil Baird, and other artists of 1930s Chicago.

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(previous page) The silver-colored "Human Nature" puppet, skeletal and mortal, floats above the two "Chorus" puppets with leaflike hair. Identity, the First Puppet Festival, Detroit (1936). (Courtesy the Estate of Gertrude Stein, through its Literary Executor, Mr. Stanford Gann Jr. of Levin & Gann, PA)

In 1936 one of only five Gertrude Stein plays produced during her lifetime was performed in Detroit. Identity, or I Am I Because My Little Dog Knows Me1 was a material visualization of a text by Stein that ruminates on the nature of existence—done with puppets. Identity is an important example of early 20th-century avantgarde performance not simply because it was a rare production of a Stein play, but because it marked a turning point for the American avantgarde, and in particular the development of puppet theatre as a form of modernism. Puppeteer Donald Vestal designed and [End Page 87] directed the production, which was performed by a Chicago-based company that included Bil Baird, Rita Lewis, pianist Owen Haynes, and Carl Harms, on the occasion of the First American Puppetry Conference and Festival.

An examination of Donald Vestal's 1930s letters to Gertrude Stein, as well as a 2003 interview with the late actor and puppeteer Carl Harms, show how the 1930s convergence of the Federal Theatre Project, Midwestern dreams of modern art, and an emerging American sense of the possibilities of puppetry as a potential form for modern theatre, all led to a moment when puppet modernism, long a lively element of European performance, publicly established itself as a national presence.

Puppet Modernism

Puppet modernism has involved not only the rediscovery of traditional forms of puppet theatre, but also their combination with new puppet techniques and technological innovations, as well as ideas about how puppets could successfully articulate all aspects of modernity. In this manner puppet performance developed as a particular (and one could say central) aspect of 20th-century performance. Recent realizations in the United States that puppetry can be a viable medium for avantgarde performance (Basil Twist's Symphonie Fantastique [1998]), modern drama (Paula Vogel's Long Christmas Ride Home [2003]), Broadway spectacle (Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's Avenue Q [2003] and Julie Taymor's The Lion King [1997]), political art (the post-Seattle "puppetista" movement), television (South Park [first aired 1997] and Robert Smigel's Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), and film (Team America: World Police [2004]) reaffirm the validity and vitality of puppetry as a modern art form, a movement that began in the late 19th century and has cyclically submerged and reemerged since then (see Blumenthal 2005 for a recent analysis of these developments). Puppet modernism saw its most fruitful early-20th-century developments in Europe, where hundreds of artists and theatre makers took to heart Edward Gordon Craig's and Alfred Jarry's assertions that puppetry could be a viable—or even preferable—means of telling modern stories in performance. Three elements were central to this initial Western rediscovery of puppets: (1) a reassessment of such traditional low-culture European puppet forms as Guignol, Petrushka, Punch, and Kasperl, as well as carnival puppet theatre and such mask forms as Commedia dell'Arte; (2) a growing interest and acceptance of traditional Asian, African, and Native American puppet and mask forms as powerful performance techniques worthy of imitation; and (3) an evolving understanding that objects in performance— not only puppets and masks, but also actual manufactured or "found" objects—could incorporate the essential elements of the machine age into performance.

The rediscovery of puppets, masks, and performing objects flourished in the early decades of the 20th century, in the avantgarde works of symbolists, futurists, expressionists, dadaists, constructivists, and Bauhaus...


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