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Reviewed by:
  • Puppetry: A World History
  • Claudia Orenstein
Puppetry: A World History. By Eileen Blumenthal. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005; pp. 271. $65.00 cloth.

American performing artists, scholars, and spectators are currently experiencing an awakening or reawakening to the world of puppetry and its many possibilities beyond its ubiquitous presence in children's theatre. Performing objects of every kind appear regularly on Broadway, in avant-garde venues, and at international theatre festivals, and TDR, American Theater,and Asian Theatre Journal all have devoted issues to puppetry and performing objects.While Eileen Blumenthal's Puppetry: A World History makes it amply clear that some form of puppetry has existed in every culture and at every [End Page 375] historical period, the book is a timely publication that helps to articulate a broad understanding of puppetry in a contemporary, international context at a moment when performing objects have recaptured the stage.

One of the most impressive aspects of the book is undoubtedly the three hundred fifty illustrations of performing objects of every kind from all corners of the world. The sheer number and variety of images speaks volumes about the range of possibilities and the creativity that exists in this form, and will serve as an inspiration to anyone who may be brooding over a dull theatre season or the limitations of the theatrical medium. Many are so surprising, even for those familiar with the world of performing objects, that one can spend as much time reading Blumenthal's lengthy explanatory photo captions as the text itself, especially since the images are often not directly referred to in the text, but further enhance Blumenthal's already voluminous descriptions of objects and performances. Searching out and assembling this array of photos stands as a testament to Blumenthal's dedication to the project and her understanding of how essential the visual experience is to the art of puppetry.

Blumenthal's next important contribution lies in the method of organization she has chosen for the enormous amount of material collected here. Puppets have often been categorized either by geographic location or by terms such as "hand," "string," and "shadow," referring to the kind of performing object and its mode of manipulation. The first practice links puppets with their historical and cultural roots, which makes a single unified history of puppetry unwieldy, if not impossible; the second speaks primarily to the interests of puppeteers and limits the kinds of objects that can be considered as puppets. Edward Gordon Craig divided puppets into two categories, flat and round, attesting to his concerns as a director-designer with the three-dimensionality of objects on stage and their relationship to space and light. By contrast, Blumenthal looks at performing objects according to what they do well, how they are used in politics and religion (for example, their intermediary position between the living and the dead), and their continual historical relationship to sex, violence, and public service. This system of categorization makes it possible to look at puppetry as a global phenomenon; each chapter is chock-full of examples of performing objects used in parallel ways from cultures separated by vast expanses of time and geography. In this way Blumenthal helps define a terrain unique to the world of performing objects.

In both early and later chapters Blumenthal shows that she is not interested in a rigid answer to the question, "What is a puppet?"—an abstract query belabored by all too many scholars. Instead, she embraces the largest definition possible, dealing with objects that have both close and tangential relationships to any notion of "puppet"—dolls, funerary statues, automatons, processional figures—allowing us to contemplate the interrelationships among them. She even devotes a chapter to the influence of puppets on live-actor performances.

The strength of the book, what makes it essential reading (and looking) for anyone interested in performance, is certainly the richness of examples it provides. It surpasses Bil Baird's classic The Art of the Puppet in its scope and contemporary approach. The number of examples, however, can become cumbersome and some later chapters appear to be nothing but lists, falling somewhat short in analysis and exploration of the topic at hand. Earlier chapters...


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pp. 375-376
Launched on MUSE
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