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Reviewed by:
  • Puppetry: A World History
  • Kathy Foley
Puppetry: A World History. By Eileen Blumenthal. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005. 272 pp. 350 illustrations (210 color). $65.

Eileen Blumenthal's work is ambitious in that it embraces the puppetry of all countries in all ages and attempts through illustrations to give the visual information that will represent the vast diversity of what she terms the "constructed actor." As a coffee table book and an introduction to contemporary puppetry for adult audiences in the United States and Europe, it will enter the library of most puppeteers. The captions and images allow one to view the work of performers one has heard but not seen, as well as to learn of new artists. The lavish images catch the eye and the mind. Those interested in a theoretical approach to object theatre as a global practice will also find the essays thought provoking.

For selected Asian genres or specific performers, Blumenthal gives rich reportage. Her description of traditional Korean puppetry is excellent, and, indeed, a Korean namsadang figure graces the front cover. She is expansive in dealing with the work of I Wayan Wija, one of the top Balinese performers of the last thirty years. However, most Asian artists do not get this coverage, so the book will be less crucial to scholars of Asian puppet practice.

Ultimately, constraints of space and Blumenthal's organizational method work against her noble aspirations of global coverage. The pictorial focus means that text is limited. Blumenthal's choice to divide her discussion into short topical essays on aspects of puppetry means that discussion of a genre such as Javanese wayang is dispersed through the book. Readers come away with themes but do not gain a firm sense of the contexts in which the different forms arise.

The book begins with an overview history tracing all of puppetry in a quick survey of twenty-five pages. Thereafter Blumenthal gives her breakdown of types of puppets: those manipulated from the inside (including hand, finger, and body parasite [where the manipulator wears the image]), those [End Page 421] manipulated from the outside (string, rod, shadow), puppets that mix these first two categories, and eccentric techniques that may use air, water, or fire in the animation process. She next undertakes short, topical essays on puppet practice. Her discussion of puppets and violence is one of the strongest, as she tries to clarify the relationship between forms as diverse (but interlinked) as Punch and Judy, karagöz, and Korean namsadang puppetry. Other chapters explore politics and puppetry, sexual expression, and what Blumenthal terms "public service." The essays contain interesting material, but leap from country to country and century to century. Blumenthal lists multiple genres and specific puppeteers who have used their art for the cited purpose, but has little time to explain the context that gave rise to the choice. I found the "public service" category discombobulating—one paragraph discusses American television puppetry in Sesame Street and Between the Lions and the next addresses the Hindu epics in Southeast Asia and puppets represented in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Later in the same chapter, we meet Punch selling cigars and Howdy Doody hawking Wonder Bread. As literacy, religion, and commerce merged, I questioned if all fit together as "public service."

Western art puppetry, especially in the contemporary period, is the strength of the book. Blumenthal has good intentions in serving the rest of the globe but is limited by space and sources. The author traveled widely in Asia and has read extensively (generously crediting many who have written for Asian Theatre Journal as sources). But because Asian puppet forms are of such long-standing cultural significance (especially when we compare them to Western object theatre practice) and because the notable Asian puppeteers of the last century are well known to experts, the failure to give some focus the work of seminal artists such as Narto Sabto of Java or Chakraphand of Thailand gives the work a feeling of incompleteness. One hopes for a sequel that can give Asian artists greater focus. With no footnotes, the work shows its intentions of appealing to the general public rather than the scholarly community...