- American Puppet Modernism: Essays on the Material World in Performance
Peter Schumann, the director and founding member of Bread and Puppet Theater, believes that puppeteers like himself have traditionally occupied an outsider’s place with respect to “high” art in Western theatre tradition. In American Puppet Modernism, John Bell notes that Schumann has reveled in the “low” and even “ridiculous” position that his work occupies, since the puppeteer can use it as strategic footing for political critique. While this status has benefited companies like Bread and Puppet, it has also fostered conceptions of puppet theatre as an insignificant performance genre—silly children’s entertainment at best. Bell’s book complicates the idea of what a puppet is and how it speaks about the culture in which it performs, thus providing an opportunity for the reader to reconsider puppet theatre’s significance by seriously considering what Frank Proschan termed “performing objects” (a term encompassing all things that take part in a storytelling process or that represent ideas). This critical exploration into American object performance yields many insights into the way material objects speak about and work within our increasingly materialistic culture. Bell examines several compelling moments of material performance. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth-century with traveling panoramas, he then delves into several incarnations of object performance in the twentieth century. The book ends with a discussion of the implications of nascent motion-capture technology in the twenty-first century. These analyses are incisive and provocative investigations into the ways that objects tell stories about the culture that produces them, an intriguing and accessible read for artists and scholars interested in a historical perspective of the material world in performance.
Bell begins by expanding his definition of “puppet” to encompass a spectrum of “performing objects,” which allows him to consider such material objects as marionettes, hand-and-rod–style puppets, cars, televisions, and computer-generated animation. Having established a broad horizon of possible material, he focuses on particular practitioners in specific historical moments. Through close examination of the methods and materials used in their performing objects, Bell reveals how the performance of objects reflects, enhances, or subverts the cultural narratives shaping modern American identity. In this spirit, an early essay places John Stevens’s The Sioux War Panorama, which toured Midwestern towns during the 1860s and ’70s, within the mythic history of American expansionism. Showing a succession of painted images (including depictions of westward-bound settlers, Abraham Lincoln with his cabinet, Sioux leaders, conflicts between Native peoples and troops under the command of Colonel Silbey, and the mass hanging of Sioux prisoners), the panorama and Stevens’s accompanying narration told a story of the inevitable taming of the American West. Bell describes how the panorama invoked recognizable American figures in a way that elevated them to hero status, while at the same time reinforcing a conception of Native Americans as dangerous “savages” in need of civilizing, through bloody enforcement if necessary. By framing, confirming, and glorifying the violent process of westward expansion, so that the spectators felt that they were part of a larger American myth, the panorama edified the settlements it visited.
Any investigation of object performance must include Edward Gordon Craig’s provocative “The Actor and the Über-marionette,” and indeed Bell expertly disabuses the common misconception that Craig’s theories demand erasure of the living actor in favor of nonhuman actors. He also traces Craig’s influence on emerging puppet modernism in America, beginning with the Little Theatre Movement. As Bell explains, Craig inspired many artists in the Movement who wanted to explore the possibilities of masks, puppets, and other performing objects in contexts of serious artistic exploration: puppet theatre for an adult audience. The example of Remo Bufano, a puppeteer who came out of the Little Theatre Movement hoping to make space for puppets in performance, helps Bell to allay misgivings about [End Page 131] what may appear on first glance to be a call for an actor-free theatre. “In Bufano’s vision, puppets and actors will share...