thematique

Aesthetics of the Puppet – European Romanticism to the Avant-Garde

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The art of the puppet has expressed itself in many ways, but we can extract, from this multiplicity of forms, two fundamental categories. The fist belongs to the “vulgar” world and often superimposes itself on the glove puppet family, the burattini of Italy, the muñecos in Spain, or the guignol in France. The second category, the string marionette (string puppet) seems more “noble”. Some etymologies seem to confirm this dichotomy: the Italian word burattino derives from the second zanni in the commedia dell’arte, Burattino, named thus due to his disorderly gestures, similar to those of a little sieve, a strainer for flour that is shaken. His origin is linked, therefore, to the earth. On the other hand, the word “marionette” comes from little images of the Virgin that were sold in France and also in Venice during the festivals of Mary (see Puppet). This origin takes us back to the domain of the sacred. In the first case, the figure would be seen as a good luck charm linked to the earth (but also to Hell), to a “sub-human” world; it could also be viewed as the emblem of mechanization, the loss of man’s autonomy. In the second case, in its “noble” version, the puppet would be linked to a “superhuman” sphere and would enjoy a privileged position because of its rapport with the divine. The string that allows the marionette to abandon the earth is the visible mark of its symbolic nature. In Christian culture, as in Asia, we find myths incorporating this image of a cord that originally linked the Sky and the Earth and which, by the fault of a mythic ancestor, was cut.

The Puppet in Romanticism

This myth, which also takes us back to the idea of the Fall, is important for understanding the aesthetic of the puppet. In fact, the Fall, taking place after the severing of this cord or several strings, and, along with it the harmonious communication between the Sky and the Earth, constitutes the central theme around which, in 1810, Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) composed his essay “Über das Marionettentheater” (“On the Marionette Theatre”). This essay is foundational for all subsequent European thought about articulated dolls. Kleist sets in relation to each other the fall of Adam and the puppet, whose superiority he exalts against that of the dancer and actor, who should take the puppet as an ideal model. The puppet distinguishes itself, in fact, by its exceptional grace, explained by “a distribution of the centres of gravity more in conformity with nature”. This capacity to obey only a single law, that of weight, and thereby to maintain one’s centre of gravity, is lacking in dancers of flesh, obliged to break their movement. For the puppet, the line of movement always accompanies this centre, in which we should be able, according to Kleist, to identify the soul of the ideal dancer. The puppet, finally, enjoys three advantages: its grace is never affected because “affectation appears at the moment when the soul finds itself at a point completely other than the centre of gravity of movement”; it is “antigravitational” because “the force that lifts it is superior to that which holds it to the ground, which it only needs to brush against” without interrupting the flow of its dance; it is, finally, deprived of consciousness. This last advantage permits it to conserve the purity of its grace in opposition to the dancer, for whom reflection only inhibits movement. In no longer trusting his animal instinct and having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, man has closed the doors to Paradise, and divine grace (identified here with grace of movement) is refused him. Grace has taken refuge in the two ends of the chain of being; “Just in this way, after self-consciousness has, so to speak, passed through infinity, the quality of grace will reappear; and this reborn quality will appear in the greatest purity, a purity that has either no consciousness or consciousness without limit: either the jointed doll or the god.”

At its publication, the significance of Kleist’s text was recognized only by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), who is also the author of a text on the virtues of the puppet: Seltsame Leiden eines Theater-Direktors (The Strange Suffering of a Theatre Director, 1818). Two characters are the protagonists: the man in brown and the man in grey. The first says that he wants to stage Gussmann the Lion and to give the main role to a very intelligent dog, but all the actors protest, unhappy at the role distributions. The second, on the other hand, brags about the merits of his company, which doesn’t contend with such jealousies, and to prove it, opens before his colleagues a chest full of puppets. The text is a defense of actors made of wood in the face of capricious 18th century actors. This defense already appears in a letter from Filippo Acciaiuoli, written in 1684 on the subject of the little theatre built for prince Ferdinando (III) de’ Medici: he presents these “comedian” (puppet) actors as less expensive, less complicated and more obedient, and not having the vices of those who perform on the theatrical stage. Likewise, Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), in Voyage en Italie, tells the story of a former impresario who, after having suffered the caprices of a prima donna, finally became a shadow puppeteer, finding shadows to be more docile and less expensive artists. In the Paradoxe sur le comédien (The Paradox of the Actor, 1778), Denis Diderot (1713-1784) defends an idea close to this one in comparing the actor to a “marvellous puppet” whose soul, in its artificial envelope, eludes the mediation of the flesh, the “too human” element, which permits him to strip away his interiority, in order to “deceive” the spectator.

The Turn of the 20th Century

The two Romantic writers, Kleist and Hoffmann, prepare the ground for a contemplation of the subject that continues through the end of the 19th and into the 20th century. It was in Symbolist poetics that the metaphor of the puppet took on all its pertinence for the scenic arts, which were undergoing a full renewal at the time. For the Symbolists, the theatre was revelation, a mirror not of reality but of the soul: in appealing to the spectator’s imagination, and through “dematerialized” scenic means, they wanted to evoke, not describe, create synesthesia, not represent. The actor of flesh and blood became, therefore, an obstacle to the staging of an Idea. The puppet, kept until this time at a distance from the official theatrical stages, thus became a disruptive element in “fin de siècle” dramaturgy. Considered as an “intruder” (the title of an 1891 play by Maurice Maeterlinck 1862-1949), the puppet infiltrated itself between the theatrical characters and brought instability. This is the way that the “dramas for puppets” by Maeterlinck – who in Menus propos (Proposed Menu, 1890) proposed replacing actors by shadows, replicas, wax figures – function. The genre “drama for puppets” has, here, a metaphorical significance and not a literal one: it indicates a new kind of reading, anti-naturalist in terms of the status of the characters. In the Symbolist movement, Alfred Jarry’s singular style of debasement mixes “sublime” themes with vulgar accents and disfigures the image of the puppet in giving it opposing values. This typically grotesque orientation had its moment of glory during the 20th century. And so Michel de Ghelderode (1898-1962), in Entretiens d’Ostende (Conversations in Ostende, 1956), would affirm the superiority of the “wild” actor in wood: not the refined and “graceful” marionette like Kleist, but the unpolished and popular puppet. In reality, this aesthetic category of the “grotesque” presents profound correspondences with the puppet and finds its extension in the world of artificial beings in the 20th century. One can detect the same coexistence of diverse opposites in a single assembled figure. The usual values are reversed, and we apprehend, from time to time, in horror, a revelation of laughter.

The Avant-Garde in Europe

The principles defended by the renovators of the theatre in the 20th century systematically encounter the puppet, which seems to become a rallying point for the battle against the practice and conceptualization of the official theatre, made in a naturalist mould, and centred on the actor. Prefigured by Kleist and Hoffmann, two directions become apparent: on the one hand, the aesthetic and philosophical metaphor of the puppet that takes us back to an extra-theatrical concept, on the other hand, the mutation of the actor into a puppet, which leads either to the exclusion pure and simple of the actor onstage, or to the reinvention of the actor, founded on abstract criteria and proposing to liberate him from gravity. At the beginning of the century, the puppet thus became the transitional point between two conceptions of the body and gesture: on one side its dematerialization, on the other, the vital energy of “full materiality”.

It is Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) who, with Adolphe Appia (1862-1928), liquidated the problem of Naturalism/Realism that dominated the theatre at the time. Abandoning the distinction between actions that were considered “natural” and others that were not, and substituting, instead, a distinction between useful and non-useful actions, Craig challenged the predominance of the written text and affirmed that the actor should not “enter” into the skin of the character but, on the contrary, abandon it. This idea of the “pollution” of the actor’s work by the body is developed in “The Actor and the Übermarionette” (1907), an essay in which the British dramaturge sketches out the model of an actor torn from his traditional role as “interpreter”. For Craig, who – like Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) – considers the dancer the “father of dramaturgy”, priority should be given to movement, but the human body is an inadequate instrument, too involved with a tradition that becomes a means of exteriorizing feelings, an “outside” at the service of an “interior”. A principal of harmony is at the root of the theory of the “übermarionette”: it is a question of liberating a divine resemblance, of removing the physical barrier through pure movement (that is to say, disconnected from mimetic reproduction), substituting symbolic gesture for naturalist acting. The “übermarionette” has a greater consciousness of its own movements and embodies “beauty of the dead material” in those moments not attempting to rival real life. In this adulation of the puppet, “great actors” are considered an inconvenience, as Anatole France (1844-1924) also illustrates (cited by Craig), in regard to those of the Comédie-Française who, by their intrusive talents, overshadow what is actually essential to the scene.

The Russian avant-garde repeatedly expressed its passion for the minor arts (circus, acrobats, entertainers, and puppets), but it is Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940) who went the furthest in considering the genre. In The Fairground Booth (1912 essay), he identifies two types of puppets: the first tries to imitate actors of flesh and blood, while the second stays faithful to its own non-human nature. In this second case, the foundation for performance is not in psychology but in “beatings”, that is in the imagination of the movements, in the jumps and the jests, even in the ham acting, the expression of a “pure theatricality”. The actor is at the same time a tool and a mechanism regulated by the laws of rhythm and movement, provided by the “biomechanical”, and obeyed in performance with maximum rigour: this is then close to the concept of the übermationette (the egoless “super puppet”) theorized by Craig. A dialectical opposition between the organic and the mechanical is at work here. The avant-garde searches for the power of the puppet, the lost sign of a more authentic life, anterior and opposed to the reign of speech. Priority given to the visual and to sound is essential for all forms deriving from the art of the puppet.

The Futurists also proclaimed this necessity to “de-psychologize” the stage and acting; the “Futurist performer” should be “dehumanized”, he should “metalize, liquefy, petrify, electrify the voice” and present a “geometrical gesticulation”. Mechanical beings appeared in numerous “Futurist syntheses” (for example in Elettricità sessuale (Sexual Electricity) by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909) and the exaltation of the machine, a new icon taken away from the risks of naturalism, should highlight the beauty of the object. The refusal of verisimilitude and of narrative coherence and the provocations launched by Futurism (as in this stage direction: “People pushed right and left in two minutes”) are comparable to the typical theatre of the puppet. Among theoretical writings, one must above all mention those of Enrico Prampolini (1894-1956), such as “Manifesto della scenografia futurista” (Manifesto of Futurist Scenography, 1915), which proposed going back to the idea of the mechanization of the human, to create “gas-actors” from coloured lights inserted into abstract frames.

We find traits belonging to Italian Futurism in the experiments of the Russian FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor), founded in 1922 in Petrograd by Leonid Trauberg (1902-1990), Grigori Kozintsev (1905-1973) and Sergei Yutkevich (1904-1985). As young theatre and film directors, they were part of a modernist avant-garde movement called Eccentricism that spanned Russian Futurism and Constructivism. The idea of “eccentricity” here is close to Sergei Eisenstein’s “montage of attractions”: if the work as a whole is conceived of as an assemblage of heterogeneous materials, founded on the deconstruction of continuous narrative, the same principle is valid for the gestural economy of the actor. In real life, every dynamic human process is composed of a series of necessary movements, and one can arrive at the fewest movements possible when the body’s extremities are coordinated in such a way as to achieve the desired result as quickly as possible. The FEKS actor has to calibrate the amount of movement necessary to execute his task by excluding all that is superfluous. Movements are thereby stripped of all emotional connotation, and a mechanical model superimposes itself on the gestures, which are like those of the puppet.

In Expressionism, the puppet appears under two aspects and two conceptions. In one version, more politically engaged, it is the sign of a larval state, the empty mask of alienation, while there is, on the other hand, a “mystical” strain, that we can see in the work of Lothar Schreyer (1886-1966), theoretician of  “Klangsprechen” (“Sound Speech”), that recognizes in the “full mask” (Ganzmaske) an instrument to reveal the profound human being, above and beyond individual limits. In this way, the actor should come close to the ideal of the puppet by liberating himself not only from the real, but also from the part of the “I” too conditioned by the real, in order to allow the most profound essence and the meta-individual to rise up.

In the same vein, the poetics of Rudolf Blümner (1873-1945) experiments with a voice “above the language of the angels”, in which we see a prefiguring of the work of Carmelo Bene (1937-2002) on phonation. On the other hand, in the didactic theatre of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), masks and puppets serve as instruments of distancing (from the self), of estrangement, the opposite of Craig’s conceptions.

Among the avant-garde artists of the 1920s, the Bauhaus explored a very large thematic range, from the recuperation of the organic body to pure abstraction. Between these two extremes, incarnated by Lothar Schreyer’s Expressionism and the mechanical abstraction based entirely on the cinematic and visual world of László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), in which the human element is eliminated, lies the work of Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943). For him the puppet is the authorized agent of an art of revelation and concealment. It is the metaphor for disembodied movement and, at the same time, a mechanical organism, uniting opposites in a unity, of which the director is the keeper and the master. Wanting to make that which is elementary emerge, Schlemmer is driven to destroy theatrical language. The pure mechanics of the body contains a metaphysical essence, as it is abstract and universal. For Schlemmer, in fact, the human being is a manifestation of the divine, a symbol of the cosmos, whose correspondences he carries, and the puppet finds its source in this “numerology” of the body. In the essay, “Mensch und Kunstfigur” (Man and Art Figure, 1924), Schlemmer cites Kleist, Hoffmann and Craig in particular, and, like the latter, he considers the theatre to be essentially vision, Schau-spiel (“play of the seen”). He does not repudiate the physical component of the stage. Situated in the abstract and prismatic space of the stage, the human being remains at the centre of a production that will be the harmonious composition – with the help of “visual-spatial” costume – of the laws of the dancer’s body, along with those of space. But only on the condition that the performer transcends his naturalist limits in eliminating psychological and sentimental factors. Schlemmer proposes four possibilities for transforming the human body: (self)mobile architecture; the articulated doll or puppet; the technical organism; dematerialization. That which is essential is attained through a reduction to elementary geometrical forms, which puts structure into relief, without distancing from nature, but by traversing nature, reconnecting with the metaphysical. His Triadisches Ballett (Triadic Ballet, 1922) is an application of his theory: the “dyads” organic/artificial and unconscious/conscious are surpassed for a “triadic” scheme, in which opposites are joined in harmony. “Artists are ready to transform the zones of shadow and danger of their mechanical epoch into the luminous zone of exact metaphysics.” On the other hand, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) defends a conception of the abstract theatre reduced to the pure movement of forms, of light and of colour, where the inorganic is animated thanks to the communal resonance of its interior, that is to say thanks to the spiritual dimension nestled at the base of art.

A current in opposition to the avant-garde insists, instead, on the body’s process of fragmentation and decomposition. If the Dadaist aesthetic of decomposition and assemblage inspired Die Merzbühne (The Merz Stage, 1919) by Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), with its juxtapositions of various objects taken out of context, the same principle applies to the work on the figure of the body as it appears in the dissections of German artist Hans Bellmer (1902-1975, who also illustrated a French edition of Kleist’s essay). In Bellmer’s work beginning in 1933, the feminine figures (The Doll, 1934, a series of Bellmer’s photographs) are conceived of as “anagrams of the body”, bodies in which the centre of gravity can be displaced at will, each time determining a new arrangement of the organs. The puppet appears in this way as a model of a body already possessing a theatrical dimension, a source of multiple postures, a vocabulary of gestures, and of a linguistic code without limits, reminiscent of Tristan Tzara’s phrase: “thought is made in the mouth”.

But the person who most radically refused the “logocentric” foundations of the theatre was Antonin Artaud (1896-1948). Insisting on the physical, refusing the predominance of speech, of the written text, of psychology and even at of the idea of rehearsal inherent in performance, the author of Le Théâtre et son Double (The Theatre and Its Double, 1938) discovers in forms like the Balinese theatre, far from the occidental tradition, a field of possibility opposed to the dominant model of the European stages: the fundamental point of Asian performance lies in the revelation of a “physical idea”, for him it is not the verbal (textual), it is what takes place on the stage, independent of the written, which is “theatre”. His rejection of the distance between spirit and physical-material brings him to the conviction that meaning must be produced “on stage”, neither before nor after, through a language that would be closer to hieroglyphics than to codes of speech.

The paradox of a stage that “materializes” absence is central to the poetics of Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990): the puppet is the emblem of this reified absence, above all in its form as mannequin/manikin (an idea indebted to A Treatise on Mannequins Traktat o manekinach – by the Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz 1892-1942 whose work strongly influenced Kantor). Actors carry these mannequins on their backs, occasionally abandoning them, meld with them or cede their place to them. According to him in the “Theatre of Death” (Le Théâtre de la mort, 1977), death equalizes both living and inanimate matter. The allusion to an evoked real, perceived in its absence, renders perceptible a reality more real than the one we live communally. The voice is deformed and grotesque; the actors are “mills grinding out text”. A sign of the separation between the living and the inanimate, the puppet is at the same time body and skeleton. For Kantor, the principle of collage is used in the displacement of the elements of the body, treated as a mechanism that can be deconstructed. The human body and the mannequin undergo the same fate, due to their materiality: Kantor affirms, “on the edge of the trash can, eternity is rediscovered”. Here we might perceive an echo of the conclusion of Kleist’s essay: opposites, by annihilating each other, coincide.

These theories of the puppet of the 20th century open up onto Carmelo Bene in their application to “sound”. In numerous productions, Carmelo Bene uses play-back with the goal of accentuating the production’s anti-naturalist character. Overcoming the psychological actor permeates all his work: In Homelette for Hamlet (1987) the animated statues reprise the theme of immortality and surpassing the human, but play-back brings the fiction back to nothing, cancels out the representation, pushes fakery to the limits of the absurd and paradoxical – we pretend to move and speak at the same time that we cannot escape the fact of being “moved” and “spoken”. In this way, in the text of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, the character of La Fatina (Blue Fairy) appears in the window as a vision – a young dead girl, who speaks with a voice that seems to come from elsewhere, from the beyond. Her voice can be seen as a “shadow”. In his adaptation of the work, Carmelo Bene stays faithful to the text (which is unusual for him), but through this voice, he moves away from the text and transforms it. His poetics are always based on the idea of absence, of subtraction: the poetics of the puppet share this realm.

Today, the aesthetic of the puppet in Europe and the West is widening in a number of domains and scenic techniques: to the already very large constellation of figures revolving around the puppet (dolls, automatons, mannequins/manikins, shadows, mirrors, angels) are being added, giving new contemplations on the artificial body and new techniques come with the development of the virtual image. In the theatre as well, numerous new scenographic inventions can be read through the notion of the puppet: doubling, reflection, substitution and subtraction of the human body or even its decomposition and dislocation – all that is on the frontiers of the human and never simple imitation. The examples are innumerable, from the icy electronic images of Robert Wilson (b.1941) to the extreme conditions that the body is put to in the works of the collective theatre group Societas Raffaello Sanzio, from the disoriented doubles of Danio Manfredini (b.1957) to the machine-bodies of the company Fura dels Baus.

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