German poet, dramatist, novelist and short story writer. Heinrich von Kleist is the author of an essay on puppet theatre, titled Über das Marionettentheater (On the Marionette Theatre), which remains one of the milestones in the theory of the theatre in general and of the marionette in particular. The essay was published in Berlin in the Berliner Abendblätter (Berlin Evening Paper, December 12-15, 1810). It is presented as a simulated dialogue between a fictional dancer and a narrator. In the essay, Kleist has one of the interlocutors comment that marionettes possess a grace humans do not.
Kleist was part of the Romantic tradition. Indeed, other artists of Romanticism, such as E.T.A. Hoffmann, J.A.C. Kerner, S.A. Mahlmann, Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) and Ludwig Tieck, considered the puppet as the antagonist of the actor and thus expressed their deep dissatisfaction with the art of the flesh and blood performer. According to Kerner, “the puppets are much more relaxed, much more natural than real actors”. This judgement, that above all criticized the Berlin style of August Wilhelm Iffland, was symptomatic of the theatrical situation of the time.
For Kleist, the marionette is subject to the laws of mechanics, avoiding the unilateral nature of human individuality, and obeying the wishes of the puppeteer, which thus makes it the perfect interpreter. According to Kleist, the marionette has the advantage over the dancer or the actor of “never trembling”. Each movement “has its centre of gravity”; it is enough “to control this within the puppet”. The limbs of the marionette are “what they should be … lifeless, pure pendulums governed only by the law of gravity”. It is nothing other than the path taken by the soul of the dancer. The puppeteer can transpose himself into the centre of gravity of the marionette. In other words, the puppeteer dances.
Since in the marionette the soul and the movement of the limbs are one, the marionette was for Kleist the “symbol of ideal human nature”. When Kleist wrote that the actor (or the dancer) “puts on an affected air”, he meant that the actor (dancer) was neither aware of his/her own personality nor his/her own body. Self-consciousness gets in the way and can disturb natural grace. On the one hand, Kleist poses the question of ideal theatricality. Only the marionette would be likely to represent this theatricality, because it has no life outside the theatre. On the other hand, we can see here the bringing into play by Kleist of the philosophical meaning of “charm” and “grace”. “Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”
Unlike Schiller in his essay Über Anmut und Würde (On Grace and Dignity, 1793), these concepts were not any longer pure moral categories for Kleist. They offered an aesthetic justification for an unconscious quality that Kleist projected into his marionettes, to the extent that it, as an artistic character, had no reflexive consciousness. This is why Kleist made the following theorem: “A mechanical model is likely to contain more charm than the edifice body of a human being.”
The comparison between the aesthetic qualities of live performers and those carved from wood has not ceased since the Romantic era and is being used to affirm the art of puppetry as a genre in its own right. Today, Heinrich von Kleist’s theorem takes on philosophical and theological meaning, linked to the history of art as also to the history of genres.
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- Kleist, Heinrich von. On the Marionette Theatre. Trans. by Idris Parry.
- Kleist, Heinrich von. Sur le théâtre de marionnettes [On the Marionette Theatre]. Trans. and presented by Jean-Claude Schneider. Rezé: Séquences, 1991; trans. by Jacques Outin, Paris: Éditions Mille et une nuits, 1998; trans. by Stéphane Braunschweig, Besançon: Les Solitaires intempestifs, 2003.
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- Theisen, Bianca. “Dancing with Words. Kleist’s ‘Marionette Theatre’”. MLN. Vol. 121, No. 3. German Issue (April 2006). Baltimore (MD): John Hopkins Univ. Press, 2006, pp. 522-529.