thematique

Myth of the Puppet – A Western Perspective

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The puppet is not only a formal creation, a theatre language, or an art object: it is also a figure which, in almost all cultures, has embodied questions on the origin of life and death, on the relation between the visible and the invisible, and the relation between the spirit and the matter. From the myth of Pygmalion, whose statue comes to life, to Plato’s cave, where the world is described as a theatre of shadows projected by puppets, there are many narratives that make use of the puppet. In fact, the puppet is used in many forms of religious rites and performances, from Nativities (Nativity Scenes) to carnivals or sacred theatre in India. The puppet thus illustrates, in both concrete and a metaphoric way, religious beliefs, philosophical concepts, and aesthetic and theatrical theories. In turn, all of these explore the issue of the unstable and porous frontiers between the living and the inanimate. As an intrinsic element of specific funeral, celebratory or religious rituals, the use of the puppet reveals the need to structure the interrogations and the anxieties of the individual confronted with death, and plays a specific part in the organization and the identity of the group. Throughout history and in most societies, mankind has projected its image onto the puppet, thus contributing to the renewing and the updating of the ancient myth.

Imitation and Identification

The central idea that unity between the living and the inanimate is created by an exchange between the two seems to be the recurrent theme of the myth of the puppet. In traditional cultures, similarities between the human and the artificial, between man and puppet, reflect a magical vision of the borders between material reality and spiritual or imagined reality. Meanwhile, contemporary society has placed the puppet at the heart of a technological and cybernetic universe, by projecting onto it not only its most futuristic visions, but also its most worrying fantasies. The novels of Philip K. Dick, some of which were adapted for the cinema (Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner 1982, Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence 2001), give a resounding image of such worries.  

Identification, idealization, sublimation or the fear of a worrisome and conflictual proximity: the relation of man and the puppet have always gone further than imitation or illusion, and have tried to get to the core of human identity. The revelation of a deep continuity between the different forms and states of matter has given structure and stability to human social life. The puppet represents the invisible double of the human, from a dual perspective: the bright, positive side stimulates the spirit that is freed from the gravity of the matter; the negative side unveils the mind’s hidden impulses. Those two aspects are fundamentally linked, and thus reinforce the troubling idea conveyed by the puppet: mysterious strings bind the animate to the inanimate, life to death, light to shadow. In the fourth of the Duino Elegies (1923), Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke considers the puppet not as an imitation of mankind, but as a model for it: he argues that the human being must learn to become a puppet, giving up any pretension to be the centre of the world, and becoming “thing”.

The Uncanny

The line that separates the human being from the puppet is sometimes lost in the discovery of this troubling identity. It suggests a mysterious order, the rules of which are beyond mankind’s grasp. German Romantic literature (with Goethe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heinrich von Kleist) has largely contributed to turning the puppet into the metaphor of what would later become called the “uncanny”, by associating its presence to the questioning of dreams, of the double, of the mask, of treacherous appearances, of the strange and the bizarre.

In Georg Büchner’s Leonce und Lena (Leonce and Lena, 1836), Leonce’s friend Valerio shows the king “two famous mechanical figures” which, although entirely made of mechanical pieces, have the appearance of perfect human beings. Valerio manipulates the two characters but, as he explains in the speech he gives before the king, he is aware that he himself is manipulated, like a puppet, by his king’s will. This theme is also present in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales (1819-1821). In Der Sandmann (The Sandman), for example, Nathanael believes Olimpia to be a real woman, whereas she is only a puppet: in fact, this confusion underlines the physical and moral superiority of the puppet over the man. As a feminine character, the puppet becomes a wax figure, ready to satisfy the aesthetic projections and the erotic desires of the “master”. This idea is fundamental to Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s L’Éve future (Tomorrow’s Eve, 1886) in which Edison not only creates a “clone” with the physical traits of a beautiful yet fatuous actress, but also gives it a soul. Such exchanges, as representations of material and spiritual reality, have had a decisive influence on the theatre.

The idea of replacing the live actor with an artificial one was at the core of the deep changes in theatre theories, which ultimately found a radical formulation with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu roi (King Ubu, 1896). Maurice Maeterlinck’s disgust with live actors resulted in 1894 in “short plays for puppets”, Alladine et Palomides (Alladine and Palomides), L’Intérieur (The Interior), La Mort de Tintagiles (The Death of Tintagiles), but also in the idea of a theatre freed from the presence of the live actor – an idea which Edward Gordon Craig explored further in his essays on the super-puppet (Übermarionnette). In his essay “The Actor and the Übermarionnette” (1907), Craig asserts that actors must disappear and puppets must take their place, not as mere dolls, but as signs of a spiritual dimension which would be expressed in the theatre. Antonin Artaud follows a similar idea when he suggests, in The Theatre and its Double (1938), that a giant could provoke absolute fear for the audience. The Italian Futurists (La donna è mobile The Woman is Fickle, 1907, rewritten as Poupées électriques Electric Puppets, 1926 by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti; Balli plastici Plastic Dance, 1918 by Fortunato Depero), the Russian Constructivists with Vsevolod Meyerhold and biomechanics, the Bauhaus and Oskar Schlemmer, they had all encouraged this revival. This eventually led, in the 1960s, to the giant figures of the Bread and Puppet Theater and to the wax mannequins/manikins, doubles of the live actors, of Tadeusz Kantor in Umarła klasa (The Dead Class, 1975). Kantor in particular, in the theoretical writings compiled in The Theatre of Death (1977), considers wax figures and mannequins as models for the live actor. For him, the point is not to replace the live actor and use the manikin as an actor, but rather to understand that the manikin can show the actor the dimension of emptiness, the absence of all communication, because it is at the same time close to and separate from life, like a dead body.

Metaphor of the Human Condition

The puppet is also a complex object, which demands crafting skills and technical expertise in order to achieve the artistic expressivity on which the myth depends. There are numerous examples of artists who carved puppets, such as Alfred Jarry, Sophie Taeuber-Arp or Paul Klee. In this respect, the puppet has lastingly influenced the plastic arts, dance and visual arts, not only as a motif but also because of the questions it raises regarding the language of forms and materials. This influence was especially strong during the avant-garde movements of the 20th century (see Aesthetics of the Puppet – European Romanticism to the Avant-Garde).

It is easy to forget both the material and symbolic differences between the various forms of this specific theatre “object”. The string puppet/marionette, light and ethereal, is obviously very different from the glove puppet, whose jerky movements are so suited to its use of slapstick. The two also have a very different audience, because their repertoires are adapted to their specific range of movements. The body of the marionette has a freedom of movement which sublimates the human dream of flying and celebrates a victory over the laws of gravity which limit the human body. Kleist’s essay On the Marionette Theatre (1810) explored that idea, which was crucial to the Romantics’ interest in marionettes. The glove puppet, on the other hand, has often been seen as the embodiment of the rough matter, deprived of intelligence or volition, and, consequently, as an object which can be manipulated at will by an invisible demiurge (Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem, 1914). In L’Homme de Neige (The Snowman, 1859), George Sand, who dedicated it to her son Maurice Sand, made a distinction between the fantoccio, the marionette and the burattino. The fantoccio, she argued, hangs lifelessly from the ceiling, and the puppet imitates reality perfectly. The burattino, more uncouth and primitive, is not a machine, not a toy, and not a doll (unlike the marionette), but a living being: indeed, it obeys the whims of its manipulator, and responds to their enthusiasm and inspiration.

This passivity of the matter is arguably what made the doll such a striking metaphor of the human condition. Bruno Schulz’s short story Sklepy cynamonowe, literally, Cinnamon Shops (from The Street of Crocodiles, 1934), which had a strong influence on Tadeusz Kantor, describes the unvoiced suffering of the matter, despised and never understood by the humans who, believing they are fundamentally different from it, despise what they themselves are made of. This silent suffering, misunderstood by the very beings on whom it is exerted, finds both an interpreter and a signifier in the puppet. One can also find a form of alienation in this suffering. This idea is present especially in the works of the German Expressionists, in which the puppet becomes the metaphor of the human being enslaved and denied free will by a society of machines. The puppet, whose wooden body is reminiscent of the cataleptic stiffness of the sleepwalker or the hysteric, offers a striking picture of the psychological mechanisms of the individual. The human being is governed by impulses, desires, and neuroses that can never be known or controlled, and acts as if encouraged by an invisible force, the purposes of which remain unknown. The hysterical patients of neurologist and doctor Jean-Marin Charcot (1825-1893), at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, offer a vivid illustration of this point: trapped in a cataleptic rigidity as they followed the suggestions of the doctors taking their pictures, they remained fixed in ecstatic poses, and appeared stiff like puppets.

The puppet does not have its own voice. Rather, it is given thoughts, voiced from a source situated outside its body, which reinforces the idea that the soul may be imprisoned in opaque, modifiable matter.

From Pygmalion to the Tamagotchi

From Pygmalion’s animated statue to Meyrinck’s Golem and Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (1881-1882), many strange creatures undergo a metamorphosis and cross the border to an opposite condition: they can be humans transformed into mechanical systems through the perfection of a repeated gesture (Mignon and her dancing in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, 1795-1796) or artificial beings created to redeem human flaws (again, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s L’Ève future). Whatever they are, the metamorphoses attempt to answer implicit questions on the delimitations of the human.

In the industrial society, the avant-garde movements provided two opposite answers to this question. While the Futurists praised the virtues of “electric dolls”, the German Expressionists measured the dangers of the robatization of society. For the Futurists, human beings can achieve perfection physically – becoming immortal thanks to the “splendour of the human body with interchangeable parts” – and morally – because the “electric energy” will find a way into their ideas. Fortunato Depero’s Balleti plastici (1918) is a good illustration of the Futurist conception of the human body: the body becomes a wonderful puppet, nimble and unweary, never-endingly executing, without strain and without mistakes, the movement that the normal man cannot make. German Expressionism, on the other hand, depicts in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) the “utopic” town of the new industrial society, where men are exploited, have no free will, and are reduced to machines.

This dystopian vision also appears in Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R (1920). The title stands for the English Rossum’s Universal Robots and suggests the multinational dimension of the factory where the Robots are working. The word “robot” itself was coined by Karel Čapek and comes from the Czech robota, which refers to a tireless worker. The machines’ revolt is a recurrent theme, first of all in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, which was inspired by the German Krupp factories (steel and weaponry). The slave workers are all identical and have no willpower. They are manipulated, operated like puppets, by an artificial being. This artificial being was created by the Masters of the town, through the cloning of a generous girl who was much loved by the workers. The soulless creature, a new, negative image of tomorrow’s Eve, uses her deceiving appearance to gain the trust of the workers, encourages them to rebel, and thus helps to create the conditions for ultimately crushing them.

In Mathusalem oder Der ewige Bürger (Methuselah, or the Eternal Bourgeois, 1922), a satirical drama denouncing the contemporary society as a society of machines, Yvan Goll attacks the bourgeoisie, for their lack of morality and greed. He creates the character of an automaton made of metal sheets that looks like a candy vending machine, called the Blechautomat (automaton of sheet metal). When Mathusalem wishes to hear the automaton’s voice, he drops a coin in the slot of its mouth and the automaton then takes a few steps, and utters absurd sentences in a shaking, mechanical voice. It later repeats those movements when its master has died, and prances on Mathusalem’s body as if trying to take revenge on him. The sombre vision of a mankind whose freedom to choose has been taken away leads to this idea of manipulation, shared by many citizens as regards political life or relation to media.

The modern myth of the puppet or the objet-creature is also found in the philosophical and ethical reflections encouraged by recent progress in the field of genetic manipulation and “reproductive cloning”. New hybrid creatures, androids and clones, are sometimes more “human” than men (as seen in some novels of Philip K. Dick 1928-1982 or in Steven Spielberg’s film A.I. Artificial Intelligence 2001) and such works contribute to the ever-increasing blurring of the frontiers between the human and the artificial, the manipulator and the manipulated, the subject and the object. Nowadays, cinema uses the theme of the puppet to symbolize, mainly, the situation of the individual who thinks of himself or herself as an unsuspecting victim, whose body and mind are “manipulated” by a master with a hidden agenda (Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, 1998; Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, 2002; Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix Reloaded, 2003; Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate, 2004).

All the myths of the mask, the double, and the shadow have found in the puppet a frame in which to apprehend a religious and spiritual dimension, revealing another facet to reality. In Doctor Jeckyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Robert Louis Stevenson repudiates the idea of an infallible and unchanging human identity. For Frankenstein (1818), Mary Shelley envisioned a creature made of heterogeneous elements and linking the living and the dead. With contemporary organ transplants or the commonplace use of cosmetic and medical prostheses, this situation has, just like signs of ageing, been integrated into our ideas of biological changes or body modifications.

The puppet thus tackles the problem of creation, be it artistic or biological. The dream is to imitate the divine act of creation ex nihilo: Frankenstein is a monstrous being because he was created outside the norms of biology, but today he loses his extraordinary character to become a real possibility.

This tends to be confirmed today by the impressive abilities of the latest generation of robots. Among the virtual pets, the Tamagotchi is an example of this idea: the hand-held digital “pet” introduced in 1996 by Bandai in Japan (76 million sold by 2010). This creature leads a “normal” life provided its manipulator takes care of it, feeds it, and keeps it entertained. Those surprising creatures are programmed to have behaviour as realistic as possible, and show that from the myth to reality, there is only one small step which could soon be taken.  

(See also Aesthetics of the Puppet (Asian), Shadow Theatre, Storytellers.)