"In the Beginning was the Word." And the Word was &"Boom!"? "Om &"? "Yahweh."?
by Andrew C. Periale
One might well wonder: What worth words, when there are no ears to hear? Still, there's plenty to ponder in that sentence, which is, after all, a translation and therefore an interpretation. Certainly Faust (as the instrument of J. W. von Goethe) gives it a thorough mulling in Act I, Scene I an agonized internal polemic, which Kathy Foley uses as a framework for her consideration of Japanese puppet scripts.
There are lots of other words for you to ponder in this issue of Puppetry International, dedicated, as it is, to the puppet script. For this endeavor, we've enlisted the aid of Dr. John Bell as our first ever Guest Editor. John is not only a theater scholar (PhD, Columbia University, presently on the faculty of Emerson College), but is a puppeteer as well (a longtime associate of Bread and Puppet and a founding member of Great Small Works). John has also been an advisor to PI since the first issue, and is a frequent contributor as well as being our Historian and Book Review Editor. We couldn't have found a better candidate to shepherd this issue.
In addition to all the scripts, there are reviews of some terrific new books. Film Producer and director Joe Jacoby's memoir, Boy on a String has some fascinating stories of working for both Maury Bunin and Bil Baird in the fifties and sixties. Sandglass Theater From Thought to Image is the story of this beloved theater's origins and their twenty years in Vermont. Hazelle and her Marionettes: Creating the World's Largest Puppet Company is the fascinating tale of Hazelle Hedges, a puppeteer turned manufacturing mogul.
Finally, plans are underway for the Puppeteers of America 2007 national festival, which will feature some very exciting puppetry from distant lands. So, whether the universe was initiated with a "Word," an "Act," or an "Idea," Hanus Hachenburg foretells how it will end for us
End of performance. We invite you again tomorrow at twelve o'clock. Entrance free!*
by Guest Editor, John Bell
This issue of Puppetry International is devoted to scripts for puppet theater, and it presents a conundrum, because to a large extent puppet theater and the written word are antithetical to each other. By this I mean that, in fact, puppets don't need words to do their work, since they work primarily as moving sculpture, moving image. In this sense, puppet theater is like dance, music or the visual arts, in that words might connect to or sometimes adorn such works, but are not essential to the art forms themselves. Ultimately, puppetry is not a text-based form.
But, having said this, one must admit that words and puppets often seem inextricably connected, above all by the voice connected to a puppet: Jim Henson's affable and simply nuanced voice for Kermit; Frank Oz's bumptious comic tone for Miss Piggy; and, going farther back, Punch's reedy, menacing, swazzle-inflected chirping as he proclaims "That's the way we do it!" after one of his peremptory murders. It's the voice which marks the puppet, no matter what words are being said; it's the tonal and inflective qualities which complete those characteristics begun in sculpture, rather than the literary content of a particular puppet show.
And yet, finally, yes, the words in puppet shows do matter beyond their simple aural qualities, and words do very interesting things in puppet shows, which the many different scripts in this issue will show.
Whereas the tradition of "The Drama" supposes and promulgates a process beginning with a playwright, passing through producers, directors, and actors to the realization of a play onstage, puppet theater is more often "devised" (as a contemporary theater neologism has it). It is the combination of "image music text," as Roland Barthes put it, in which all three elements share equal credit. This aspect of puppet scriptwriting comes to the fore in the script for Bread and Puppet Theater's A Man Says Goodbye to his Mother, which presents the play as the succession of different particular moments of "action," "music," and "narration." Likewise, Jerry Juhl's script for a sketch from the last episode of Fraggle Rock makes one realize how much the work of Jim Henson's Muppets was primarily a succession of images and gestures. In Juhl's script one can see how a short Muppet sketch is a combination of camera angles, sound effects, and puppet gestures, among which Juhl's words rest delicately, as if punctuating the visual and other aural effects. Other methods of writing puppet scripts understandably place great importance on stage directions, for example the transcription of Great Small Works' Terror as Usual, Episode 9: Doom!, which includes elaborate descriptions of toy theater imagery.
On the other hand, in many spectacularly stunning puppet traditions, words can take on their own intense political and religious power. Kathy Foley explains the power of words in puppet shows through an analysis of Japanese bunraku theater as the articulation of samurai values in eighteenth-century Japan. One can see echoes of this in Daniel McGuire's transcription and translation of a Javanese wayang kulit scene performed by dalang Tristuti Rachmadi, which is not only the presentation of a "branch story" from the sacred Javanese epic based on the Mahabharata, but also a personal statement from an artist (Tristuti) doing his work at a very difficult political moment. In this case, the words of a puppet show operate on many different levels, not simply because of the hierarchy of different languages employed in wayang performance, but because such spectacles involve constant interplay between the artists and audience members as members of a community of the present moment. Here, the words of a puppet show are not simply important as dramatic literature, but also as a multi-faceted communication system full of nuance, ambiguity, and multiple meanings.
The puppet scripts in this issue also bring up the larger subject of puppet dramaturgy: what stories do puppet plays show us, and how exactly do they do so? Four scripts here based on traditional sources Polichinelle Precepteur, Moving House, The Adventures of Petrushka, and The Doctor are connected by their serial structure and Punch-and-Judy style violence. That is, all four feature a trickster main character (Polichinelle, Titella, Petrushka, or Karaguz) who meets up with a series of regular folks whom he tricks, swindles, or, in some cases even murders. This puppet dramaturgy of serial duets can be explained quite practically as a necessity rising from the limited possibilities of the solo puppeteer with only two hands; but beyond that important physical limitation, the series of one-on-one scenes assumes its own power as a repetition of charming mischievousness (or evil) visited equally upon all strata of society a quite complicated and morally ambiguous message, which must be part of these stories' constant appeal around the world.
In the early twentieth century, puppet theater stirred the interest of many avant-garde artists, the beginning of a trend which still marks puppetry today. In this issue, we present a translation of Lothar Schreyer's expressionist attempt at a ritual celebration of procreation, Mondspiel, in which the chopped telegram-style poetry of expressionist drama is used to create an intensely emotional and erotic world. The show was performed with life-size puppets at the Bauhaus theater in 1923 could it have achieved what Schreyer hoped it would? Likewise, the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, in Buster Keaton's Stroll invented a kind a surreal puppet world (quite different from the other puppet plays he wrote, which seem tame in comparison) where random acts of beauty and violence flow from the puppets' speeches right into the stage directions themselves, creating impossible challenges which a contemporary puppeteer, Blair Thomas, was only too happy to take on.
A different kind of avant-gardism is represented by Robert Bromley and Al Carthe's 1930s Sancho Panza marionette play for the Los Angeles puppet unit of the Federal Theater Project. Here, the currents of modern California puppet theater, initiated by Blanding Sloan and Ralph Chessé in the 1920s as an outgrowth of the Little Theater Movement, emerge as part of a nation-wide effort to make live theater play an active role in national cultural life, not so much by stunningly new and different techniques, but by straightforwardly claiming the puppet stage as a forum for the most serious stories the theater can offer.
The political dimensions of puppet theater (which are never far from puppetry's strong roots in religious ritual) can be seen in Bread and Puppet's street theater piece, which sought to re-tell the experience of Harlem mothers during the Vietnam War in the frame of an international moral struggle. It is also present in the political ends of bunraku, which Kathy Foley elucidates, and (as Gary Friedman tells us) in Hanus Hachenburg's teen-age persistence. The latter left us a record of life in a Nazi concentration camp as an allegorical puppet show of outrageous dimensions, even as the outrage was taking place all around him.
Although words aren't the primary focus of puppet theater, they can sometimes assume a power even greater than that of actors' theater, because they are somehow separated from the characters who voice them. The separation is based on the practical knowledge we all share that puppets themselves are incapable of speech but we leap over that flat impossibility with the wild desire to believe that puppets can indeed talk, and that what they say (while we know it's really the voice of the puppeteer) is in fact by some magic feat! the actual voice of a wooden, paper-maché, plastic, or cardboard creature who is both of this world and beyond it. That element, which pertains to puppet theater but not to actors' theater, makes the words puppets say that much more intense.