The popular image of a traditional puppet show, such as one might find in 19th century prints of an open air Punch and Judy play at Brighton Beach, a solo Chinaman in a bag stage or perhaps the great touring marionette performances of Tony Sarg's company, is one of puppets performing for an audience. The puppeteers are, for the most part, hidden, which makes it easier, presumably, for onlookers to "suspend disbelief." I'm quite certain that our collective memory of a golden age of puppetry in which there were humans in front of the stage and puppets on stage and basta is little more than a delusion fueled by a kind of romantic nostalgia. As my father says: "They don't make 'em like that any more…and they never did."
Yes, there have been puppet shows of that sort for a long time, and this model is still with us in companies like The Salzburg Marionettes, but if we expand our field of vision a bit, we find humans and puppets sharing performance spaces in a variety of ways. This may seem like a contemporary phenomenon, but consider Dadaist performances of nearly a century ago or the visible three-man teams manipulating figures in 17th century Japan. In Mali, relationships between musicians, puppets, puppeteers, masked dancers and the public change fluidly over the course of daylong celebrations. In the classic tragedies of 5th century BC Greece, oversized, masked gods (essentially walk-around puppets) mingled with human-scale actors and chorus members.
Furthermore, I think the whole concept of the "willing suspension of disbelief" has been oversold. I'd always thought this was a coinage of Walt Disney to explain our enjoyment of his fantastical animated films. In fact, it was first used by Samuel Coleridge in 1817 to explain a reader's ability to enjoy literature containing supernatural, or at least romantic, elements. I prefer Philippe Genty's take on this phenomenon, namely, that the very young child's "preconscious" mind does not distinguish between illusion and reality—the magician's sleight of hand is real magic. The "enlightened" adult mind always knows that the vanishing cigarette, for instance, is a trick. The preconscious, animistic mind, though, is still present amid all that the adult has learned about the world and its physical laws, so there is no need to suspend anything when enjoying a puppet show: the viewer is simultaneously tricked and in on the trick, and I believe it is the tension inherent in that paradox that contributes to our enjoyment of puppetry.
In this issue, we look at what happens when humans meet puppets on stage—as animators, collaborators or fellow performers, and how the human's presence on stage does not detract from our enjoyment of the puppet but enhances it. Ronnie Burkett is a potent example of the visible soloist who is by turns god-like puppeteer and a character sharing the spotlight with marionettes that he himself is animating [Brandes, page 4]. Penny Francis relates the challenges of working with actors at London's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama as they learned to project character through an object [page 8]. Dr. Paul Piris looks at "co-presence" in the solo performance styles of Neville Tranter and Nicole Mossoux [page22], a principle that is also well illustrated by Carolyn Roark's Punch lecture [page 36]. We have many more examples, each with its own twist: The Trout Workshop's "bearded, naked men," Redmoon's The Feast (an intimate Tempest), Spain's Títeres Etcétera and much more. Good reading, everyone!
PEER REVIEW NOTICE:
Scholarly articles submitted to Puppetry International for peer review DO NOT need to be on that issue's theme. As one of the few U. S. publications to carry peer reviewed articles on puppetry, it is our policy to encourage "brave, new research" in the field.
-Andrew C. Periale