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Puppets

Tzachi Zamir

After the Forman brothers’ show, I went backstage to look at their


marionettes…. As we talked, one of the twins told me that the troupe
also performed a farce based on a story they had found in Rabelais. I
told him, without a moment’s hesitation, which story it had to be: the
one about the old peasant woman who scares away the devil by pulling
up her skirts and bending over, showing the demon the terrible wound
that her husband is capable of inflicting with his merest fingernail. The
puppeteer’s surprised smile stayed with me as a kind of talisman, a tessera
of recognition. I am still not entirely sure what I knew when I knew that
this story belonged to the puppets. What counted most was perhaps the
outrageous immediacy of the woman’s gesture, her shameless transfor-
mation of her body for the sake of spectacular sexual mockery, and as a
way to outwit a demonic threat. (It reminded me of why the Faust play is
so central in Czech puppet theater.) But whatever its cause, the smile told
me that there is a peculiar knowledge to be had from puppets, a knowl-
edge that is concrete enough, but that also belongs to a more hidden or-
der…. That smile carries the puppet theater’s revision of Terence:
something alien is human to me.1
The new focus on performance and theater within contemporary aesthet-
ics should prompt us to delve into forms of performing art that have hardly

This essay has benefited from knowledgeable comments and exciting suggestions by Yael
Inbar and Matthew Cohen.
1. Kenneth Gross, “Love among the Puppets,” Raritan 17 (Summer 1997): 81– 82.

Critical Inquiry 36 (Spring 2010)


© 2010 by The University of Chicago. 00093-1896/10/3603-0012$10.00. All rights reserved.

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Critical Inquiry / Spring 2010 387
been discussed by philosophers.2 Adult puppet theater is not a good start-
ing point for such inquiries. The philosophical issues that puppetry
raises—as this essay will aim to demonstrate—are complex; some of them
have altogether been eschewed by Anglo-American aesthetics due to its
marked disinclination to incorporate metaphysical nomenclature. The
difficulty for advocates of the well-defined and the rigorously argued is
that when one turns a cool and dispassionate philosophical eye on pup-
pets, objects imaginatively endowed with life, any analysis that attempts to
circumvent some of our deepest and vaguest thoughts— our experience of
matter, or what infusing life into it might imply, or what the visibility of
control over an animated object can induce in its spectator—is destined to
be superficial. While the category of a puppet is relatively unproblematic,
including glove puppets, shadow puppets, rod puppets and mario-
nettes—a “replica of a human, animal, or other form moved by artificial
means”3— a host of questions surfaces when one ventures beyond mere
designation. What kind of object is a puppet and what modes of specta-
torship does it mobilize? What manner of art is the puppeteer presenting
and what is the source of its prevailing charm? What are the relations
between puppetry and acting? And, deeper still, what—if anything— can
puppetry suggest regarding the relations between theatricality and subjec-
tivity? While I intend to address several of these queries, the following
discussion will not constitute a reply to any of them. At best, I aim to linger
on the questions themselves, perhaps even occasion their proliferation,
while specifying what they (or answering them) might further entail. I
expect that my method, or apparent lack of it, will also frustrate some

2. Paul Thom, For an Audience: A Philosophy of the Performing Arts (Philadelphia, 1993)
used to be the only book-length work on the aesthetics of acting. We now have James
Hamilton, The Art of Theater (New York, 2007); Paul Woodruff, The Necessity of Theater (New
York, 2008); and Staging Philosophy: Intersections of Theatre, Performance, and Philosophy, ed.
David Krasner and David Z. Saltz (Ann Arbor, Mich., 2006). Several papers by David Osipovich
are part of this renaissance as well. For Continental thought on theater (which, like its Anglo-
American counterpart, says virtually nothing about puppets), see Mimesis, Masochism, and
Mime: The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary French Thought, ed. Timothy Murray (Ann
Arbor, Mich., 1997).
3. Peter D. Arnott, Plays without People: Puppetry and Serious Drama (Bloomington, Ind.,
1964), p. 58.

T Z A C H I Z A M I R is a philosopher and literary critic affiliated with the


Department of English and the Department of General and Comparative
Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His publications include
Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama (2006) and Ethics
and the Beast (2007).