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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 transformation 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 knowledge that is concrete enough, but that also belongs to a more hidden order…. 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 aesthetics 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.
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been discussed by philosophers.2 Adult puppet theater is not a good starting 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 puppets, 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 marionettes—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 spectatorship 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 subjectivity? 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 AngloAmerican 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).