Einav Zamir

The Active Set: Puppets as Political Performers in Western Scenic Design

“A generation which has exhausted every intoxicant, every soluble preparation of the artificial, may well seek a last sensation in the wire-pulled passions, the wooden faces of marionettes, and by a further illusion, of marionettes who are living people” - Arthur Symons, 1896.1

In other words: objects are objects, people are people. When object-hood and humanity collide, a certain intoxication, whether unnerving or wholly desired, results from the merger. This effect, when used towards a political goal, is doubly powerful. In discussing scenic design we tend to separate the actors from their environment, breaking the space into active and passive participants. The objects are subject to the whims of the actors, and therefore relinquish any commitment to the content of the play. Yet when the object itself becomes a character, acting upon the space in ways the living might, the distinction between the “set” and the “actor” becomes entirely unclear. Puppets are the paradigm of this effect, both in their tradition of political commentary, and in the ways they function within a given space.

Of course, the term “puppet” covers a wide range of art forms with differing relationships to scenic design and theatrical circumstance. Marionettes, because they are generally more collaborative and require larger spaces to function than hand or stick puppets, are often tied more closely to the traditional theater settings, and thus less portable.2 This issue of portability, examined later in this paper, is a fundamental feature of political expression. Hand puppets, conversely, are somewhat easier to control, master, and transport. By taking on the naturalistic functions of the hand, they are also be more lifelike in their movements – a great advantage to the political puppeteer when paired with the almost inhuman, caricature-like appearance of the object.3 It makes the absurd behavior and often violent actions of the puppet all the more believable and unsettling. These violent actions, facilitated by the hand, are often used as a metaphor of oppression.4 Traditional hierarchies are then challenged as the once-submissive or traditionally low ranking character takes control of his or her surroundings. The marionette has an opposite, though perhaps equally potent, effect – they are traditionally more realistic in their renderings, while having the disjointed, unnatural movements of a mechanical object.5 These features are particularly useful if the performer wishes to achieve a space activated by imaginative will and magical illusionism.

Alfred Jarry understood the complications and potential success of marionettes as performative objects very early on in his career. Though his Ubu Roi (Figs. 1-3) was certainly not western theater’s first foray into puppetry, it was probably one of the earliest and most influential challenges to the perception of object-hood on the stage. Based on a play he had devised with several friends as an adolescent, Ubu Roi is a satire in which a corrupt official sets out to take over Poland with help from his equally amoral wife.6 While working with the Théâtre d’Art in Paris, Jarry convinced the director Aurelien Lugné-Poe to produce a live action version of his Ubu Roi, based in marionette aesthetics. The director had an interest in puppetry, established during his time working with Maurice Maeterlinck's puppet-influenced plays.7 By this point, Modernist thought had already adopted the puppet as a means of communication, as was the case with Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 treatise On the Marionette Theatre.8 Jarry is only one part of a distinct group of late 19th and early 20th century practitioners who would take interest in puppetry – Maurice Maeterlinck (as mentioned), Arthur Schnitzler, William Butler Yeats, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Paul Claudel, to name a few.9 Some scholars suggest that the attraction to puppets and masks so prevalent in the symbolist movement was a reaction to the realism inherent in the developing mediums of photography and film,10 as was likely the case with Edward Gordon Craig’s essay “The Actor and the Über-Marionette” published in 1908. Other factors, such as the elevation of the traditionally “low” art forms of Europe, a new interest in “non-western” modes of performance, and the potential for integration with technological innovations, allowed puppets to experience a rebirth in cultural and political engagements.11

Part of the appeal of Ubu was that it was conceived in the tradition of northern French marionette performance.12 This grounding in the familiar made the piece both accessible and unsettling for audiences, and when it was first performed on December 10th, 1896, Jarry warned the audience that "A few actors have agreed to lose their own personalities during the two consecutive evenings by performing with masks over their faces so that they can mirror the mind and soul of the man-sized marionettes that you are about to see."13 This cautionary announcement is perhaps indicative of the potential backlash against a blurring of the human and inhuman facets of scenography. The actors appear as objects, while the objects appear as people. To further this effect, the setting remained as a static, surrealistic space comprised of a bed and a fireplace for the entirety of the show.14 Jarry described his vision for the scenery in a letter to Lugné-Poe: “One single stage set, or, better still, a plain back-drop… A formally dressed individual would walk on stage, just as he does in puppet shows, and hang up a placard indicating where the next scene takes place… (I am absolutely convinced that a descriptive placard has far more ‘suggestive’ power than any stage scenery).”15 In this way, the unrelenting scenery was contrasted by the overwhelming action of the objects, and the participatory experience of envisioning the setting forced viewers to commit themselves to the performance.

Despite Jarry’s warnings, a riot broke out in the theater at the end of the performance, setting the tone for future manifestations of Ubu.16 Though it was only preformed twice by the Théâtre d’Art, its influence was vast. (figs. 4-7) Michael Meschke’s Ubu Roi of 1964, performed in Stockholm for the Marionetteatern, juxtaposed actors, playing the roles of Ma and Pa Ubu, with smaller puppets of various types, including cutouts and rod puppets, controlled either by the actors themselves or the unseen puppeteer.17 Meschke’s connection to the subject was explicit. His ancestors were forced to leave Poland in the 1930s, resettling in Sweden like many other eastern European Jewish families.18 Later manifestations also played with the political content of the story. (figs. 8 and 9) Joan Miró, who worked briefly as a scenic designer in the later 1920s, collaborated in 1975 with Teatre de la Claca, a Catalan theater company that employed traditional "gigantes" (giant puppets) and "cap-grossos" (giant masks) in their productions.19 Founded directly after of the death of Dictator Francisco Franco, Teatre de la Claca, with Miró as designer, produced a play entitled Mori el Merma (Death to the Monster) based on Ubu Roi, which dealt with the legacy of subjugation under Franco.20

The use of puppets as symbolic stand-ins for distant, deceased, or absent enemies has a long and rich tradition – performances range from the explicitly government-sanctioned plays to reactionary protests. Some of the earliest surviving puppet plays from Europe, such as those in Ben Johnson’s Bartholomew Fair of 161421 and Cervantes’s Don Quixote of 1606,22 were designed to question the established religious hegemony. Puppets seem to be able to get away with anything. They appear inconsequential, so little thought is given to the very real consequences of these performances. In early 19th century Rome, puppets were excused from regulation while actors were required to submit scripts ahead of time for official approval. Therefore, puppets were free to mock both the pope and the cardinals with very little reprimand. Even during times when theater was banned altogether, such as 16th century Antwerp and 17th century London, puppet shows remained fairly unregulated.23 In 1867, Louis Lemercier de Neuville put on a puppetry play, Le Roi Prudhomme, that mocked the empire and the personage of Napoleon III. Even more surprising was that this play was performed with Napoleon III in attendance.24 Lemercier, who was an artistic director, architect, and scene painter (as well as the creator of the Erotikon), founded the Théatre des Pupazzi,25 and later wrote Histoire Anecdotique des Marionnettes Modernes in 189226 and Souvenirs d'un Montreur de Marionnettes in 1911.27

Beyond the puppet’s inherent qualities, which allow it to function in political satire, the settings of traditional puppetry are also apt for commentary. In particular the portability of puppetry sets, such as those that accompany the traditional Punch and Judy shows, allows for versatility and improvisation. With little set up required, and with the expansive space provided by an outdoor location, one’s choices are not limited to the prescribed space of the theater itself.28 Therefore, the implied setting of the puppetry performance can by the town, city, state, or country in which the play is performed. When the performer can not only choose the setting for the play, but also the audience, he or she can magnify the potency of the political message. If the audience is unsympathetic to the cause of the puppeteer, the performer can simply relocate to better venues.29

(figs. 10 and 11) Ghetanaccio, the nineteenth century performer, made full use of the portability of the puppetry set. Staging his performances under the windows of his satirical subjects, he brought political commentary directly to the offender’s doorstep.30 In one possibly apocryphal account, Ghetanaccio set up his stall across the street from a provisions dealer who had, in the performer’s opinion, charged him too much for his purchases. The protagonist of the play laments the fates of his three sons, who according to prophecy will be involved in various evil deeds throughout their lives. An angel appears to tell him that the first son, who is destined to commit manslaughter, can become a doctor to fulfill this fate. The second son, who will commit murder, can become a soldier. Lastly, he advises that the third son, destined to become a thief, should be made into a provisions dealer, stealing from people without consequence.31 The crowd in attendance laughed and hissed in the direction of the provisions dealer, who accordingly spent the rest of the day in seclusion.

During these performances, law enforcement was often brought in to arrest, move, or discourage Ghetanaccio, at which point he could easily move his set to a safe location.32 In this way, the puppeteer avoids censorship, while other performers, bound by permanent structures and immovable scenery, cannot. Ron Davis asserts that the portable set is essential to political puppetry in his “Guerilla Theatre: 1965” manifesto. He refers to creating a stage that is “twelve by fifteen feet, made into eight sections with a backdrop hung on a pole strung along a goal post supporter. All equipment must be portable and carried in a borrowed three-quarter-ton truck.” The San Francisco Mime Troupe, the company founded by Davis, continues the tradition of the portable set, moving pieces to various locations by trucks, ensuring that the target audience is always in reach.33 Of course, the actual set expands beyond those objects brought along in utility vehicles – puppetry theater often takes advantage of the implied setting of the neighborhoods, streets, and other public places they inhabit. Often these implied spaces are integral to the purpose of the performance itself.

In addition to portability, the puppet play allows the performer to control all aspects of the staging, forming a single, political ideal. Often self-funded and outside the constructs of traditionally collaborative endeavors, the individual is free to voice controversial opinions, only answering to the audience itself.34 Of course, performing troupes were also a major facet of political puppetry. (fig. 12) After the 1917 Revolution in Russia, and as the aesthetics of Futurism and Constructivism were taking hold, young artist-revolutionaries took up the traditional Russian puppet, Petruschka, as a means for spreading wide scale dissent. This labor-class hero of the masses, always in some form of struggle against hierarchical structures, spoke to the political ambitions of a people in revolt.35 Red Petruschka collectives, forming initially to challenge authority, would later come to be used as propaganda in children’s education. However, the ideas of the movement made their way into the United States through Paul McPharlin’s 1935 translation of The Adventures of a Russian Puppet Theatre by Nina Efimova, an artist and Red Petruschka puppeteer.36 The accounts of her work and travel inspired a generation of puppeteers to use their skills in order to challenge established tradition.

(figs. 13 and 14) In addition to European endeavors, the American tradition of modern puppetry sprang from the work of Craig and Michael Carmichael Carr, an American scenic designer who built scale-model sets for Craig in Italy.37 The American experience with puppets would turn out to be dissimilar to that of Europe, as local traditions held less appeal to American audiences who had little connection to Native American forms. Thus, American puppetry, at least in its earlier manifestation, was more interested in creating a new kind of “high” art than reviving a “low” form of expression.38 Accordingly, American puppeteers often chose plays that had artistic appeal rather than political significance. That’s not to say that politics remained completely out of the picture. Like any art form, puppetry could not remain merely entertaining for long.

(figs. 16-17) Ralph Chessé’s 1928 production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones stood in the tradition of the Ubu play – in which an individual of low social position declares himself King – while also dealing with issues of race in the United States.39 The story was apparently based on the exploits of Henri Christophe, who after leading Haiti to independence, took control and declared himself king in 1907.40 In the play, Brutus Jones is an African American fugitive who tries to take control of a small Caribbean island, only to be driven out by the local population. During his escape, he confronts both the struggles of his past and that of his ancestors from the early years of slavery in America.41 In this way, The Emperor Jones is grounded far more deeply in a kind of historical realism than the satires of European political puppeteers. Accordingly, the set for the play consisted of actual objects, as opposed to an isolated painted backdrop, that the characters could use and occupy. Jone’s throne, an essential piece to the performance, allowed the puppeteer to create dynamic vignettes of power relationships. Similarly, the Jones puppet was based on the actor Charles Gilpin, who played the character in a well-known production by the Federal Theatre Project.42 Unfortunately, this performance was still tempered by the prejudices of the time, with exaggerated ethnicities and an inaccurate rendering of the throne, which was characterized by leopard print coverings and a large skull headrest. Regardless of these flaws, this popular performance gained notoriety for its attempt to address current social issues.43

Only a year later, the stock market crashed, and much of this type of pursuit was abandoned in favor of traditional theater (when and where one could afford it). Yet with the Great Depression came a return of American puppetry to the hands of the impoverished and disadvantaged. Immigrant cultures of New York’s Lower East Side began to transform puppetry, a traditionally viable means of entertainment, into a forum for social and political commentary. (figs. 18 and 19) In particular, Yosl Cutler and Zuni Maud, who performed Yiddish language puppet theater in a former clothing factory, were known for their political comedies. Their characters ranged from a depiction of Herbert Hoover with a rotten apple for a head, and “Vol Strit” (Wall Street), an evil conspirator who helps world leaders create war in order to boost the economy.44 Within the setting of a failed business venture (the clothing factory), as well as the larger implied setting of depression era New York, Cutler and Maud’s work had a particular potency, and would receive international acclaim.45

In other parts of the world, puppeteers were faced not only with the realities of the Great Depression, but also with highly charged shifts in political agenda. In the time between World Wars I and II, puppeteer troupes formed in opposition Nazi rule throughout Europe, often performing their plays in secret. In Czechoslovakia, Jan Malik coordinated these efforts, gathering activist puppeteers and audiences for performances.46 (figs. 20 and 21) The most famous of these performers was undoubtedly Josef Skupa, creator of Spejbel and Hurvinek. While Nazi forces shut down the Loutkár and the Sokol puppet institutions, he continued to perform progressively political material. In 1944, Skupa was imprisoned in Dresden, while other puppeteers were sent to concentration camps such as Terezín and Ravenbrück,47 where they continued to perform shows for the other prisoners with puppets made from rags and found materials. Similar performances were put on in the camp at Dachau, where inmates staged a puppet version of Faust, in which the devil was modeled after Himmler.48 The puppet’s versatility, mobility, and simple form lent itself to expression even in the most dire of circumstances.

The end of the war, while celebrated, was also met with a certain amount of trepidation in the face of the growing animosity between the United States and the Soviet Union. (figs. 22-24) In America, Alfred Wallace questioned national politics with his two-faced senator, Franklyn D. Roosevelt Punch baby (donning a yellow dress), and most importantly, his “Tired World,” meant to represent a sentiment of hopelessness as the nation moved towards the Cold War.49 American puppeteers were not the only performers to respond to the power struggle. Czech artists were resistant to Communist rule, producing shows and films to oppose the “Red Spread.” (figs. 25-29) Jiří Trnka was perhaps the most renowned of these practitioners. A student of Josef Skupa,50 his film of 1965 entitled Ruka (The Hand), was a masterpiece of political puppetry, film animation, and scenography (see video below).

The first scene of Ruka opens to a small, one bedroom home with crumbling walls and a mold covered ceiling. Parts of the wall paper are torn to reveal a patterned surface underneath, and small clay pots are strewn about the room. Trnka is, of course, drawing a comparison to the living conditions of the majority of Czechoslovakians before communistic rule, while emphasizing that this is a perfectly acceptable and happy existence – one that is free from governmental control. The protagonist is a potter, content to spend his time at the wheel, when his world is suddenly invaded by Ruka (the large gloved hand of the puppeteer) who demands that the potter produce art for the state. Throughout the performance, the puppet interacts with various objects around the room – the doors, windows, bed, mirror, potter’s wheel, and his prized potted plant. The settings change as he is seduced by the hand into forfeiting his free will, symbolized by the attachment of strings onto the puppet’s limbs. He is dropped into a cage, where he is forced to sculpt a giant hand out of stone. He later escapes back to his room, where he succumbs to paranoia, dying in the process of attempting to nail down possible entry points. The Hand conducts the funeral, placing the protagonist in his cabinet, which is transformed into a coffin, with his favorite potted plant at his feet – now in full bloom. Despite Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia, the film experienced wide initial support and little censorship upon its release. However, after his death only four years later, a concerted effort was made to confiscate all known copies, and the film was banned from public viewing.51 The footage survives today, and because of this, we are able to understand how the puppet would have functioned within a complete scenographic design.

Unlike Trnka, who attempted to reach a large general audience through an easily distributed medium, artists elsewhere turned to more focused, targeted street performances reminiscent of the early puppet shows of Ghetanaccio. (figs. 30-35) One such group was the Bread & Puppet Theatre, established in 1961 by Peter Schumann as the New Dance Group in Munich, relocating in 1963 to New York City.52 An essentially outdoor theater, they transform whichever space they inhabited into a theatrical setting, which in itself is a form of political commentary. Moreover, by choosing their audience, which happened during demonstrations (they otherwise charged a nominal fee), the performance functions as a kind of intrusion on the everyday experience of the viewer. Because of this, the plays are typically simple, meant to be readily understood by anyone.

As a collective group, the vision of the individual is subject to the mission of the leader. Similarly, there was little room for improvisation, as the puppeteers only controlled the movements of the objects – a narrator provided the speaking parts. Schumann insisted on using performers who had not trained as actors, as he believed the puppets themselves were the actors.53 The use of oversized puppets in demonstrations and marches in the late 1960s further transformed the spaces in which they functioned, exemplified by the performances organized by Puerto Rican tenants in the Lower East Side, and more drastically, the marches in Washington to protest the Vietnam War,54 of which some footage remains (see video below).

Since these efforts, political activists have continued to use puppetry to communicate particular viewpoints. (fig. 36) At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Meschke paraded his puppets through the streets, revisiting the controversy over Jim Thorpe’s 1912 gold medals, which were stripped in 1913 in response to a claim that he had worked as a professional athlete.55 Thorpe, who was the first Native American to win an Olympic medal, became a symbol of the prevalent bigotry in the Olympic Committee. (figs. 37-40)The Squat Theater’s Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free of 1981 commented on the degeneration of modern culture with a giant Gerber baby puppet, complete with television screen eyes.56 This was performed in Squat’s storefront theater on 23rd Street in Manhattan, and open to public viewing.57 (figs. 41-46) A similar emphasis on place was prevalent in Janie Geiser’s Evidence of Floods of 1994, which examined domestic violence and women’s issues in the United States.58 Geiser devised multiple sets for the action, all of which could be moved easily between scenes, much like one might see in a traditional play or film. These vignettes of urban life, sculpted in the round, emphasized the flatness and material quality of the puppets themselves. In one scene, a gun looms over the bed of the abuser, casting an ominous shadow onto the painted wall behind.

These performances emphasize the scenographic potential of objects, whether in terms of their physical location, political context, designed scenic space, or inherent physical qualities. In a sense, performing objects act as a transitional force between the active and the passive material that informs our visual understanding of a production. Because of this, the puppet as the political protagonist can go much further than a traditional actor. He is not expected to abide by the same rules as something strictly active or strictly passive. Arthur Symons’s comment regarding the “wire-pulled passions” of Ubu Roi holds true today – the ability of the puppeteer to bring an object to life is in itself a kind of political statement, questioning our physical, emotional, and spiritual understanding of objects, and perhaps more importantly, how they function within a given space.

Works Cited Page

Relevant footage:

Part One of Ruka (The Hand)

Part Two of Ruka (The Hand)

Bread & Puppet Theatre - March on Washington 10/21/67

Irrelevant footage (but fun anyway):

Opening scene - Being John Malkovich

Montage scene - Team America