Research at the Ransom Center: Death and the Puppet
By Carolyn D. Roark
I find continual amusement in how many people I meet who, when they discover I work with puppets, make the sheepish confession that puppets actually creep them out. On reflection, it's unsurprising, really. Look at a puppet when it's offstage, dangling from its string or nestled on a shelf. Its eyes have a thousand-yard stare, and it doesn't move. And while your rational mind knows that it won't until someone picks it up, your imagination wonders if it might. Puppets have something in common with Schrödinger's famous Cat. Before the observer opens the bag, the cat is equally likely to be alive or dead, and so it is both. In the moment of performance, an audience knows the marionette is not a living thing (someone is pulling the strings after all), but we also accept the thing as a performer, a character with a will of its own. Puppets are simultaneously animated and inanimate. They exist in a perpetual, liminal space in the human mind; it makes them a little ominous. This is also what makes them so useful in talking about life and death.
A puppet is a corpse in reverse: it is lifeless, but has the potential for momentary animation. Puppets have no life but the life we give them, and yet they do not die, either.
My research on puppetry centers on the ways humans have used performing objects and stories to grapple with the anxieties occasioned by our own mortality. The Harry Ransom Center has a beautifully diverse collection of puppet-related material with multiple connections to this topic.
The Ransom Center's collection includes a variety of holdings related to the traditional Punch and Judy, a long-lived pop culture phenomenon focused on a lowbrow anti-hero who breaks every rule, gleefully murders everyone who gets in his way, and finally defeats the Devil himself. Video footage from a famed 1980 world puppetry festival (dozens of tapes in all) includes performances of Punch and of related traditions from several cultures. One the highlights depicts famed Punch and Judy man Percy Press, Jr., explaining to a group of children that the swazzle responsible for Punch's peculiar, squeaky voice also helps "take the cruelty out" of his essentially violent nature. The real crown jewel of these holdings is a set of nineteenth-century American Punch and Judy figures. Mr. Punch (the unrepentant sinner who beats both the Hangman and the Devil), Judy (the wife he murders in every show), the Ghost, and the Devil he outwits—the set is remarkable both for the unusual body style of the figures, and for what their creator's aesthetic choices say about the American imagination of the day. Punch wears the clothes of a common workman; the Devil oddly resembles Jim Crow.
Several other collections demonstrate preoccupations with life, death, and the soul. The Stanley Marcus Sicilian Marionettes emerge from a tradition best known for its sweeping battle scenes and the piles of bodies that collect on the stage during epic struggles between Charlemagne's knights and their enemies. Several excellent books and scripts address the old German Faust for marionettes; Goethe's masterpiece on man's search for immortality owes more to this version than to Marlowe's better known adaptation. And found among the Yale Puppeteers' papers are Foreman Brown's wry poems and songs on the puppeteer's difficult relationship with his creations. Neither his creative philosophy nor the underlying theology offer much comfort:
"His life is hanging by a thread" they said.
Whose the hand that holds it? Whose the hand that moulds it?
They ask—and silence is their sole reply—
We know the answer, God and I.
Brown lays bare another key factor in our unsettling identification with puppets. Just as they rely on a creator to give them life and movement, there is an unseen animating principle at work in our own existence. Whether you believe in a divine puppeteer or a random firing of nerves, there is an essence without which you would not be, and which exerts more control over your life than you do yourself. Puppetry responds to deep-seated existential anxieties. The earliest puppets were totems: jointed figures intended for ritual use. In the hands of priests and shamans, they became gods and demons. And through puppetry, humanity seeks to manipulate the forces that pull our own strings.
Carolyn D. Roark is the editor of Ecumenica, a journal investigating the intersections of live performance and religion/spirituality. She works on religion and theater, puppetry, and Latin American theater. Her current project is a book on the subject of representations of death in puppet performances. Her fellowship at the Ransom Center was funded by the Fleur Cowles Endowment.