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Modernist Etudes

Matthew Isaac Cohen reflects on texts written  for puppetry and the value of playtexts in the training and professional development of puppeteers

‘The reward of difficult thinking is an inner exhilaration’ – Thornton Wilder on Gertrude Stein’s puppet play Identity: A Poem (1936)

Puppet theatre in nearly any of its incarnations is a technically demanding enterprise. In these days of instant actor-celebrities and pop idols, it is a common expectation among student wannabe puppeteers that they will be able to devise, design, and execute a polished puppet performance after only a few short months of study. However, the discipline associated with puppetry is more comparable to classical dance and music than theatre as a rule. To create something acceptable to an audience requires mastering a range of skills in the areas of dramaturgy, design, building, blocking, animation, vocal production, lighting, music. Without such skills, puppet theatre is only pretentious doll play, an internal dialogue lacking meaning to anyone other than the puppeteer.

Numerous how-to puppet books provide necessary exercises for developing vocal and manual dexterity. (Two of my favourites for glove puppets are George Latshaw’s The Complete Book of Puppetry and Larry Engler and Carol Fijan’s Making Puppets Come Alive: How to Learn and Teach Hand Puppetry.) But there is a significant creative gulf between learning how to play blindman’s bluff with hand puppets and creating a full puppet production for adults.

It is my contention that a critical body of writing for the artistic development of contemporary puppeteers are the European and American modern texts written for puppets, roughly in the era between 1896 and 1962, including plays by Alfred Jarry, Oskar Kokoschka, Edward Gordon Craig, F.T. Marinetti, Thornton Wilder, Federico García Lorca, Michel de Ghelderode, Ernst Toller, Gertrude Stein, George Bernard Shaw and Jean-Claude van Itallie. In my practical explorations of this repertoire with my puppetry students at Royal Holloway College, I find that when students puppeteer with these texts it allows them to enter what psychologist Lev Vygotsky called a zone of proximal development. Students must confront concrete challenges set by playwrights, ranging from the realisation of particular effects to the creation of a symbolic world. I have observed that through overcoming theatrical obstacles in group collaborations, students are able to understand concepts and reproduce and fashion practices that would be just out of reach as independent learners. They challenge each other to find keys to decoding complex playtexts situated at the boundary of reality and illusion, and negotiate the central formal paradox of puppetry: the art of animating the inanimate. The challenges set for twenty-first-century students by these modern texts are comparable to the challenges of the texts with which twentieth-century puppet modernists themselves contended, such as The Death of Tintagiles and Faust. Texts of this calibre involve not just a series of technical problems to be solved, but allow the student of puppetry to define a style on road to the achievement of grace.

Puppets offered symbolist writers such as Maurice Maeterlinck the possibility of externalising and articulating inner conflict and voices. ‘Well made’ human theatre required well-rounded and defined characters that espoused a range of viewpoints and could engage in dialogue. Conflicts were eminently social in cause and solution. In contrast, puppet characters from the same period could be emblematic, representing archetypes (the wise man), figments of the imagination (ghosts, faeries), and symbolic compulsions (hunger, lust, etc.) rather than actual social types. They showed that the individual was in fact divided. A woman could be both virgin and whore, a man could be both wise and foolish. The puppet theatre portrayed a world of psychological disequilibrium in which conflicting desires warred in the self, erupting in symptoms such as hysterical paralysis and blindness (the pre-eminent psychological disorders of the late nineteenth century). The puppet theatre thus prefigured psychoanalysis and modern psychology and its topographies of the mind, multiple selves, and introjected objects. Studying early modern plays gave puppet writers starting with Jarry the tools for how to think outside the constrained mirror frame of naturalism – at the same time as the niceties of the symbolists were savaged, subverted, and overturned.

Modernist puppet writers developed a different sort of play world, addressing different concerns. Ford-style factory production lines, rapid developments in prosthetics, and the bureaucratisation of private and public life fed alienation not only from society but from the body and self. The pre-eminent psychological disorder of twentieth-century life, schizophrenia, shattered the borders of the real and the illusory. Modern puppet writers riff on this crisis of identity, presaging today’s obsession with how to maintain a sense of autonomy and purpose in a cybernetic world where people are increasingly the extension of objects (as I am at the service of my computer). Modern plays offer prospective postmodern puppet artists tools for representing today’s reality of genetic engineering and cyberspace. Important principles to be gleaned from puppet modernists include the representation of the demotic (from Jarry and García Lorca), simultaneous parallel action (Marinetti), mixed epistemologies (Craig, Kokoschka, Wilder), non-linearity (Stein), anxieties of influence (Shaw), and the re-enchantment of the world (De Ghelderode).

The repertoire of modern puppet plays for adults has been neglected by both scholars and performers. The collected puppet plays of Peter Schumann have yet to appear. A number of Jarry’s plays for puppets await translation. Edward Gordon Craig’s numerous puppet plays are mostly in manuscript form, dispersed in private collections. Parts of F.T. Marinetti’s Drama of Objects (1915) have been translated individually, but the whole has yet to be collected. Revivals of Kokoschka’s Sphinx and Strawman (1907), Thornton Wilder’s Prosperina and the Devil (1916), Michel de Ghelderode’s The Women at the Tomb (1928), Federico Garcia Lorca’s The Puppet Play of Don Cristóbal (1931), Gertrude Stein’s Identity: A Poem (1936) and George Bernard Shaw’s Shakes versus Shav: A Puppet Play (1950) are rare. Van Itallie’s Artaudian rampage Motel (written 1962, premiered 1966) has been performed more frequently as part of the playwright’s American Hurrah trilogy, but rarely has it been considered within the field of puppetry.

This spotty publication record makes it difficult for scholars to say something concrete about modern puppet scripts as a repertoire. The plays are simply not available for analysis. It also makes it difficult to author postmodern puppet scripts in the absence of strong modern models from which to depart.

Towards a postmodern repertoire

Harold B. Segel claims in his book Pinocchio’s Progeny (1995) that there was a sharp downturn in the writing of plays for the puppet theatre after World War Two. This is not strictly true. While there have only been a handful of puppet play anthologies (including Dennis Silk’s collected puppet plays; a ‘portfolio’ of American puppet plays for the kitchen sink magazine Play edited by Dan Hurlin; and two volumes of Contemporary Theatre Review edited by Marion Baraitser), there are also individual published puppet plays by Lee Breuer, Charles Ludlam, Peter Schumann, Paula Vogel, Mac Wellman, Jane Shepard, Christine Roberts, Don Nigro, Mac Wellman, M. Thomas Cooper, Ronnie Burkett and Jane Taylor.

There are also of course unpublished or as-yet untranslated puppet plays that well merit dissemination in print. I am thinking here of work by Nobel Prize winning playwright Dario Fo (i.e. his Grand Pantomime with Flags and Small and Midsized Puppets) and celebrated Australian indigenous playwright Jack Davis (Rainmaker and Widartji). To date, only excerpts of Chinese-American playwright-director Ping Chong’s puppet opus (Kwaidan, Obon and Cathay) have seen the light of print.

Plays get published not only as documents of past events, but as guidebooks for future action. Many contemporary puppet plays are written for specific constellations of talents and techniques, and it is hard to imagine how their scripts would translate to other companies. Productions appear to be too wedded to particular sorts of puppets, styles of delivery and mise-en-scène to allow a verbal script to be extracted for further reinterpretation. The written text arguably has a different place in postmodern than in modern performance. John McCormick, in a personal conversation, has suggested that a different style of writing is called for – scenic writing, after the manner of Brecht. But regardless of the form that the text takes, the frisson of translation when a text confronts new conditions of production will open up new vistas for creative practice. It is incumbent upon today’s practitioners, dramaturgs and scholars to identify and develop core repertoires for the further development of the artform.


Matthew Isaac Cohen, PhD is a senior lecturer, Department of Drama and Theatre, at Royal Holloway, University of London. See

He is also a wayang kulit puppeteer, and a contributing editor to Animations magazine.

Visit Matthew’s blog at


Image: student work from Royal Holloway University of London
2006–2007, courtesy of Matthew Isaac Cohen

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