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On ‘Ubu the King’, Performed by Rough House Theater, Chicago 2016-17

The beginning of puppetry is labor.

Its product is labor in an unlabored form.

Its practice is the critical use of the miniature to put the greater world into relief.

The puppet demands the right of parody as the right of the created over the creator, a creator who has sinned by giving inert material a living presence. The puppet plays on the guilt of his master: stratagem of golem, marionette, and all likenesses.

The puppet-maker impresses certain autobiographical details into the puppet’s shape. He does this by using the tools of life: with a blade he chooses a face from parts of the faces he sees, or from dream and nightmare. Or from other puppets, from folklore and tradition (Southeast Asian shadow puppetry, Greek and Turkish Karagöz and Hacivat, etc.) When the puppet is finished, it must reject the personal elements of its creator in order to be able to ‘play’ naturally. What I mean by naturally is that the puppet may be part of a tradition, yet it must also betray these customs in order to remain in the here and now. Eccentricity on the part of the puppetmaster is not enough. Resemblance to a character is not enough (Neither is it a hindrance: mass-produced puppets are all capable of being themselves). Its puppet presence must be strangely apart from the play and the puppeteer – it must possess a third way of being. This third face arises out of motion. Remember, puppets seldom obey their masters and seldom stick to the script.

The world outside of the theater rejects the puppet and his outrageous claim of corporeal existence. This is why the puppet is a shadow profile, a painted face or a piece of stitched cloth, formed from spent material and refuse. A puppet never strives to be ‘original’ but understands that imitation is necessary in order to trick the greater world into giving way to the miniature. This project ends in laughter and ersatz violence, which is the greatness of idiot Punch and Jarry’s quite realistic monarch.

At the dawn of art, shadows were projected on a cave wall by fire. The extraordinarily moving silhouettes of hands in red ochre at the Cueva de los Manos were portraits of the Ur-puppets, negatives who took over the human hand in order to portray the first necessary semblance. What did these shadows do as they hovered in suspension over life? They provoked laughter, that loss of control which both sustains control and parodies it. The uncontrollable spasm is only truly possible for a puppet.

The puppet, already ancient by the time of Aeschylus, and could only laugh at this thin fraud who desperately applied masks to faces – personae – in a brokenhearted attempt to reveal inner life. The puppet is superior, and always a modernist, because he has anticipated the recent uncertainty in drama by millennia.

Ancient puppets can play any routine and never look archaic. The old puppet always interrupts the present and his old garb looks like an amusing atavism or it strikes us as intricate and austere. The costume of the human actor is usually nostalgic and self-conscious, the threads of a character who takes himself far too seriously.

The inner life of puppets is a greater mystery than the inner lives of people. We have been troubled since childhood by the uncanny fact that it may truly exist, whereas the best Freud can do for humanity is the mere hypothesis of the subconscious.

The puppet at rest always seems to be waiting and observing. Think on the magnificent patience of these little homunculi. The patience of the puppet is also a profound lesson for the revolutionary. No wonder the state always looks with suspicion on the Puppet Theater and rushes to ban it in times of crises.

You cannot say ‘a puppet of genius’ like you can say ‘a painter of genius’. Why not? Because individual puppets are without proper names? So what? Isn’t Anonymous often called a painter of genius. Because of the puppeteer’s alleged genius? We know that puppets may have many masters: to be extraordinary in many hands is far superior to a painter who is extraordinary using two at best. The most that we can say is that a puppet is beautiful, which says nothing. Our attempts at description and at penetrating the philosophy of puppets remain crude. Children know better.

The child who watches the puppet theater becomes a great artist. He knows that the puppet is not ‘real’ but accepts its actions as realistic. The child pays attention to the play but never lets it overwhelm the puppet. After childhood, we never watch with the same active intensity again. Between the puppet and the play, the character of the puppet and puppetkind, between the handmade form of the puppet and the form it occupies for a time, between the world around us and its mirror in cloth or wood, lies a midland which a child knows by silence. For the same reason, a child is able to learn multiple languages at the same time and never mistake his Polish for his Urdu, his Amharic for his Gujarati, his Tagalog for his Oglala.

The puppet, a thing created out of the stillness of expression (at best, the jaw moves, the head lolls, the joints slacken or become taut) is always able to convey expression without sentimentality. This is possible with humans to some degree (Hawks said John Wayne was great because he was a statue; the Japanese Noh and Butoh theater, for example), but only a puppet is able to show everyone through no one. It must be remembered that this mystery is a material process. It exists by real making and the agreement between the maker and the material to arrive at the unpredictable theatrical event:

Sender:​          Wall Street is falling.

Rebbe:​           I know.

Sender:​          A Revolution is coming.

Rebbe:​           I know.

Sender: ​         So, Rebbe, grab your tools and come drive out the Dybbuk.

— Yosl Cutler

The acquiescence of the puppet is a reuse which never fails. The loneliness of the puppet is only the ambiguity of appearances. Secretly, he is concerned with the management of remote influences, the disruption of remote control, and with turning force against itself (Cf., Bruce Lee, the philosopher who understood mimic and muscle most profoundly). The puppet stares into the abyss unflinchingly and is unconcerned with what the abyss gives back.

Only through puppetry can those famous words of Marx be truly understood: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”, although it is hard to convey just why this is so.

Rough House Theater’s version of Jarry’s immortal Ubu Roi is a masterpiece in itself. After the greatness of the puppets’ performances, the human collaborators should also receive the highest praise. I believe it has been performed only in Chicago so far. This should change.

In memoriam: Michael Bond (1926-2017), father of the refugee bear, Paddington

More articles by:

Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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