FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

by

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.

CounterPunch Magazine


bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

September 25, 2017
Frank Serpico
Kap, Cops and Confederate Statues: a Better World Without Double Standards
Vicent Partal
Proud to be an Agent of Catalonian Sedition
Robert Hunziker
Climate Armageddon Revisited
David Rosen
Populists vs. Progressives: Are They Still Relevant?
S. Brian Willson
Obfuscating the Truths of Vietnam
Patrick Cockburn
Why the Kurds Are Seeking Independence From Iraq
Victor Grossman
Merkel Clobbered, German Far Right Rising
Belén Fernández
Letter From Iran
Binoy Kampmark
Benjamin Netanyahu, Penguins and the United Nations
John Grant
The Vietnam War as Public Spectacle
Ron Jacobs
Colonialism Never Gives Anything Away for Nothing
Andre Vltchek
Western Propaganda in Southeast Asia
Jane Constantineau
Our Man in Panama: When Diplomacy Matters
Mike Garrity
Wildfires Don’t Destroy Forests, Logging Does
Barbara Nimri Aziz
A Risky Referendum for Kurdistan Underway in Iraq
Thomas Knapp
JPMorgan Chase is Right to Fear Cryptocurrency
Tom H. Hastings
Tween Boys and the Fate of the World?
Weekend Edition
September 22, 2017
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
The Killing of History
Anthony DiMaggio
Who Are the “Alt-Right”? On the Rise of Reactionary Hatred and How to Fight it
Paul Street
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “Vietnam War”: Some Predictions
Douglas Valentine – Lars Schall
The CIA: 70 Years of Organized Crime
Paul Atwood
Korea? It’s Always Really Been About China!
Jeffrey St. Clair
Imperial Ruins: Frank Lloyd Wright in Hollywood
Mike Whitney
Uncle Sam vs. Russia in Eastern Syria: the Nightmare Scenario   
Andrew Levine
Trump Flux
Paul Michael Johnson
Lessons on Colonial Monuments From an Unlikely Place
Benjamin Dangl
Masters of War: Senate Defense Budget Set to Exceed One Third of Global Military Spending
Brian Cloughley
NATO’s Decomposing Corpse
Linda Pentz Gunter
Stanislav Petrov: the Ignominious End of the Man Who Saved the World
Margaret Kimberley
Is Trump a White Supremacist? Yes, But So is America
Stephen Cooper
When Racism Lurks in the Heart of a Death Penalty Juror
Robert Fantina
Bombast Unchained: Trump at the United Nations
Ralph Nader
The Censorious Vortex of the “Flash News” Barons
Sheldon Richman
Trump’s Americanized Fascism
Don Fitz
Any White Cop Can Kill a Black Man at Any Time
Louis Proyect
The Cancer in Blue: Cop Documentaries
Mike Miller
A Small “d” Democratic Reflection on Hurricane Irma
John Feffer
It’s Time to Make a Deal With North Korea
John Eskow
MSNBC Goes Full Dr. Strangelove
Pepe Escobar
Unmasked: Trump Doctrine Vows Carnage for New Axis of Evil
Kenneth Surin
London Taxi Driver Chat
Georgina Downs
Poison in the Fields: Agriculture as Chemical Warfare
Basav Sen
The Brutal Racial Politics of Climate Change and Pollution
Jill Richardson
Finding a Common Language on Climate
Foday Darboe
Climate Change and Conflict