Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dead or Alive?

Known as man's necessity to see himself represented and acknowledged -- just like the theater the ancient Greeks smartly named theatron -- the theater of marionettes has also been part of the human experience for centuries on end. Called Vidocuchaka in India, Karagos in Turkey, Punch in England, Guignol in France, Fantoccini in Italy and Mamulengo in Brazil, the theater of marionettes has long been the object of study of practioners, scholars and the like.
In On the Marionette Theatre, Heinrich von Kleist writes his text in such a manner that it reads like a pleasant short story; however, the author raises a few important issues concerning this type of theater. According to a conversation he struck with a friend, whose name is never mentioned in the text, everything about a puppet revolves around its center of gravity. His friend then compares this mysterious center of gravity to the path of a dancer's soul. Again, his friend is so enamored with the art of puppetry that he even mentions that there is "more grace in a mechanical puppet than in the human body," and it is "absolutely impossible for man even to equal the puppet in this." What an intriguing observation. Here we clearly encounter a dichotomy: the body of a puppet versus the body of a dancer.
Most of Edward Gordon Craig's text On the Art of the Theatre deals with two troubling questions: Is acting an art? Is the actor an artist?
Traumatized -- in my humble opinion -- by some bad theatrical experience, Craig even writes that what an actor gives us is not art, "it is a series of accidental confessions." He then adds, "This is to be an imitator, not an artist." Although Craig writes "all puppets are now but low comedians," he surprisingly praises a certain "flash of genius in the marionette" which humans seem not to have. He then concludes that the marionette appears to be the last echo of some beautiful art of a past civilization. What a mind-boggling remark! Here we come across another dichotomy: the body of a puppet versus the body of an actor.
Oskar Schlemmer's texts Man and Art Figure and Theater discuss how Bauhaus dealt with  the theater -- not only the spatial stage but also the stage as an institution for the artist. He also mentions, "man remains perforce our essential element. [...] Man is the vessel of the subconscious." Here we find another dichotomy: the "body" of the theater versus the body of man. In his text, Schlemmer surprisingly quotes Craig, "The actor must go, and in his place comes the inanimate figure -- the Ɯbermarionette we may call him." It is quite disturbing to see that quote is somewhat materialized in the illustrations of Schlemmer's texts. The troupe of actors depicted in those illustrations do resemble perfect marionettes.
I must confess that while I was reading those texts, I kept thinking of the film The Life of Marionettes by Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman where he examines a group of people "acting in life" as if they were real marionettes.
As for the three texts, I must admit that being a performer and a writer myself, I was troubled by Craig's ideas. His love for the marionettes is unquestionably obvious but his lack of respect for the work of an actor is stubbornly limited.
Mamulengo in Brazil