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The Persistence of Puppets, Masks,

and Performing Objects


by John Bell



The world began to became "modern," cultural historians tell us, sometime around the early 1500s when secular thinking, individualism, humanism, and the scientific method began to supplant centuries of religious-based thinking and uncritical obeisance to ideas and concepts handed down over centuries from the classical and medieval worlds. In a classic example of modern thinking, Galileo used the 17th-century technology of the telescope to prove that the earth revolved around the sun, contradicting Ptolemy's first-century assertion of the opposite. The beginnings of modernity also marked a growing mistrust of animistic beliefs in the power of the material world, and in cultural terms this began an uneasy relationship with some of the more persistent aspects of global performance culture, including  masks, puppets, and performing objects, as well as the pre-Christian rituals to which they were attached.


British cultural historian Peter Burke found that the beginnings of modern popular culture in Europe included quite specific rejections of mask and puppet performance. In his 1978 book Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe he noted specific moments in the 17th century when, for example, the priest Avvakum broke the mask and drums of a troupe of traveling Russian performers, and a priest in Nanterre, France "tore the mask from the face of the leading actor" of a street theater company. Masks, puppets, and other previously powerful objects (such as Catholic Church icons, at least from the perspective of Protestant reformers) were no longer seen as important links to unseen powers, but instead as the evidence of falsity, a dangerous opposite of what is real and true: things to be mistrusted rather than celebrated for their abstract and associative powers.


Visual art, drama, and literature invested in new aesthetics of Realism also grew more popular in these early modern centuries, further eroding trust in the masks, puppets, and ritual objects that are by definition the opposite of real. However, despite these pressures, mask and puppet performance, and often the pre-Christian rituals associated with them, continued to be practiced, especially in low-culture environs and rural communities. By the end of the 19th century puppetry's traditional shamanist and politically caustic functions began to be tamed with the idea that (despite the example of the previous few thousand years) the form is really most effective as children's entertainment; and ritual community performances with puppets and masks were defined as "primitive" culture--clearly beyond the boundaries of the modern.


And yet, the "primitive" power of puppets and objects did not disappear, and thrives today in all sorts of contexts which, on one hand, represent the persistence of traditional ritual culture and, on the other, mark ways that new materials, new technologies, and new social contexts can be combined in new rituals of material performance. Both old and new rituals are aspects of the ways that the material world persists in performing ideas with deep connections to our contemporary world. French social philosopher Bruno Latour claims that, in fact, "we have never been modern," and that the strong pre-modern ties between humans and non-humans were never really sundered. Contemporary life, he writes, is a persistently hybrid mixture of what we think is "modern" and what we think of as "primitive." And puppets, masks, and objects--despite their modern reputation--continue to play a central role in the articulation of contemporary life. 


An increased interest in puppet and object performance emerged in the 19th century with the invention of folklore and anthropology, applied with equal zest to domestic and global contexts, the latter spurred by western colonialism.  Soon after, in the early 20th century, avant-garde artists began to explore masks and puppets as powerful alternatives to existing norms of realistic visual art and theater. Now, in the early 21st century, Internet technology allows for a wealth of traditional, non-traditional, and hybrid forms of puppet and object performance to show up on our computers every day, in the form of videos on Facebook, Youtube, Vimeo, and other sites. These short documentations of object theater often elicit comments of amazement from viewers who, in true "modern" fashion, tend to see such performance as rare and unusual rather than as examples of the rich persistence of material performance in our own time.

Old and New Object Rituals

In this video from Switzerland, we can see part of an Alpine winter mask ritual combining woven masks, costumes made from evergreen boughs and animal skins, the harmony of re-purposed cow bells, and sweet wordless harmony singing.

In this footage from the Rumanian village of Fruntesti, a similar seasonal ritual is performed with masked characters and a goat puppet enacting a rhymed folk play of comedy, combat, death and resurrection.

A third European mask ritual with pagan roots is this Krampuslauf parade in Austria, with masked demons, animal skin costumes, and bells, here in procession through the city.

Carnival in the Americas has mixed European, indigenous American, and African object performance practices, and here we can see how modern materials--recycled beverage cans in this case, performed in the streets of a Brazilian city--can fulfill in spectacular fashion the function of the large bells we've seen in the earlier videos from Europe.

This footage of ritual performance in Senegal depicts neither masks nor puppets, but an amazing dance exploiting the potential of a spinning shaggy costume.

Similar material spectacle can be seen in this dance presented by musician Helado Negro (the pseudonyum of Roberto Lange, a Florida artist of Ecuadoran descent), in the high-art context of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Meanwhile, in the high-fashion world, costume-as-object performance persists in this slow-motion footage of moving materiality attributed to Alexander McQueen and Damien Hirst. It's interesting to see this in the context of the Helado Negro dance, Brazilian can costumes, and the Senegalese spinning dance.

The Persistence of Puppet Theater

In Malaysia, an attempt to attract new audiences to the ancient arts of shadow puppetry takes the form of a wayang kulit interpretation of Star Wars. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the epic struggles of the George Lucas films, with their intergenerational family conflicts, contrasts of comedy and drama, and spectacular fight scenes, lend themselves almost seamlessly to the similar concerns of Malaysian epic structures based on the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Meanwhile, in southern Italy, the equally epic spectacle of Sicilian marionette theater continues, with its eclectic and utterly traditional combination of 19th-century verse, hurdy-gurdy splendor, intergenerational family conflicts, contrasts of comedy and drama, and spectacular fight scenes, as well as long-imbedded conflicts between Europe and Africa and the Middle East, and Christians and Muslims.

Machines and Nature in Performance

Technological performance has been the most important innovation of 20th-century performance, from the invention of robots to such performances as this whimsical dance of bucket loaders.

Finally, a more recent understanding of the importance of material performance is the idea of nature itself as a non-human protagonist on the earthly stage. Jane Bennett's book Vibrant Matter develops contemporary thinking about the material world as "actant," and this uncanny video footage shows an object performance wholly independent of any human motivation.

Dr. John Bell is a puppeteer and theater historian who began working in puppetry with Bread and Puppet Theater in the 1970s, and continued as a company member for over a decade. He studied theater history at Columbia University, and has since taught at New York University, Rhode Island School of Design, Emerson College and other institutions. He is a founding member of the Brooklyn-based theater company Great Small Works, and the author of many books and articles about puppetry, including Puppets, Masks, and Performing Objects, Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History, and American Puppet Modernism: Essays on the Material World in Performance.

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