All the arts, and theatre in particular, have over time had their own dynamics of a conflictive relationship between tradition and modernity, in cyclical movements of rupture in the artistic thought that question the past and elaborate new concepts adapted to the changing times.
The Renaissance is generally considered to be the deepest and most brilliant movement of Man’s rupture with the past, with his conceptions of the world and its representation in the arts.
Curiously, it is the Renaissance that propels the true birth of marionette theatre. We have however heard of marionettes in ancient Greece, the momus, in Roman festivities and during the long Middle Ages where the marionettes played a relevant role in the celebration of the Christian liturgy.
It is the time of the marionettes inside the churches, almost always animated religious figures (for example, angels making whimsical aerial choreographies in the nave of a church are very famous) to better tell the believers the diverse episodes of the life of Christ and the mysteries of the faith. This “state of grace” lasted for several centuries. But the irreverence of the marionettes, their critical spirit, and their natural inclination towards the burlesque, which would certainly provoke laughter among the fervent crowds, would later determine their definitive eradication from the places of worship, in the spirit of the Counter-Reformation.
In Portugal this phenomenon was particularly meaningful. The presence of marionettes in religious acts is so strong and their speech so rich in sermons extolling the life of Christ and the saints that they come to be called “bonifrates” (“bonnus + frater”) and after several centuries Christmas cribs are still popular.
After the Council of Trent (1545) and particularly the Synod of Orihuela (1600), which reiterated the “prohibition of representing the actions of Christ, those of the Virgin Mary and the life of the saints by moving figures”, marionettes were finally expelled from churches, just like the new humanist spirit drives out the darkness from inside man to illuminate the new times of the Renaissance.
Small troupes are born then, performing religious plays with a delightful popular flavor, as well as the solitary bonecreiros crisscrossing cities and villages seeking their sustenance.
In my opinion, from this time on, marionettes really begin to mark their presence in the theatrical context, as a consequence of the historical facts referred to and propelled by the birth of one of the most fantastic forms of popular theatre that ever existed: the Commedia dell’Arte. Meanwhile, Europe was experiencing one of its most fruitful theatrical periods: the Spanish Golden Age and the Elizabethan Theatre.
In this very rich atmosphere of change, perhaps from the end of the 16th century, foreign itinerant artists start arriving in our country, especially French and Italian artists, who find a regular and generous audience in large cities. Pulcinella, a prominent immigrant who wins people’s hearts with his mischief, also arrives this way. The Portuguese’s appetite for foreign novelties is well-known, therefore it is not surprising that the hero Pulcinella and his family, a series of typified and socially representative characters, in the manner of Gil Vicente, were easily adopted, just as it had already happened all over Europe. On the other hand, the Portuguese nature tends to take ownership of foreignisms. The symbiosis of outside and inside theatrical representations resulted in a process of culturalization, a phenomenon common in the history of Portuguese culture, that originated the appearance of a genuine Portuguese popular theatre and later of a new popular hero: Dom Roberto.
Across Europe, marionette theatre is a theatre of common people and close to their desires, performed on the streets and at the fairs, often a strongly political theatre, a tribune to criticize the powerful people, a space for common people catharsis. And so it will be for a long time.
Despite living mainly from improvisation and the canevas (scenarios) structure inherited from the Comedy, several famous authors write their plays for marionettes; this leads to the performances being also made inside theatres and sometimes assuming more erudite characteristics. In Portugal, this happens by one of our greatest authors, António José da Silva, o Judeu, a pearl in the panorama of poor Portuguese dramaturgy.
His plays, which in fact are operettas, performed by marionettes at Teatro do Bairro Alto, impress for their grace, their dramaturgical perfection, and for the love of a theatre of human counterparts which represented subtly, through their words and actions, with bodies of wood and cork, the cruelty and the injustices of a society that was a victim of religious terror.
And still in the context of the Portuguese tradition, I could not fail to mention the “Bonecos de Santo Aleixo”, a magnificent and unique example, in the European context, of theatre with rural characteristics which fortunately, as we know, is very well studied and preserved.
Reflecting on the modernity of the Marionette Theatre I would like to begin by referring to three texts that would become indispensable and sacred for the attempts at theorizing and renewing a theatrical form which, in my opinion, remained for too long locked in a ghetto and suffocated by the weight of tradition. It is symptomatic that these texts, in one way or another, reflect on the possibilities, better still, advantages, of marionette theatre, over the conventions of the naturalistic theatrical scene.
“On the Marionette Theatre”, written by Kleist in 1805, is a beautiful text that, confronting the dancer and the marionette, intends to assert the latter’s supremacy by the fact that its movement is not subject to the laws of gravity, inducing a “poetics of the flight”, and is fascinated by the marionette’s simple, precise and unconstrained gesture, immune to emotion.
One hundred years later, Edward Gordon Craig developed in “On the Art of the Theatre” the concept of über-marionette actor, a key idea in contemporary theatre which, rejecting naturalistic conventions, considers that “man is no longer the best support for expressing the thought of man” and states that the theatrical performance must establish a “conscious artificialism”.
Finally, I refer to “Man and Art Figure”, manifesto for a new theatre, in which Oskar Shlemmer, in the revolutionary spirit of the Bauhaus, proposes paths to a non-figurative, formal theatre, in a pictorial perspective of a pure game of forms and colors in space, emphasizing the interpreter’s plasticity, considering him almost a sculpture, as in the poignant Das Triadische Ballett (The Triadic Ballet).
I consider these texts contain the basic ideas that induce the reflection, the concepts and the practice of contemporary marionette theatre. And in this way we are inevitably led to the heart of the question that fed the idea of all the great theatre thinkers during the last century: the question of the aesthetics of representation, determined by the way in which the actor and the conventions of the scene more or less approach the reality that they are intended to represent. Or, in a simplified way, the degree of naturalism, which is understood by the distance that separates the simplistic concept of “presentation” of life from the elaborate concept of “representation” of life. Or, how the great paradox of theatre is solved, perhaps also its greatest fascination, which will always be the inevitability of representing man through man himself. When we know that the actor and his body are still the essential material for the representation, with his natural limitations and evidencing a lack of distance from the reality that he proposes to represent, himself. And the fundamental question that feeds the diverse theatrical conceptions is to find equivalences that make representation credible, allowing to overcome the functional constraints of the actor and his double condition of material for representation and represented being.
As it is well known, all ancestral theatrical expressions have found forms of codifying the representation that have solved the problem by using a notion of an extra-ordinary body outside of reality, which has a quasi-transcendent dimension: in the West, I emphasize the Greek theatre and the Commedia dell’Arte, using the mask and dilation of the actor’s voice and body; in the East, among others, the theatre of Bali, Indian Katakali, and Japanese Kabuki that established a system of corporal codes; or through the use of forms of indirect theatre, in which there is a mediator of the theatrical relationship, a demand for a sacred, propitiatory representation directed to the attention of a divine audience: marionettes and shadows, of which there are many and very rich expressions in the countries of Southwest Asia.
And it is precisely when the encounter with Asian traditions occurs, in the middle of the 20th century, in Europe, in particular with the Japanese Bunraku Theatre, that a radical transformation will take place in the traditionalist conceptions, determining a new way of facing the process of representation with marionettes: I’m speaking of the actor being visible to the audience, in what we usually call manipulation in sight. Aware of this new possibility, the creators are freed from a model of representation that had tried until then to hide the interpreter in order to create in the observer the illusion that the marionette has a life of its own. The “magic”.
At that time, and after so many centuries of a timid evolution marked by a conceptual constraint, the Marionette Theatre truly opens up to modernity. The theatrical space, confined to a functional device to hide the actor and display the marionette, evolves into the whole scene. The mystery of marionette life is revealed to the viewer. And new and very complex issues arise at the level of theatrical semiology.
After seeing the Bunraku theatre, Brecht and Sartre thought long about it. Brecht is interested in the distancing effect caused by the simultaneous and autonomous presence of the four elements of the representation: the actors / manipulators, the marionettes, the narrator / interpreter of the text (joruri) and the musician (shamisen); in the epic narrative structure and above all in the situation of the actors being at the same time spectators of their own representation, giving him fantastic material for a reflection on a structural part of his work a basic issue of his thought. Sartre studies the relation in space and time between these various theatrical signs and is fascinated by the richness of the dialectic that is established at the moment of performance, between the movement given to the marionette by the manipulator and the voice that is borrowed from the narrator, located in the right corner of the scene, in narratives, dialogues and songs.
Analyzing the practice and tendencies of contemporary marionette theatre, I would say that marionette theatre seeks, in the light of contemporaneity, an aesthetic autonomy, a language of its own, at a time when theatre in general is going through a great uncertainness and seems lost in the search of a theatrical model of identity. Obviously losing the battle with the audiovisuals, cinema and television, paratheatre languages that developed their own models of ideal, naturalistic representation.
Theatre, for its part, would have to find new codes of evocating a new world.
Marionette theatre is, by nature, an imagery theatre, with a poetic, non-naturalistic dimension, establishing a “conscious artificialism” in the conventions of the scene. By definition, it is on the border line of several artistic universes. And so it reveals an ability like no other dramatic form to incorporate and transform, with powerful efficacy, the new scenic languages, the new visual models, the new senses of a postmodern world.
My experience and practice over the past few years are linked to a number of obsessions related to the issues I have previously tackled. First of all, the search for other matrices of performance for the actor / performer, as opposed to the conventions of the naturalistic scene. This implies, in my opinion, a formal research of the theatrical language, not in the sense of creating “beautiful images”, but essentially in the possibility of extracting emotional contents from the body as a metaphor, a non-figurative, abstract, formal image.
I believe in the construction of a poetics of action, which questions the function of the performer as the bearer of the purely psychological and purely semantic dimension of the text, but which considers words to be an element of the universe of signs of representation, valuing its poetic and imagetic dimension. Meyerhold, whose ideas are highly relevant today, stated that “the contemporary actor has become an intellectual reciter” and added: “Constructing the theatrical building on a psychological basis is tantamount to building a house on sand: it will inevitably crumble.”
The new trends in marionette theatre, intersected by the new ways of seeing in artistic creation, in theatre, dance, plastic arts, music and images, can help theatrical art to free itself from its archaic limbo, becoming sensitive to a world of new senses and realities, refusing conventional models not permeable to time, fossilized and immediate, and, regardless of the risks, searching for a new form of theatre in which the audience may find a true impact in their lives.
João Paulo Seara Cardoso
Presentation at the Theatre Congress held at Teatro de Vila Real in April 2004