An actor enters. He utters his lines in a strangled monotone punctuated by grotesque, stilted gestures. He exits, walking into the doorframe.
A dancer enters, his dilapidated leotard stretched tightly over a well-developed paunch. He executes a few wobbly pirouettes, then collapses into a heap of sagging sinews.
A violinist enters. Placing bow to instrument, she scrapes out a hideous series of notes that lack even passing acquaintance with rhythm or melody.
A puppet enters, crudely carved and poorly manipulated. It shrills out labored puns and engages in unfunny business with other tattered members of his clumsy tribe.
In the first three cases, audience reaction would most likely consist of stunned silence, followed by outrage. But in the final instance, the puppets would probably bow to the patter of polite applause. Why would an audience that demands excellence from all the other performing arts sit through the twaddle that forms a large part of puppetry in this country?
Throughout the world, puppetry has been and continues to be a venerable and respected art. It has brought laughter, tears, morals, news and politics to children and adults for thousands of years. There are few countries in Europe and Asia without a centuries-old puppet tradition: the Wayang Kulit (shadow theater) of Indonesia, the Bunraku of Japan, the Orlando companies of Sicily, the roughneck clown Karaghioz of Turkey and Greece, "Punch" of England, and his anarchic counterparts in Germany (Kasperle), France (Polichinelle) and Russia (Petrouschka). The list is a long and honored one. There, puppetry also has often attracted able practitioners of other disciplines to participate in it: artists Klee and Kandinsky, playwrights Shaw and Schnitzler, composers Haydn and Gluck, and designer Gordon Craig.
But what happened in America? First of all, this country has no indigenous puppet theater; it was brought here by the various immigrants. These ethnic forms flowered for a time, but, cut off from their roots, withered away as the second and third generations gave up their Old World heritage for Americanization. With the turn of the century, the European puppet troupes that toured the nation began to inspire American puppeteers. The late 1920s saw the beginning of a substantial movement in puppetry, a movement cut short by the Depression. Since then, there have been individual artists and groups of great merit, but not enough of them to train or even influence the growing number of people interested in the art.
Ivo Puhonny, a famed German marionettist of the 1930s, best described the impact of the untrained on puppetry: "The thoughtless plunging into an unperfected art lowers the general standards of the marionette show. The public does not charge the clumsiness and inadequacy they see to the worker, but imagines it to be an intrinsic part of a puppet performance, and sees therein only a pleasing pastime . . . charming but after all only a form of child's play to be observed with indulgent eyes." This situation also circumscribes the subject matter of puppetry. A beginner in any art is not going to leap to the fore with a Mona Lisa or a Brandenburg Concerto. This is why most puppetry in this country consists of simple productions of the more familiar myths and fairy tales. There is nothing wrong with myths and fairy tales. In fact, our company will be performing a Russian folk tale, "The Firebird," next month. But there is a much wider and deeper emotional and intellectual palette from which to paint.
What to do? We wouldn't want to outlaw "Rumpelstiltskin" and "Little Red Riding Hood" any more than we would want to ban the beginner and his honest efforts. The answer lies with the audience, the critic and the professional puppeteer.
When the lights go down and the curtains go up, the audience is about to see theater. Theater in miniature perhaps, but still theater. The same rules apply; expectations should not be lowered. Excellence is the only applicable standard. If the audience is not moved, angered, thrilled, scared, intrigued, something, then the puppeteer has not realized the potential of his art, and the audience should let him know this in no uncertain terms. We've seen more than one puppeteer forsake innovation and experimentation for the relative security of the tried and true. They simply got tired of having their best work received in the same manner as the nursery school show down the street.
The solution is really very simple: Treat puppetry as any other art. Applaud it when it's good and criticize it when it's bad. We are more than willing to take our lumps as well as our laurels.
It's the only way to get American puppetry restrung.