January 21, 2016 | by Sadie Stein
I inquired about the mechanism of these figures. I wanted to know how it is possible, without having a maze of strings attached to one's fingers, to move the separate limbs and extremities in the rhythm of the dance. His answer was that I must not imagine each limb as being individually positioned and moved by the operator in the various phases of the dance. Each movement, he told me, has its center of gravity; it is enough to control this within the puppet. The limbs, which are only pendulums, then follow mechanically of their own accord, without further help. He added that this movement is very simple. When the center of gravity is moved in a straight line, the limbs describe curves. Often shaken in a purely haphazard way, the puppet falls into a kind of rhythmic movement which resembles dance. —Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Marionette Theatre”
Before there was Charlie Kaufman, there was Forman Brown. And there was Albert Einstein, holding an Albert Einstein marionette. The marionette in question was a member of the cast of Brown’s Yale Puppeteers, who performed a special for the physicist in 1931 at Los Angeles’s Teatro Torito.
The troupe, which consisted of Brown, Harry Burnett, and Roddy Brandon, is fascinating in its own right, and not just because it performed satirical puppet theater for some seventy years. The company regularly featured cameos from Elsa Lanchester and Odetta; their later Turnabout Theatre became legendary for its adult puppet revues. And in 1933, Brown—under the pseudonym Richard Meeker—published a gay novel called Better Angel, which was groundbreaking primarily because its protagonist was allowed to live a happy and fulfilled life.
According to Mental Floss, Einstein, who was at the time teaching at CalTech, had only one complaint about his miniature alter ego: “The puppet wasn’t fat enough!” he claimed. For the sake of accuracy, he took a letter out of his pocket, crumpled it up, and padded out the character’s belly.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.