Germaine, or the Master Puppeteer


Our Daily Correspondent

“And what is the advantage your puppets would have over living dancers?”

“The advantage? First of all a negative one, my friend: it would never be guilty of affectation. For affectation is seen, as you know, when the soul, or moving force, appears at some point other than the center of gravity of the movement. Because the operator controls with his wire or thread only this center, the attached limbs are just what they should be … lifeless, pure pendulums, governed only by the law of gravity. This is an excellent quality. You’ll look for it in vain in most of our dancers.”

—Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Marionette Theatre”

Besides being World Poetry Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, World Down Syndrome Day, Truant’s Day (in Poland), Harmony Day (Australia), and the Anglican Commemoration of Thomas Cranmer, tomorrow (March 21) is World Puppetry Day.

The occasion was proposed by the Iranian puppeteer Dzhivada Zolfagariho at 2000’s XVIII Congress of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette; it was instituted in 2002. Needless to say, there are any number of ways to celebrate. If you care to ponder the eternal human desire to play god and its meaning, I direct your attention to the terrific collection On Dolls, edited by Kenneth Gross, which contains not only Kleist’s essay in its entirety but also Baudelaire on the philosophy of toys, Freud on the uncanny, and Rilke on wax dolls, among many others. 

Or you can simply appreciate the form on an artistic (or at least sociological) level: whether your taste runs to the New Wave, the terrifying, the operatic, or the old-fashioned abuse of Punch and Judy, we are (thanks to the magic of the Internet) living in a golden age of puppet theater. (And there’s always Being John Malkovich.) 

The following, I think, can be appreciated on several levels. Steven Connor, in his Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life, puts it like this: “It is as though, as the fossilized form of human longing, the puppet longs in turn, vividly and vivaciously, for the life that can never be its own.” And watching this video with that in mind, it’s hard not to think about questions of human agency—to say nothing of the meaning of the human body, fashion, and models in society. But it’s also entertaining, ingenious, and quite frankly bizarre—and any sinister overtones are quite soundly repressed by the aggressively jocular narration. (On the most superficial level, I think we’d all enjoy a fashion week that went a little heavier on puppet-life.) 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.