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Muppets, puppets, marionettes, bunraku, wayang, and actors

November 23, 2011

Hooray, hooray, there is a new Muppet movie on the way.

But why do we like puppet theater?   For example, the core repertoire of the (human) Kabuki theater is based on the Japanese (puppet) Bunraku theater.  But Bunraku continues to be popular, challenging the popularity of human performance.  Given the greater expressiveness possible with a human actor how can both forms co-exist?


And what accounts for the exhaustive evening-long performances of Wayang in Indonesia?

And I must admit that during Mozart’s 250th anniversary celebration, I did go to some effort to watch the Salzburg Marionette Theater versions of his most famous five operas.  (Unfortunately, the video below has quite a few imperfections)

What accounts for the continued popularity of puppet theater?  Perhaps there is joy in the fantastic elements of puppets – movements not possible with real humans – but I also think that a significant part of puppetry is the fact of less expressiveness.  Puppet presentations force us to focus on specific elements of a performance – and thus hide both human imperfections (a twitch of the eye) and inessential elements.  In this way, puppet performance is appealing in the same way that harpsichord performance is appealing – even though a piano is more expressive than a harpsichord, the harpsichord causes us to focus more on the structural compositional elements of a piece (which is why J. S. Bach’s keyboard music often sounds particularly good on a harpsichord.)

Even computer animation sometimes “works” because it mimics puppetry

7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2011 8:03 pm

    Thunderbirds are GO!!

  2. November 24, 2011 7:01 am

    But why do we like puppet theater?

    Fascinating question. I remember having to acquire a taste for Wayang while living on Java for a few years. But on tv in the USA, my children watched and grew up with the Muppets, and perhaps that’s why they grew on me a little quicker. As you bring together so much and so many in a single post, it does make one wonder whether puppetry is universally appreciated, and why.

  3. Russ permalink
    November 24, 2011 9:56 am

    The wayang…on of my favorite movies is a 1982 film with Mel Gibson and Linda Hunt and after his arrival in Indonesia she explains the wayang to him. It was the first time I had ever heard of it. I was 24 at the time. It was so fascinating the way she presented it…and all these years later it’s still my favorite part of the movie. And when my sister moved to Singapore 10 years ago with her husband I had her bring me back one of those puppets the next time they visited NY.

  4. November 25, 2011 4:21 pm

    Chuck: F. A. B. “Of course! Why didn’t I think of it before?”

    Kurk and Russ: I spent hours and hours watching Wayang — I think I have seen almost every scene from the Ramayana.

    Russ: The movie you are thinking of is The Year of Living Dangerously. If you ever read the novel by Christopher Koch, the correspondence between the plot and a wayang performance is drawn even more starkly.

  5. Russ permalink
    November 25, 2011 8:09 pm

    Yes, I forgot to mention the title. I must have seen it 25 times since. It was one of the first movies I purchased when DVD arrived.

    About 6-7 years ago I read the book and remember finishing it in a matter of days. And now all this talk of the wayang and I will simply have to go in search for it again. I’ve been holding out in the hopes of it appearing on Kindle but no such luck.

  6. Russ permalink
    November 25, 2011 8:20 pm

    Forgive my ignorance, but would you be able to expand more on Ramayana or point me in the right direction?

  7. November 26, 2011 11:53 pm

    Russ: Ramayana is an a classical Hindu story that often forms the basis of Wayang plays. Another famous Hindu story is the Mahabharata, and apparently that is also performed, but somehow, I have only seen the Ramayana in performance. You can find plenty if you google “wayang ramayana” or you can start at this link.

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