Darwin and the Origin of the Species of Puppets.
Life is movement, and movement is life as far as the subconscious is concerned.
Evolutionary psychology has a plausible theory that when we were evolving, it was in our interests of survival to treat any unknown movement in the landscape or in the nearby bushes as either being caused by a living creature or being itself a living creature. Then it’s fight or flight until we can work out if it was just the wind which caused the movement. If that’s true, then that would put our suspension of disbelief in puppet theatre at a very primeval level. It explains why really bad puppetry can still have some success with an audience, at least until their intellect kicks in.
With a supposedly more sophisticated audience, we can expose the technique, showing the operators/puppeteers in full view. In modern cabaret, Nina Conti skilfully plays over and over with the alive or not-alive conundrum, along with the performer/puppet relationship.
If the focus is on the object/puppet, moved with the illusion of inner life, then the effect is very powerful, tricking the intellect and satisfying the limbic. A popular example of this are the horses in ‘War Horse”, although here an added layer is given, where there is a confusion of using abstracted sculptural shapes combined with very naturalistic movement. The puppet has adapted to it’s environment amongst humans telling a serious historical story. Horses for courses. Without the abstraction the horse would incline towards pantomime comedy no matter how hard the puppeteers try.
Puppets in general do incline towards comedy, intentional and unintentional. Any ‘serious’ subject matter risks the whole edifice collapsing if the movement of the puppets strays even momentarily over the line . Its a tightrope, and below are the clowns waiting to take over until the daredevil its back on the wire.
Within its historical environment-the bespoke puppet theatre-puppets are capable of, and indeed exploit, non-naturalistic movement. Since the revival of puppet theatre which began at the start of the 20th century, we’ve been able to see different types of puppet adapt to their most comfortable environments.
Glove puppets are possibly one of the hardest forms to use for serious content,and as such have tended to find their niche among young audiences, utilising their bright-eyed belief and unselfconscious inclination to laughter.
Rod puppets, stately and imposing, tell the tales of goddesses and kings with ease, but then have had their ages old technique combined with mouth puppets to create the Muppet style which are brilliantly and completely at home within the proscenium of the television screen. A hybrid for a new medium.
Marionettes, which somewhat annoyingly remain in the popular imagination as intrinsically proper or sophisticated, are perhaps the only ones which have failed by and large to adapt to modern tastes and changing theatrical environments. An evolutionary cul-de-sac maybe? Though the puppet artist Stephen Mottram may be the exception who disproves the rule.
Further theatrical engineering brought animatronic puppets to the big screen, now more or less supplanted by CGI. Computerisation has spawned another variation with the creation of the realtime operated CGI character. Puppetry once again, though it probably dare not speak its name in that rarified context. But the problems and complexities of the “P” word might be the subject of another blog!
The next step in the evolution of the puppet? It has to be the autonomous AI robot, freed from its creator and operator, no longer giving the illusion of life, but possessing actual independent life and an equivalent machine consciousness. In the same way as Phillip K Dick asked “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” we might perhaps ask “What (or who!) will robots enjoy controlling for their amusement?”