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What might puppets tell humans about mortality?

What might puppets tell humans about mortality?

Anna Wheeler looks at the art of puppetry and the insight it gives to mortality and the human experience. 17/07/2023

Love’s such an old–fashioned word and love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night, and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves…this is our last dance…this is ourselves. 

The haunting words at the end of Under Pressure by Queen ft. David Bowie. In the official video, there are plenty of deathly and ghostly or puppet–like images. The power of the song hit me when I watched the film Aftersun as the main character contemplates his own death as he dances to the song. Both the official video and scene from Aftersun show humans or ‘living images’ (not all the images in the Queen video are of people in motion) in the extremes of emotion – a difficult watch you may say. These moments of emotion are heightened and not ones we may experience every day, so may feel difficult and other. 

A marginalised genre to show marginalised emotions 

But why difficult?  Is it because we are not used to such otherness or are discomforted by it?  These are painful emotions and ones which we perhaps hope are indeed ‘other’ to most of our daily life. The ‘people on the edge of the night’ are, for me, the people on the edge of life as we know it.  They could be people on the margins of what we call ‘real’ life but could also be anything that has had a life and which appears to be real, that is about to die. 

Where am I going with this you ask.  I’ve been interested in puppetry for as long as I can remember for these very reasons – puppets represent the margin of reality with fantasy – merging it in our hearts and minds, and puppets live and die on stage in front of us.  The genre of this art form is one of strangeness and ‘other’ to what we are used to, but then many of us regard talking about death as strange.  Hence, we should not be surprised when an art form regarded as a little different, is very good at representing death which, to our peril, we have separated from living. 

The struggle to live and the religious impulse in puppetry 

Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring, the Puppet company behind War Horse, believe that puppetry has something particular to offer a contemporary audience. It has been much discussed how an inanimate object can make us emotional.  It is because the puppet is a lifeless object looking to live – as we are in many ways.  A puppet’s struggles are essentially the same as ours – they are dependent on the relationship with at least one human to give them life and direction.  A puppet’s existence is relational and watching a puppet on stage, on its own, with only its puppeteer, is deeply moving and personal.  Kohler and Jones also talk about a religious impulse residing in puppetry; theatre can have this for some people, but puppetry, they say, has this in disguise.  Puppeteer Mervyn Millar talks about the humble puppet being life, where there is no life.  An audience, with the assistance of the puppeteer, will imagine a living person – in a wooden doll (or horse).  This is a profound act because when we imagine a person, we imagine their inner thoughts, and we connect.  We have a natural instinct to look for ‘signs of life’ – for instance – might a floppy teddy move?  Adults’ love of the Toy Story films is testament to this. 

It strikes me that puppetry is a search for language, perhaps at times unspoken, about the mystery and difficulty of being human in life and death.  If you watch a puppet in action, it may heighten your senses.  By a puppet sharing its life and story with us, it seems to understand those watching it – our own reality is enlarged in the otherness of the other.  I see this in the work of Blind Summit  who operate puppet Moses in The Table. The puppeteers who work him, live through him – it’s their reality that makes him real.  And yet when I watch him, I understand what he is feeling – who is more real, him or me?!  He becomes an embodiment of them, and their experiences become his and by that, Moses makes us laugh because we can see all our frailty and craziness in him.  I laugh not at him but with him, and at myself.  You may note here that I refer to ‘him’, when ‘he’ is in fact made of a pillow and cardboard… 

To take the notion of the puppeteer’s reality making the puppet real, a little further: the act of breathing life into a puppet to bring it into existence echoes the Judaeo–Christian creation story. The very act of breath gave life to humanity, and the giving up of breath by Christ on the cross was the breath that brought us into relationship with God.  In puppetry, we’re asked to put our belief in contradiction – this thing, which is not alive, yet alive when the human spirit inspires it.  Some may find this a step too far – a complete leap of faith – but think where else we see this in the Christian story: Golgotha.  How do you stake your life on a broken seemingly lifeless person hanging on a cross? Yet it is that same man who holds a hidden but unbreakable strength needed for life in all its fullness. Puppeteer Basil Twist reminds us that puppetry has sacred roots. It deals with the frontier between life and death.  It can be profound, spooky, and uncomfortable – and it is perfectly acceptable to have these feelings – a puppet teaches us that we live alongside death; it isn’t something that’s tagged onto the end of life.* 

Love and death 

The lines I quoted at the start of this article about love bring me onto Famous Puppet Death Scenes by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop.  A puppet will always live and die before our eyes because a stage show must always start and end – and in that puppet’s death, we may sense our own impending mortality. ‘Most of us prance blindly through our daily duties, seldom giving a glancing thought to our impending mortalities. No wonder: if we could truly grasp the bewildering certainty of death, we would be overwhelmed by it… I do not wish to die! I love to be alive!’ The company talks about how it combines this fear and love to bring out the power of their death scenes – this may seem absurd, grotesque, and distasteful yet when we love and live absolutely fully, as a puppet does, the immediacy and event of death is even more bold.  A puppet can’t half love, just like it can’t half die.  Neither can we.   

If there is one quality that hits me when I watch a puppet, it’s vulnerability – Old Trout remark ‘…there is an even bigger question that we should be asking ourselves: what is it about us all, as a species, that we are so deeply addicted to attributing consciousness to inanimate objects?  Puppets, dolls, action figures, sure – but if you think about it, flickering pixels as well.  Could it be that empathy is so crazily important for our survival that our brains have evolved to care about anything that resembles another human being?  Maybe the part of us that believes a block of wood has feelings is actually the best part of us…the part that will save us all.’ 

Empathy with and from inanimate objects 

If we do have the capacity to care for anything that resembles another human, Director Spike Lee is onto something in the film BlacKkKlansman when Ron (played by John David Washington) is piercingly moved as he engages with and touches the shooting targets – the static cut–outs of human beings that the KKK have been practising on (warning: link contains very offensive language).  These inanimate targets provoke a reaction in him and in the viewer which brings home what is happening. The shooting targets ‘live’ and the knowledge and memory of those persecuted is present in the eyes of Ron. It doesn’t matter that these are not ‘alive’ – they represent those who have been murdered and those who will be.  He is at one with them – they may as well be real because he treats them with a reverence and respect as if they are his friends (they are) and what they remind us of is utterly real and urgent.  He looks at them as if to say, ‘I’m with you; I will fight for you’.  The power of the scene is that you do not see what the KKK have been shooting at until the men have fled.  Then you see the targets with bullet holes.  The brutal violence and hatred within America at that time is shown in seconds through these abused, defaced inanimate objects.  To care about the ‘un’real objects is the only hope we have when the ‘real’ humans have sunk to such depravity.  We must then say to the shooting targets ‘we are with you; we will fight with you’ in order to save ourselves.  It is their essence and spirit that we resonate with. 

Reassessing realness 

Puppetry and the world of inanimate objects is an art form that can be a calling back to the self – to the fundamentals of being human – birth, life, suffering and death – and the emotion within the circle of life.  Puppetry is rough, unfinished and unpredictable – as we are ourselves.  There is the sense that puppetry is of the world but not fully in it – always wondering about its place but with an accepted awareness that its time is limited and that it will die.  It has been known; made to exist by another.  We are all known in ways deeper than we can articulate; we exist in relation to others and the Christian concept of free will affords us the ability to live without being operated by a puppeteer. But what I see in a puppet is a bravery within fragility about both life and death.     

The 2023 film Pinocchio directed by Guillermo del Toro reflects all the themes above, in both form and content, and has itself been seen as an allegory of Christ’s life.  Whether or not you take this from the film, the subjects of the film include forgiveness, grief, and acceptance – grief for mistakes made but acceptance for who we are, and that how we see ourselves and others often limits our concept of realness and worth. 

If we approach life with more of a sense of mystery and openness, as a puppet does, maybe death would then become more approachable because we would already be in that place of openness.  A puppet touches the place of enchantment, awe and wonder for the entirety of its life – including its death, where we don’t stop believing in its life.  If we see love as more daring, to use the opening lines, and to apply to life what Basil Twist applies to puppetry – more animation and less manipulation of life, we could hope to feel less trapped by mortality and more loving to situations and people who we view as other.  

*My Neighbour Totoro with the enchanting puppetry of Basil Twist, cited above, returns to The Barbican Centre London in November 2023 – March 2024.


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Photo by Min Thein on Pexels

Anna Wheeler

Anna Wheeler

Anna was formerly Operations and Events Manager at Theos. She was a part of the Theos team from 2015 to 2023. She read Theology at Heythrop College, University of London, and later gained a PG Diploma in Theatre.

Watch, listen to or read more from Anna Wheeler

Posted 17 July 2023

Art, Humanity, Morality, Puppetry


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