Now You See It . . .

November 18, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the curtain calls for War Horse last night, the loudest applause was for the three people who operate the title character.  I suspect that the true object of the audience's admiration was The Handspring Puppet Company that created the fantastic creatures we saw on stage. 

The show makes an unusual choice.  The puppeteers have no real part in the play; they are not characters.  But the puppeteer who operates the horse's head is dressed like one of the Devon farmers.  So it's almost impossible for the illusion to take full effect. 

Seeing is believing.  An, as much social and cognitive psychology has shown, believing is seeing.  Or more importantly, not seeing.  The wonder of the illusion on stage comes when we see a horse and not merely a horse-shaped lattice of cane.  But if we continue to see the puppeteer, if we cannot unsee the puppeteer, we don't quite know what to believe. 

When the horse first eats oats from a bucket, you wonder: is the horse doing this, overcoming his reluctance to get near a human (as the story has it) or is the silent farmer leading the animal to lower his head to the oats? (A bit of that scene comes at about this 0:15 mark in this montage.)

In bunraku, by contrast, each puppet is operated by three people, but they are covered head to toe in black, though sometimes the head puppeteer wears a black kimono and no hood.  They are supposed be invisible, and soon they are.

At first when you see bunraku, it seems odd.  The three guys in black operating a puppet one-third their size are a distraction.  But after a while, you stop seeing them.  The stage usually has a dark background, but even when the scene is more brightly lit, you see only the characters in the play, not the puppeteers who operating them. 

Here's a bit of classical bunraku.  You don’t need to watch the whole two minutes to get the idea of seeing the operators.  But that’s much too short a time for you to literally lose sight of the puppeteers.  Believe me, in the real theater, you do.

And here's a more modern example.

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