Thursday, 10 July 2014

Vile Banter

As sad as it might sound, Heinrich von Kleist's On The Marionette Theatre is one of my favourite philosophical essays. Not only is it the sort of conversation I'd like to have with my dancing friends, it covers everything from the mystery of grace, through the problems of conscious to an analysis of what makes performance so entrancing. It's short, sweet and has none of that cheerleading for the Big Thinker that makes Plato so frustrating at first.

Kleist meets up with his pal, a dancer, who is enthusing about the marionettes, favourably comparing their movement against that of humans. Kleist puts on his poshest voice, worrying that such vulgar entertainment might influence the professional. The dancer points out that the movements of the marionettes have far more elegance than that of his own company. He bemoans what he regards as an unnecessary self-consciousness in the human performer.

Again, I find myself returning to the dual nature of theatre: the split between what is literally happening, and what is supposedly being portrayed. With puppets, it is harder than usual to suspend disbelief. A full suspension of disbelief for TIP Connection's To The End of Love would end up in the audience running screaming from the venue, claiming to have seen costumes taking on a life of their own.

For Kleist's nameless friend, the marionette has a perfection because it has no will of its own. It doesn't spoil the performance by adding its own personality, or tiny spectacle, to the immediate movements. To apply this to human actors would be harsh, insisting that they remove any spark of themselves from the role - and counter to the exciting developments of the method technique (Polish and American).

When Kleist references Genesis, it's difficult to judge whether he is using it as a parable or literal truth - in 1801, both positions were more respectable. But if he is using it as a symbol of the problem of consciousness, it transforms the discussion from a simple chat about a show into a deeper questioning of human identity and potential. And within that, it is an early attempt to explain why performance is more gripping than representation.

Rather than emphasise the complete control of the body - something that the French tradition leading to Lecoq champions - Kleist sees it more as a matter of controlling the centre of gravity. The marionettes are moved so perfectly not by attention to detail, but to the core.

Perhaps Kleist, aside from his meditations on the nature of being human, was interested in the aesthetics of puppetry - the discipline was only then, at the turn of the eighteenth century, beginning to articulate itself. The mystery of transference, the way that an audience can identify with the puppet, is a function of the marionette's lack of personality. There is nothing to get in the way.

By contrast - Macbeth, as performed in the one man version by Alan Cumming. Cumming's celebrity feeds into his portrayal: it's impossible to see the show as anything other than a vehicle for his talents, especially since he jumps from role to role with disarming ease. There's a context to Cumming - I can't help thinking of him singing a song about Glasgow's West End with Forbes Masson, or painted as Nightcrawler in the X-Men film. This does feed his interpretation of Macbeth, but in the opposite way to Kleist's purity of intention.

The object being manipulated - whether it is a glove puppet, a lamp, a huge blue man representing depression - has only the life that it presents in the performance. There's nothing beyond the show. It is, in Buddhist terms, fully present. 

Kleist's dancer gets very excited at the possibility that he can make a marionette for the perfect dance. What he champions is the precision of the communication: movements so graceful that they transmit the ideas directly. It might be impossible to forget that the marionette is a fake person, but it expresses the truth behind the movement exquisitely.

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