Volume I - 1993

The Puppet as a Metaphor
by Tova Ackerman

      Dr. G. Tova Ackerman is the founder of Puppetry in Practice, a resource center for developing literacy through the arts, at Brooklyn College in New York City. Her work focuses on the development of literacy through collaborative projects linking college, school, and community. Recent publications are Rush Into English (revised edition) and Puppet Drama and the Whole Language Classroom.

Their world is a poem, not a short story.
They are, by their very nature, images coming to life.
When the puppet bridges the gap between his seeming
limitations and his coming to life,
He has made a moving comment on the human condition
And even the puppet's death can be moving,
As having given us the gift of his breath,
He then takes it back.
And yet, in the next moment, he lives again - immortal,
A dream or memory in the actor's hand.
The actor can play this role, too,
But the puppet is this.
He is naturally tragic-comic
Naturally abstract - a detail.
In the human world, he is a visitor
And we must see ourselves through his eyes.
- (Bass, l992)

      Puppet drama, while a form of creative expression, differs from other performing arts in that the world designed by the puppeteers consists of animated objects, a theater performance whose actors are not human. The performance may parallel human reality but the "actors" have much greater freedom. A puppet can be an inanimate object, a distortion or exaggeration of reality or a being that can move in ways impossible for a human actor.

      The actual puppet creation process may be quite simple. A few pieces of fabric, a bit of glue and glitter or a folded paper plate may be all that are needed. The interaction between person and character, however, is complex. The character that is created comes from some aspect of its creator that may not even be consciously expressed in everyday life.

      The puppet, then, is put into the role of actor, mirror and critic. It has lines to speak and its oral environment takes place within the context of other "actors" in a particular place and time set by the puppet producer. In much the same way that ordinary discourse takes place, the interaction between players on a puppet stage is always more than the words expressed. The puppets not only mouth words but transmit a message through body language and visual aspect. In contrast to human interaction, that of the puppet is an exaggeration, often a comic one, of some aspect of the character portrayed. It may be an abstract shape, an object, or a realistic figure but it is always symbolic. A puppet is created with the audience in mind. Its body language is purposeful with no movement unintentioned. The mind of the puppeteer interacts with the audience with the freedom of anonymity and the urge to poetry that which may normally not be portrayed. At the same time, the stimulation of the medium affects both the puppeteer and the audience.

      The word "imagination" is usually defined as the power of the mind to form a mental image or concept of something that is not real or present. In Hebrew, the word "imagination" is "dimyon" which means "to be similar to." If the two definitions are combined, in terms of puppet creation, the question then arises as to the origin of an "imaginary" puppet character. The answer, then, lies in the basic nature of the puppet as a metaphor. Puppet become visual metaphors for ideas, characters or emotions that may not have been consciously thought of as connected by the puppeteer until the puppet is made.

      Once made, the puppet has an external look and an inner "anima" that is the gift of its builder. When Rudolf Arnhein speaks of artistic imagination, he speaks of it as "the capacity to invent a striking pattern, especially when applied to such familiar shapes as a head or a hand. Imagination is by no means first of all the invention of new subject matter, and not even the production of just any kind of new shape. Artistic imagination can be more nearly described as the finding of new form for old content, or--if the handy dichotomy of form and content is eschewed--as a fresh conception of an old subject." (Arnheim, l974)

      Arnheim speaks further of the relationship between artist and object being portrayed. He speaks of the object as able to dictate a bare minimum of structural features and therefore calling on the "imagination" of the artist in the literal sense of the word. It is the imagination of the artist that must turn the object into an image. In the case of puppetry, in which the object itself is the active voice, what does the artist/puppeteer do to embody it with spirit?

      In an interview with Joseph Krofta, conducted by Hannah Kodicek for a BBC documentary of Czech puppetry, Krofta speaks of the animation of an object. "We need to remind ourselves often that the word, "to animate" does not mean "to make move" , but rather it means "to give soul to", from the Latin word "anima"...To breathe soul into an object does not mean making a perfect copy of it...An artist makes us believe that any object he touches is alive, and "en-souled", that is contains a living soul." The puppet may be the product of the imagination of the person who made it, but once created it exists in its own right. The relationship between puppet maker and puppet cannot be totally separate.

      "Puppets, though normally associated with gross buffoonery, are poetic. They are, because they are not human, immediately metaphors." (Bass, l992) Puppetry, as seen as metaphor, can be differentiated from other art forms; it has a zaniness and a style of oral communication that is at once strongly visual and persuasive in terms of involving the spectator. A puppet is made to speak. Whet her or not the mouth has a movement mechanism or is glued shut or painted on, whether the puppet is symbolic or abstract in shape and design, it has a function that involves communication. This aspect of puppetry is intrinsic to it. When a particular puppet character comes to mind, there is often a slight twitch in the hand. If a puppet is put on one's hand, it is impossible to keep it quiet. It has a mind of its own. If it wants to interrupt, it does. Its personality comes from some part of the puppeteer that is dominant enough for it to have been created as a concrete visualization. It is a statement of thought often that are not only state but stated strongly. Puppetry is a dynamic tool for developing language communication skills with both children and adults. A puppet is an extension of the personality but it has greater freedom to express this personality. It can go where the person is afraid to go; it can speak with mistakes without worry. It can fly. It can sing.

      Whether the puppet is realistic, abstract or a functional object used as an animated object, its role is to make a statement. It is given life through the movement of the puppeteer and is used top entertain or to present the viewpoint of the puppeteer to others. It exists through interaction with an audience and only the imagination of the spectators give it life. The puppet and audience interact, the puppeteer interacts with the audience and the puppet and the puppeteer interact. The participation of the audience has an effect on the movement and action of the puppet. Bill Baird describes the feeling of the puppeteer on stage. He's very conscious of how he's "coming down the strings." The puppeteer sees himself through the eyes of the spectators and reacts through interaction with the puppet.

      In a theater project focusing on animated objects at the Sao Paulo University Department of Theater, Ana Maria Amaral worked with object theater in terms of the sensorial and mystic aspects of the object. In terms of the first project, the object was viewed first within its natural environment and later, away from it. Away from its natural environment it appeared autonomous, if somewhat odd. The next step was to work with the object as an animated, magical object. The infusion of a magical or supernatural element into non living objects is not new in human history. Part of the belief system of primitive man is that there is a live being within both animate and inanimate things. In terms of the puppeteer, the relationship between the object and the life it develops through animation is akin to the relationship between the concrete idea and the abstraction. The additional element that is native to puppet drama is the strong psychological connection between the animated object and the puppeteer.

      The basic nature of the puppet is oral; its orality differentiated it from other art forms such as sculptural objects or dolls. However, the natural zaniness of this inherently performance based media, allows for the free flowing of ideas that can digress and move into past and future time without adhering to any particular form and code. The lack of set conventions is one of the conventions of the puppet world. Puppetry has been associated with oral language in primitive cultures. Aboriginal culture shows string figures which are used as adjuncts to songs that are passed down orally. Audience repetition of songs and parts of predictable stories are parts of oral culture often associated with use of puppet theater. Sometimes the puppets have no speech of their own but act in concert to a ritualistic presentation of a story in which the audience serves to vocalize the words Speech, then, is what separates this art form from others. Walter J. Ong speaks of the power of speech in his book The Orality of Language. "Speech is inseparable from our consciousness and it has fascinated human beings, elicited serious reflection about itself, from the very early stage of consciousness, long before writing came into existence. Proverbs from all over the world are rich with observations about this overwhelmingly human phenomenon of speech in its native oral form, about its powers, its beauties, its dangers." (Ong, l982) Puppetry adds another dimension to speech. It gives the speaker a way to state a thought in a strong way before a word is uttered. It reaches into the psyche of the speaker to find the words that reflect emotions and thoughts that are central to the speaker. It searches for the stance, the mood, the set to transmit feeling and receptivity to the anticipated listener. The power of the puppet is the power of a person to connect with others. It provides a way for connection that is direct because it travels indirectly, through the puppet, within the human understanding that is universal.

      Lewis Hyde (Hyde, l983) speaks of the shoemaker in The Shoemaker and the Elves who finally succeeded in making his work live. He likens this to the artist who succeeds in making his work real by its reflection of his spirit. The "gift", this creation of the artists may be passed along to the audience who must receive a kind of state of "giftedness" in order to receive the creation of the artist. "Let us just say that the "suspensions of disbelief" by which we become receptive to a work of the imagination are in fact belief, a momentary faith by virtue of which the spirit of the artist's gift may enter and act upon our being." In the case of the puppet drama, the puppet once having developed a life of its own, seeks to continue the relationship and turns it in directions that often have not been consciously intended by its creator.

      In a discussion of the nature of metaphor, Ellen Winner refers to the use of the word "candle" as used by Macbeth upon hearing of the death of his wife. Winner speaks of its metaphoric use to represent human life and goes on to discuss the fresh insights metaphors offer the reader. We are invited to look and process information in a new way. In Winner's in depth discussion of metaphoric language she differentiates between "good" and "bad" metaphors. "Finally, good metaphors are more apt to be based on dynamic, changing properties of two elements, such as the way they move or the sound they make, rather than on fixed properties, such as their shape and color." (Winner,l982)

      In Heidegger's sense of recollection as thinking which attempts to "approximate" the experience of Being at the beginning of history, we might say that the person, through the puppet is going down into him/herself, into the "innermost" of most individual depths of him/herself and bringing forth the potential to be developed. The process of recollection is not dependent on the puppet but the puppet is a way of crystallizing ideas and bringing a participation between a person's inner and outer self that is tuned in to a basic "primordial" understanding.

      When we think of puppet drama in terms of metaphors, we go beyond movement, sound and/or shape. If Macbeth's "candle" was used metaphorically, the problems faced by the puppeteer involves the who concept of image, transient status, fading of what once was vital. If the puppet looks like a candle, how does one evoke the image of Macbeth's wife. The technical problems to be explored might involve projection image of the wife's face on the flame of the candle. The question of transient status might be built into movement of candle as it connects with the audience. The candle, as puppet extension, has a life of its own. It is a personality. It has to deal with the issues involved and present itself as a statement, for that is in the nature of the visual quality of puppetry. The problem evoked by the media are part of its fascination. The audience must "see" into the character for the drama to be successful. This is true of all drama but the nature of the stated visual metaphor adds power to the portrayal of idea.

      Finally, the basic dynamic is one in which the reaction of the audience is to an object that must absorb this response and return a response that results from dialogue between puppeteer and puppet. This dialogue reflects many subtleties of thought that are stated in a simple outward shape with relatively stilted movement. This crystallization of thought and idea from simple to complex and back again refines the ideas being presented and there is a point when audience and puppeteer connect that contains the moment of "poetic buffoonery" that Eric Bass speaks about. Issues of life and death, man's fleeting glimpses of his gods, loneliness and isolation and moments of ecstasy are analyzed, portrayed and commented on by pieces of fabric put together in all sorts of ways. The temptation to clown and to show both sides of an issue, to make fun of human frailties and to use a touch of the absurd, is overwhelming; it is part and parcel of the medium of puppetry.


Arnheim, Rudolf. (l974). Art and Visual Perception. London, England. University of California Press.

Bass, Eric. (l992). Breaking Boundaries: American Puppetry in the l980's. Report prepared for the Center of Puppetry Arts, Altanta,Georgia.

Hyde, Lewis. (l983). The Gift. New York: Random House, Inc.

Ong, Walter J (l982). Orality and Literacy: New York: Mathuen and Co.

Schmidt, James. (l985) Maurice Merleau-Ponty. New YUork: St. Martin's Press.

Winner, Ellen. (l982). Invented Worlds. Cambridge, MAS: Harvard University Press.

back to content page