The Saracen of Opera dei Pupi

A Study of Race, Representation, and Identity

Authored by: Lisa Morse

The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance

Print publication date:  July  2014
Online publication date:  July  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415705400
eBook ISBN: 9781315850115
Adobe ISBN: 9781317911722


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During my first research trip to Sicily, I witnessed an opera dei pupi performance featuring stereotyped Saracen warriors, whose racially charged image and fierce treatment made me question why this art form remains popular throughout Sicily. Opera dei pupi productions showcasing the Saracen are rooted in the epic adventures of Charlemagne and his “Paladin” warriors, made famous by both medieval French and Italian Renaissance poetry and then popularized in Sicily by Giusto LoDico in his La storia dei paladini di Francia. Consistent throughout the branch stories of the Paladins is the ongoing pursuit and destruction of the Saracens in a battle for Christian supremacy over Islam. Following the through-line of the epic narrative, I watched Paladins “kill” Saracens in a grotesque comic battle, which was so artfully performed that the religious and racial markers of Christian/Muslim and Paladin/Saracen fell away. Both “Saracen” and “Paladin” shifted from representational characters to symbolic hero and villain in a mythic battle of good versus evil. At the conclusion of the fight sequence, the figures returned to their original meanings within the medieval narrative, and the once-comic pile of dismembered Saracens suddenly took on a sinister significance echoing the history of human loss in religious and ethnic warfare. At this point I couldn’t help wondering, “Should I be laughing at this?” Considering the current state of racial and religious conflict in the Muslim world and the massive influx of immigrants fleeing Northern Africa for asylum in cities such as Palermo, the troubling pro-Christian/anti-Islamic polemic inherent in the chivalric narrative seems wildly out of place on the contemporary puppet stage.

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