Reading a Puppet Show

Understanding the Three-Dimensional Narrative

Authored by: Robert Smythe

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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How do we read a puppet show? Are we looking at the same thing when we see Punch and Judy at a carnival or War Horse at Lincoln Center? What should we be thinking about? The design of the puppets? Whether the manipulation is lifelike? At present, while there is a growing body of knowledge about the history, techniques, and cultural uses and importance of the performing object, as exemplified by the excellent work of Blumenthal (2005), Bell (2008), and others, there are fewer guides to help in understanding, interpreting, or analyzing how performing objects and techniques communicate to audiences. Artists who tell stories and audiences who receive them need additional tools to interpret the content of performances created with puppets, a process of reading the relevant narrative features of nonverbal communication that the literary and film critic Seymour Chatman has called “reading out”: “From the surface or manifestation level of reading, one works through to the deeper narrative level” (Chatman 1978: 41). In writing of film and literature, Chatman restricts reading out to the interpretation of a specific set of signs: words and film frames. Reading out from theatre performance is more complicated because of what Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician, has called its “real informational polyphony” and “density of signs” (Barthes 1964[1972]: 262).

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