Preamble and Précis: an atomic introduction to “The Puppet Show”

It’s apt that “The Puppet Show” is taking place at the ICA in Philadelphia. In 1742 the Pennsylvania Gazette billed “a merry Dialogue between Punch and Joan his wife” (who later became Judy), one of the first such shows performed in America. More recently, when the city hosted the 2000 Republican National Convention, the Philadelphia police seized and destroyed more than three hundred puppets in a preemptive strike against street theater protests aimed at the World Trade Organization. Were the authorities acting on the intelligence of Peter Schumann?1 The founder of Bread and Puppet Theater had a year earlier posed the threat of puppets by answering his own rhetorical question:

Why are puppets insurrectionists? Because nobody but puppets
could possibly be insurrectionists, because (1) insurrectionism as recommended by the Declaration of Independence is never right
for the politics at hand, and (2) it’s totally illegal, just ask the dead
Black Panthers or the John Africa family of Philadelphia.2

Philadelphia continues to be a hub of radical puppetry – Spiral W. Puppet Uprising, and Ramshackle Enterprises, for instance – as well as innovative and traditional puppet theater. On another historical note, this was the comeback city for Howdy Doody. Beginning with a performance at the university of Pennsylvania on Valentine’s Day in 1970, one of TV’s most famous puppets quit retirement to deliver the Vietnam War generation of draft-age Americans to the safe havens of their 1950s childhood – at least for the duration of one puppet show. Children of the 1960s may remember being served a weekly catch of marionette fishes – Finley Haddock, Doc Sturgeon, Baron Barracuda, Gabby the Clam, et al. – on Diver Dan, a television show filmed through a wall of glass and water that first aired in Philadel—

Hang on a minute. We’re being interrupted. It’s Mr. Punch, from the first paragraph. He says that before being retired from the page, he has something he wants to say about “The Puppet Show.” And that he will use his stick and swizzle. What’s a swazzle? It’s kind of a whistle, a reed; it’s that thing that makes Punch’s voice squeak and buzz at the same time, like someone screaming through a paper comb. Why the stick? To beat us all soundly with his wisdom, he says. Okay, he’s ready.

Mr. Punch, what would you – with your centuries of experience actually being one of theater’s great puppets – like to say about this show?


Yes, well. This preamble was moseying toward that point. “The Puppet Show” is not an exhibition of puppet theater. Thank you for making that point in the punch line, Mr. Punch.

“The Puppet Show” looks at the imagery of puppets in contemporary art. Representing the work of thirty artists, the exhibition concentrates on sculpture, photography, and video. Some works involve puppets as figures: marionettes, shadow puppets, ventriloquist dummies. In others, artists perform as puppeteers. And still other images evoke topics associated with puppetry: manipulation, miniaturization, control. These metaphors are explored by cocurator Carin Kuoni in her catalogue essay on agency and alter egos. To distinguish puppets from, say, dolls, the notion of stage asserts itself as signifier. Without some sign of an audience, there is no show, only private play. In her essay, literary historian Jane Taylor conjures the artificial reality of the stage specifically in terms of the voice – the voice disembodied and transmuted through the puppet as translator.

The exhibition takes as its point of departure a famous episode in European avant-garde history. Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi, which was originally conceived as a puppet show. The despotic king, who strode onstage roaring the French scatological neologism merdre, sticks to all puppet allegories of grotesque government and acts of puppet transgression. The reiterative nature of this tale, as performed up to the present day, is the subject of art historical Michael Taylor’s portrait essay of Ubu. In my own curatorial essay, I speculate further on sources in art, film, television, and digital media. Read collectively, the essays in his catalogue advance the larger cultural inquiry behind “The Puppet Show,” namely, why do puppets matter now? For matter they do. Throughout culture and politics these days, the imagery of puppets is dense, critical, humorous, and potentially profound.

As if we as viewers could inhabit this question, the installation of “The Puppet Show” is a work in its own right by the artist Terence Gower. The exhibition opens with a freestanding structure conceived by the curators as the show’s backstage or unconscious. Dubbed “Puppet Storage” (and documented in a picture essay), it is filled with objects contributed by the participating artists, alongside a collection of historical puppets on loan from the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut. To emerge from “Puppet Storage” is to enter into “The psychological terrains. In anticipation of where the exhibition might lead while it was still in development, a workshop discussion was convened at ICA to open up thinking about “The Puppet Show.” Two of the day’s presentations were expanded into catalogue essays, and the other five are represented by the authors’ précis. Reflecting the perspectives of a puppeteer, an artist, a poet, an anthropologist, and a performance historian, respectively, these texts shine light on some of the many angles from which one might approach this exhibition.


  1. Peter Schumann, “What, At the End of This Century, Is the Situation of Puppets and Performing Objects?” The Drama Review 43 (Fall 1999), 61.
  2. John Africa was the founder of MOVE, an African American-identified communal and political organizations, he was killed along with ten followers when police bombed their Philadelphia headquarters in 1985.