I’m sitting on an airplane and I keep thinking about this short story called Kaspar Hauser Speaks. It’s written by an American author named Steven Millhauser and I first read it while riding the tube in London last fall. The thing’s a work of fiction, but it reads like it could have been real, written as if presenting the historical record of an important address given by the aforementioned Kaspar Hauser to the public of a town with a German name. “Distinguished guests,” it begins. “It is with no small measure of amazement that I stand before you today.”
It is possible that Kaspar Hauser is not entirely human. When he first arrived to this place, he was—by his own account— “a brutish creature, half idiot and half animal.” But he has made considerable progress since then. Through hard work and human help, Kaspar Hauser has quickly grown into the image of all those around him. “I am you—and you—and you” he says, “I who only a few short years ago was lower than any beast.”
Because of this, Kaspar Hauser’s human admirers think of him as a most impressive specimen. In the span of just three years his mental life has leapt forward an astonishing twenty. “I stand before you, a civilized man… a Wundermensch, as I have been called,” he notes. But to himself, Kaspar Hauser is trapped in limbo. While his friends and colleagues marvel at how far he has come, he feels only the unbridgeable distance left to travel. “Even the leap of which I speak, the tremendous leap toward you and away from me, a leap that leaves the bruise of my heels in my own sides,” he admits, “even this leap is no more than a sign of my difference.”
And so, for this publicized speech, Kaspar Hauser has invited the brave, the curious, the civilized, and the outraged to hear him answer the question they’ve all wondered since the first day they laid eyes on him: what is it like to be Kaspar Hauser?
To this, he offers his answer:
“To be Kaspar Hauser is to long, at every moment of your dubious existence, with every fiber of your questionable being, not to be Kaspar Hauser… My deepest wish is not to be an exception. My deepest wish is not to be a curiosity, an object of wonder. It is to be unremarkable. To become you— to sink into you— to merge with you until you cannot tell me from yourselves; to be uninteresting; to be nothing at all; to experience the ecstasy of mediocrity— is it so much to ask?”
I am not Kaspar Hauser. I will admit, however, to moments throughout my Watson when Kaspar Hauser and his speech rang loud and clear to me. A real high point of my year came in Japan when, communicating in only Japanese, I contacted and met up with an elderly maker of Karakuri— ancient Japanese automata. Sitting in his small workshop in an outer suburb of Osaka, I caught myself marveling at my own situation as much as I marveled at his ancient wind-up figures. Here I was cracking jokes and asking questions about the precursors to robots and the Bunraku puppet theatre in a language whose most basic characters had been nothing more than esoteric designs to me only a few years back.
It wasn’t twenty years mental progress in a span of three, but it was more than enough to make me feel like I’d arrived somehow. Within a world of unbridgeable gaps, it made for a good day.
But then there was the next day, and on that day I was back at the Japanese grocery store, my vocabulary nemesis, trying to determine the differences between containers of garlic sauce without having to ask an employee for help. Holding the two experiences side by side might make the second seem all the more trivial, but that’s sort of the point: even minor attempts to venture into foreign territory could all too easily lead me back to myself and to my own idiosyncratic traps and shortcomings. I believe in transformation— that’s what puppets do— but I found for myself this year that there is no such thing as reinvention or truly running away. There are only similarities and differences, gradients of change, measured from vague but oddly fixed points of origin.
It reminds me of a particular puppet featured in the last performance I worked on while in Melbourne, a human figure made of duct tape, who leapt through the air but froze in mid-stride to notice his own little duct tape limbs just before they all crumbled in on himself.
Puppets cannot save the world— if you’re inclined to believe in that kind of thing at all. They can make you laugh, they can frighten, they can tug at the strings of your deeply buried childhood wonder, and, if you’re lucky, they can even make you think, catch you off guard by how deeply they resonate after sneaking in through the back door.
Another figure with a German name once proposed the idea that a hammer is only a hammer to us when it breaks— only when an object ceases to fulfill its function will its user stop taking its existence for granted. Now, at the end of my year, I wonder how much further we can take this idea. Instead of breaking, what would happen if a hammer came to life? Or better yet, what would happen if two hammers came to life, one large and grouchy, the other small and optimistic? What if these hammers didn’t even know they were hammers? Imagine: an empty stage littered with old tools and suddenly two hammers rise up, look at one another, and begin to perform the opening scene of Aristophanes’ The Birds. Nothing about that scenario strikes me as inherently better or worse than a more expected, more physiologically human performance. True, most hammers are small and, so far as I know, all hammers lack the independent parts needed for dynamic movements or visible shifts in expression, but once this year, when I saw hammers perform, I was reminded of earlier, human performances I’d seen on nights when I could only afford cheap tickets and wound up sitting so far from the stage that I could barely make out the actors. What is so different between watching a human from two hundred feet away and a hammer up close? What if I replaced the hammer with a hand puppet?
I do not think these are trivial questions— not in an age when Tupac can return as a hologram to perform at Coachella and, in Japan, a fictional singer named Miku has been selling-out stadiums with her hologram shows for nearly half a decade. These are strange and brilliant times we live in. On the last day of my Watson, an unmanned, mechanical piano played Clair de Lune for me as I walked to my departure gate in the Melbourne Airport. It was unnerving.
I want to find a way to tackle these kinds of questions seriously without denying their beautiful absurdity, and I think puppet theatre can help.
Giving voices, faces, and even temporary souls to inanimate materials can de-familiarize the every day. It reminds us that just as we use things, we relate to them; that they gain lives because we can’t help but put ourselves into them. My mother still keeps the small pinecone she absent-mindedly held as she and my father walked around Walden Pond on their first, real date. She showed it to me once when I was sixteen and it was alive. I saw it breathe in time with her. It was puppet theatre before I knew what puppet theatre could be.
We in the Western world say animism, “but that simply places something primitive we can neatly file away and shelve, otherwise too troubling to look at,” writes Kenneth Gross. We flee from animism to thinking about the world only in terms of what things do and how they serve us— and technological advancements gainfully help us along. A puppeteer in Melbourne shook his head as he spoke about a child who stood in front of the refrigerator shouting “OPEN,” growing increasingly frustrated when the thing refused to do so. “Maybe our flight from animism is our flight from madness,” writes Gross, now quoting the playwright and puppet theorist, Dennis Silk. “We’re afraid of the life we’re meager enough to term inanimate. Meager because we can’t cope with those witnesses… if a cross is a witness, why not a loaf of bread, or a shoe-tree, or a sugar-tongs, or a piece of string?”
Or a person?— I would add.
At a puppetry conference in London last fall, I attended a panel discussion on directing puppet shows. At one point, the conversation turned to the question of what to look for when you’re unable to cast experienced puppeteers in your production. Consensus quickly settled on one main piece of advice: if you’re stuck with first-time puppeteers, it’s generally a good idea to seek out dancers before actors because most actors just don’t know what to do with a puppet. Actors want to make a puppet do what they want, the panelists agreed. Dancers are more willing to place themselves in service of the object.
I was struck by this conclusion in part because I remembered a similar conversation I’d once heard about good and bad acting. Good acting, some older, better actors told me, is always about the other person, while bad acting is about yourself. Good acting is truly listening to your scene partner, and then trying your very best to answer in turn. Bad acting is admiring your own performance and ignoring everything else. It is reducing your scene partner to some primitive thing to be placed on a shelf, shutting out others until they are no longer able to bear witness to you.
I hope I can be a good actor. And a dancer. And a mime. And a puppeteer. I want to. I’m really trying. This year, I've begun to think that puppets can help all of it — these are high stakes we're dealing with, but it’s hard to take yourself too seriously while wearing finger puppets, and I think that’s a great thing to remember. Just for fun, when returning to the States, for the first time I tried putting “puppeteer” under the occupational heading on my disembarkation card. When I gave it to the woman at the booth, she saw what I’d written, chuckled, and asked, “So, what’s that like?”
“It’s nice,” I replied. “You get to make funny sounds.”
She paused for a moment, then smiled and sent me through.