I suspect that this post will conclude the Blague— that is to say, the Prague section of my blog. Thursday morning I’m catching a plane to London where I’ll be starting at it again. Round two. Like anyone who has ever been anywhere always says, my time here has felt highly compressed and at the same time abnormally stretched. That rainy mid-afternoon in late July when I first arrived here in Prague feels like yesterday, but that yesterday feels forever ago.
I’ve just returned from the final performance I’ll see in Prague. Tonight I got to watch people sweat and it feels good. At the final bow, I caught eyes with one of the female performers and I felt her exhaustion. I noticed myself slightly bowing my head down and forward in time with her bow, as if I’d left all I had to give out there on the bare stage just as she did. I didn’t; I watched from the second row. As she performed, I shifted around in my seat because of a bit of lower back pain I’ve been feeling for a few days— probably (and hopefully only) the result of too much time spent lately carrying a three-year-old czech boy on my shoulders, his six-year-old sister on my back, and one or two of their friends in my arms or around my legs or et cetera. I fidgeted in the dark while she sweated, sang, breathed, and moved in the light, yet somehow I felt we had done it all together in the end.
The word ‘empathy’ comes up a lot in my Watson proposal. If you go to the Watson website and read the abstract of my proposal you’ll see it’s there, too, sitting at the very end of a lone paragraph that tries to contain far too much material within far too small a character count. It’s the final word of that abstract, sort of the punchline for my whole project— How do you relate to this person? How do you relate to that puppet? What are the differences in these encounters? What do you think the differences are in these encounters?
A term that doesn’t appear but would have if it had been in my lexicon at the time is ‘aesthetic distance’— one’s ability to recognize a work of art as such. In a performance, your empathic response to the work is counter-balanced by your aesthetic distance from the work. Both are necessary elements for artistic engagement. Without aesthetic distance you’d probably call the police the moment Othello kills Ophelia. Without empathy, you probably wouldn’t care in the first place.
Before I began my Watson, I was of the tentative opinion that because puppets begin from a place of obvious aesthetic distance, their capacity as empathetic entities was greater than that of their human counterparts. Because the spectator recognizes the puppet as something wholly other, s/he ultimately embraces it more easily. Whereas a human performing before an audience is both him/herself and a character, a puppet is only what it is; The puppet is trustworthy because it has no ulterior life— offstage, it is but lifeless material.
My experiences here in Prague have confirmed and complicated this theory. After I had conceived, carved, and created Old Mr. Nik Nobody, I experienced a newfound empathic connection for all things wooden and hand-made. I would cringed whenever a marionette was accidentally dropped. I cringed again a few weeks later when the three-year-old czech boy tripped off of his scooter and fell onto the pavement. If you were to compare my reactions, you might think that these two collisions triggered equivalent responses in my gut— and you might not be fully wrong on that one, either. Of course, I knew they weren’t identical, but I cringed all the same. When a marionette fell to the ground, I saw days of hard work and inexplicable inspiration unjustly thrown into harms way. I cringed not because I imagined the puppet feeling pain, but because I imagined my own pain had it been my puppet.
Earlier on during my time here, I was told that every marionette carver puts a part of him/herself into each of his/her puppets. This concept took on a new meaning for me when I saw the marionettes fall to the ground. Suddenly, these figures didn’t seem like mere inanimate material when they left the stage; instead, they became concrete testaments to skill, artistry, love, and dedication.
It’s worth noting, however, that I’ve only created one puppet for myself, and so my relationship to these marionettes is no doubt too precious and miraculous. I look at Mr. Nobody and still can’t quite believe I made him myself. I would guess that by the 100th marionette, my relationship to these figures would evolve. I suspect that over time, the unavoidable immaterial origins of these puppets would take on new meaning— not necessarily diminishing their individual importance, but putting it all into better perspective. After carving 100 marionettes, I suspect I might better understand the paradoxical fact that these puppets are more than just wood and wires and strings, and yet, at the same time, are also just wood and wires and strings.
From what I’ve seen, I think Czech puppetry lives within this duality. At the interval of a puppet theatre recreation of the film Jaws I saw recently, it suddenly hit me: none of puppet shows I have seen here have ever asked of me to believe that these puppets are real people. I wrote this revelation down in my notebook and then almost erased it immediately because it felt like such a stupid observation afterwards. But I think there is a nuanced point in there; true, puppets come to life in the minds of their audience, but that doesn’t mean that they have to come to life as human beings. As the Mexican puppeteer Roberto Lago once said, “the puppet’s only real limitation is the imitation of the flesh and blood actor."
A few days later, I found a Czech friend restating Lago’s words without ever mentioning the man. She said that she felt Czech puppeteers were more interested in what the puppet can be than in forcing it to become a re-creation of a person. Czech puppetry (all puppetry?) is a form of performance more closely affiliated with representation than simulation.
Perhaps this explains the little girl who came up to me after a performance of “Tři Zlaté Vlasy Děda Vševěda,” insistent on explaining to me that Plaváček should not have married the princess at the end of the show because the princess was too pretty and too smart for Plaváček— all this, despite the fact that the princess appears in the show for only three minutes as a dress on a hanger, animated by a manipulator who sways the dress with her own hands. If I had to guess, this young girl’s reaction stemmed more from her strong identification with the concept of ‘princess’ than with our character of the princess. As a result, the character of the princess came to life in little girl’s mind not because she empathized with the princess’s situation, but because she had projected herself into that dress. The princess was too pretty and smart for Plaváček because the little girl felt she was too pretty and smart for Plaváček.
And yet, perhaps because of this representational relationship with the puppet, most shows I saw here in Prague were at least slightly winking at their audiences. I always delighted in the ingenuity and the construction and the imagination of the work, but I often struggled to fully immerse myself. Looking back on it all, I think that the work of art that hit me hardest was neither a puppet or person play, but a piece of mobile statuary created by the contemporary Czech sculptor, David Černý. His work is all over Prague and it’s usually a little cheeky, itself (see: the giant babies climbing the TV tower, the two peeing statues outside the Kafka Museum, or the Sigmund Freud hanging on for dear life over the Old Town Square). But at the Meet Factory, a contemporary art space on the outer side of Prague, I got to see one of his most recent works, titled “The Freedom." In a room so dark you can’t make out the walls, three (possibly four?) almost human figures hovered barely above the ground in strained positions. A giant cylinder stuck out of each of their heads— almost like the thick bar coming out of the heads of wire marionettes— and disappeared into the darkness. These cylinders rotated the statues like chickens on a spit, but the statues were too close to the ground to make a full rotation without scraping against the cement floor. The sound was horrible. Sometimes, the figures would get caught and stall, unstoppable force meeting unlovable object, leading to even deeper scraping and breaking. As my ears were filled by these sounds, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I began to make out a dim but deep red color emerging from wherever the statues’ first layer of black material had been ripped off by the incessant collisions with the pavement. Concrete skin revealing vulnerability beneath. It was too much for me: the sounds, the darkness, the bodies, the space, the experience. In that room, my visceral reaction overwhelmed any normal balance between empathic response and aesthetic distance. It didn’t seem like torture. It was torture— even as I knew they were nothing but statues. I had to leave the room.
Moments later I wanted to go back in.
I’m not sure where all this leaves me— and of course, that’s fine. I don’t think Černý’s “The Freedom" would have been so impactful had the rotating sculptures not felt so humanlike. Yet I find myself wondering how often anything— puppet or person— is ever truly a real human being inside another’s imagination. I don’t have an answer to this question. I’m going to keep looking. I’m going to get on a flight to London tomorrow and go from there. I think it’s a good plan.