Felix Mirbt

Today I’m finding out as much as I can about the work of Felix Mirbt, one of the giants who stand at the roots of puppet theatre in Quebec.

Mirbt was born in Germany in 1931 and came to Montreal in 1953. With Jean Herbiet he created two brilliant adaptations of European classics at the National Arts Centre—Büchner's Woyzeck (1974) and Strindberg's A Dream Play (1977), both of which toured nationally. He used techniques that were revolutionary at the time: huge puppets, visible puppeteers, and voices delivered by speakers who were separate from the performers.

Through his teaching and mentoring he inspired a new generation of Quebec artists; in particular, Francis Monty, Olivier Ducas and Marcelle Hudon pay tribute to his impact and his brilliance. The Montreal theatre company, la Pire Espece (founded by Monty and Ducas) preserves his journals, some of his puppets, and photographs of his work, which can be accessed on their website. Some of his puppets are also preserved in Canada’s Museum of History in Ottawa.

Frustratingly and inevitably, there are photos but no videos of his productions. Further, la Pire Espece shows only brief teasers on YouTube and their own site. So we can only admire the sculptural quality and static power of his work from still pictures; and we can ponder some of the insights from his journals.

Here’s my translation of one of his comments from his production of l’Histoire d’un soldat:

“I search for visual motifs that move in time to music; animated images that don’t need to subject themselves to the story or the score, but are endowed with their own independent existence and [thus] are able to provide a kind of counterpoint to both the music and the text. I’m extremely interested in the process that separates voice from text, and sometimes movement from image. That way, each fragment can be observed and examined in detail, from the visual point of view, as well as for its texture and its textual content—and this enriches the whole piece. In thus presenting fragments, I invite spectators to re-assemble all these separate elements themselves, and recreate a story from a perspective that is theirs alone.”

How interesting these ideas are! He wants the various elements of the production—words, music, objects, movement—to be somewhat independent of each other so that we, the spectators, can assemble fragments in our own way. That’s radical, and a bit crazy because it contradicts the whole notion of producing an integrated work of art with a purposeful and defined (and reproducible) impact on a group of people. He’s disaggregating the parts of the show, and he’s also disaggregating the audience: the exact opposite of what every theatrical artist I’ve ever known tries to achieve.

In another place he declares that he tries to work with abstract forms, “which don’t offer a meaning.” He’s uninterested in animation, and while he uses puppets, masks and objects, I don’t think he makes much distinction between them. He detests the way human actors “become” the part they’re playing. Instead, he tells his performers that when they’re on stage, they have three choices of identity: the “soldier,” the “manipulator,” or a “private persona.” He seems to leave it up to them which one they choose at any particular moment.

Here are two surprising fragments from Die Reise ou les visages variables de Felix Mirbt (2011) by la Pire Espece, which pay tribute to Mirbt and use his puppets: