Freedom or Death

Disgustipated by Philippe Genty, from Paul Daniels Magic Show.

This six minute cabaret piece offers the ultimate version of one of puppetry’s deepest and most universal tropes: the puppet as existential prisoner of his strings.

It opens with the crumpled figure of a harlequin in white, who gradually comes to life, accompanied by tender, reedy music. He has a wide, horizontal mouth and huge eyes; they slash across his narrow, pale face, and the resultant shadows give him the classic aura of the sad clown. He walks. The music expands and shifts in tone; he dances a step or two. He is alive.

Then comes the moment of recognition. He perceives the string on his left hand and with his gaze, he follows it upward the hand of the puppeteer. In a powerful moment of recognition, the puppet meets those human eyes, glance to glance. He touches the string; he tests it. He figures out that when he tugs the string, his own arm must move. He understands that he is not free, and covers his face in despair. A sequence of delicate beauty follows, in which, as he watches, his left hand and that of the puppeteer mirror each other in an brief, graceful ballet.

Then comes his decision.

With his right hand, he severs the string to his right leg. The puppeteer offers to reattach it; the puppet refuses. Methodically, with the same right hand, he pulls out string after string. His head sags; his body folds—just as jaunty hurdy-gurdy music starts to play. He crumples to the ground, always with great dignity, and that one hand—the hand of protest, the hand of freedom, the hand of his own death—is the last to fall. The spotlight remains on his lifeless body.

This moving piece is sublime in its silent simplicity.