Une Illusion Ludique

I went to the biggest puppet festival in the world in September, 2018, at Charleville-Mezieres, a town in the French Ardennes. The festival was overwhelming. It sprawled across the town, engulfing it, not just with its steady diet of shows, but with meetings and lectures and “colloques”. I couldn’t see and do everything. But I discovered that every morning at eleven Philippe Choulet, a philosopher and art historian, would give a conference on the nature and meaning of puppet theatre in the “igloo” – a temporary dome on the rue de l’Eglise near the festival centre.

Philippe was about fifty, small and neat and understated, the image of a French academic in turned up jeans, a crew-neck sweater and a pale grey sports jacket. He had a pleasant, narrow, boyish face, and a precise goutee; he observed the phenomena of the world from behind heavy dark-framed glasses. There were four rows of benches ranged around the dirt-floored igloo, leaving room for a screen at the front and a table from which he spoke. The benches were full.

He began with perception: we see and we hear. But we also imagine; indeed, we inhabit a world of illusion, whether we like it or not. Only God, he suggested, can understand reality in its fullness; for humans, reality is necessarily partial; we must interpret and put things together, filling the gaps of our understanding – using illusion. We also project our own wishes onto objects (he cited Stendhal on this point and referenced the early nineteenth century writer, Heinrich von Kleist, whose essay, “On the Theatre of Marionettes”, was one of the first to recognize the peculiar genius of this art). The task of the artist, he suggested, is “le science” of creating illusions; and the spectator is pulled into that illusion, and becomes part of it. The illusions capture us. He proposed ‘une relation d’amour’ between the puppeteer and the puppet: it is invested with a better existence. “The child,” he said, “must believe that his parents love him.” Love, he insisted, is the operative power here.

But with puppets, he continued, we see the illusion and the reality of the illusion at the same time – “and the illusion is not reduced when we understand it”. In fact, this phenomenon actually enhances our pleasure, because it gives us both the pleasure of the illusion, and also the pleasure of knowing that the illusion is an illusion.

It’s a form of play, he said: “une illusion ludique”. And that is the source of the puppet’s power.

Well, of course. Eureka! That’s it, I thought.

I had coffee with him after the lecture and tested a couple of my own ideas: that puppet theatre is by its nature ironic, because of this double reality of perceiving the illusion, and at the same time understanding its unreality. I thought that this double reality is what makes puppet theatre a particularly contemporary art, an art that belongs to an age of deconstruction.

“Precisely,” he said – but with a provocative (and surprising) addition: “along with comics and film.”

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