A Conversation With a Puppeteer

By Matthew Cheney

At the end the witch appears again, and on being asked what is really the truth, answers: "The truth, my children, is that we are, all of us, acting in a marionette comedy. What is important more than anything else in a marionette comedy, is keeping the ideas of the author clear. This is the real happiness of life, and now that I have at last come into a marionette play, I will never go out of it again. But you, my fellow actors, keep the ideas of the author clear. Aye, drive them to their utmost consequences." This speech seemed to him suddenly to hold a lot of truth. Yes, he thought, if my life were only a marionette comedy in which I had my part and knew it well, then it might be very easy and sweet. The people of this country seemed, somehow, to be practicing this ideal. They were as immune to the terrors, the crimes and miracles of the life in which they took part as were the little actors upon the old player's stage. To the people of the North the strong agitations of the soul come each time as a strange thing, and when they are in a state of excitement their speech comes by fits and starts. But these people spoke fluently under the wildest passions, as if life were, in any of her whims, a comedy which they had already rehearsed. If I have now at last, he thought, come into a marionette play, I will not go out of it again.

—Isak Dinesen, "The Roads Round Pisa"


While passing a few summer months in the town of N— I happened one evening to see a traveling company of puppeteers perform in the town square, and after the performance I was admiring the craftsmanship of the little stage and the puppets when one of the younger performers, a man who could not have been more than twenty years old, introduced himself as D. and asked if I had enjoyed what I'd seen. Indeed, I told him, I'd thought it was quite remarkable. We talked for a while, and I offered to buy him a cup of coffee at the cafe across the street.

As we sat drinking our coffee in the warm night, I inquired as to how long D. had been with the puppet company and if it was his ambition to become a master puppeteer.

"I have been performing for only a short while," he said. "My grandfather was a puppeteer, though, and he often told me stories of traveling throughout the United States and Europe and Asia. I was thirteen when he died, and he left me a pair of marionettes. I did not get on well with my parents or my brothers, who were all older than me and had become businessmen, and who seemed content with the simple repetitions of their ordinary days. A couple years ago I decided that life at home was—I hate to sound melodramatic, but there's no other way to put it—that life at home was destroying me with its pointlessness, and so when I heard this puppet troupe was coming through town, I brought my marionettes along to a performance and asked the performers if they would take me in, because I had been overwhelmed by the wonders of their art. As luck would have it, they needed another pair of hands, and they thought my marionettes were of a particularly fine quality, and so, well, here I am."

He asked me about myself, and I told him I was a teacher and a writer, and that over the past few months I had suffered a crisis of confidence, that I had reached an age when I could look back over a decade of work, and that it didn't seem to me to be much of an achievement for the effort and time I had put into it, and so I had come here to N— to rest and think about what I might do next. I hoped, I said, to do something useful and worthwhile in the world, because I wanted to be able to look back on my life and see that I had made a contribution to humanity, that I had not wasted the bit of time I had to be alive. I had not yet discovered what contribution I could make, though, and had reached a point of despair.

"At least you're not a puppeteer," he said.

I asked him what he meant, and he replied that under my terms of usefulness and worth, a puppeteer was surely a superficial occupation and not much of a contribution to humanity.

"Entertaining children is nothing to sneer at," I said. "Frankly, I wish I had been more entertained as a child. And creating beauty and mystery seems worthwhile to me, whether for children or adults. In my more idealistic moments, I imagine that the joy and terror created by art could have enough of an effect on the world to cause people to behave better toward each other."

"How often do you have idealistic moments?" D. asked.

"Once every few months," I replied, with a bit of a laugh. "The rest of the time, I tend to think the problems of the world are too vast and that addressing any of them is an immense waste of time."

D. pointed out that I had said I was a writer and a teacher, and he suggested that such endeavors could be immensely valuable to the world. I replied that they certainly could be, but I did not have a lot of faith that my own efforts in those areas had been particularly successful by such a standard. After all, few of my students seemed to rise much beyond apathy, and my writings, scattered and pitiful as they were, never found much of an audience. For the amount of work I had put into those two realms, I could have, for instance, learned basic medicine and worked at a clinic for underprivileged people, saving lives.

"Why did you think our puppet show was a form of art?" D. asked. "Most of us would rather be doing something more respectable. We'd rather be, for instance, writers and teachers. As it is, we are little more than vagrants."

"You are much more than vagrants," I said. "Look at the care and craftsmanship put into your puppets. Look at the grace with which they are handled, and the humor and suspense that fills the stories. It is a limited art form, certainly, but limits often produce the most subtle art, and there is within the movements of your puppets a magnificent lightness, serenity, and elegance that is beyond anything I've seen even from the greatest dancers of our age."

"You are a connoisseur. Few of our audience members notice such things. They just know whether they like what we do or not, whether we were worth the cost of their tickets, whether they laughed or cried or grew bored."

"Just because something is not noticed does not mean it is not worth noticing," I said.

D. smiled. "Perhaps, though, your terms are wrong. Why does an endeavor have to be useful to have worth? Why can't, for instance, a poem be valuable because it is an interesting artifact of language?"

I said that I was raised by the descendants of Protestants and Puritans, and so no matter whether I wanted to or not, I still judged the value of any effort by its usefulness.

"Useful how?" D. asked. "Is something only useful if it saves a life? If it fixes a major problem of the world—a problem you, in your less idealistic moments, realize will not be solved by any single effort and may not even be solved by the massive efforts of many people? Why not judge something using the criteria you used for our puppet show—whether it has the potential to be entertaining, or whether it demonstrates craftsmanship and skill, or whether it adds depth to our perception of how we live, or . . . well, any number of things?"

I shrugged. "As appealing as such an idea is, I still think I would feel uneasy continuing with my life as I currently live it. There is something deeply unsatisfying at the core, despite the outward appearance of privilege and happiness."

"Then become a puppeteer," D. said. I chuckled, but he assured me he was serious. He said he had long wanted to be something other than a puppeteer, to experience the world in some different way, to find new avenues to art and life. He would show me the basics of what I needed to do, and my skills would improve with practice, and then he could, perhaps, pass on his role as puppeteer to me and become, himself, a writer and teacher.

The idea was strange enough for me to find it entrancing, and I shook his hand and told him he had a deal.

I have found the work much more difficult than I would have expected, but I enjoy the challenge of keeping the movements of the puppets graceful and expressive, of telling the story with style and ease, of eliciting responses from the audience. At the moments of greatest difficulty, I discover the most grace.

D. left us last week with a letter of introduction from me to the school where I worked, offering him as an excellent replacement for myself, and I gave him the names of some editors and writers I knew who might be willing to look at his first literary efforts.

I can begin to take pride in my skill as a puppeteer now, because the audiences, young and old, are more attentive and appreciative than they have been for me before, and I enjoy their laughter and tears and applause.

Yesterday, I saw a man looking with fascination at our puppets after a performance, and for a moment I was tempted to go up to him and ask him if he would like to have coffee with me, but I still have much more to learn and do, and so I decided to let him look on in silence. In time, though, I am sure I will want to have a conversation with someone who thinks puppetry is a useful and worthwhile endeavor. All of my colleagues here had such a conversation once, and all of them came to puppetry through it, and expect to leave the same way. Once such conversations end, I expect we will have reached the final chapter in the history of the world.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Read more of his columns in our archives.