In Sicilia: Chi pupu eri?

Marionette funeral ceremony (Korea)

In Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life, Kenneth Gross describes Sicilian puppeteer Mimmo Cuticchio’s L’urlo del mostro (The howl of the monster), a puppet theater based on the Odyssey. In one scene, Cuticchio

plays Odysseus himself, encountering the ghosts of puppets in the underworld, seeking his identity there among lost comrades and dead family members. Of one skeletal wooden figure he asks, in Sicilian, “Chi pupu eri?” (What puppet were you?).”

The question could readily be posed to the puppets on display at Antonio Pasqualino’s Museo delle Internazionale Marionette, all at rest and awaiting their moment on the stage.

That moment, however, may never come, for the Opera dei Pupi (Sicilian Puppet Theater) is a vestige of what it once was. UNESCO, which, in 2008, inscribed the Opera dei Pupi on the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” notes:

The puppet theatre known as the Opera dei Pupi emerged in Sicily at the beginning of the nineteenth century and enjoyed great success among the island’s working classes. . . . Owing to current economic difficulties puppeteers can no longer make a living from their art, prompting them to turn to more lucrative professions. Tourism has contributed to reducing the quality of performances, which were previously aimed at a local audience only.

Burmese string marionette

Nonetheless, to borrow Gross’s words, each puppet in the Museo “in its very stillness and abandonment may be charged with potential motion, becoming an object of reverie, patiently awaiting some further life.”

The Museo got its start because Antonio Pasqualino, a Palermo surgeon

spent hours as a boy hanging around the theaters and the workshops where the puppets were born, a pastime forbidden by his family after he came home with fleas. . . .

As a medical student he began to collect puppets . . . . Upset to see the theaters closing one after another and the puppets being sold or stolen, [he, with his wife] formed the Association for the Conservation of Popular Traditions . . . .

Just a few months before Dr. Pasqualino’s death, the Sicilian regional government passed a law allocating funds on a regular basis, and a board of patrons headed by Umberto Eco [was] nominated to sustain what is one of the finest museums of its kind. [citation]

Though the Museo is steps away from Butera 28, I doubt I’d have been drawn in had I not read Peter Cole’s evocative poem, “Notes from an Essay on the Uncanny.”  Here’s the poem’s penultimate stanza:

Abstracted from matter cut with a knife,
They channel that frangible power: life.

It was the poem’s dedication, “For Kenneth Gross,” that set me on the trail of Gross’s extraordinary meditation on puppets. Gross writes:

I am always drawn to the idea of life in nonliving things, the sense of animation in what appears inanimate, voice emerging from the object without voice, the earless thing that seems to hear, the eyeless thing that looks back at us, or that simply thinks in silence its own thoughts.

I had neither Cole’s nor Gross’s words to hand as I walked through the Museo, wandering among and wondering at the remarkable array of puppets on display. I recalled only slightly Heinrich von Kleist’s On the Marionette Theater, to which I’d been introduced by Gross’s book. In the essay, von Kleist recounts his conversation with a dancer about puppets:

I asked him whether he thought that the puppeteer should have some sense of the beauty in dance.

He replied: “Even if the manipulation is easy, it is not necessarily performed without feeling. The line which the center of gravity has to describe is, at any rate, very simple and in most cases straight. In cases where the line is curved, the curve remains simple, at the most complicated, elliptic; and the ellipse (because of the joints) seems to be the natural curve for movement of the human body. The drawing of an ellipse does not demand any great artistry on the part of the puppeteer. On the other hand there is something enigmatic about an ellipse. It is actually the course that the soul of the dancer takes when the dancer moves, and I doubt whether this course can be traced if the puppeteer does not enter the center of gravity of his marionette; in other words, the puppeteer himself must dance.”

Thinking, in retrospect, on the room with row upon row of puppets hanging by their strings, I couldn’t help but imagine what it might be like if, then and there, on their own, they began to dance. The first stanza of Cole’s poem may contain a clue:

The puppets guide our souls through The Dance.
Strange how jerks can hold us in a trance.

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Listening List

 Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1911)

Part I. The Shrovetide Fair
Part II. Petrushka’s Cell
Part III. The Moor’s Room
Part IV. The Shrovetide Fair (Evening)

Orchestration: (1947 version): 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, gong, triangle, tambourine, snare drum, xylophone, glockenspiel, offstage snare drum and long drum, harp, piano, celesta, and strings

Stravinsky said of the piece:

In composing the music, I had in mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggi. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet.

The full program notes from which the above quotation were taken are here.

Bonus Track: Watch a video interview with Igor Stravinsky here.

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Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. As always on the blog, the photographs, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

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