On the Marionette Theatre

After I wrote a short story for Internet's theatre performance, Acting, Siân Robinson Davies (who is one half of Internet) sent me a link to an essay called On the Marionette Theatre by Heinrich von Kleist.

You can find the full text in English here.

Oh Heinrich! That's what I think when I look at this picture. Oh Heinrich!

He was a North-German Romantic playwright and poet. He killed himself at the age of 34, after 10 years of published work. He first shot the woman he loved, Henriette Vogel, and then he turned the gun on himself as part of a suicide pact. Oh Henriette! Oh Heinrich!

As well as plays and poems, he wrote a few essays, including On the Marionette Theatre. Though, it isn't an essay in the traditional sense.


On the Marionette Theatre is a essay supposedly about dancers and marionettes. It takes the form of a dialogue between the narrator (who we assume to be Heinrich von Kleist) and a dancer by the name of Herr C. in a public gardens in the winter of 1801.

The narrator comments that he has seen Herr C. captivated by the puppet shows in the local market.

Herr C. says that the puppets are exceedingly graceful and then goes on to tell the narrator about his theory,

'that a marionette constructed by a craftsman according to [Herr C.'s] requirements could perform a dance that neither he nor any other outstanding dancer of his time [...] could equal.'

Through a strange and convoluted dialogue, the narrator and Herr C. swap stories in order for Herr C. to convince the narrator of his theory that his hypothetical puppet would be more graceful, and its movements less affected than a human dancer.


But the essay isn't really about puppets. Or, more like, it is about puppets and dancers, but as a synecdoche of all human behaviour.

And it's no coincidence that I use the word synecdoche, which is the title of a film by Charlie Kaufmann, because whilst reading the essay, I got the same feeling that I get when I watch a Charlie Kaufmann film. Which is also maybe the feeling I'm going for when I write stories (but, obviously, mostly fail to achieve). That feeling is of reading one story that tells many - perhaps infinitely many- stories.

It also is no coincidence that Charlie Kaufmann's film Being John Malkovich is about a puppeteer, or that Synecdoche, New York is about a theatre director, or that Adaptation is about a screenwriter.

That makes it all sound crassly post-modern. Like, durrrr life is a bit like a film right? But if you have seen the films you'll know that it's not a direct metaphor, and he doesn't constantly play it for dramatic irony. The feeling I get while I'm watching Kaufmann's films is the feeling I used to get at school in maths where, just for a moment, I could conceive not just of the answer of an algorithm, or trigonometric function, or quadratic equation or whatever, but of the abstract essence of it. An essence that existed beyond numbers and maths and school and exams, in some other realm of knowledge, on the other side of the languages which we employ to speak of such things.

That makes it sound a bit religious, which I guess it is, in a Tractatus-era Wittgenstein way. But what's important (in what I'm writing, right now) is not the feeling, but the language and the techniques used to induce that feeling.


On the Marionette Theatre is so brilliant not just because it says wonderful things about the relationship between what Heinrich calls The Fall and grace, or what we might call consciousness and behaviour, but also because of the excessive quality of the stories told and examples given by the characters in their unfolding dialogue.

By excessive here I mean that the content of the stories is sometimes so strange or told in such narrative detail that far from simply supporting the argument of the writer (and here is where the narrator of the story and the writer of the essay could be split in a metaphorical and yet also at the same time somehow very real sense: like we could see two people arguing and fighting and then we run over to break up the fight and we see that the two people have the same face and they are struggling over a pen), they actually serve to distract you from it, to complicate it in unnecessary ways.

At one point, Herr C. starts talking about a fencing bear, I'll quote it in full. Trust me, it's worth it.

'While travelling in Russia, I came upon the country estate of Herr von G., a Livonian nobleman, whose sons were at that time seriously engaged in learning to fence. The oldest boy, who had just returned from the university, in particular regarded himself as somewhat of a virtuoso and one morning while in his room he offered me a foil. We fenced, but as it turned out I was superior to him. The heat of anger further added to his confusion. Almost every blow I struck was successful and finally his foil was knocked into a corner of the room. As he picked up the foil he admitted, half jokingly, half angrily, that he had met his master; but everything in this world meets its master and thereupon he proposed to conduct me to mine. The brothers laughed loudly and cried: Let's be off! Let's go! Down to the lumber yard! And with that they led the way to a bear that their father, Herr von G., was having trained in the open yard.

The bear stood, to my amazement, on his hind legs, his back leaning against a stake to which he was chained, with his right paw raised ready for combat, and looked me in the eye: this was his fencing position. It seemed to me that I was dreaming when I first faced this adversary; but-strike! strike!-cried Herr von G., and see if you can score a hit. Having recovered somewhat from my amazement, I went at him with my foil; the bear made a slight movement of his paw and parried the blow. I tried to throw him off guard by feints-the bear did not stir. I went at him again with a renewed burst of energy; without a doubt I would have struck the chest of a man. The bear made a slight movement of his paw and parried the blow. Now I found myself in almost the same circumstance as the young Herr von G. The single-mindedness of the bear served to reduce my self-assurance; as thrusts and feints followed each other, I was dripping with perspiration. But all was in vain! Not only was the bear able to parry all my blows like some world champion fencer, but all the feints I attempted-and this no fencer in the world could duplicate-went unnoticed by the bear. Eye to eye, as if he could see into my very soul, he stood there, his paw raised ready for combat, and whenever my thrusts were not intended as strikes, he simply did not move.

Do you believe this story, he asked?'

The point of the story (in the narrative of the essay) is that skilful, graceful behaviour is more easily achieved by not thinking - that a well trained animal could be better at fencing than a human. Consciousness leads us to over-think our physical actions.

The story is surreal and the way in which it is told is jarringly uncertain. At two points Herr C. questions the likelihood of it having happened at all. First, 'It seemed to me that I was dreaming' and then, at the end of the story, he directly asks the narrator(/writer/reader), 'Do you believe this story'?

That's even more distracting than the surreality of the story, I kept thinking - of course I don't believe it but why would that be the point? That's where the layering happens.

Herr C.'s story is only implausible outside of the fictional context in which it is told. There is no narrative need for this meta-fictional questioning within the essay. By engaging in it, Herr C. gestures to the narrator, writer and reader and asks them to consider the bear story not just as evidence for his theory about puppets and dancers, but as a parable about the performative act of creating something or experiencing a created thing, and then this as a parable for the wider performative act of being, of living as human.

But at no point does any of the text suggest this directly, Heinrich has enclosed the story within a framework where it can be explained totally, in order to allow it to remain totally unexplained.


I'm interested in this type of creative act, where the world you've made is pushing up against its edges; and the objects and characters in that world are gesturing at what's outside without ever describing what's there.


Here's the last few lines of the essay, which retain this telling strangeness, this knowing uncertainty.

'Therefore, I replied, somewhat at loose ends, we would have to eat again of the tree of knowledge to fall back again into a state of innocence

Most certainly, he replied: That is the last chapter of the history of the world.'