Puppetry as Reality in War Horse and beyond: why the Arts are important


The idea for this piece of writing came from watching the extraordinary stage production of War Horse at the New London Theatre in 2009 (now a major film), followed by a lecture at Central School of Speech and Drama with the South African Handspring Puppet Company (HPC) – the people behind War Horse when it originally played at the National Theatre.

Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, founders of the HPC, believe puppetry has something particular to offer to a contemporary audience.  Most people acknowledge that the moment Joey the horse walks on stage in War Horse is a moment of awe, enchantment and often making them cry.  Kohler and Jones discussed the philosophy of this – why does an inanimate object make us emotional?  How is it that puppetry is so perceptive?  Because a puppet is a lifeless object longing to live.  It is an inanimate figure trying to live – and actually although we are not dead, we too do this – we are living on and off stage, but we often lose our presence and immediacy.  ‘Absence of being in the moment’ in life could be described as not exactly living.

A puppet’s struggles are essentially the same as ours – we live but we need to be authentic to be truly ourselves.  The puppet is a verb, not a noun.  Topthorn (Joey’s companion in battle for so long) dies – is this a puppet or a dead horse?  That puppet has already lived and we now believe this, and have been living its world with it, so it has transformed itself and our imaginations.  The audience works to make this meaning – the audience is the author.

The most interesting aspect of HPC’s philosophy is ‘Puppet as Deity’.   Although there is a lack of belief in God around these days, there is a religious impulse which resides in puppetry.  Kohler and Jones comment that theatre does in this in general anyway, but puppetry does this in disguise.  The puppeteer is a priest to the horse in the way that the puppet is used to illustrate the situation (as a priest uses bread and wine to tell a continual story).

It strikes me that puppetry is a search for an unknown language of emotions and the mystery of human nature (if you see War Horse you will understand) which faith also presents to us.  It is no accident that Handspring Puppet Company came out of a culture where the need for a shared language was sought, and it was well received in South Africa where human language was not always uniting black and white.

Why is it that it was a boom year for theatre last year?  People don’t acknowledge it, but most of us seek something which we can’t name.  What we can’t name can, by default, feel unreal – so therefore, should we bother to seek it?  Well, yes.  It is my firm belief that there is more truth in the perceived unreality of make-believe than there is in the hard reality of life.  Whether we like it or not we all have imagination and this is not an accident – this is the thing which makes us human.

The artist Chagall says: ‘All our interior world is reality – and that perhaps more so than our apparent world.  To call everything that appears illogical, ‘fantasy’, fairytale, or chimera – would be practically to admit not understanding nature.’  Years later, Salman Rushdie says the same: ‘If you grow up in India, you grow up surrounded by magic being a normal aspect of literature.  You realise that kind of writing is just as capable of getting to serious, truthful human realities as realistic writing is’ (The Metro, 13.10.2010).

Chagall painting

You find that most actors have something to say about the meaning of their job.  Kevin Spacey’s dedication to the Old Vic (rightfully gaining him a CBE) is because he believes culture is ‘the magic of life’ – a generator of economic as well as spiritual wellbeing (The Evening Standard, 4.11.2010).  The artist Paula Rego says that she tries not to ‘do art’ but rather ‘tell a story’.  Like any good acting, the intention behind it is what makes it truthful: one acts the situation, not the emotion.  And like the actors, it seems the audience feed off the stories – why has ‘The King’s Speech’ been such a hit (other than Firth and Rush being terrific)?  Because it is a story of the obstacles which we all have within ourselves which we think will stop us achieving and being the human we want to be.  The arts have this capability of being completely universal in meaning.  ‘It’s important for society to be able to reflect itself through storytelling.’  (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Guardian, 7.11.2010).

Cumberbatch in War Horse the film

What is tangible is not always what is and it is not always the solution to our living well.  There were a series of talks in 2010 at St Paul’s Cathedral on Death, Happiness, Love and Suffering.  In all four, similar themes came out: we are fixed on having, not being.  The USA and the UK spend more on advertising than any other country in the world; we also have the most cases of mental illness.  Revd. Mark Oakley, on one of the occasions, talked about the ‘perversion of Descartes’ which is ‘I’m seen, therefore I am’ (rather than, ‘I think, therefore I am’) – he established something very disturbing: ‘we spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.’  Who benefits?  Nobody.  We are in a world of instant information – everything is graspable – which means nothing is graspable because once we have something we realise we don’t need it and it doesn’t make us happy.  There was a case in the press recently of the man who had 541 friends on Facebook but not one of them realised he was dead.  As George Eliot said, the texture of wisdom is different to that of information, yet it is the former we lack.

When we see or feel realness, we feel a jolt: we are out of the zone of information and in the zone of deeper wisdom where something we can’t pin down has got to us.  It’s not for nothing that Frieze Magazine in Contemporary Art and Culture brought out a complete issue in November 2010 entirely devoted to Religion and Spirituality (Issue 135).  Its opening article, ‘Believe It or Not’ by Dan Fox brings together a lot of the above:  ‘Art is a faith-based system.  Religious conviction is taken to be a sign of intellectual weakness, and yet meaning in art is itself often a question of belief.  Appeals to the immaterial are buried deep within the everyday language of art too: words such as ‘spiritual’, ‘transcendent’, ‘meditative’, and ‘sublime’ frequently occur in exhibition reviews, press releases and gallery guides.  Why does the search for some kind of spiritual fulfilment in secular art persist?  Is the idea that art has nothing to do with faith or religion just a lie we tell ourselves to hide the fact we crave something to believe in?’ (pg. 15).

But nor do I believe that we create something because we ‘crave’ for it.  I think the ‘something’ is already there – it is the thing we can’t pin down so tend to think it doesn’t exist since it’s not tangible.  The arts are a way of manifesting what doesn’t easily come to the surface naturally.  I mentioned ‘The King’s Speech’ – explicitly it’s about a public man who stammers – but implicitly it’s about an obstacle that makes him feel inadequate.  I can think of many paintings and sculptures that display explicitly a scene, but actually are about a bigger universal theme.  I think of Vaughan Williams’ music and it so vividly describes the English countryside as it was (and still is if we look after it) but it reaches further also to evoke a time of great loss of life and heritage (i.e. two world wars) which will never be tangible again.  The people and that way of life are gone.

Call art, music, dance and drama, signposts, but I think they are more as they contain meaning as well as pointing beyond.  Likewise I think the way we illustrate faith is very similar.  Unfortunately belief about God is more complex (and I actually find talking about faith hard as everyone gets so offended these days) but if you think of the Bible stories, yes they are about something, but always point beyond to a larger theme.  Every good sermon does this.  ‘We still rely on artists, curators and critics to act as interpreters of contingent meaning, aesthetic creeds or art world ‘ethics’, just as rabbis, imams and priests do.  People go to galleries on Sundays instead of churches.  Appeals to the immaterial are buried deep within the everyday language of art too: words such as ‘spiritual’, ‘transcendent’, ‘meditative’, and ‘sublime’ frequently occur in exhibition reviews, press releases and gallery guides’ (Dan Fox, Frieze Magazine, pg. 15).

Courtesy of The Daily Telegraph

In conclusion, I come back to War Horse and puppetry.  Joey and Topthorn are many things: lifeless objects with no emotion until moved by a human, living beings which move humans to tears, not only taking us back to a catastrophic time in human history but reminding us of our vulnerability and our own capacity for evil.  The puppets move, and work with our imaginations to make us feel compassion for all the horses that received horrific injuries and died.  So, quite clearly our imagination in this instance is not to make something magical into a truth – it is the reverse – portraying something truthful in a magical setting (the stage).

We need these arenas that the arts provide therefore – to do precisely this: present something which is truthful, in a truthful way (i.e. story) through the medium of imagination to show us that just because something isn’t immediately graspable, doesn’t mean it is not there.

Peter Brook in ‘There Are No Secrets’:

‘Truth can never be defined, nor grasped, but the theatre is a machine which enables all its participants to taste an aspect of truth within a moment; theatre is a machine for climbing and descending the scales of meaning…Theatre is an external ally of the spiritual way, and it exists to offer glimpses, inevitably of short duration, of an invisible world that interpenetrates the daily world and is normally ignored by our senses.’


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