The Mahna Mahna Phenomena
Typically, puppets are believed to communicate light, fun topics, but more importantly, they hold this incredible ability to present heavy topics that allow us to gain access to scary parts of our emotional core. Consider this: you are safely sitting in the audience of a show about death, but you are not dying or watching anyone else die. You are still hoping to feel something frightful or heartbreaking, after all, theatre exists to evoke emotions. Throughout the performance, you get to know a puppet character; you dig into its psyche and experience its highs, lows, and everything in between; you form a bond with this being. Then, the puppet dies. The puppeteer steps away from the puppet and suddenly, all that exists is an inanimate object, no longer a character. Everything you thought you knew about this being has been ripped away from you. It is jarring, it is tragic, and it is magical.
A wonderful example of this kind of deep connection can be found in the article, “Power in Puppetry ” by Miranda Wright when she states, “In order to make good on his promise, the puppet offered to provide a demonstration of death itself. He offered to die in front of us. When the moment came, I couldn’t breathe. As the puppeteer behind the curtain lifted his hands from the puppet’s body, I realized there truly was no life left in my new friend. I watched a life end, and sat in the theater crying.” This kind of deep, emotional reaction makes it clear that a performance is successful once the artist has put their effort into it, but even more so, once the audience has allowed themselves to accept the performance as real. Wright had this experience because she saw the marionettes “breathe” and “come to life” and she accepted that as natural. She kept her mind and heart open to the possibilities of the performance and it touched her deeply. It explored new domains of empathy within her, allowing her to tap into her own feelings of loss and sorrow. This death landed so deeply also because not only did the puppet die on a theatrical level, but it lost its life literally; it was merely a heap of materials, no longer a friend with a soul.
If this had been an actor portraying death, it would still have been compelling, but so much of our reaction is a critique of how well the actor mimicked death, so the performance aspect distracts us from our visceral reaction to the reality of death. In fact, the only way a human could portray death in the same powerful way would be for them to literally die onstage. Since that is not a viable option, puppets are as close to a real death as it can get on a stage. When a puppet portrays death, it is raw, it is clumsy, and it allows us to supply the reality by ourselves; the drama takes place in our hearts and that is what makes puppets such an incredible vehicle for storytelling. They step away from the idea of performance and they just exist as they are and allow the audience to feel the emotions as they arise. Puppeteer Mark Down illustrated this idea beautifully when he stated, “it is not puppeteers who make puppets come alive. The puppet lives in the audience’s imagination. We try to steer that, and perhaps persuade it to go somewhere exciting, but to be honest we don’t have a huge amount of control over it.” The world of the puppet exists in a space where there are no outside influences or distractions; it is 100% open to interpretation.
Rest assured, not all empathy has to come from a heart-wrenching puppet show about death. A well-known, light-hearted example of this comes from the catchy video clip of the “Mahna Mahna” song from The Muppet Show. There are websites dedicated to puppetry fandom and, more specifically, Sesame Street and The Muppets; Ryan Roe facilitates one such website. In his commentary “Mahna Mahna, Yes… But Why,” Roe notes, “Clearly, when we watch ‘Mahna Mahna,’ we’re seeing a reflection of ourselves that causes a spark of recognition to flare up inside us,” Roe goes on to explain that members of the audience can either empathize more strongly with “the Snowths,” which are the pair of pink puppets who sing “doo doo doo doo,’ and “have clearly spent copious amounts of time carefully rehearsing for this performance” or with “Mahna Mahna,” (the interrupting, hippie-like puppet) who “is a true free spirit. He has an insatiable urge to express his individualism and he’s going to do it even if the results are too chaotic for the Snowths to handle. He’s the nonconformist, the iconoclast.” Viewers of this performance are drawn to either character (consciously or not). They are able to relate to the characters and find humor and a sense of ridiculousness within themselves, which is not only enjoyable but extremely comforting to the human psyche.
Between Human and Object: Performing Artists on the Possibilities of Puppets. (2013, June 3). Creative Capital. https://creative-capital.org/2013/06/03/between-human-and-object/
Cummings, S. T. (2019, December 30). Puppets: Still Very Much a Thing. AMERICAN THEATRE. https://www.americantheatre.org/2015/06/24/puppets-still-very-much-a-thing/
Roe, R. (2017, September 20). Mahna Mahna, yes… but why? Retrieved December 08, 2021, from https://toughpigs.com/mahna-mahna-yes-but-why/ Wright, M., & Wright, M. (2016, August 3). Power in Puppetry. Getty Iris. https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/power-in-puppetry/
Wright, M., & Wright, M. (2016, August 3). Power in Puppetry. Getty Iris. https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/power-in-puppetry/
I am going to improve this-I know it needs more words and a lot more work! This is my VERY rough draft but it is a start! Just wanted to throw that out there!
That worked for me as well as watching a puppet die worked for Wright. I felt it just at the moment you helped me understand the simple but perfect power of the metaphor. The puppet really does die just as fundamentally as person does when the animating force departs the body.
I wonder if you’re brave enough to tackle the obvious but risky suggestion that the only way to elicit the same emotion from an audience for a play that has no puppets be for an actor to literally die during the performance. And it would have to be on cue. If she died before her death scene, or dallied until the curtain call, her death would still be tragic FOR HER, but it wouldn’t serve the play or the audience very well.
Love what you’re doing, Flatbread.