The Mahna Mahna Phenomena
Puppetry is a theatrical art form that makes great use of the emotional aspect of theatre. Unfortunately, people tend to view puppetry as a childish practice, rather than a powerful and important art form that is often practiced in a professional setting. The art of puppetry shouldn’t be overlooked because it makes use of emotions that other art forms do not. In order to understand the art of puppetry, it is vital to recognize how and why emotions are processed differently in terms of puppetry as compared to human performers. This idea has been studied in theatre arts as an exploration of the human mind regarding puppets as characters. However, some have proposed that emotion distracts the audience from thinking critically about the performance on stage. Berthold Brecht was one of the most outspoken supporters of this idea during his time in the early to mid-1900s.
As outlined in “Engaging Emotion in Theatre: A Brechtian Model in Theatre History”, Paul Woodruff explains how Brecht believed that “an empathic spectator could not take a critical attitude towards a character or the character’s situation because he-the empathic spectator-would feel on his own behalf what he supposed the character to feel.” This type of non-emotional theatre is referred to as “epic theatre.” Rather than experiencing a performance in an artistically appreciative and genuine way, it is experienced straightforwardly. Brecht essentially worked to eliminate the illusion of the theatre and keep the audience as objective as possible. He would often keep stage lamps in full view, use minimal props, etc. to remind the audience that they were in a theatrical setting, so as to keep them empathetically and emotionally neutral. Many theatre professionals would argue that “epic theatre” defeats the purpose of the performance by stripping away the glamor and amazement, but that is exactly how Brecht liked it; he wanted to challenge the audience, rather than dazzle them.
Brecht also crafted characters in hopes the audience would not empathize with them. This seems like self-sabotage because if the audience cannot form emotional connections with the characters, they are not going to pay attention to the performance; character development is the driving force of a strong plot. Interestingly, Brecht’s audiences still empathized with even Brecht’s evil characters. This validates that humans are hardwired to empathize with characters that exist in a separate reality.
Brecht did not explain whether he believed all empathy was negative, or if there were certain situations where it was acceptable or useful. Also, Brecht failed to explain why exactly he believed empathy prevented audience members from thinking critically. Today, many in the profession believe empathy enhances the viewer’s experience and inspires the viewer to analyze the work deeper. While it is important for the audience to consider the performance critically, emotion plays an essential role in ensuring they connect with the art and characters on a deeper level. It is still difficult to say why Bertold Brecht took his unique approach to theatre, but he left future artists with a counter-intuitive approach to this art form.
Empathy is embedded in human nature and absolutely belongs in theatre. The theatre is a place for experimentation, for passion, and for expression. As stated in the article “Emotions, Empathy and Drama” by Irina Yakubovskaya, “Empathy has been inscribed in the history of drama since the known beginning of it, as well as in the history of humankind. In the review article, Bernhardt and colleagues (2012) conclude that multiple studies, mostly based on empathy for pain, showed that ‘empathic responses recruit, to some extent, brain areas similar to those engaged during the corresponding ﬁrst-person state’ (p.). Linderberger (2010) describes the mirror neuronal process as two consecutive phases: stage one – imitation of the observed actions, second – internalization of the information and as a result the understanding of it (p.4). Those two stages may indeed constitute true empathy, and yet they only seem to be manifested in someone who is experiencing the event/emotion/story vicariously. When applied to the people impersonating and embodying characters in a story, the empathy cannot be enough.”
The entire existence of puppetry depends on the audience’s ability to empathize with the characters. Watching a puppet show objectively requires no guide; no preparation. Without emotional reciprocation, puppets would not be effective tools for performance. Humans are not going to pay attention to a sock with googly eyes or a wooden spoon with a face unless they feel something. The puppet by itself constitutes no soul, however, the animated puppet with a voice and personality suddenly is a living being; it grabs the human interest. This character now sparks an emotional reaction and, instead of simply staring at an inanimate object, the audience is watching a friend; going through its story with it. The experience is not only more enjoyable but also memorable. This is all to say that removing emotion from the theatre, as Brecht believes is necessary, is simply futile. Puppetry and theatre as a whole is drained of its color without empathy.
Woodruff, P. (1988). ENGAGING EMOTION IN THEATER: A BRECHTIAN MODEL IN THEATER HISTORY. The Monist, 71(2), 235–257. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27903080
Yakubovskaya, I., Yakubovskaya, I., 12, H., 21, W., & 21, I. (2014, October 10). Emotion, brain, & behavior laboratory. Retrieved December 08, 2021, from https://sites.tufts.edu/emotiononthebrain/2014/10/10/82/