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					                   The Modern Self as Puppet in Woyzeck on the Highveld
                                        by Anton Krueger
                            University of Rhodes, Grahamstown, SA

Conference paper for the International Federation of Theatre Research Conference “Cultures
of Modernity” held in Münich, Germany from 26-31 July, 2010. To be published in Afrikaans
                                        in Literator, 2012.

There’s a whole panoply of tropes about Modernism and modernity which intersect in
Handspring Puppet Company’s production of Woyzeck on the Highveld (1992). Firstly, its
principal source is Georg Büchner’s proto-modernist text with its portrayal of an alienated
individual. Secondly, in making use of puppets as central characters, the play employs a style
evoking a number of modernist aesthetics (with particular reference to Harold B. Segel’s
description in Pinocchio’s Progeny [1995]). Thirdly, by re-contextualising Büchner’s soldier as
an immigrant mine worker, the production deals with numerous aspects of modernization in
South Africa.

Georg Büchner’s text was perhaps the first play to deal with the tragedy of an ordinary man
who finds himself confronted by insurmountable odds; a character with a low social status
caught within a vortex of cultural, religious, and psychological forces. It might be seen as the
first truly modern play, in that it argues our lives are determined by social and
environmental circumstances. In the South African version of Woyzeck, the decision to use
puppets to demonstrate this identification allows William Kentridge to foreground the
objectification of the self and the mechanisation of the subject.

Woyzeck is a play which succinctly describes the modernist concern with the objectification
of self. Many modernist texts share an affinity with the genre of the puppet show, with
automatons, with machines, marionettes, with what Harold B. Segel calls “related forms of
human likenesses”.1 This ties in with what Frederic Jameson, in A Singular Modernity, refers

  Segel notes that his book Pinocchio’s Progeny (which is an exploration of confluences between
puppetry and modernism) “was motivated by the extraordinary range of affinities expressed by artists
of the period with puppets, marionettes, automatons, and related forms of human likenesses” (1995:

to as “depersonalisation, that moment from subjective expression to objecthood”, which is
“a fundamental feature of modernity and modernism alike” (2002: 152-3). Part of the cause
of this objecthood lies in the effects of the industrialization of labour, the coming of the
factory, which made the self into a cog, a unit, an item on a conveyor belt. And yet, in South
Africa, this experience of objectification did not take place in quite the same way, since
there weren’t any factories in South Africa at the time of the industrial revolution in Europe.
But what we did have were mines.

Making Woyzeck a migrant mine worker in the 1950’s permits the possibility of all sorts of
commentary on the forces which created the nation of South Africa, since nothing signals
the arrival of modernity in this country as clearly as the creation of the mining industry.
Large-scale mining started with the discovery of diamonds on the banks of the Orange River
in 1867, 30 years after Büchner died and 12 years before Woyzeck was first published.2
Mining industrialized South Africa and the mining industry is at the heart of the
modernisation processes that occurred here. It was because of the mines that the Boer wars
were fought. It was because of the mines that cities were built. It was because of the mines
that rural populations were ransacked for workers and migrant hostel dwellers left their
families and traditions behind to carve out new identities below the earth. It is on mining
that the rich hybrid, polyglot culture of many of the country’s capital cities is based. It makes
complete sense then to link mining with modernity, in this modernist work.

Before further exploring the intersections between puppetry, modernity and constructions
of self, I would like to briefly summarise the story of Woyzeck on the Highveld, and consider
two fragments from the production.

Woyzeck on the Highveld
Woyzeck arrives in Johannesburg, a setting drawn by William Kentridge (in his famous
charcoal animation backdrops) as a desolate, barren landscape. Woyzeck’s girlfriend, Maria,
with whom he has a child, is seduced by a burly mine worker. Woyzeck is experimented on
and preached at by a Doctor obsessed with feeding him peas and analysing his urine, as well
as by a moralizing Captain who holds forth on the values of what one might term
“Enlightenment” or rational civilisation. The captain declaims on issues of virtue, and the

  Mining is still absolutely central to the South African economy, since the country is the second
largest gold producer in the world and the largest producer of a whole range of other minerals,
including platinum, chrome and manganese.

importance of falling within the ambit of the church, on the importance of walking straight
and slowly, never rushing about, and so on. Both of these characters display some of the
madness of modernity; some of the absurd attempts at trying to maintain order in a world
spinning loose from its gyre, to use W.B. Yeat’s metaphor.

Woyzeck’s mind is increasingly fragile; he feels encroached on by the forces he sees
operating all around him – the forces of status, money, power. The Doctor and the Captain
keep trying to emphasise his individuality, but he sees himself as disempowered by society;
out of balance with nature; increasingly out of control. In becoming objectified, his self
splinters. When he discovers his wife dancing with the miner, he is devastated. Woyzeck first
approaches the miner and is soundly beaten and then, after seeing a knife written in the
constellations of the night skies to which he has turned for solace, he murders her.

There are two scenes in Woyzeck on the Highveld, which I would like to discuss in greater
detail. The first is near the start of the production, in which we see Woyzeck “fighting the
dinner table”. Kentridge’s rough charcoal animation provides an imaginative backdrop for
what is going on in Woyzeck’s mind as he tries to feed himself, while steadily losing control.
In this scene, the puppeteers become visible for the first time. Up to this point, Woyzeck has
seemed autonomous, but here he’s surrounded by controlling humans. It is a strange thing
that Woyzeck almost appears to be more autonomous within this context of other beings.
The Barker and the two puppeteers, instead of distracting the viewer’s attention away from
Woyzeck, create an authentic movement.

[insert clip 1]

In this scene Woyzeck tries to master the ordered dinner table with its etiquette of eating,
but inanimate objects begin to turn his meal into disarray. This is a very modern moment –
when objects become more powerful than their masters, when objects begin to slip out of
control. Woyzeck’s table is eventually littered with food and objects – industrialised things;
tools of communication and transport and commerce – which relentlessly disrupt his
attempts at consumption with further desires, with more and more and more. Here we see
the detritus of industrialisation overrunning his need for sustenance.

[insert clip 2]

In another scene, Woyzeck is examined by the doctor, in trying to see inside him, the doctor
discovers that they hear a different music and see a different world. He hears inside
Woyzeck the songs of his far away village, but also the rush of the mines, the screech of
domestic animals, the debris of the modern world swirling inside him. Woyzeck takes solace
in the stars, which reveal what his heart is telling him – to reach for the knife.

In some way, murdering Maria might be seen as an act of freedom, of escape from the
stultifying trap of forces playing on him. The Barker, at the start of the play, and the Captain
and the Doctor at the end report the story as being about “a beautiful murder”. Perhaps this
is because the murder makes their work come alive, suddenly their theorisation has an
object of analysis.

Woyzeck’s will is pitted not only against Maria, but against the world, against the miner, the
captain, the doctor, the system. The play might be seen as a failed attempt to rail not only
against the world, but against a worldview, a weltanschauung. In some way Woyzeck is like
Pinocchio, like all puppets who dream of freedom, finding that it comes at a terrible price.
Like Pinocchio, Woyzeck is a rebellious puppet. He longs to be autonomous, he does not
want to be ruled by his poverty and his class; his love, his jealousy – he murders in a state of
despair, for there seems to be no escape from society, from the world view in which he has
discovered himself.

The Modernist Self as Puppet
One of the key tenets of modernity and modernism involves the configuration of the
modernist individual as a self split, cut off from its past; and one of the key definition’s of the
modern self is surely the one first defined by Karl Marx in his 1844 Paris Manuscripts,
namely Entfremdung. This is a term which aptly describes the situation of modern man in a
world of machines: alienated from his labour; alienated from his traditions; alienated from
his community. The mineworkers, upon whose backs South African urban society was built,
provide a fitting example of this process of disempowerment. During the establishment of
mines and their surrounding wars in South Africa, senses of identity and belonging for many
of the peoples of South Africa were violently uprooted. Richard Mitchell (2000):
        Marx perceptively points out in Capital (1867), in the famous section on commodity
        fetishism [that] inanimate objects were increasingly dominating capitalist “man” – or

        at least becoming more like them – as ever increasing numbers of objects (as
        commodities) and people (as wage workers) were bought and sold on the market

Against the backdrop of Taylorism and the concomitant mechanization of behaviour, which
came as a result of aspirations towards efficiency, puppets can be seen as living machines, as
demonstrations of the objects which people are turned into by capital. But the puppet is a
peculiar sort of machine, in that it subverts one of modernity’s key virtues, namely efficiency
(a virtue which is still today, for the most part, unquestioned).

Puppets draw attention to themselves. In a recent book written about Handspring, an essay
by Gerhard Marx explores this paradoxical situation. Marx’s essay is called “The Function of
Malfunction” (2009) and in it he defines puppets as “exomatic organs”: parts of the body
outside of the body. The main premise of his essay is that the object can also be a verb, a
performance operating within fields of “semiotic fluidity” instead of only being a “material
solidity with determined qualities” (226). Relying on a reading of Heidegger, Marx describes
the moment when an object malfunctions, as the instance its physicality, its materiality,
becomes apparent. Up until that point it has been known only “through its use, only as a
means to an end” (230). But when it no longer functions it becomes itself – it is then that
“the object’s physicality becomes present” (236). Gerhard Marx uses the example of a car or
a kettle which stops working. When it works it is invisible, simply a means to an end. But
once it no longer functions, we become aware of the mass of the car, its sculptured
presence. Marx says that it is “as if we need to kill the tool to make the object come to life”
(236). In this sense, visible dysfunctions are of more value on stage than smooth
functionality, and to be successful a puppet should, paradoxically, become a dysfunctional

One wonders if the same applies to people and to processes of individualisation. In
Anathemas and Admirations, the Hungarian philosopher E.M. Cioran writes that “it is by
suffering...that one ceases to be a marionette.” (1992:137). If one refuses to be a tool, then
one can avoid being manipulated; however, being removed from the flow of society may
well lead to suffering. If one is belligerent and demonstrates anti-social behaviour, one may
well be freed from social constraints; and yet this may ultimately not be in one’s best

The puppets created by Adrian Kohler for Woyzeck act as sculptures and as characters (and,
of course, also as ideas). The puppet is a sculpted object, and yet, because it is given life, it
does not remain a sculpture, “once it enters into performance it is constantly re-formed by
its changing semiotic and gestural context, and so its form arguably never actually settles”
(240). In this lies an irony:
         [I]t is the idea of the thing (not the thing) which is collectively manifested
         manipulated and altered in the space between object, puppeteer and is
         the malleable idea of the thing (once divorced from singular function) that is the
         true medium of the puppeteer (241).

Gerhard Marx’s proposal here is that the puppeteer is not working with an object, but an
idea. In working with a material object, he is working with discourse. Fredric Jameson finds
that: “The very movement towards language itself, in modernist practice as well as in
contemporary philosophy betrays this obligatory detours though the object world, that is,
through matter and space” (2002: 138), which enforces the idea of puppets as objects by
means of which to talk about ideas.

The puppets draw attention to themselves as objects, as identities, and as things. In fact,
director William Kentridge specifically set out to emphasise the “constructed” quality of the
puppets. He tried to shift the puppet makers away from trying to imitate reality, away from
a seamless veritas. Kentridge wanted to create jarring juxtapositions. In the words of
Handspring puppet maker Adrian Kohler, Kentridge prefers “his layering of images and
meanings, however seemingly awkward and arcane, to rub against each other” (2009: 78).

Woyzeck on the Highveld was Kentridge’s first collaboration with Handspring, and he asked
them to make their puppets “rougher”, an appeal which is both backward and forward
gazing. It looks to the past, in the sense of giving the appearance of being unsophisticated
and primitive; and yet it is also “new” in that it makes the puppet appear to be “newly
made”; still bearing the mark of flawed human manufacture. As a backdrop to the play,
Kentridge created rudimentary charcoal animations by means of a process he refers to as
“proto-filmmaking”. Although this technique harks back to a former time, it also relates
Kentridge’s stylistic concerns to the demand of the avant-garde aesthetic; to Ezra Pound’s
dictum to “make it new”, what Jameson refers to as “the supreme value of the New that

seems to preside over any specific or local modernism worth its salt” (2002: 121).3 So these
puppets also seem to be newly made.4

For myself, puppetry has always entailed a curious mixing of genres. On the one hand,
sculpture might be seen as the most Apollonian of arts; being, in its traditional sense, a study
of pure form. On the other hand, performance is the birthplace of the Dionysian – involving
the unpredictability of change and the transformations of movement; the chaos of
impermanence. To bring these opposite impulses together, to inhabit an inanimate object
with life, breath, speech, motion, draws on both ancient and modern sensibilities. There is a
connection with an ancient world in the sense of homage to the fixed masks of Grecian
theatre, as well as the idea of the self as object. It draws on our African tradition of
puppetry, as well as the modern world of machines.

At the end of the original novel of Pinocchio (1883) by C. Collodi, when the puppet becomes
human, he becomes a wage slave, a labourer, in the “real world” he has yearned to belong
to. Harold B. Segel points out that Pinocchio is “destined to become far more of a puppet
once he enters adulthood than he was as a puppet” (1995:42). And Richard Mitchell shows
how “the puppet’s dream of becoming an acceptable human, a bourgeois individual, is more
alienating and constricting than remaining an inanimate piece of wood” (2000: 157).
Becoming free seems a lot more difficult than rebelling against the system. Trying to cut the
social strings controlling one in a bid for freedom seems a supreme irony, since this is also a
disempowering gesture. This ties in with Cioran’s reminder that happiness is not always
commensurate with freedom.

The caricatured nature of society, and the link between people performing social
ceremonies and puppets had already been made in Büchner’s earlier work Leonce and Lena
(1836) where royalty are married by proxy as puppets of themselves, as effigies. Segel points
out that:
        Suffering from the delusion that they are capable of determining their own actions,
        human beings merely betray their essential puppetlike nature. Life, in Büchner’s

  During European Modernism, “Africa” was often taken as emblematic of the new. Michael Janis
points out that Africa was often seen as “A verdant space of the imagination, an “Africa” of the
imagination, the domain of novelty reflect, in Modernism, the quest for newness, difference,
spontaneity, unrepressed desire, and instinctual gratification” (Janis, 2008: 15).
 In some sense Kentridge is creating what Jameson calls “*o+ntologies of the present” which demand
“archaeologies of the future, not forecasts of the past” (2002:215).

        view, is absurd; nothing one does can alter that fact, and the more one tries, the
        more one comes to resemble a puppet or marionette whose actions are determined
        by forces, or elements, beyond its control (1995:23).

In South Africa, the coming of modernity was a fairly abrupt instance. It is perhaps even
clearer to identify as a specific moment than it might be in Europe and America; since it is
condensed around a very particular point. In this paper I have identified this key moment
with the discovery of mineral wealth and the mining companies which lead to creation and
loss; wealth and dispossession; to both the cities and their surrounding slums.

In some way Kentridge’s work reverses a trend: instead of an African form being
appropriated for a western exoticism, it takes a European form and makes it quintessentially
African. But in the global economy it becomes difficult to speak clearly of Africa and Europe
at all. In Africa after Modernism (2008), Michael Janis notes that “Europe the oppressor, also
became, for Africa, forced to confront Europe’s projection and fixation, a distorted mirror of
ontological vexation” (7), because “Modernity is a shared condition, a coeval collective crisis
in an existential and phenomenological sense, and Modernism has always been plural,
contentious” (x).

It is here that a link to post-modernity can be found. The European movements which lead
to modernity had an influence on the South African mindset, of course, but it was an
Australian who first found gold on the Vaal, and there was a time when Indians
outnumbered whites in Durban, so the hybrid nature of the country has long since gone
beyond a simple fusion of so called “European” and “African” cultures. The country was
created and emerged as a global entity from its very beginnings. Founded by the Dutch East
India Company as a refuelling station, it may not be too much of a stretch of the imagination
to define the conception of early South Africa as a kind of mall, where consumers came to
take what they could get. The proliferation of American style malls that fringe our major
towns are thus not necessarily new developments, but might be seen as orthodox
representations of the values and traditions on which the nation was first founded. In paying
homage to Modernism, Woyzeck on the Highveld, is also a post-modern work with its
bricolage of fragmented inter-textual references, and I’d like to end with another quote
from Janis:

         the human is the being for whom being is a problem: identity crises is a global
         human condition. This does not negate the inter- and intra-cultural perilous politics
         of inclusion and exclusion, yet this is why only theories of identity that recognize
         ‘cultural contamination’ are viable. (176)

After Woyzeck Handspring puppet went on to make three other acclaimed works with
William Kentridge which toured widely. They recently won three prestigious London awards
(including the Olivier and the London Critics) for their design of the puppets in Warhorse.
Kentridge himself has now become more of a global than a local figure, touring
internationally with Flute and most recently directing Shostokovitch’s The Nose for The Met
in New York. The fact that the original puppets for Woyzeck on the Highveld are currently
housed in the Münich Stadts Museum, also reveals, perhaps that in a modern world the
connection between ideas and their place of origin has become ever more tenuous; that
agency is never from a single source, and that puppeteers themselves are dependent on a
great range and variety of influences. The objectification of the modernist self might thus be
a demonstration of the ways in which freedom and its limitations can be displayed.

Bell, John. 2008. American Puppet Modernism. New York: Palgrave.
Büchner, Georg. 1971. Danton’s Death, Leonce and Lena, Woyzeck. Translated and introduced by
         Victor Price. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Collodi, Carlo. 2005 [1883]. The Adventures of Pinocchio. Translated by E. Harden. (California:
         University of California Press).
Jameson, Fredric. 2002. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the ontology of the present. London: Verso.
Janis, Michael. 2008. Africa after Modernism: Transitions in literature, media, and philosophy. New
         York: Routledge.
Kohler, Adriaan. 2009. “Thinking Through Puppets.” In Handspring Puppet Company. (Edited by Jane
         Taylor). Parkwood: David Krut. (42-150).
Marx, Gerhard. 2009. “A Matter of Life and Death: The Function of Malfunction in the work of
         Handspring Puppet Company”. In Handspring Puppet Company. (Edited by Jane Taylor).
         Parkwood: David Krut. (225-252).
Marx, Karl. 1988. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Translated by Martin Milligan.
         Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Bokos.
Mitchell, Richard W. 2000. “Book Review: Pinocchio’s Progeny”. The Drama Review. 44(2). (155-157).
Segel, Harold B.1995. Pinocchio’s Progeny: Puppets, marionettes, automatons, and robots in
         Modernity and Avant-garde Drama. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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