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Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life

Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life

Kenneth Gross participated in the Bellagio residency program in 2007. During this residency he worked on Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Kenneth teaches English at the University of Rochester, has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Bogliasco Foundations as well as the Folger Shakespeare Library, and his other books include The Dream of the Moving Statue, Shakespeare’s Noise, and Shylock is Shakespeare. Puppet won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.

A few words with Kenneth

“Parts of the book’s introductory chapter were reshaped during my time at Bellagio, including my initial vision of what in the subject seized me. One important moment in my first chapter was shaped very immediately by my having come down early to breakfast, sitting alone at a table, and contemplating everything set out there for use, thinking of the forms, shape, and practical life of the silverware, napkins, sugar bowl, flowers, plates, and imagining them as creatures, half-human beings with faces and voices – and then following that, I imagined the different kind of life and being these things would have after the meal was done, everything moved around used, half-eaten or drunk, stained, out of place, fragmentary. That was the seed of a crucial meditation.

“At a more general level, it was also absolutely crucial to discover at Bellagio that my interest in puppet theater was not just some odd, private thing, but that it resonated wonderfully with other fellows, who included a deep-sea oceanographer, a historian of Russia, a global economist, a painter, a museum curator, a composer and conductor, a poet, a novelist, a mathematical physicist, and a legal scholar, all of whom had great questions, and lovely stories of their own to share – I realized how much this book would be a gathering of other people’s stories, even those of non-puppeteers.

“Towards the end of my stay, at the urging of the painter, Luis Felipe (Yuyo) Noé, I actually staged a puppet show for all of my cohort of fellows, performed in the lounge. I moved and spoke for the figures myself, using a surreal, fairy-tale script of my own devising, with the wild and beautiful puppets made by Yuyo out of very simple materials. The show was accompanied by music improvised on the piano by the conductor-composer, Cercio Prudencio, and with the Russian historian, Gabriel Gorodetsky, accompanying us on clarinet. It was a lovely event that sent me forward very happily into the process of writing.”

A quote from Puppet

“The immediacy of human feeling in a puppet’s gestures can be astonishing. A small thing with an unmoving face and block-like hands can be eloquent in registering pain, boredom, wonder, and love. You can feel the work of the puppeteer allowing his own human feeling and impulse to be drawn towards and translated through the inanimate body, finding a home for them there, making the puppet itself into an actor. “I watched their faces become like the faces of the puppets they moved. They were more amazing than the puppets. They were monsters of invention and hope. Always hope. They were ready to sacrifice themselves for the puppets.” This is what the Italian puppeteer Giuseppina Volpicelli said to me as she recalled the men and women who worked in the shows created by her mother, Maria Signorelli, in the mid and late twentieth century in Italy.”


The puppet creates delight and fear. It may evoke the innocent play of childhood, or become a tool of ritual magic, able to negotiate with ghosts and gods. Puppets can be creepy things, secretive, inanimate while also full of spirit, alive with gesture and voice. In this eloquent book, Kenneth Gross contemplates the fascination of these unsettling objects—objects that are also actors and images of life.

Explore More

To find out more about Kenneth’s work, you can visit his University of Rochester profile.

To engage with the topics raised in Kenneth’s work, he suggests you visit UNIMA-USA, the U.S. national center for the International Puppetry Association.