Heinrich von Kleist, On the Puppet Theater

Paradise is locked and bolted and the Cherub is behind us. We must make a journey around the world, to see if a back door has perhaps been left open

Heinrich von Kleist (18 October 1777 – 21 November 1811)

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)

On the Puppet Theater

While passing the winter of 1801 in the town of M-- I chanced one evening, in the public garden, to meet Mr. C., who had lately been appointed chief dancer at the Opera in that town, and was enjoying uncommon success with his audiences. I said how surprised I had been to notice him more than once at a puppet theater which had been hammered together in the marketplace, to entertain the crowds with little mock heroic dramas, interspersed with songs and dances.

He assured me that the pantomime of these puppets gave him much pleasure, and suggested in no uncertain terms that any dancer who wished to improve his art might learn all sorts of things from them.

Since the remark, and his tone of voice, implied something more than a passing fancy, I sat down with him, the better to hear the grounds on which he would support so strange an assertion.

He asked if I had not found certain movements of the puppets, particularly the smaller ones, very graceful when they danced.
I could not deny this fact. One group of four peasants, doing a round dance in rapid tempo, could not have been painted more prettily by a Teniers.
I inquired about the mechanism of these figures and how it was possible, without myriad strings on the fingers, to control the separate members and their tie points as the rhythm of their movements or dances required.
He answered that I must not imagine that each member, in the various motions of the dance, had to be placed and pulled individually by the puppeteer.

Each movement, he said, had its center of gravity; it would suffice to control that center, on the inside of the figure; the limbs, which are really nothing but pendulums, follow of themselves, in a mechanical way, without further aid.
He added that this movement was a very simple one, that even when the center of gravity was directed in a straight line the limbs began to describe curves; and that often, when shaken in a quite random way, the whole puppet assumed a kind of rhythmic motion that was very much like a dance.
This observation seemed to shed some light at last on the pleasure which he had claimed to find in the marionette theater. But I was still very far from suspecting the conclusions that he was to draw from this.
I asked him if he believed that the mechanic who controlled these puppets must be a dancer in his own right, or at least have some conception of the Beautiful in the dance.
He answered that we were not to suppose, simply because an operation seemed easy from the mechanical point of view, that it could be performed without a certain sensitivity.

The line that the center of gravity must describe is indeed very simple and, as he believed, in most cases straight. When it happens to be curved, the law of its curvature seemed only of the first, and at most of the second order; and even in the latter case only elliptical, which form of movement happens to be the natural one for the extremities of the human body (because of the joints) and which would demand no great skill on the part of the puppeteer to describe.

This line, however, considered from another point of view, is something very mysterious. For it is nothing less than the path of the dancer's soul, and he doubted whether it could be found except by the puppeteer transposing himself into the center of gravity of the marionette; or, in other words, by dancing.
I replied that I had always thought this activity something quite mindless, rather like turning the crank on a hand organ.
"By no means," he answered. "On the contrary, the relation of his finger movements to the movements of the puppets attached to them is something quite precise, rather like the relation of numbers to their logarithms or asymptotes to their hyperbola."
But he believed that even this last fraction of mind, to which he had just now referred, could indeed be removed from the marionettes, their dance transposed wholly into the realm of mechanical forces, and, just as I had imagined, produced by means of a crank.

I expressed my amazement that he should dignify with serious consideration this toy version of a high art, contrived for the populace. Not only did he believe it capable of higher development, he seemed indeed to be directing his own thoughts to that end.

He smiled, saying he dared assert that if a mechanic would construct a marionette according to his specific requirements, he could, by means of it, present a dance such as no other accomplished dancer of the time, not even Vestris* himself, was ever likely to achieve.

"Have you ever heard " he asked, when I silently regarded the floor, “of those mechanical legs that English craftsmen manufacture for hapless accident victims?”

I said no, I had never set eyes on such things.

"I wish you had," he replied, "for if I tell you that these unfortunate people manage to dance with them, I am almost afraid you will not believe me. Nor is it an ordinary dance! The range of their movements is of course limited; but within it they attain to a lightness, a serenity, and a gracefulness that must amaze every thinking person. "

I offered, joking, that he had found his man. For the same craftsman who was able to construct those remarkable limbs could doubtless construct a whole puppet to meet his requirements.

"How," I asked when he looked somewhat embarrassed, "how would these requirements, which you would expect of his skill, be fulfilled?"
"By nothing that is not to be found here already," he replied. "Balance, agility and ease – but each in a higher degree, and especially a more natural coordination of the center of gravity."

"And the advantage of such a puppet over living dancers?"

"The advantage? First of all, my good friend, a negative one: namely that it would be incapable of affectation. For affectation, as you know, appears when the soul (vis motrix)** is located at any point other than the center of gravity of a movement. Now because, with his wires and strings, it is this very point and no other that the puppeteer controls, all remaining members are, as they should be, dead, pure pendulums, which follow the basic law of gravity -- a marvelous quality, which we look for in vain in most of our dancers.

"Just observe Madame P–," he continued, "when she plays Daphne, and pursued by Apollo looks back over her shoulder: her soul settles in the vertebrae of the small of her back; she bends over as though about to break in two, like some naiad from the school of Bernini. Observe the young dancer F– when, as Paris, he stands with the three goddesses and extends the apple to Venus: his soul (in a manner fearful to behold!) actually settles in his elbow.

"Such blunders," he added, interrupting himself, "are unavoidable, since we have eaten of the tree of knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted and the Cherub is behind us. We must make a journey around the world, to see if a back door has perhaps been left open."

I laughed. Certainly, I thought, the intellect cannot err where none is present. But feeling that he had more to say, I asked him to continue.
"In addition," he said, "these puppets have the advantage of countergravity. For they know nothing of the inertia of matter, which of all properties is the most obstructive to the dance: for the force that lifts them into the air is greater than that which pulls them to the ground.

What would our dear Madame G– not give to be lighter by sixty pounds, or for a counterweight of this size to help her with her entrechats and pirouettes? Puppets, like elves, require the ground only to touch on, and by that momentary obstruction to reanimate the spring of their limbs; while we require it to rest on, and to recover from the exertions of the dance: a moment which is clearly not dance in itself, and with which there is nothing to be done except to make it disappear by all possible means.

I answered that, however skillfully he might propose his paradox, he could never make me believe that more charm might inhere in a mechanical doll than in the structure of the human body.

He replied that in this it was absolutely impossible for the human being to compete with a puppet. Only a god, on this field of contest, could prove a match for matter; and here is where both ends of the ring-shaped world interlock.

I grew more and more amazed, and hardly knew how to answer such strange assertions.

It would seem, he replied, taking a pinch of snuff, that I had not read the third chapter of the Book of Genesis with care; and to be unacquainted with this first stage of human culture is to be incapable of discussing the later stages, still less the last of all.

I said that I knew only too well the disorders that consciousness could produce in the natural grace of humankind. A young man of my acquaintance, before my very eyes, so to speak, and through a mere remark, lost his innocence; and in spite of every imaginable effort could never regain the Paradise of that condition. But what conclusion, I wanted to know, could be drawn from this?

"About three years ago," I related, "I was swimming with a young man over whose physical form a marvelous grace seemed to shine. He must have been just sixteen or so, and only the first signs of vanity, induced by the favors of women, could be seen, as it were, in the farthest distance. It so happened that shortly before, in Paris, we had seen the famous statue called the Spinario, the youth removing a thorn from his foot – copies of it are familiar and to be found in most German collections. A glance in a large mirror recalled it to him at a moment when, in drying himself, he happened to raise his foot to a stool – he smiled and mentioned the discovery he had made. I indeed had noticed it too in the very same instant, but either to test the self-assurance of the grace with which he was endowed, or to challenge his vanity in a salutary way, I laughed and said he was seeing phantoms. He blushed and raised his foot a second time to prove it to me, but the attempt, as might easily have been foreseen, did not succeed. Confused, he raised his foot a third and fourth time; he must have raised it ten times more: in vain! He was unable to produce the same movement again. And the movements that he did make had so comical an effect that I could hardly suppress my laughter.

"From that day, as though from that very moment, an inconceivable transformation began in that young man. He would stand whole days before the mirror; one charm after the other fell from him. An invisible and incomprehensible force like an iron net, seemed to spread over the free play of his gestures, and when one year had passed not a trace could be detected of that sweetness which had once so delighted the sight of all who surrounded him. There is still a person living who was witness to this strange and unfortunate event and who can confirm it word for word as I have told it. "

"At this opportunity," said Mr. C. amicably, “I must tell you another story, and you will see the connection.”

"Once, on a journey to Russia, I happened to be visiting the estate of Herr von G–, a Livonian nobleman, whose sons at the time were very keen on their fencing practice. The elder of them especially, just home from the university, was playing the great virtuoso, and one morning in his room offered me a foil. We fenced, but as it turned out I was more than a match for him, his very zeal compounded his perplexity; I hardly made a thrust that failed to hit, until finally his foil went flying into the corner. Half joking, half dashed, he conceded as he picked up his foil that he had met his master, but so must every living being, and now he wished to introduce me to mine. With this, both brothers laughed aloud and called, 'Come with us! Down to the woodshed!' And taking me by the hand they led me to a bear that their father was having raised on the estate.

"The bear, as I in my surprise approached him, reared up on his hind legs, his back against the post to which he was chained, his right paw poised for the strike, and looked me in the eye: that was his fencing posture. I thought I must be dreaming to find myself faced with such an opponent, but Herr von G– called, 'Strike! Strike! And try to hit him!' Recovering from my surprise somewhat I made a lunge; the bear made a very short movement with his paw and parried my thrust. I tried fooling him with feints – the bear did not move. With spontaneous agility I lunged once more, and would surely have touched any human breast; the bear made a very short movement with his paw and parried my thrust. I was now almost in the same condition as the young Herr von G– been. The earnestness of the bear was robbing me of my composure, thrusts and feints followed on one another, I was dripping with sweat: in vain! It was not merely that the bear, like the world's leading fencer, parried every one of my thrusts, but to my feints he reacted not at all (a feat that no fencer anywhere could match). Eye to eye, as though he could read my very soul, he stood with his paw poised for the strike, and if my thrusts were not in earnest he simply did not move.

"Do you find my story believable?"

"Perfectly!" I cried, with delighted applause. "It is so plausible, I would believe it of any stranger, and so much the more of you!"

"Now then, my good friend, you are in possession of all you require to understand my point. We see how, in the organic world, as reflection grows darker and weaker, grace emerges ever more radiant and supreme. – But just as two intersecting lines, converging on one side of a point, reappear on the other after their passage through infinity, and just as our image, as we approach a concave mirror, vanishes to infinity only to reappear before our very eyes, so will grace, having likewise traversed the infinite, return to us once more, and so appear most purely in that bodily form that has either no consciousness at all or an infinite one, which is to say, either in the puppet or a god."

"That means," said I, somewhat amused, "that we would have to eat of the tree of knowledge a second time to fall back into the state of innocence."

"Of course," he answered, "and that is the final chapter in the history of the world."

* Gaetan Vestris (1729-1808). The leading danseur of the Paris Opera, and perhaps the most famous of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
** vis motrix "the moving force."
The Baroque style, of which Bernini was the dominant practitioner in Italian Sculpture, was in low repute in the Neoclassical and Romantic periods and considered frivolously ornate and exaggerated, removed from both true art and true nature.


Today is the bicentenary of poet, dramatist and short story writer Heinrich von Kleist's death. He was born on October 18th, 1777 and died November 21st, 1811 by commiting suicide - he shot himself together with his friend Henriette Vogel, who was fatally ill. Both where only 34 years old. 
I've read this text in school, and then again in University and I already know that I'll keep on reading it many times more. I'm sure, it will accompany me the rest of my life.
A lot has been written about this essay. Here's some meta which can be found in this compilation of bibliographical and biographical sources about Heinrich von Kleist

On the Marionette Theater

In a simulated dialogue, Kleist has one of the interlocutors comment that marionettes possess a grace humans do not, a view which contradicts all aesthetic concepts of the past. Our consciousness and capacity for reflection cause us to doubt ourselves or become self-conscious, and prevent us from acting with the singlemindedness and purity of an animal or a puppet. And yet, consciousness is the effect of eating from the tree of knowledge, and we cannot escape it, as long as we are barred from Eden. The interlocutor suggests that the only way out of this dilemma would be to go all the way through, because the garden of Eden could possibly be open on the other side: if we continue to become more intelligent, wiser, and more self-aware, we may eventually be able to carry out the actions we choose, with the same confidence and harmony as a marionette dancing on the strings of a puppeteer. Consciousness creates a split in our nature, rendering us neither animals nor gods. The ultimate development of humankind would be to bring these two parts of ourselves into harmony and no longer suffer doubt or internal conflict. The ending of the essay might seem hopeful, but it leaves the question open as to whether this kind of perfection will ever be possible. It is difficult to determine Kleist's intentions or personal view, because the two interlocutors in the dialogue are obviously presented in an ironic way. Rather than a serious proposal of Kleist's ideas it seems more like an ironic play on the vain ideals of classicism and romanticism.

This essay also shows Fichte's influence on Kleist. Similar to Kleist, Fichte had emphasised man's ability and necessity to develop his mind in infinity, without ever being able to reach identity with the absolute, because the individual's existence just hangs on the difference.
Without Kleist saying this expressedly, works of art, such as his own, may offer an artificial image of this ideal, though this is in itself wrenched out from the same sinful state of insufficiency and rupture that it wants to transcend.

Original German Text

Pictures (selected by me): 

1. Charline von Heyl, Melancolia, 2008
2. Imogen Cunningham, Puppetiers, 1936
3. Judy de Bustamante, Le Dernier Tango
4. Polaroid of unknown origin
5. Donald and Era Farnsworth, Autumn Tree, 2003, Tapestry


  1. I can't believe the picture I saw in your post. I was looking for costumes for my dancer as Apollo in my upcoming show on the essay by Kleist. If you send me your email I will send you a photo of my hanging objects....
    Patricia O'Donovan
    puppeteer Israel

  2. I can't believe the picture I saw in your post. I was looking for costumes for my dancer as Apollo in my upcoming show on the essay by Kleist. If you send me your email I will send you a photo of my hanging objects....
    Patricia O'Donovan
    puppeteer Israel


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