A Response to Trauma through Puppetry and Performative Reenactment

Written by Chee-Hann Wu.

Image credit: Puppet Show by Ra_fus/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

On the night of February 27, 1947, officers from the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau attempted to confiscate cigarettes from a middle-aged woman selling them without a license. An officer beat her on the head and caused an angry crowd to gather, confronting them for excessive use of force. One of the officers panicked and opened fire, killing a bystander. Compounding the discontent over unemployment rates, inflation, and government maladministration, the following morning on February 28, this incident soon sparked mass protests. Protests across the island lasted for several weeks. Martial law was later declared, and it marked the White Terror era, which lasted for 40 years. Thousands of people in Taiwan were executed for their real or perceived opposition to the Nationalist government and being a threat to the regime. Most of the people prosecuted were convicted as spies or sympathisers for Chinese communists and were thus punished or executed. 

There have been extensive art pieces and films addressing these issues, either implicitly or explicitly, ever since the end of martial law. To name a few, A City of Sadness (1989), Super Citizen KO (1994), and most recently, Deteniton(2019), among others. In Detention, glove puppets (budaixi) portray the White Terror victims and their execution. Why puppets? How do puppets, more often seen in child’s plays, become a medium for storytelling about pain and suffering?

Puppetry: Silence Speaks

Puppets are mysterious creatures with lives and narratives different from that of humans. With its poetic and metaphorical nature, puppetry can unfold untold stories, censored or silenced. Flip Flops Theatre’s Lala: The Singing Bear (2019) and I Promised I Wouldn’t Cry (2019) are examples of puppets’ potentiality to access and tell these stories. Both pieces, designed for adults and children, adopt puppetry as a medium to address trauma under the White Terror. 

Lala: The Singing Bear was first published in 2017 as a picture book by Wu Yi-Chen, and later adapted to a puppet show, directed by Wu, in 2019. The story is based on the real experience of Tsai Kun-lin, who was imprisoned during the White Terror. Tsai was accused of participating in a reading group that was suspected of involving books about communist propaganda. He was arrested in 1950 and sentenced to ten years in prison on Green Island. In the story, Lala is a shy bear who loves singing. One day, he is caught by the king’s guard for singing too loudly and sent to an isolated island. Lala is scared, but he meets many friends on the island, including Monkey Duoduo—Tsai Bing-hong’s incarnation, Tsai Kun-lin’s inmate and best friend on Green Island. They work, rest and sing happily together. However, a guard catches them singing again. After fighting against the guard, Duoduo, along with other friends, vanish. After staying alone on the island for ten years, Lala is finally released and meets some friends. Finally, they can sing happily once again.

Resembling LalaI Promised I Wouldn’t Cry is a picture book and a puppet show by Wu. The story is based on Chen Chin-shen, a Malaysian political victim studying in Taiwan in 1967. In his junior year in college, Chen was suspected and arrested for being involved in the USIS explosion. He was tortured as the investigators tried to coerce him into making a false confession and naming his alleged accomplices. Chen was eventually sentenced to twelve years in prison. Wu’s work turns Chen into the character of a happy dolphin named Dondon, who is accused of setting a fire on an island that he happens to swim by. Dondon is kept inside a cage, and his mother comes from another side of the ocean to visit him. In reality, Chen’s mother came from Malaysia to visit her son on Green Island. When they finally got to meet, they had no words but tears.

Both pieces use animated characters to represent the White Terror victims. Their experiences are depicted symbolically. It is important to note that trauma and torture experience can never be reproduced due to the impossibility of fully understanding and experiencing what victims have experienced. Thus, the use of puppets creates a space between real events and their theatrical representations for people to respond to an otherwise unrepresentable experience. The animated characters also remind the audiences not to conflate the actual White Terror with artistic narrative. In Lala, the government guard appears as a rabbit, and the gun aimed at prisoners is a carrot. Other torture scenes are mainly demonstrated through shadow plays. The show tries to weaken the violence and cruelty under legal punishment and focuses on the individual’s shattering life experience and demise. Puppetry provides a perspective and narrative that goes beyond trauma representation and touches upon these experiences’ sensibility. 

Unlike human acting, puppetry does not involve imitation or attempting to be something that it is not. The protagonists in these two shows are anthropomorphised animals and are played by puppets instead of humans. The power of these puppets lies in the fact that their lives are flexible. Depending on their relationships with the audiences, their lives evolve differently. Puppetry requires imagination. Although audiences see the same show, they all engage with the puppetry differently because of their experiences. Puppetry is an excellent medium to address sensitive issues like the White Terror. This is because puppets do not make judgments or provide singular interpretations of historical events. Instead, they encourage the audience to think beyond a given play’s narrative. 

Another interesting feature of these two plays is the co-presence of human performers and puppets. Unlike traditional puppet arts, such as budaixi and bunraku, they never intended to hide performers’ presence by dressing them in black or putting them behind a stage or screen. Instead, it embraces their presence on stage as a part of the performance. In this instance, performers and puppets belong to the same actuality and thus form a corporeal relationship. In fact, these performers have multiple roles and functions. Sometimes, they are both stagehands and puppeteers. At other times, they portray the same characters as their puppets. Their shifting roles allow multiple layers of representations that unfold the complex relationships between us, the audiences, the fictional and animated characters, and the real victims of the White Terror. 

The characters of Lala are performed through a small table-top and hand puppets. There are interesting dynamics between the puppets and puppeteers, or the manipulated and the manipulator. At one point, I thought that the puppets—like victims of the White Terror—were controlled and deprived of humanity. At the same time, the puppeteers are manipulators with power over the puppets. However, in another scene, I started to believe that maybe puppets are extensions of the puppeteers. Puppets are material bodies, and puppeteers are their consciousness. In a scene when Lala’s friend Duoduo resists the rabbit guard’s inhumane orders, the guard does not point his gun at the puppet but at the performer who manipulates the puppet. There is thus a transfer of agency. This act can also be perceived as when the White Terror authority tried to suppress and demolish victims’ bodies and their consciousness and free will. The atrocity is explicit and can be seen and felt even without the portrayal of physical torture. 

Unlike the small puppets in Lala, I Promised’s puppets are wearable big puppets carried on the performers’ backs and heads. Furthermore, performers are dressed in full matching colour bodysuits. From the audience’s perspective, we see puppet and performer as the same character in two bodies appearing in the same frame. It is almost like the puppet is an extension of the performer’s body but larger and more vivid. As a result, the images of the performer and puppet are layered. In this type of show, puppets and performers are not substitutional or oppositional but connected and complimentary. The performer is the double of the puppet and vice versa. 

By targeting children and younger audiences and focusing on suffering, I Promised sheds light on Dondon and his mother’s compassion. It uses puppetry as an accessible and relatable medium for children to experience the horror of losing freedom and understand the importance of protecting their rights. The cute puppets, beautiful bubbles, colourful props catch young audiences’ attention. Though they might not truly realise these fantastic spectacles’ layered meanings, they have some access to the tale. In an interview with an audience member, he shared that he felt sad seeing Dondon separated from his mother and wanted to protect Dondon. He also said that audiences could find ways to relate to the play and further respond to the past and the victims’ experience. 

The co-presence appears between not only puppets and performers but also the past and present. The performative reenactment of White Terror victims’ experiences is to reposition them as the subject of these traumatic events instead of mere names in historical records. Puppets are our double, allowing visualisation of our soul or a mirror reflection. They enable us to look in the inner self’s eyes and confront an unrecognisable past that is both familiar yet unseen—an experience of the uncanny. Puppets become the incarnation of our struggle to live and be human. Puppetry is, therefore, a language for narratives that are invisible, unspoken, repressed or unexplored. They are not words but corporeal embodied and practised. It creates a space to provide approaches different from written records to express victims’ experiences.

Chee-Hann Wu is a PhD candidate in Drama at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on puppetry and its ability to reenact/retell memories, experiences and trauma that have been suppressed. Chee-Hann’s dissertation uses puppetry as a lens to look at Taiwan’s cultural and sociopolitical environment, colonial past, as well as its path to democracy. She is also drawn to the intersections between art-making and scholarship, as well as performance and activism. 

This article was published as part of EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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