Staging corpses: disrupting progressive historical narrative through puppetry

Purcell-Gates, L (2016) Staging corpses: disrupting progressive historical narrative through puppetry. In: International Federation for Theatre Research Conference Presenting the Theatrical Past: Interplays of Artefacts, Discourses and Practices, 13-17 June 2016, Stockholm University, Sweden.


At the beginning of Wattle and Daub’s 2015 puppet opera The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak, a ‘living’ puppet cuts open the body of a ‘dead’ one: 18th-century French surgeon Baron Percy autopsies Tarrare, the polyphagist whom he had tried, and failed, to cure. The stage is Percy’s autopsy room, littered with corpses and body parts that are reanimated/puppeteered by the human performers to tell the story of medical ‘monster’ Tarrare. The opening of the opera stages one of the first pathological autopsies in Western Europe, a case study of a shift within medical practice conventionally described, within the narrative of a linear progression of scientific knowledge, as the birth of modern medicine. Displacing this progressive historical framing is Michel Foucault’s (1963) genealogical identification of the historical moment with the emergence of the medical gaze, in which patients’ bodies are visible only as body parts and symptoms. The story is drawn from Percy’s medical notes; Tarrare’s voice is absent from the archive. Through collaboration with scientific and medical humanities scholars and practitioners, Wattle and Daub used puppetry to engage ethically with fragmented historical narrative and disrupt a progressive framing of the historical moment. John Bell (2014) links the uncanniness of puppetry with a ‘tugging back’ on modernism through its insistence on staging human/non-human, alive/dead hybridity. Extending Bell’s analysis, this paper focuses on the materiality of puppets performing modernist historical narrative in Tarrare, arguing that puppets are uniquely situated to intervene in such performances through a hybridity of the performing object that foregrounds the construction/reanimation of history. These interventions are multiple: historiographic displacement of conventional historical narratives of the ‘progress’ of modern medicine; making visible the constructed nature of reanimating historical narrative; materialising the medical gaze; and ethical engagement with absence of voice in the archive.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Divisions: Bath School of Music and Performing Arts
Date Deposited: 09 Oct 2018 15:46
Last Modified: 15 Aug 2021 09:42
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