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‘The Poet is Always Two People’
How did Charleville-Mézières, best known as Arthur Rimbaud’s ville natale but reviled by the poet as “the stupidest of small provincial towns”, become the international centre of puppetry? Alongside two Rimbaud museums and the Médiathèque Voyelles (“I invented the colour of the vowels! – A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green”), Charleville is home to the world’s largest puppet festival, as well as the Institut International de la Marionnette and a full-time training school, the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM). The French government has for some years had a policy of counterbalancing the centripetal pull of Paris by establishing regional centres for the arts, but the connections between Rimbaud and puppetry go beyond a seemingly accidental conjunction in Charleville.
If, as Jeremy Reed writes in Delirium: An interpretation of Arthur Rimbaud, “The poet is always two people”, a puppeteer is at least two people, and often a dozen or more. Rimbaud’s famous assertion that “JE est un autre” (I is an other) is a familiar tag for French puppeteers; a volume on Alain Recoing, the eminent puppeteer and founder of the Théâtre des Mains Nues, is called La Marionnette ou “je est un autre”. There are similarities too in the way the arts function. In both poetry and puppetry, the transformation of raw material is made visible: second-hand words and junk-shop finds may be reanimated but our awareness of their sources, their former uses and their materiality never completely disappears. As Péter Molnár Gál of the Budapest State Puppet Theatre says: “Everything is what it is, plus something else: a recognizable object and a transformed object at the same time. On the puppet stage a feather duster may symbolize a fairy prince illumined by glory, but we must never forget that it still remains a feather duster”. Theorists of the puppet such as Henryk Jurkowski and Steve Tillis have described a kind of “double vision” in the spectator, shifting between fiction and reality, ground and figure. In recent years, many puppeteers have treated their own bodies as objects for animation – isolating a hand or a foot, revealing the body as strange to itself. In the Mossoux-Bonté production Kefar Nahum, the puppeteer Nicole Mossoux’s own hand, dressed in a white ruff and gas mask, becomes her miniature double, a creature that escapes the creator and finally tries to destroy her: I is an other indeed.
In both poetry and puppetry, the transformation of raw material is made visible Charleville-Mézières itself is divided: a conurbation that has grown up around two towns, joined by a hyphen but separated by the river Meuse. In 1606, Charles of Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers and Mantua and Governor of Champagne, founded a town and named it after himself. Despite being laid out as an ideal Renaissance city, Charleville failed to attract residents and was eventually populated by offering an amnesty to people in trouble with the law elsewhere in France. Of the 579 people initially requesting asylum, 294 had defaulted on debts, 218 were assassins and two were described as witches. A handful of Irish monks also came to live in the new town. At the heart of its grid layout is the Place Ducale, an elegant square lined with arcades. Its resemblance to the Place des Vosges in Paris is explained by another doubling: the Place des Vosges was designed by Louis Métezeau, the Place Ducale by his brother Clément.
Continue at Times Literary Supplement.