Visual Arts Review: Indelible Chinese Shadows

Cut out of translucent and colored ox or donkey hide (sorry, PETA), they are foot and a half tall, two-dimensional figures operated by rods set up behind a slightly canted screen.

Red Gate: Pauline Benton and Chinese Shadow Theater. At the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, through December 16.

By Debra Cash

Pauline Benton manipulating some of her shadow puppets.

In her 1936 passport photo, Pauline Benton’s dark, side-cast eyes peer alertly and a bit amused from amidst the swirl of a deep fur collar and the slash of a dark cloche. This image, which opens a significant independent exhibit at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, shows Benton as a woman in early middle age. Superimposed above her portrait are red, papercut garlands of Chinese roof corbels.

The image couldn’t be more apt. If she was anything, Pauline Benton served as a doorway between cultures.

The Kansas-born daughter of a college president, Benton exemplified a naive American delight and appropriation for exoticism that, in the end, may look misguided but which brought valuable cultural appreciation and exchange in its wake.  She was fortunate in her relatives. Her father was briefly President of the University of the Philippines. Her formidable aunt, Dr. Emma Konantz, a mathematician who seems to deserve her own biographical monograph, taught at Yenching University. In 1921 when Benton went to China to visit her aunt, the younger woman begged to see a traditional shadow puppet show. It was a bad time for puppetry: most of the dynastic troupes were going out of business, and their collections were being dispersed to antique stores and junk markets. Nonetheless, Konantz somehow found a shadow master to set up in her courtyard. Pauline was hooked. When she returned to Beijing in 1936  to clear out her aunt’s possessions, she stayed on to study with Li Tuochen, a puppeteer whose family had served in the Imperial Manchu palace and who, having attended a U.S. missionary school, spoke English.

Chinese shadow puppets share many characteristics with their more familiar Indonesian wayang kulit counterparts. Cut out of translucent and colored ox or donkey hide (sorry, PETA), they are foot and a half tall, two-dimensional figures operated by rods set up behind a slightly canted screen. The light behind the puppeteers’ shoulders ensures that audiences see the behavior of the puppets rather than their operators. Red Gate: Pauline Benton and Chinese Shadow Theater is rich in photographs that give depth and detail to the technical aspects of these performances, many taken by Benton and some showing her behind the screen herself, dressed a la chinoise in brocaded silk jackets.

Once Benton returned to New York and started her theatre troupe, The Red Gate Players, an enterprise that eventually relocated to Carmel, California, the photographic record includes former Provincetown Playhouse member Lee Ruttle sitting behind a screen with three lit cigarettes in his mouth, making the special conflagration effects for The Burning of the Bamboo Grove.

Lion Chinese Shadow Puppet. Photo: Chinese Theatre Works

The Luanzhou style puppets on display are simply wonderful. There are female warriors outfitted in complex armor, sages with human hair for their ponytails or beards, fire and water dragons, and an extravagant Imperial Garden pavilion whose layered roofs is hung with bells and cloud details. A fantastic wedding procession includes musicians and palanquin carriers wearing mandarin hats with pom poms and a figure who, presumably on behalf of the matrimonial couple, carries a sign over his shoulder that says “keep quiet!”

Most of the human figures are jointed at 10 places, including elbow and knee. In a vintage film of White Snake Lady, Red Gate’s most durable hit, the puppets wag disapproving fingers, kneel, and step out of a bobbing rowboat. There’s real wonder in the way a hurled spear can be pulled back from the screen’s surface to instantly incarnate as a coiling dragon. Benton and her puppeteer colleagues recite the translated-from-the-traditional script in hooting voices, but you know they mean no insult: they may be trying to evoke Chinese tonal language, or perhaps they are acting within the conventions of the children’s theatre of their day. While to my knowledge, the Red Gate’s video is not yet available online, you can sample the tradition here.

Benton tried to keep up with the times and with the political changes that made Communist China less appealing to American audiences than the poor nation imperiled by Japanese aggression during World War II. She commissioned a wonderful series of puppets that tried to capture not the imperial mythos of Chinese legend but the street life of the China she saw around her in the 1930s. A runner ferries a gracious, relaxed lady in a rickshaw and a horse cart moves on huge, red wheels. The driver of a Model A Ford hangs his elbow out the window above bisected wheels that apparently allow the illusion of spinning along the road.

After reaching its pinnacle as a cultural curiosity, Benton’s shadow puppetry fell into the inglorious valley of children’s entertainment. She tried, she really did, commissioning skilled Chinese artisans back in Beijing to cut new figures based on classic book illustrations by Walter Crane, Blanche Fisher Wright, and Arthur Rackham. They’re peculiar and unconvincing—I doubt the kiddies took much delight in them—but Benton’s leather, shadow-puppet Mother Goose must be one of a kind.

Chinese Shadow Puppets. Photo: Chinese Theatre Works

Stored in steamer trunks after her death in 1974, Benton’s puppets were almost destroyed when the tung oil on their surfaces adhered to the wax paper that had been placed between them. Jo Humphrey of Yueh Long Shadow Theatre managed to restore one of the largest private collections of such puppets in the United States through sheer trial and error.

Last spring, it is worth mentioning, rod puppets representing the Eight Immortals of Chinese Taoist belief, designed and constructed by Bart Roccoberton of the University of Connecticut Puppet Arts Program, joined the permanent collection of the National Shadow Puppetry Museum in Chengdu. In a society abundant with screen display and SGI-powered simulations, the novelty of shadow puppets may seem quaint. But they are also reminders that these shadows point to real people, real circumstances, and real attempts to enter a foreign world with empathy and grace.

C 2012 Debra Cash

1 Comment

  1. Grant Hayter-Menzies on December 4, 2012 at 9:37 am

    As Pauline Benton’s biographer, and as an admirer of her service to world culture, I thank you for this beautifully felt and written review of the Ballard Institute’s exhibit. You capture what I hope to have captured in my forthcoming book, Shadow Woman: The Extraordinary Career of Pauline Benton (McGill-Queen’s University Press, fall 2013) – the sensitivity and the savvy of this Kansas girl who fell in love with China.

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