Über das Marionettentheater

[This page by Martin Swales]

Über das Marionettentheater; On the Marionette Theatre (published 1810)

The essay ‘Über das Marionettentheater’ is an appealing set of reflections on the way in which and the extent to which the human faculty of self-consciousness can energize and empower our species – but often at the price of destroying physical grace and co-ordination. Genesis Chapter 3 is a key intertext here; Adam and Eve are driven out of Paradise because they have eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In so doing, they have disobeyed God, and they have lost their innocence and unreflectivity. They know that they are naked and feel that they must cover themselves. Their knowingness fractures their being. Never again will they indwell in their own material bodiliness as they did before the Fall. Kleist’s essay reports a series of conversations with one Herr C, who is a dancer and is fascinated by the varieties and forms of physically graceful movement. He argues that part of the appeal of marionettes is their un-self-conscious pivoting about a central ‘Schwerpunkt’, a centre of gravity to which the limbs in their lightness relate. Kleist recounts how a beautiful young man, one who is old enough to be attractive to women and who is therefore aware of the sexual appeal of his own body, sees himself in a mirror resting his foot on a stool. He is struck by his own beauty, and by the pose that is reminiscent of a classical statue. But every attempt on his part to repeat the pose fails. The self-consciousness gets in the way. And the essay concludes with reflections on how self-consciousness could be redeemed from its destructive effects – perhaps by attaining the infinite self-consciousness of the divinity, or perhaps by a second eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which would return the human self to its paradisal innocence.

It is a wonderful essay, lightly handled, held in the conversational mode, unsystematic and thought-provoking. It does not provide us with a taxonomy for evaluating the glories and frailties of Kleist’s characters. But it does remind us that Kleist explores with great subtlety and resonance the value schemes, the textures of cognition and feeling by which men and women, in their self-consciousness, live. We know that we have no choice but to be knowing creatures, knowing in both body and mind. And Kleist makes knowing readers of us all.

Further Reading

Wolf Kittler, ‘Falling After the Fall: The Analysis of the Infinite in Kleist’s Marionette Theater’, in Heinrich von Kleist and Modernity, ed. by Bernd Fischer and Tim Mehigan (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011), pp. 279-94

Jonathan W. Marshall, ‘Kleist’s “Übermarionette” and Schrenck-Notzing’s “Traumtänzerin”: Nervous Mechanics and Hypnotic Performance under Modernism’, in Heinrich von Kleist and Modernity, ed. by Bernd Fischer and Tim Mehigan (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011), pp. 257-78

James A. Rushing, ‘The Limitations of the Fencing Bear: Kleist’s “Über das Marionettentheater” as Ironic Fiction’, The German Quarterly 61:4 (1988), 528-39

Web Links


English Translation of ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ by Idris Parry


‘Über das Marionettentheater’ in German; click on a word for the English translation