Recently I watched Kermit the Frog do a TED Talk. If this piques your curiosity, the talk is easy enough to find online. Kermit’s addition to the TED canon is called “The Creative Act of Listening to a Talking Frog,” and it’s not bad. I guess I had assumed that my days of learning life lessons from puppets were long behind me, but maybe not. Perhaps there are still a few things that we grown-ups can learn from the likes of Miss Piggy or Bert and Ernie.
But what about Petrushka?
Petrushka has had a much longer run in the limelight than Kermit the Frog, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising to me if the name didn’t ring too many bells these days. A stock character of Russian folk puppetry, Petrushka has been kicking around since at least the seventeenth century. He’s a rather sad and ungainly looking character, usually recognizable by his long red dress, a pointy hat and an unflatteringly long hooked nose.
He may seem an unlikely star, but Petrushka was inspiration enough for the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky to write one of the most dazzling ballet scores in the repertoire, simply titled Petrushka. It’s the second of Stravinsky’s three blockbuster ballets, following hot on the heels of his first mega-success, The Firebird and predating by a couple years the cataclysmic creation of The Rite of Spring, which inspired riots in the streets of Paris.
Petrushka, the ballet, is a sad tale. Set at a Shrovetide Fair (Russia’s equivalent of Mardi Gras) in 1830, it’s a momentous day in the lives of three puppets: Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor. With a golden flute possessed of magical powers, the puppet master brings these three to life, but Petrushka gets the short straw. In short order, Petrushka falls in love with the ballerina, but the cruel ballerina opts for the much stronger, infinitely more handsome moor. Petrushka is outraged, challenges the moor, and with one fell swoop, the moor, brandishing a scimitar, strikes Petrushka dead.
Stravinsky’s music for this little scena is nothing short of astounding. As a composer, Stravinsky’s calling card was always the sheer originality of his creation, and this ballet is one of his most awe-inspiring examples. The score calls for a large orchestra, and the demands he makes of each and every instrument are extraordinary. The result is a glittering soundtrack that pulses throughout with unrestrained energy, animating our three puppet-heroes with vibrant colour and compelling life.
But where in all this in the puppet life lesson, you may ask? Petrushka is an underdog story that goes wrong. It’s not Hallmark-card inspirational material, but maybe if our pitiful little puppet had a more accurate picture of his own station and limitations, things may have ended better for everyone involved. Although I’d hate for anyone to make any inferences here about politics in our country or beyond, I do take some small comfort in seeing that history—puppet or otherwise—has a neat little way of dealing with those among us who suffer from extraordinary hubris. It may not be TED Talk worthy, but I like to think that Kermit would approve.