Kansas-born Pauline Benton (1898-1974) was encouraged by her father, one of America's earliest feminist male educators, to reach for the stars. Instead, she reached for shadows. In 1920s Beijing, she discovered shadow theatre (piyingxi), a performance art where translucent painted puppets are manipulated by highly trained masters to cast coloured shadows against an illuminated screen. Finding that this thousand-year-old forerunner of motion pictures was declining in China, Benton believed she could save the tradition by taking it to America. Mastering the male-dominated art form in China, Benton enchanted audiences eager for the exotic in Depression-era America. Her touring company, Red Gate Shadow Theatre, was lauded by theatre and art critics and even performed at Franklin Roosevelt's White House. Grant Hayter-Menzies traces Benton's performance history and her efforts to preserve shadow theatre as a global cultural treasure by drawing on her unpublished writings, the recollections of her colleagues, the testimonies of shadow masters who survived China's Cultural Revolution, as well as young innovators who have carried on Benton's pioneering work.
For over a decade, Grant Hayter-Menzies has specialized in biographies of extraordinary women, publishing the first full length lives of stage and screen stars Charlotte Greenwood and Billie Burke, Chinese-American author Princess Der Ling, diarist Sarah Pike Conger, wife of the American ambassador to China and friend to the controversial Empress Dowager Cixi of China, Pauline Benton, the American-born master of Chinese shadow theatre, and Lillian Carter, mother of President Jimmy Carter. In 2015, Grant published a biography of Rags, the mascot terrier of the First Division in France during WWI, and his biography of Dorothy Brooke, the Englishwoman who in 1930 Cairo, Egypt discovered and saved thousands of elderly and abused warhorses, mules and donkeys abandoned by British forces at the termination of WWI, was published in the US and UK 2017 and 2018. His biography of Woo, the Javanese monkey companion of Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr, was published in March 2019 by Douglas & McIntyre; The North Door: Echoes of Slavery in a New England Family, Grant's memoir of discovering his ancestral legacy of three centuries of slavery, was published in spring 2019. He has contributed to numerous collections and anthologies. He is also literary executor of playwright William Luce (1931-2019), award-winning author of The Belle of Amherst and is working on a new book about the genesis of the play, which took Broadway by storm in 1976 and has become part of the fabric of American theatre. Grant lives in Sidney, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo of author with Freddie, 2009-2021, who inspired the writing of several of his books.)
I knew nothing about Pauline Benton before reading this, but I've always had a fascination for puppetry of all sorts, so I thought that a biography of a puppeteer or puppet-master might be interesting. It is!
Author Grant Hayter-Menzies clearly has a deep appreciation for Benton's work and has done extensive research on Ms. Benton and the Red Gate Shadow Theatre puppetry company that Benton founded and toured with. He beautifully weaves in Benton's history, along with shadow puppetry history as if the two were not independent of one another (and perhaps they are not).
Benton developed an interest in the shadow puppets at a relatively young age. Though there's no concrete evidence of when this happened, Hayter-Menzies makes some educated guesses based on some known facts, and it rings true.
Even throughout the book, in which Hayter-Menzies is clearly impressed with Benton, Pauline comes off as rather unremarkable. Quiet, but passionate about the art of shadow puppets, we never get the impression that she's particularly forceful, but rather understated. And yet she almost single-handedly preserved the art of shadow puppets when the Chinese Culture Revolution was seeing a loss of much Chinese art; she performed at the White House; and there's perhaps not enough credit given (though it is noted) that not only was she not Chinese or even of any Asian heritage, preserving and performing a Chinese art form... she was a woman doing this.
Part of the reason that even this is understated is that we get no peek at her sexuality. We do not know if she had any personal or physical relationships. Her life truly did seem to be about her puppets. Her life was so completely devoted to this puppet art form that Hayter-Menzies mentions in a footnote that he could find no evidence of any outside income for Benton and suggested that the income from Red Gate Shadow Theatre would hardly be sufficient and likely had inherited a healthy income when her parents passed away.
Although the book is titled Shadow Woman, suggesting that it is about Pauline Benton, it does go beyond Benton as Grant Hayter-Menzies gives us a little glimpse of what happened to Benton's puppets and stages upon her death in 1974. She had sold or donated a number of her pieces to museums in the 1960's and had saved some of the more valuable for herself. Those were given to friend and colleague Mercina Karam (who was with Benton when she died) and from there they've moved on to others who would appreciate them for both their beauty and functionality.
Hayter-Menzies concludes the book with an appendix of the five episodes for one of Benton's favorite plays, "The White Snake," which Benton translated in to English herself. This script could be worth the price of the book itself. It has all the classic Chinese story-telling ingredients, including a beautiful, poetic language.
While this was interesting to me because of my interest in theatre and puppetry, I think that anyone interested in reading biographies or looking to learn something new might find this of interest as well.
Looking for a good book? The story of Pauline Benton and Chinese shadow puppet theatre, Shadow Woman, is a fascinating read, well told by Grant Hayter-Menzies.