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Puppetry Arts

Updated on April 28, 2011

Puppetry is the use of puppets for theatrical purposes. Puppets should be differentiated from dolls, which are children's playthings, and from automata, which are moved mechanically.

Puppets range ordinarily one sixth to one half life-size, but may, in exceptional examples, be gigantic. Flat or round, simply or elaborately articulated, they may be controlled from above, from below, or from the same plane by strings, wires, or rods generally attached to controllers, or by magnetism or electronics.

Wherever there have been forms of theater, there have usually been puppets. Articulated figures of deities in ancient Egypt, evidence of which is found in literature and pictorial representation, were a type of puppet. Greek literature as early as the 5th century B.C. alludes to what seem to be puppets. Small jointed clay figures, probably toy puppets, have been found in ancient Greek and Roman tombs.

Sufficient evidence of the historic development of puppetry has not yet been gathered to ascertain its origins, but one' theory would place the beginning of the round puppet in the Western World, and that of the shadow figure in the Eastern; the round puppet traveled eastward, eventually finding its way to the northwest coast of America long before the coming of the European people, while the shadow figure went west, arriving in Europe in the 18th century, at the height of the vogue for the silhouette. This may be too neat a theory. It is probable that puppets of all types came into being independently in various parts of the world.

The word puppet derives from the Latin pupa, meaning girl or doll. The word marionette, which was popularized in the English language about 1840, springs from the diminutive of Mary, perhaps because of the figure of the Virgin in puppet Nativity plays, long presented in the church.

Puppets, easily transported in the wandering player's pack, survived the fall of the Greek and Roman theater and persisted through the Middle Ages. Long after the expulsion of drama from the church, where they had given their versions of Bible and miracle plays, puppets clung to the church in the form of animated Christmas crib figures in Italy and southern France. Puppets gave old-fashioned moralities at the fairs a century or two after such plays had ceased to be done by human actors. They are at once the most settled and the most mobile of players.

By the 17th century, puppets were everywhere welcomed as an inexpensive form of theater (an entire show could be worked by one or two people) and, because they were portable, as a bearer of drama to regions where there was no theater. Indeed, puppets helped keep the drama alive where it might otherwise have disappeared. In 1524, Cortes had a puppeteer to entertain his expedition as it marched from Mexico City to rumored gold fields in Honduras. European actors did not perform in Mexico until 1538. Puppets were taken to Peru by a woman showman, Leonor Godomar, before 1600. Puppetry was an institution in Elizabethan London; it figures in Ben Johnson's Bartholomew Fair, and is mentioned over two dozen times in Shakespeare.

At the same time, puppetry flourished in Paris and in the cities of Italy and Germany, and wandering German puppeteers took it into Russia. The rise of Punch typifies the mobility and popularity of puppetry at the time. About the year 1600, in the vicinity of Naples, an actor invented the stock masked character, Polcinella.

The name derives from "little chicken," which seems to fit the strutting, squawking, and uncertain courage, as well as the lovable qualities, of the character. So famous did Polcinella become that he was transferred almost at once to thepuppet stage. By 1650 the puppet Polchinelle had reached Paris, and by 1660 he was in London, to be called Punchinello or Punch. In 1742 a performance by "Punch and Joan his wife" was advertised in Philadelphia; and in 1747 Punch's opera, Bateman, or The Unhappy Marriage, was presented in New York. About 1825 the name of Punch's spouse became Judy. In the 1870's a number of Punch and Judy men came from England to the United States. Their version of the play was usually derived from the text as adapted by John Payne Collier, English Shakespearean critic, from the version of an Italian showman in London, Piccini, which had been printed with illustrations by George Cruikshank in 1828, and frequently reprinted thereafter. These showmen used a portable booth, operated Punch on their right hand and all the other characters on the other, and when they had an assistant, the latter collected money from the assembled crowd but did not work backstage. Punch men played in parks and on street corners, at Sunday school and club picnics, in dime museums and saloons, in circus sideshows and in variety theaters. They were familiar to almost every American who lived in the last quarter of the 19th century. Punch is, of course, only one puppet character.

Puppets played as wide a variety of pieces as actors on the large stage, and represented as many characters. In the 18th century there were fix ed puppet theaters, giving a repertory of plays, in most of the cities of Europe, as well as in Mexico City, New York, and Quebec. At these puppet theaters, fashionable audiences saw parodies of the latest operas and dramas, and enjoyed witty comment on the events of the day. Powel's puppet theater in London (Powel's given name is sometimes mentioned, without good authority, as Martin, and his last name is sometimes spelled Powell) advertised, gave performances for charity, and was an attraction for even such visitors to town as American Indian chieftains. There were four permanent puppet theaters in Mexico City in the 1780's. There was puppet repertory in New York from July to November 1749, in a specially fitted room "next to the sign of the Dolphin." In 1767 there was another season "at the sign of the Orange Tree on Golden Hill." There were many other puppet shows besides. In 1770, New York saw its fir st shadow figures, then at the height of their European vogue. In Quebec a puppet theater was operated by three generations of showmen, from about 1775 to 1837. Many famous people, from Samuel Pepys onward, noted in their diaries the puppet shows they had seen. George Washington listed in his account book that he had spent money to take his family to a puppet show in Williamsburg on November 16, 1772.

In the latter half of the 19th century there were many large traveling puppet shows, giving full -length performances consisting of a musical fantasy in the style of an English pantomime, variety numbers, and a Negro minstrel show. They employed as many as a dozen puppeteers, most of whom followed puppetry as a family occupation.

In the 1870's there were three rival English companies, all styling themselves the Royal Marionettes, competing with each other in the United States with similar programs of this type. On the other hand, puppet companies from the United States made round-the-world tours, their pantomime numbers being universally understood.

Toward the end of the 19th century, large companies shrank, and their programs were condensed to fit into vaudeville as ten-minute acts.

By 1915 very few such companies had survived.

Meanwhile, a new development in puppetry had taken place. A younger generation of puppeteers, most of them amateurs to begin with, was giving performances in which puppets performed original plays rather than versions of plays from the large theater, or in which the figu res and scenery were made by artists who had had school training, rather than by craftsmen working in the popular tradition. Goethe, George Sand, Franz von Pocci. and other artists and writers had given well-prepared puppet shows for their friends in the 18th and 19th centuries. Puppet shows in studio and salon were a feature of artistic circles. Such German artists as Ivo Puhonny , and a Munich group organized by Paul Brann, taking their inspiration from the municipal puppet theater in Munich which had grown from Pocci's private shows, began to give highly artistic performances about 1910. English artists such as William Simmonds and the Gair Wilkinson company, stimulated by the folk puppets of Italy and the writings of Edward Gordon Craig, gave performances of the same sort shortly afterwards. In the United States in 1915, the act ress, Ellen Van Volkenburg, presented a series of excellent puppet productions at the Chicago Little Theatre, after studying European puppetry. Tony Sarg, an artist, who had used puppets for private entertainments, began to give professional shows in New York in 1916, soon calling Miss Van Volkenburg to help direct them.

In the United States the puppeteers of the Chicago Little Theatre, the Cleveland Play House, Tony Sarg, and Remo Bufano branched out for themselves. Thus there were scores of newcomers playing before new adult and children's audiences when the old popular puppet shows died out, the latter succumbing partly because of inanition and partly because of the competition of the films, the new cheap form of theater for the masses.

An international puppet society, Unima, was set up in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild, formed by a group of London enthusiasts for the miniature theater, exerted its influence through publications and exhibitions. In the United States the Puppeteers of America performed a similar service, organizing annual festivals consisting of a series of performances by outstanding companies, discussions of current problems, and demonstrations of technical details.

By 1940 there were about a dozen professional puppet companies in Czechoslovakia (besides hundreds of amateur companies housed in socialathletic Sokol clubs), 40 in Germany, about 10 in France, a dozen in England, and 50 in the United States. In addition, there were companies in Japan, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Mexico, and Argentina, and many isolated single showmen, such as the Punch and Judy men of England. Amateur puppeteers in homes, schools, libraries, and clubs were numbered by the thousands.

Scores of books of puppet history, drama, and technique were published between 1920 and 1940. A subject which had hitherto been almost secret now became known to everyone who cared to read about it. Colleges instituted accredited courses in puppet making. Puppetry was considered an important educational device.

The movement was checked by World War II, but not stopped. Permanent puppet theaters were sometimes closed by the imminence or proximity of battle, and many young puppeteers were called to arms. On the other hand, puppets became a handy portable form of entertainment in camps, outposts, bomb shelters, and hospitals.

Puppets have found a variety of uses in addition to that of entertainment. In education they bring a form of living theater to schools and colleges, train the student in crafts, design, use of voice, dramatic composition, and group work, and enable many to see classics or experimental plays which it might not otherwise be possible to produce. In advertising they furnish a novelty: skits may be shown in store windows, mobile trucks, fairs, and expositions, to promote good will for a product and to sell it. In the films they transcend human limitations of appearance and action. In television they are readily transmitted, for they require little studio space. In therapy they revive the interest of convalescents, and their manufacture and manipulation provide a happy means of exercising disused members of the body. They have been put to use in the psychoanalysis of children, who comment upon plays written to point up their problems, and, in so doing, offer clues to their attitudes. But perhaps they have found the greatest place as a hobby; building and presenting puppet shows affords an outlet for those who like to make things and have a love of the theater, and furnishes recreation for the family circle or community.

The typical modern puppet company in the United States travels from town to town by truck or automobile and trailer, taking its stage, lights, sound equipment, and puppets from auditorium to auditorium in schools, community houses, and other halls. It plays a one-hour or two-hour program consisting of a dramatization of some familiar or literary story, generally divided into several short scenes, followed by a variety of musical or acrobatic numbers. The play is directed at young audiences, but the variety numbers are enjoyed by all ages. The typical one-man or two-man show for night clubs or theaters presents four or five variety numbers, generally to music, without a stage or scenery, but with lights trained on the puppets and not the puppeteer, whose appearance is important only when he enters or takes a bow; such puppeteers wear an effective costume and are as much actors as their puppets.

There are several fixed puppet theaters which play for regular seasons or the year round, such as Richard Teschner's studio theater in Vienna, Hilmar Bitner's municipal theater in Munich, Sergei Obraztzov's Central Moscow Puppet Theater, or the Turnabout Theater of the Yale Puppeteers in Los Angeles. These offer a repertory of programs and are sought out by visitors as one of the special sights of the town. The type of puppet most frequently seen is that worked from above by strings attached to a controller, a bar or complex of bars which, when tilted, imparts general movements to the puppet; single strings are pulled only for special movements. This type of puppet is called a string puppet, or marionette. It is often a realistic figure having joints enough to perform the broad movements of its living counterpart. It is made of carved wood, cast plastics, stuffed cloth, and a variety of materials to suit the individual taste of the puppeteer. Almost always it is made by the showman himself, or by a puppet maker under his direction, for stock puppets other than toys are not usually purchasable.

The head and arms of the figure are moved by the operator's fingers, which lie within them, its waist is his wrist, and its legs either dangle in front of the cloth tube which fits over his arm or are left to the imagination. The head and hands are of carved wood, cast plastic, or papier-mache, and the rest of the figure is generally cloth.

While this type is simpler to make than the string puppet, it is far more difficult to work well, for it must be held above the puppeteer's head, sometimes for several minutes, and its movements are imparted by a muscular coordination acquired only from long practice, a coordination comparable to that of a pianist or a magician.

The rod puppet, a full figure with as many joints as those of a string puppet, supported from below on a central rod, with rods to move its arms and head, is growing in popularity because of the successful experiments with it at Ohio State University under Marjorie Batchelder and her students. Not so difficult to manipulate as the hand puppet, and requiring less stage equipment than the string puppet, it allows for exactly controlled movement.

The shadow figure, used in China more than a millennium ago, is a jointed flat figure of cardboard or colored translucent plastic, worked from below by reels, against a screen lighted from behind. The figures may be quickly made, and are capable of fast, humorous, or solemn processional movement, naturally in only one plane. The shadow figure productions in Paris in the 1890's had screens painted with atmospheric scenery, and an effect of depth was achieved by figures of diminishing size and distinctness.

Long before the colored sound film, the shadow figure provided a screen entertainment composed of the same elements.

The ventriloquial dummy, such as Edgar Bergen's Charlie McCarthy, is a puppet, worked by strings within its body. Puppets of this type, four feet in height, worked by two or three operators apiece, were the medium for which the classic Japanese dramas of Chikamatsu Monzayemon were written in the 17th century. These puppets have such complex movements as the flexing and relaxing of fingers, the raising of eyebrows, and the rolling of eyes.

Minor types of puppets are Scotch Highland fling or ballet dancers, the legs of which are formed by the fingers; jigging figu res set in motion by tapping a board; country dancers animated by a string tied at one end to a stake and at the other to the operator's knee; and humanettes, rod puppets having small bodies attached to the operator's head thrust through a masking curtain.

A puppet production requires long, careful preparation if the performance is to be satisfactory.

The play or scenario is chosen for a theme which is familiar or stimulating, suited to puppet action, and not hackneyed. It must often be specially written, for there is no large library of puppet plays in English. Folk tales, local history, or classic stories afford material. Certain plays intended for the large stage are suited to puppets, particularly those with farce, fantasy, supernatural elements, and an absence of the small realistic detai ls better done by human actors.

Puppets and scenery are designed in the same scale and style. They may be Gothic and attenuated, baroque and curly, or surrealist and dreamlike. Working drawings should be made to help keep details in proportion.

If the puppet maker finds certain materials and techniques more available than others, he uses them: wood carving; modeling in clay; molding in plaster; casting in wood pulp, plastic, or papier-mache; sewing; each process has its particular effectiveness. A knowledge of anatomy, skill in making joints and achieving bal ance, and patient working and reworking produce well moving puppets. The figure is finished, painted, and costumed, and then attached to its strings or rods. Sometimes, it must be repeatedly taken apart and put together again before it moves smoothly and tractably.

The director sees that the puppeteers know the lines and action of the play, and he rehearses them until the desired effect can be produced time and again without variation. He is careful to maintain brisk timing, even in the changing of scenery, for an unnecessarily slow tempo results in loss of attention. He must test audience reactions, knowing exactly how to play on emotions.

Performances are booked, sometimes on a profit-sharing basis, with schools, clubs, and other agencies. The amount of the fee depends upon the length of the show, the fame and size of the company, the distance traveled to the place of the engagement, and the number of performances to be played in one hall. The fee is usually modest. While puppet shows are seldom reviewed by the dramatic critics of newspapers, announcements of them often appear in news columns, particularly when a performance relates to charitable or cultural activities in the community. However, the Teatro dei Piccoli, under the management of Vittorio Podrecca, played at regular commercial theaters and received due critical notice.

The continued success of puppetry depends not only on the variety of uses to which it is put, but upon the qualities which differentiate it from other dramatic forms. Because it is free of actor personality, it is an ideal medium for religious drama and heroic legend. Because it is not limited to realism, it may be used to explore telescopic, microscopic, extrasensory, or subconscious realms. It produces its effects with a small outlay of money, material, and personnel.

It is highly portable; it fits into small spaces; it eludes regulation, organization, and standardization.

In the hands of a versatile puppeteer the whole show, from first design to final presentation, may have the unity of personal control.


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    • J.S.Matthew profile image

      JS Matthew 

      9 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Very interesting and informative article. Voted Up and Useful!



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