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A marionette is a puppet with a jointed body operated by strings, wires, or rods held from above. It is usually made in the form of a human being or of an animal. The name "marionette" is derived from a French expression meaning "little Mary" and probably once referred to the small figures of the Virgin Mary used in Nativity puppet plays in medieval Europe. Marionettes are suitable for a wide variety of theatrical presentations, from children's fantasy to serious adult drama. They are more common in India, China, Europe, and the United States than in the rest of the world. Professional and amateur marionette groups give public performances, and marionettes are also popular toys for children.
There is no uniform method of constructing marionettes. They can be made from such diverse materials as wood, sponge, rubber, plastic wood, papier-mache, or stuffed cloth. The head and limbs of marionettes are usually fitted with joints to make their movements as effective as possible. The joints can be made of wood, straps, or cloth. The torso is often in two sections and jointed at the waist. Lead weights are sometimes attached to the feet, especially in marionettes made of cloth.
Marionettes are controlled with strings or fine threads attached to a wood controller held and manipulated by an operator. The number of strings depends upon the type of movements the marionette will be required to perform. A typical marionette in the form of a human being has nine strings. A string is attached to each hand, to each knee, to each shoulder, to either side of the head, and to the back. The operator manipulates the marionette by moving the controller or by lifting individual strings by hand.
The usual marionette theater consists of a small stage enclosed by a proscenium arch, with open spaces for entrances and exits on either side of the stage. Above and behind the stage is the operator's bridge, a platform running the length of the stage and protected by a rail. The operators on the bridge are concealed from the audience by curtains. In the United States, double bridges high above the stage and without rails have been developed. In most productions the operators themselves provide the voices of the marionettes, but sometimes other speakers recite the parts.
Puppets of one form or another have existed since ancient times. Marionettes, or string puppets, probably originated in India about 3,000 years ago. They gradually spread through Greece and Rome to northern Europe, where they were used for religious purposes. Later, during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, plays, operas, and ballets were created for marionettes, and marionette shows were frequently used as vehicles for political comment and satire. During the 19th century in the United States, traveling marionette theaters gave magic shows, pantomimes, and vaudeville revues as well as playlets from the standard folk repertoire. The full-length marionette show was introduced in the beginning of the 20th century by such notable puppeteers as Tony Sarg and Remo Bufano. The tradition has been continued by such performers as Bil and Cora Baird.
Marionettes have remained a popular entertainment in many areas of Europe. The marionette theaters in Germany and Poland are particularly famous. In the United States, marionettes are widely used in television as well as theaters.