To the actor’s incarnation of the theatrical character, the puppet adds another layer of fiction – that of making an object animate. When misunderstood this has led certain theoreticians of the theatre to exclude puppetry from the field of dramatic arts, relegating it to a form of spectacle comparable to circus or dance. However, the puppet stage, just like a theatre stage, provides an imitation of the similarity of these two arts and reinforces the cross-influences and exchanges actors’ theatre and puppet theatre have always shared.
History shows us that the puppet theatre developed by investing itself in areas where the actors’ theatre could not penetrate for practical, religious, political or economic reasons. In streets and villages, in private homes and at fairs, the puppet has long had the function of presenting the same stories as the actor, albeit in front of a different audience or in another arena. As a result, the puppet has become an easy substitute for the actor. In this way, in China puppets helped spread throughout the countryside the operas performed in the large cities; in India and in South East Asia, puppets performed the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which also constituted the privileged repertoire of other forms of performance. Similarly, in Sicily, the opera dei pupi and the tradition of the actor-storyteller (cantastorie or cuntu) developed the same stories, staging Charlemagne’s paladin companions (see Pupi, Storytellers).
The closeness of these two means of expression also permitted, for example, the Japanese playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), to move easily from kabuki to what was not yet commonly (but erroneously) called Bunraku – that is, ningyō jōruri. It also allowed certain French authors of the 18th century (Alain-René Le Sage 1668-1747, Jacques-Philippe d’Orneval d.1766), to write alternately for one stage or the other, following whichever path offered them the most freedom. Writers sometimes used the designation “puppet play” to warn eventual interpreters against a too realistic or too psychological staging of their works, without truly intending these plays for the puppet stage. This is the case of the first plays of Belgian playwright, Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), La Princesse Maleine (The Princess Maleine, 1889), Alladine et Palomides (Alladine and Palomides), Intérieur (Interior), La Mort de Tintagiles (The Death of Tintagiles, 1894). It was also the case for three farces by Spanish dramatist, Ramón María del Valle-Inclán (1866-1936), collected under the title Tablado de marionetas para educación de príncipes (Puppet Stage for the Education of Princes, 1909-1920), as well as for several plays by avant-garde Belgian dramatist, Michel de Ghelderode (1898-1962), Le Siège d’Ostende (The Siege of Ostende, 1933), D’un diable qui prêcha merveilles (Of a Devil Who Preached Wonders, 1942).
It is, then, only inside certain cultures and at certain moments of their history that the actors’ theatre and the puppet theatre were clearly differentiated, with each one developing a specific repertoire. More often, the shifting and the porosity of the borders that separated the two arts led them to differentiate themselves only as a function of economic and social distinctions. Still, certain types of exchanges were, in such cases, able to survive, with the popular language of the puppet becoming a parodic and irreverent inversion of that of the actor.
The “Puppetization” of the Actor in Europe
By the 19th century, certain national and regional puppet forms (Punch, Kasperl, Petrushka, Guignol, Tchantchès, Pulcinella, Sandrone … ) were accorded great favour. So much so, that certain dramaturges began to envision that the constraints belonging to this mode of expression in fact represented much original artistic potential. Some writers went so far as to affirm puppetry’s superiority to the actors’ theatre. Bonaventura (Ernst August Friedrich Klingemann), Heinrich von Kleist, Charles Nodier, Anatole France, Alfred Jarry and Maurice Maeterlinck, in this way, inverted the usual terms of comparison between the living theatrical interpreter and his inanimate twin, to set up the latter as a model for the former. If the puppet is traditionally used as an imitator of the actor, their argument held that the opposite could also be produced, whether to test a theoretical hypothesis or to explore possibilities for performance, particularly for artists of the Modern Style. For the likes of Edward Gordon Craig, Vsevolod Meyerhold and those in avant-garde groups, the puppet stage became a terrain of experimentation and anticipation for theatrical revolutions of the future.
The old comparison of the actor and the puppet that usually revolved around economic or ironic considerations (puppets did not demand wages, grow jealous or suffer incapacitating indispositions) became the basis of a new definition of theatrical incarnation, inseparable from the emergence of the modern stage director’s art. André Antoine, for example, declared in 1893, in a letter to Charles Le Bargy, a young member of La Comédie-Française, that actors were nothing more than “puppets, more or less perfected, according to their talents, that the author dresses up and moves around according to his fancy”. But it is above all Edward Gordon Craig’s The Actor and the Übermarionette (1907) that conferred on the artificial performer, a material both more malleable and more trustworthy than a living being, the status of model for a regenerated art.
The Puppet Actor: The First Scenic Productions
Interferences between actor and puppet began appearing in the Western world from the second half of the 18th century, when children were used in the guise of living “puppets”. In these little shows they appeared on stage, occasionally guided by a simple metal string (with the Audinot Theatre in particular), while actors concealed in the wings recited their lines. This is also the moment of experimentations with “Spanish shadows”, performances of shadow theatre in which actors took the place of the usual cut figures. In the first years of the 19th century, French actors such as Élie and Mazurier specialized in “Living Polichinelle” acts, in which they would imitate the costumes and body language of jumping jacks (also called Jumping Jack or pantin), which had previously been derived from the commedia dell’arte. These early experiences only highlighted the strangeness of the “puppetized” body and had no immediate repercussions. However, they re-emerged at the end of the century on the boards of the [lier]music hall and also in the staging of Ubu roi (King Ubu, 1896), in reference to which Alfred Jarry declared that he did not conceive of his play “for puppets, but for actors playing as puppets, which is not the same thing”.
It is at the beginning of the 20th century, with the appearance of the historical avant-garde in Europe and the West, that the “puppetization” of the actor and dancer found new favour, even appearing as one of the privileged modes of exploration for new scenic languages. This transformation of the theatrical interpreter in effigy could stand as a signal for the eruption of modernity in the “mecanoform” humanity as seen in Italian Futurism. It can also serve as the model for the redefinition of theatrical convention (Pierre Albert-Birot, Vsevolod Meyerhold) or for the objective of unifying the body and set design by extending the mask across the entire human figure, as seen in Futurism, Constructivism and the Bauhaus. By displacing the body’s centre of balance, by occluding the face’s expressivity and in blocking articulation by the very construction of the costume and the mask, one modelled or remodelled the living on the artificial. The most spectacular examples of this modelling were Pablo Picasso’s costumes for the Managers in Parade (1917) done for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, by Kazimir Malevich for the opera, Pobeda nad Solntsem (Victory over the Sun, 1913), and by Oskar Schlemmer for his Triadisches Ballett (Triadic Ballet, 1922). The dissemination of Craig’s writings, the re-reading of Kleist’s Über das Marionettentheater (On the Puppet Theatre, 1811) and, to a smaller degree, Paradoxe sur le comédien (The Paradox of the Actor, 1773-1777) by Denis Diderot, throughout the 20th century, fed the often fascinating questioning of the analogous relationships that existed between the actor and the puppet. Tadeusz Kantor, in his manifesto Teatr śmierci (The Theatre of Death, 1975), would then refer explicitly to The Actor and the Übermarionette in order to develop the image of an art in which the mannequin/manikin, carrying the burden of representing death, would serve as a model for the living actor.
On another level, by the 1980s the visual arts’ inheritance from the avant-garde in contemporary dance (Philippe Découflé, Maguy Marin, Josef Nadj) and in circus and street theatre, was reflected in a range of figures and images derived from the jumping jack, the mannequin and the puppet. Finally, the puppet player reappears today with digital and virtual technology to bring to the stage the myth of a new kind of corporeality, between natural life and artificial animation. This dimension is explored, for example, by the Australian performance and visual artist Stelarc, in performances during which his body, attached by electrodes to a virtual model broadcast on the Internet, is indirectly manipulated by impulses transmitted to him by network users (see Virtual Puppet). In this way, the man-marionette, for so long an allegorical representation of the human condition in the realm of religious transcendences, political power and various social orders, today symbolizes our ambivalent relationship with technology. This work has been carried forward, too, by the provocative Spanish artist, Marcel·lí Antúnez Roca in his multimedia “Interactive Mechatronic Performances”
The Puppet Onstage: Dramaturgical Aspects
In addition to providing a model for the live theatrical interpreter, the puppet found itself integrated on stage, next to actors of flesh and blood. Such a situation implies transformations at least as profound because it immediately destroys the homogeneity of the stage in establishing a distance between different modes of incarnation. There were, indeed, some early isolated works, such as Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614), in which the scenic presence of a puppet booth fills the double function of offering a reconstruction of the London fair and ridiculing, through a burlesque dialogue, the devout, who condemned the theatre. However, it was not until the final years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century that playwrights more regularly take the risk of bringing together in a single play, in the same space, the living actor and the puppet. In César-Antéchrist (Caesar-Antichrist, 1895), Alfred Jarry imagines the apparition on stage of Christ “in contrast, a mirror or reflection”, but for Ubu roi (King Ubu, 1896), he sought to mix with the actors, shadow projections, mannequins and various shams, accentuating by these ruses the monstrous strangeness of the central figure.
Most of the time, the close relationship of the human figure with its inanimate twin at the beginning of the 20th century was part of a theatrical convention favouring the grotesque. Examples may be drawn from the work of Arthur Schnitzler (Zum grossen Würstel To the Big Sausage, 1905), Alexander Blok (Balaganchik The Puppet Show, 1906) and Oskar Kokoschka (Sphinx und Strohmann Sphinx and Strawman, 1907). By 1919 Massimo Bontempelli’s Siepe a nord-ovest (The Hedge of the North-East, 1919) introduced actors, string puppets (marionettes) and glove puppets in three levels of the dramatic action. Some went as far as to progressively transform the image of man into that of a robot, as did Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in La donna è mobile (Poupées électriques Electric Dolls, 1909) and Karel Čapek, in R.U.R (1920). However, in these final examples and in El señor de Pigmalión (The Lord of Pygmalion, 1921) from the Spanish playwright Jacinto Grau and in most of the works of the repertoire of the Italian “grotesque theatre” of the 1920s (Luigi Antonelli, Luigi Chiarelli, Pier Maria Rosso di Sansecondo), puppets, robots, and mannequins were incarnated by living actors, which greatly diminished the potential for strangeness (see Automata, Androids and Robots). In the same way ballet explored the motif of the animated puppet many times during the course of the 20th century. These generally gave way to imitation by a dancer, in a strange or burlesque way, of the movements of a jumping jack, as in Petrushka (1911) by Igor Stravinsky, or A fából faragott királyfi (The Wooden Prince, 1917) by Béla Bartók (see Dance).
On the other hand, for the writers most representative of the historical avant-garde, the introduction of real puppets in the milieu of human characters led to radical tests of modes of theatrical incarnation. Physically present in its materiality and in its particular gestural vocabulary, and not simply imitated by a living actor, the puppet shook up the dramatic action with its non-realism, creating a space of uncertainty between different levels of existence. This is the case, for instance, in the “Futurist Syntheses” exemplified by Francesco Balilla Pratella’s Il terremoto (The Earthquake, 1915) and Luciano Folgore’s Ombre + marionette + uomini (Shadows + Puppets + Men, 1920). Contemporary examples drawn from Surrealist theatre include the small sketch of Robert Desnos L’Horloge à court-circuit (The Short-Circuited Clock, 1922) or Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’s Arc en ciel (Rainbow, 1926). In Pierre Albert-Birot’s comic dramas (Larountala, 1918; La Dame enamourée The Enamoured Woman, 1921) the double appearance of the puppet and the actor permitted the doubling up of characters and the staging of the author’s figures. From a dramaturgical point of view, the presence of the puppet, when it manifests inside a puppet booth transposed onto the stage, constitutes a variant on the baroque device of the “play within a play”, permitting the author to stage the relationship of theatrical fiction to reality. Between the two world wars, this device was exploited by Michel de Ghelderode (Le Sommeil de la raison The Sleep of Reason, 1930; Le Soleil se couche The Sun Sets, 1943), Luigi Pirandello (I giganti della montagna The Giants of the Mountain, 1931-1937) as well as, to a lesser extent, in El retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show, 1923), the opera that Manuel de Falla composed based on the celebrated episode from Don Quixote.
The revival of dramatic arts in the 1960s often resorted to images of the mask, the mannequin/manikin (Eugène Ionesco), and the alienated body (Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov), but it rarely ventured past this. On the other hand, authors at the end of the 20th century reintroduced the puppet into plays destined for the actors’ theatre, seeking to explore again the notion of character, the borders of the human, body-object and object-being relationships, as in Valère Novarina’s plays, La Chair de l’homme (The Flesh of Man, 1995) and L’Acte inconnu (The Unknown Act, 2008) or in Didier-Georges Gabily’s Chimères et autres bestioles (Chimeras and Other Tiny Creatures, 1994) and Gibiers du temps (Time Hunted Game, 1995).
The Puppet Onstage: Staging Aspects
Even when taken from its traditional setting and transported to the stage of the actors’ theatre, the puppet creates a specific space that renders all realistic representation impossible. It can confer on the theatrical boards an allegorical or metaphysical dimension which creates an ambiguous sense of the simulacrum. It can transform the stage into a degraded installation, turned toward laughter and public vengeance. The first of these options has historically mixed living actors and artificial players in a way which enables the celebration of rites and ceremonies – from the festival of the Mitouries of Dieppe, to the theatricalized dances of the Hopi people, and to the traditional puppets of Mali (see Rites and Rituals). It is not surprising that certain directors, wanting to revitalize theatrical representation with religious effectiveness, are tempted to associate actors and puppets in order to invent new mysteries. This was particularly the case with Edward Gordon Craig, who, around 1905, sketched out the project Duse Play, in which the tragic actress Eleonora Duse would have been alone on stage, “all the rest to move around her as a dream, masks and übermarionettes” (Didier Plassard translation). In the same way, Antonin Artaud, in a foundational lecture in 1931, envisioned a punctual return to “the appearance of an invented Being, made of wood and stuffed, responding to nothing and yet by nature disquieting, able to reintroduce on stage a little whiff of that large metaphysical fear that is at the root of all ancient theatre”.
But throughout the 20th century, these two modes of theatrical embodiment have more often been used together to explore the poetic power of effigies and as metaphors of humanity emptied of all living substance. Erwin Piscator let silhouettes move along on a treadmill in Die Abenteuer des braven Soldaten Schwejk (The Adventures of the Good Soldier Schweik, 1928) and Art et Action made use of large cardboard figures in Les Noces (The Weddings, 1923). The Bauhaus’s theatre workshop made use of articulated figures (Oskar Schlemmer, Das figurale Kabinett The Figural Cabinet, 1922). Fortunato Depero imagined “a fusion of both automated and living characters” in his Manifesto del teatro magico (Manifesto of the Magical Theatre, 1927). These onstage explorations from the 1920s found new vigour with many directors of the 1960s and 1970s. The joint use of actors, masks and large processional puppets was popularized by the Bread and Puppet Theater (The Cry of the People for Meat, 1969). These are found again in the work of Armand Gatti, such as La Passion du général Franco (The Passion of General Franco, 1969), Dario Fo in Grande pantomima con pupazzi piccoli e medi (Big Pantomime with Pupazzi Large and Small, 1968), and in Mehmet Ulusoy’s theatre of research and street theatre (1968-1971). It has become one of the most favoured artistic approaches of theatre people and companies who take a radical approach to reach outside of the theatre into public space.
Essentially a popular form, linked to processions and carnivals, giant puppets and the “big heads” used by Joan Baixas and Joan Miró for Mori el Merma (Death to the Bogeyman, 1978) deeply influenced actors’ theatre in major productions of the 1960s and 1970s. They featured in the work of Peter Brook (US, 1966), in the Za Branou theatre of Otomar Krejča (Lorenzaccio, 1969) as well as with Ariane Mnouchkine and her Théâtre du Soleil (1789, 1970). They continue to appear in the recent street demonstrations of the “occupy” movement and in companies that, like the Ki-Yi Mbock Théâtre of Côte d’Ivoire, which seek to invent new types of visual spectacle from elements drawn from traditional cultures.
Erasure of Borders
As puppet theatre has evolved, emerging from the puppet stage to inhabit the totality of the stage, it prompted a certain erasure of borders with the actors’ theatre. This is the case when productions favour modes of manipulation in plain sight that integrate the presence of the puppeteer into the dramaturgy and stage design of the production. These productions may also liberally combine, in the same show, different techniques of manipulation. Certainly many of the major productions in the puppet theatre field since the 1990s combine simultaneously actors, puppets (Neville Tranter, Il Carretto, Dondoro see [lier]Hyakki-Dondoro[/lier]), shadows (Teatro Gioco Vita, Amoros et Augustin), masks (Ilke Schönbein, Ulrike Quade), and sometimes video-projections (William Kentridge, Faulty Optic, Hotel Modern) or even robots (Amit Drori), making this branch one of the most inventive in the contemporary performing arts. If, indeed, the use of the animated figures in the actors’ theatre remained limited to a few brief sequences in the work of Ariane Mnouchkine (La Ville parjure The Perjured Town, 1994) or Robert Lepage (Les Sept Branches de la rivière Ota The Seven Streams of the River Ota, 1994-1996), this was no longer the case in later stagings, such as those of Antoine Vitez (La Ballade de Mister Punch The Ballad of Mister Punch, 1976), of Peter Brook (The Conference of the Birds, 1979), of Camelo Bene (Pinocchio, 1981), of Tadeusz Kantor (La Macchina dell’amore e della morte The Machine of Love and Death, 1987) or of Jacques Nichet (L’Épouse injustement soupçonnée The Unjustly Suspected Spouse, 1995), within which the puppet played a major role.
Therefore, it is fundamentally the institutional status of the artist or company, the circuit of venues where they play, and the public they address (especially as regards children) that can still draw a line separating the actors’ theatre and the puppet theatre. However, the growing body of dramatic work across all regions of the globe demonstrates that this division is increasingly blurred, even among the public. Live performance today can draw upon a broader set of tools and representational languages. Choosing to incorporate into a performance a glove or string puppet, shadows, visible or hidden puppeteers, is no longer just a way of marking a performer’s identity. Rather, through these choices writers and performers are redefining themselves through each new creation.
- Craig, Edward Gordon. De l’Art du théâtre [On the Art of the Theatre]. Paris: Librairie Théâtrale/Odette Lieutier, 1950.
- Craig, Edward Gordon. On the Art of the Theatre. London: William Heinemann, 1911; rpt. 1957.
- Eynat-Confino, Irène. Beyond the Mask: Gordon Craig, Movement, and the Actor. Carbondale (IL): Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1987.
- Plassard, Didier. L’acteur en effigie. Figures de l’homme artificiel dans le théâtre des avant-gardes historiques (Allemagne, France, Italie) [The Actor in Effigy. Figures of Artificial Man in the Theatre of the Historical Avant-gardes (Germany, France, Italy)]. Lausanne: L’Âge d’Homme/Institut international de la marionnette, 1992.
- Plassard, Didier (texts collected and presented by). Les Mains de lumière. Anthologie des écrits sur l’art de la marionnette [Hands of Light. Anthology of Writings on the Art of Puppetry]. Charleville-Mézières: Éditions de l’Institut international de la marionnette, 1996.
- Romeas, Nicolas. “Ce que la marionnette dit à l’acteur” [What the Puppet Told the Actor]. Les Fondamentaux de la manipulation: Convergences. Paris: Éditions Théâtrales/THEMAA, 2003.