The more recent history of the Republic of Austria (German: Republik Österreich), located in Central Europe, dates back to the Habsburg dynasty when most of the country was part of the Holy Roman Empire. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Austria was one of the great powers of Europe. In 1867, the empire was reformed into Austria-Hungary. The Habsburg (Austro-Hungarian) Empire collapsed in 1918. Today, Austria is a parliamentary representative democracy, and its capital and largest city is Vienna.

While it is possible to find an ancestor to Hanswurst as early as the 17th century in Vienna in the character of Riepel, the rival of Peasant Wastl in religious performances given by the Jesuits with live actors, the puppeteers of that time were mostly foreigners who set up portable, temporary theatres on city squares, presenting string puppets or glove puppets, often alternating shows with actors and those with puppets.

Many were Pulcinella showmen from Southern Europe – Blasius Manfredi, originally from Malta, in 1649, Pietro Gimonde, from Bologna, in 1657, Peter Resonier, “Italian puppet showman”, who, from 1667 to 1707, played on the Judenplatz in Vienna. The “Pulcinella players”, Stephan Landolphi and Joris (Georg) Hilverding (see Hilverding (family)) also performed in Vienna. Thus Pulcinella quickly became popular in Austria. He lost his black half-mask, but kept the hooked nose, the hunchback, and the fat stomach.

In Salzburg, the annual fair of Dultzeit in the spring, and the Ruperti-Dult in autumn attracted many storytellers and itinerant puppeteers. Glove, string, rod marionettes (French: tringles) and all varieties of puppets were put on stage. In the villages and the suburbs, the shows were presented in pubs and were meant for the common people and country folk.

After 1776, when Joseph II abolished the imperial monopoly on the theatre that had been in place since 1728, a renewal of interest for puppeteers and actors in general occurred in Vienna. Between 1776 and 1810, many permanent string puppet theatres were created in the Viennese suburbs where they were considered modest municipal theatres. However, the permission to produce was a privilege reserved for the local puppeteers of good reputation with proven competence in their field. Families of artists such as the Walcher, the Glass, and the Shindler family, set themselves up in the Viennese suburbs and presented shows of improvisation and string puppetry, among others, right up to the 1990s for Hermann Walcher (1916-1991). The connection between the string puppet theatre and theatre of improvisation seems to have been a specificity of the popular dramatic tradition.

Popular Germanic Characters

Troupe directors Johann Baptist Hilverding (1677-1721) and Joseph Anton Stranitzky (1676-1726) contributed greatly to the fame of the comic character Hanswurst (Sausage John), even though its origins are in the 16th century. It is said that Hilverding was its spiritual father, and that Stranitzky gave it life, presenting the character for the first time in 1708 on the Neuen Markt Square in Vienna. After Stranitzky’s death, Gottfried Prehauser (1699-1769) continued the role of Hanswurst, but his artistic freedom was restrained by the pressure of the “enlightened” reformers of the theatre who, as of 1752, strictly regulated shows that relied on improvisation. After Prehauser’s death, the Hanswurst character was forbidden, but it survived in part as Kasperl Larifari, a character that the actor, Johann Laroche (1745-1806) created in Vienna and that was later taken up as a puppet. Contrary to the string Kasperl, the glove puppet Kasperl dominated the show by its comic replies and its fight scenes. Chancellor Metternich (1773-1859) silenced this “big mouth” from 1810 to 1848. Nonetheless, even silent, the glove Kasperl did not lose its subversive powers.

The Wurstelprater (“the Sausage Prater”), as part of the Prater Imperial Park given by Joseph II to the Viennese people in 1766 became known, was home to numerous performances by Hanswurst, both actor and puppet, then by Kasperl. The glove puppeteer, Wilhelm Valcareggi (1869-1940) gave Kasperl shows there until the beginning of the 20th century. The shows were based on improvisation and the sequence of scenes was similar to the English Punch and Judy show. All that represented the State, bureaucracy, snobbery, pedantry, was shamelessly lampooned.  

Czech Influences

Bohemia, the region united to Austria under the tutelage of the Habsburg, experienced a “national renaissance” during the second half of the 19h century. Viennese puppeteers found materials for their shows there, commenting with humour these attempts at emancipation. The puppeteer Georg Niedermayer (1860-1942) popularized the character of Pimperl (see Pimprle), a character originally from Bohemia. Towards the end of the 19th century, the puppeteer Johann Trappl (1843-1912) set up his theatre in one of the many little “Praters” (parks) that developed around the larger Prater. His specialty was string puppet shows accompanied by a barrel organ. A certain Wenzel played alongside Kasper. This character spoke German with a Czech accent, claimed to be originally Viennese, made fun of himself, and Kasper always had the last word and re-established order.

Other Types of Shows

New forms of figure theatre competed with the most traditional forms. At the end of the 19th century, the puppet opera was developed, often considered the legacy of the Hilverding. In 1887, Florian Bahonek (1865-1943) was one of those who presented puppet shows inspired by operas. This tradition is still alive today in Vienna and Salzburg (see Salzburger Marionettentheater).

The mechanical and optical arts were popular in the 18th century. In 1752, the Hydraulic Mechanical Theatre at Hellbrunn Gardens in Salzburg was finished. Matthias Tendler (1753-1825), a native of Eisenerz in Styria (the Steiermark), and Christian Joseph Tschuggmall (1785-1855) from the Tyrol travelled with their company of mechanical figures. The mechanical crèche (crib) of Steyr, created around 1800, is the oldest rod puppet theatre still active in Europe today. Other crèches were created in Vienna, Traismauer, Linz, Sankt Pölten, and Eger. But this tradition lost its popularity in the early 19th century, and most of the mechanical crèches gradually disappeared (see Nativity Scenes).

The toy theatre (also known as paper theatre), coming from England at the beginning of the 19th century, enjoyed a considerable success in Austria. Published editions of the paper theatres began around 1820 with the lithographic studios of the Joseph brothers (1792-1839) and Matthias Trentsensky (1790-1868). The most in demand were from theatre classics (Wilhelm Tell William Tell and Die Räuber The Robbers by Shiller, Faust by Goethe) and the opera (Lohengrin by Wagner, Turandot by Puccini). The production of the engravings was left to brilliant young artists such as Moritz von Schwind, Josef Kriehuber, Josef Danhauser, and Johann Matthias Ranftl. Texts and sources were adapted to interest both children and adolescents in the theatre.

The 20th Century

At the beginning of the 20th century, two new tendencies appear in the Austrian puppet theatre, one called “artistic” and the other “educational”. The first comes from the visual artists who recognized in the puppet theatre a means of artistic expression. The second was born of the interest of teachers and educators for this theatre, which was subsequently incorporated into school programmes.  

Artistic puppets

The Salzburger Marionettentheater is among the first artistic Austrian puppet theatres that are still active at the beginning of the 21st century. The theatre’s specialty is operas by Mozart as well as by other great composers. For their premiere in February 1913, the director Anton Aicher staged Bastien und Bastienne (Bastien and Bastienne) by Mozart. Another exceptional artistic theatre was the Figurenspiegel, conceived and created in 1932 by Richard Teschner (1879-1948), now in the Österreichisches Theatermuseum (Austrian Theatre Museum) in Vienna. Inspired by Javanese rod puppets, wayang golek, Richard Teschner created a new type of rod puppet that he presented in pantomime performances set to music. His Figurenspiegel (Figure Mirror) was freed from the puppet booth or conventional puppet stage. It consisted of a circular stage unique in its style. In the 1930s, the productions of the Salzburger Marionettentheater and Teschner’s Figurenspiegel achieved international success – in Russia in 1936, and in Paris in 1937, especially for the puppets of Anton Aicher, and in London in 1934 for Teschner’s Figurenspiegel. It is also at this time  (1936) that Heinrich Ruprecht founded his artistic theatre with string puppets in Vienna, where he presented Viennese legends, plays by Count Franz von Pocci, his own creations, and solos.  

Educational puppet theatre

From the 1920s, family companies were gradually giving way to small theatres whose directors were members of the lower middle and middles classes. The characters that were once the subject of ridicule such as the Doctor or the Professor were now treated with respect.  

At fairs, the players of mechanical music boxes had better locations than the puppeteers. Having lost their adult audience, these puppeteers turned to the children. Furthermore, education became an important part of the show and the new humanistic Kasper also spread in schools. The popular Viennese university, Urania, proposed training courses in puppetry arts aimed particularly at teachers. Siegfried Raeck, a student in psychology who led one of these courses, published in 1934 his Kasperlbuch (Kasper’s Book) in which he included a critical bibliography of the Kasper plays. The puppeteers whose repertoire included parts designated “inappropriate” were now in trouble.

Puppet theatre under Nazi influence

From 1938 to 1945, the activity of the puppeteers was regulated by the Nazi administration. In order to continue practising their art, puppeteers had to declare to their appointed professional organization, with the obligation to prove that “they were of the Aryan race”. The content and traditional characters, Kasper in particular, were adapted to Germanic anti-Semitic dictates.

Toward renewal

The teacher couple, Marianne and Hans Kraus, founded Urania Puppentheater (Urania Puppet Theatre) in 1950, and this represented the new post-war Viennese Kasper theatre for children, with its two principal characters Kasper and Pezi the bear.

Since the 1970s, the means of expression used in puppetry have diversified. The actor, responsible for the text and the manipulation, seeks his place alongside the puppet. Arminio Rothstein (1927-1994), an important figure in post-war puppetry (string, glove, rod), was one of the first in Austria to act alongside the puppets, particularly in the character of the clown Habakuk.

The Performing Arts

New alliances between comedy, mask theatre, pantomime, dance, music, and object theatre produce original shows for children and adults. In the 1970s, Erwin Piplits (b.1939) conducted innovative experiments in his PupoDrom and later in his Serapionstheater, a theatre in images and movements.

Materials, forms, manipulation techniques, evolve according to the imagination and inspiration of artists, many of whom are internationally renowned. Christoph Bochdansky (b.1960) is inspired by the plastic and visual arts and is constantly looking for new ways of articulating the interplay between man and object. His original productions of the short stories of Rainer Maria Rilke Der Drachentöter (The Dragon Slayer) and Frau Blahas Magd, in collaboration with Rose Breuss (dancer), illustrate this approach.

The Kabinett-Theater of Julia Reichert (b.1950) and Christopher Widauer (b.1961) produced shows in collaboration with artists and companies from other performing arts (opera, actors’ theatre, etc.)

Organization and promotion

Since the 1980s, many national and regional associations have been created, such as the Austrian Puppetry Club. They offer training in puppetry as a career. Austria does not have a training centre dedicated to puppetry; however, university programmes offer an increasingly important place for the discovery and teaching of these arts. Moreover, since 2003, the association IMAGO, in cooperation with the Internationales Welser Figurentheaterfestival (Wels International Figure Theatre Festival) for the promotion of the figure theatre, aimed at establishing an initial and ongoing training in puppetry based on international cooperation of teachers, artists, and students.

Many international festivals were created at the initiative of artists. Gustav Dubelowski-Gellhorn (1912-1991) (see Pupilla) is responsible for establishing in 1990 the Wels International Figure Theatre Festival. Karin Schäfer and her Figurentheater organize the PannOpticum Festival in Neusiedl am See. Airan Berg and Martina Winkel of Theater ohne Grenzen (Theatre Without Borders) launched a biennial international puppetry festival for adults, Die Macht des Staunens (The Power of Astonishment). Mention must also be made to the Mistelbach, Hohenems and Klagenfurt festivals.

(See also Eszterháza Palace Marionette Theatre, Karl Michael Joseph von Pauersbach, Oskar Kokoschka.)  


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