Located in the Caucasus region and situated at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, the Republic of Azerbaijan (Azerbaijani: Azərbaycan Respublikası), historically, was home to ancient peoples and, over time, was affected by or became part of the territory of foreign dynasties, kingdoms and empires, including those of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Empire and Persian Sassanid Empire, the Byzantines, the Turkic Seljuk Empire, later Iranian dynasties, and the Russian Empire of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Muslim-majority country proclaimed its independence in 1918. In 1920, it was incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Azerbaijan became an independent country in 1991 when the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.
The primary forms of theatre in Azerbaijan were born from old traditional cults and rites in which masks were used along with actors, musicians, tightrope dancers, magicians, snake charmers, and puppeteers.
One of the old forms of theatre is oyun (“play”), a farcical comedy with masks and puppets. The most popular of these entertainments were Maral-oyunu (Play of the Red Deer/Stag) and Kaftarkos-oyunu (Play of the Hyena), for which crude animal masks were used. There was also a play (or game) in which a character called Keçel-Pehlevan (Bald Hero) appears, which is indicative of the mutual links between the Central Asian folk traditions (see Iran and Uzbekistan), although it remains unclear whether this character was a puppet or a mask.
The kilim-arasy (literally, “the one under the carpet”) is considered to be the oldest form of Azeri theatre. The puppeteer performed lying on the ground under a small kilim rug held over him by two assistants. The puppets used are of the simplest kind: glove puppets, finger puppets, and puppets on sticks (see marottes). Some puppets were also tied to the puppeteer’s knees. The performances were satirical or simple comedies. The most popular had scenes of marital infidelity.
In 1828, Iran ceded northern Azerbaijan to Russia, and Russian theatrical traditions clearly influenced the local theatre, but it was not until the 1930s when Azerbaijan became a constituent republic of the USSR that professional puppet theatre finally found its way to the stage.
The first puppet theatre was established in the capital city of Baku in 1931. In 1965, it acquired the status of the Azerbaijan State Puppet Theatre and, in 1974, was renamed Abdulla Shaig Azerbaijan State Puppet Theatre (Abdulla Şaiq adına Azərbaycan Dövlət Kukla Teatrı), after the famous Azeri (Azerbaijani) author, Abdulla Şaiq (1881-1952). Since the break-up of the USSR in 1991, the State Puppet Theatre retained its status of importance. The two ethnic companies, traditionally co-existing here, still perform in both Azerbaijani and Russian. Their repertoire includes plays for children and adults, mainly based on the national epic tales and writings of Azeri writers.