Although it is ancient, the art of puppetry only became of interest to critics in the 20th century. Of course, early on puppet shows attracted the attention of a few observers who wished to find out more about what was considered a mere instance of popular entertainment rather than theatre. There are numerous descriptions of or allusions to anonymous artists and their street acts in private correspondence, diaries or memoirs. These early “reviews without criticism” only survived until now thanks to the fame of their authors. These include Jérôme Cardan in the mid-16th century, and Goethe and Stendhal at the beginning of the 19th century.
Next came the trend of what could be called “reviews without critics”, found in the 19th century press. With varying degrees of accuracy they related the birth, dissemination, and gradual decline of the European puppetry tradition. Those articles were very subjective in their opinions, often had an emotional tone, offered no analysis and were very anecdotal. In them one can also detect the opposition between the rudimentary shows that satisfied the vulgar taste of the people and the stylized representations of the salons. Through the use of mechanical figures and optical effects the latter could have an educational interest which was welcome and considered useful to the public.
In spite of their great diversity those reports do not offer a real sense of the artistic traditions of the time. However, if associated with archival documents (patents or police records, for example), they allow the historian to sketch an outline of what puppet art could have been like – the companies’ travels, the artists and dynasties of puppeteers, the development of a professional language stretching beyond linguistic borders, and the birth of specific genres. In particular, Czech, Polish, and Russian chronicles of this type are a reliable and precious resource for the historian of this theatre.
Birth of Criticism in the 20th Century
The development of puppet theatre criticism in the beginning of the 20th century is linked to theatre studies more than to the creations themselves. This “criticism without theatre” is indeed characterized by its increasing interest in the puppet as a concept, present in most cultural forms other than the puppet theatre itself. The scenographic rebirth in the last quarter of the 19th century led, indeed, to a deep theoretical reflection on the puppet phenomenon. Throughout Europe in the first years of the 20th century numerous yet rather confidential publications included an increasing number of contributions by associations with specific interests in puppets or dolls. Other publications were more general but featured specialized columns, while essays on puppetry in general were being published for the first time. Edward Gordon Craig played a key role in this with his journals, The Mask, launched in 1908, and Marionette, begun ten years later. In both journals he would write articles about real or imaginary puppet shows and about the main artistic traditions of the genre. He would often, though not always, sign with a pseudonym. Craig was the best incarnation of “speculative criticism”, a “Platonic” theory which never relied on practice. Incidentally, this allowed him to predict or give shape to many aesthetic ideas which were revolutionary in the 20th century and which stretched far beyond the scope of the puppet theatre.
Rediscovery of a Tradition
In the 20th century both popular and traditional folk forms and genres (see Tradition), were radically transformed. In cultures confronting stress or disintegration, unprecedented interest in puppetry as a “poor people’s art” developed in the most educated and scholarly spheres. For the first time in history, many academics began to transcribe street comedies’ playtexts, Nativity scenes, and puppet shows. They paid particular attention to the techniques and scenographic aspects of the traditional theatre. The “mummification” of this dying genre allowed it to be preserved and to adopt, later on, an analytic approach in the study of popular puppetry arts.
In 1912, the journal Loutkář (The Puppeteer), edited in Prague by Jindřich Veselý, quickly became a reference in puppet studies. In the 1920s and 1930s, theoretical criticism was inspired by the Czech structuralists, a few of whom would later become members of the Prague Linguistic Circle. They repositioned puppetry within the frame of aesthetics, distinguishing it from other art forms such as cinema or folk music, dance and theatre. Jan Malík and Petr Bogatyrev were among the main contributors. In Germany Das Puppentheater (The Puppet Theatre), edited from 1923 by Fritz Wortelmann, offered a more historical approach as it published the history of companies, playtexts, memoirs, national surveys, and the first attempts to theorize the creations of contemporary theatre. The Puppetry Yearbook, published in the United States from 1930, was another groundbreaking journal in terms of criticism. Its focus on technical aspects with the inclusion of schemas and drawings was to the taste of contemporary readers. It also helped to define the puppet theatre, stressing that its aesthetics are intrinsically linked to its techniques with each type of puppet representing a different theatrical genre – glove puppet/street theatre, rod puppet/Nativity, two-dimensional puppet/shadow theatre, etc.). Those first, essentially technical, publications consequently allowed the compilation and systemization of information, which was necessary to define puppetry and to enrich the upcoming critical body of work.
After UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette) was created in Prague in 1929, its national centres began to publish a variety of newsletters, bulletins, and brochures, initially with an educative goal. This facilitated the filling of gaps in the knowledge of contemporary puppet theatre. With the professionalization and the emancipation of this theatre, a balance between criticism and historical and educative information was gradually achieved.
Criticism in the 1950s
After World War II, particularly in the 1950s, the specialized press reappeared bringing with it actual theatre criticism. In the vanguard were the journals Teatr Lalek (Puppet Theatre, 1950) in Poland, Československý loutkář (The Czechoslovak Puppeteer, 1951) in Czechoslovakia, and Perlicko-Perlacko (1952) edited by Hans Richard Purschke in Germany. Those publications enriched the critical palette through the publication of reviews of national and international festivals, as well as interviews and portraits of artists. They enlisted the help of stage professionals – directors, actors, authors, cartoonists, and scenographers. As they increasingly exchanged ideas, artists and critics participated in revising perceptions of puppet art, which was now considered a specific theatre genre without the stereotypes that previously had hindered its development. Typical of the process was the collaborative work of critics such as Jan Malík (Czechoslovakia), Hans Richard Purschke (Germany), Lenora Schpet (Russia) with artists which included Margareta Niculescu (Romania), Jan Wilkowski (Poland), and Yves Joly (France).
Contemporaneous with this aesthetic reform and critical renaissance, the audience for puppet theatre widened considerably. The circulation of specialized press increased in the 1960s, and this growing popularity affected the content of the publications. Such publications as À Propos (United States, 1970), Animations (Great Britain, 1977), or Figura which was previously known as Puppenspiel und Puppenspieler Puppet and Puppeteer, (Switzerland, 1960) found a larger readership. They featured some of the first publications of such authors as Henryk Jurkowski (Poland), Michael R. Malkin (United States), Penny Francis (Great Britain), and Silvia Brendenal and Gerd Taube (Germany). As they split their time between their critical work and their historical research, these specialists showcased the vitality of an art with ancient roots and paved its way to postmodernism.
The Postmodern Years
Since the 1980s the art of puppetry has evolved through a repositioning process which has challenged earlier critical norms. Many specialists, be they artists or critics, have had to abandon their prerogatives and recognize that the puppet was now of interest to other media. In this new context, the French journal Puck appeared in 1988, created by the Institut International de la Marionnette and Margareta Niculescu. Its subtitle, “la marionnette et les autres arts” (the puppet and the other arts), indicated its willingness to integrate puppetry into the contemporary arts and theatre. The journal’s French, Spanish and German language editions allowed it to serve as an international reference.
The most influential historical texts, such as those of Craig, Artaud and Meyerhold, now co-exist with a host of contemporary reflections. Researchers, historians, academics, directors, actors, and puppeteers all contribute with their own perspective, thus underlining the diversity of the field of criticism. Other publications, such as Lutka (The Puppet, Slovenia), Malic (Spain), Teatr Lalek (Poland) play a part in this interdisciplinary process.
It should be noted, however, that current criticism reflects a sense that this theatre is undergoing an identity crisis. Given the rich profusion of views and perspectives, aesthetic trends are increasingly difficult to distinguish. Schools of thought and movements are losing relevance, and more stress is placed on specific authors’ signature work. Meanwhile other theatrical genres are appropriating the puppet, and the very word “puppet” is disappearing from publication titles. Criticism is in search of a new identity which will only be found when puppetry itself has redefined it.