Dramaturgy, or writing for the theatre, generally implies the production of text to be spoken on the stage. In contrast to the living actor, the puppet has no vocal cords. Its voice comes from elsewhere: from the puppeteer hidden in his booth, from a storyteller-narrator (see Storytellers), from a soundtrack (see Voice), even from the tricks of a ventriloquist (see Ventriloquism). The puppeteer transmits the energy of the text through more or less jerky rotations and inclinations of the puppet’s head, eventually of the whole body. This art has its needs and its limits: the onomatopoeias, the exclamations, the short lines, the rhymed texts, or at least animation with a certain energy, which are more appropriate, for example, than long monologues. The manner that each type of puppet has of expressing the word determines the text and the diction that is most appropriate for it.
When the pupi of Palermo or of Catania perform the adventures of the valiant knight Orlando (Roland) they do not do it in everyday Sicilian, but in lingua, that is to say in an Italian that is noble and high flown, declaimed with an emphasized rhythm and an impressive vibrato. One cannot imagine them performing a piece of intimate theatre.
The burattini, from the centre of Italy, mix dialect and a macaronic Italian, jumping from one to the other, which is the source of hilarious misunderstandings. Guignol has the popular Lyonnais accent in Lyon and a Parisian one in Paris. The short and impertinent lines fit him down to the ground. Pulcinella in Naples and Punch in London transform the human voice with the use of a swazzle, which allows them to produce strident cries and comic lamentations. Bel canto is perfectly suited for the *string puppets[/lier] of Colla, of Lupi, of Vittorio Podrecca (and Teatro dei Piccoli) or of the Salzburger Marionettentheater…. Modern puppets, liberated from tradition, also go in search of a text appropriate to their “voice”. One can say as much of the basic scenario: the pupi, armed from head to foot, have a vital need for duels, just as Gnafron needs his bottle… Texts and scenarios are written either for puppets that exist already or for puppets that are to be created. But even when puppets are given the boldest and most extreme new physical forms they remain puppets, and their different registers, however extensive, remain specific to them. Puppets cannot perform theatre intended for actors just as it is. They have their own codes, their own grammar, and demand their own dramaturgy.
Italian glove-puppet performers placed their precious scripts just under the playboard of the proscenium of the puppet booth and, if they didn’t know the lines yet by heart, read them while performing. These scripts or “copioni”, passed from generation to generation, were written in pen and ink, in large letters for obvious reasons, and with their numerous corrections and cuts are full of information. These truly authentic scripts define the characters, the action, the dialogue and even the staging. Those that can be found in such museums as the Castello dei Burattini in Parma and numerous other collections, including those in the archives of the last performing families, represent a great deal more than mere scenarios. The traditional copioni that the puppeteers placed below the playboard were usually the work of the leader of the troupe and were categorized into different genres that are nearly the same as those for modern scripts: original work (rare); adaptation of an existing play for the theatre (a good example is Ruzzante 1502-1542, whose work was very often revived, undoubtedly because his heroes, like those of the glove-puppet stage, are peasants); a version of a tale or a play from the oral tradition; adaptation of the great classics of drama and literature. It was amongst such scripts that in the trunk of a German showman was found the text of Marlowe’s Faust hitherto believed lost …
Puppet showmen who were leaders of their small companies and fully aware of the potential of their little actors, did a lot of revivals and adaptations, as they continue to do today. Nearly all of the puppet troupes offered their versions of the classics. Pietro Resoniero (1640-1735), the first Italian puppeteer whose name has come down to us, had already adapted Shakespeare for the puppet theatre, as evidenced by his splendid marionette of Hamlet made by the puppeteer in 1667, today conserved in the Museo dei Burattini di Budrio (Museum of Puppets Zanella/Pasqualini Budrio) in Bologna. In the 19th century Shakespeare’s plays were often adapted, as were many popular novels, melodramas and opera libretti. In more recent times Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were adapted by the Carretto de Lucques company; Macbeth by the l’Arc-en-Terre theatre (Massimo Schuster), Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) by La Compagnie Arketal; Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid by the Théâtre du Fust; and a Faust, with a tropical flavour, by Jean-Loup Temporal.
Adaptation of stories and legends is even more frequent. Puppet versions of the tales of Perrault, Grimm and Andersen were presented hundreds of times, the theatre of the Luxembourg Gardens with Guignol and Snow White as a gala performance, to the productions of the large traditional Italian troupes (Colla, Ferrari … ), but have also furnished material for avant-garde companies, and even the popular puppet theatre of Latin America. With Pinocchio and Faust, it would be nearly impossible to exhaust the different versions. Tales and legends from other folk traditions, the Norse Sagas, the Finnish Kalevala, the vast epic tales of India (Mahabharata, Ramayana), texts from Greek mythology (The Iliad, The Odyssey … ), the chantefable (a narration that alternates spoken and sung passages) of Aucassin and Nicolette – all these have been taken up by puppeteers.
All these adaptations, when they are successful, consist of a dramatization for puppets of a text, which, in origin was not meant for them. They correspond to the means and possibilities of animated figures and, in most cases, follow the rules of the construction of classical theatre (a set of characters and a situation as a starting point, evolution, climax, dramatic turn of events, conclusion). But this is not always the case. Is the puppet theatre necessarily subject to the rules of dramatic construction? Is it really a form of theatre? Most puppeteers today reply in the affirmative. In any case, in order to affirm this choice in the face of other formal options or other dramaturgies, many contemporary puppeteers put the term “theatre” prominently in their company names: Théâtre du Fust, Theater Waidspeicher Erfurt, Garlic Theatre, Central Puppet Theatre, Teatro de Títeres Bambù, etc. But new trends are beginning to appear, even beyond, of course, the puppet theatre itself, that align themselves with dance or variety entertainment.
Writing for Puppets
The puppet theatre has been open to all genres: poetic, symbolic, comic, dramatic, baroque, satirical, educational…. From sentimental comedy to vaudeville, from the gothic novel to the serial, from melodrama to opera, its repertoire is vast. It is almost always developed in light of an imminent production. The author here is closer to a film scriptwriter than to the playwright drafting his “theatre” day by day without an immediate scenic project. Most of the time, therefore, puppeteers have written their texts themselves, but sometimes they have commissioned them from authors. It has happened as well that poets or playwrights have moved toward the puppet stage. The German writer and artist Count Franz von Pocci turned his talents towards the puppet theatre, helping set up the Munich Marionette Theatre and providing much of its original repertoire; George Sand with her son Maurice Sand performed for her friends; Banville, Champfleury and Paul Féval gathered around the puppeteer Louis Lemercier de Neuville. Even Bernard Shaw turned his talents towards puppets with Shakes versus Shav, whilst today Guido Ceronetti is reviving this idea of poetic writing for puppets.
However, plays written specifically for the puppet stage are rare. Maurice Maeterlinck designated plays such as Alladine and Palomides, Interior, The Death of Tintagiles for puppets. This reflects his search for an ideal theatre rather than the creation of a repertoire specifically for the puppet theatre. However, The Death of Tintatgiles has been performed very successfully with puppets, and productions include that of Tadeusz Kantor in 1937. Maeterlinck’s children’s play The Bluebird, with its host of symbolic characters, was more specifically written for actors, but has also often been performed by puppet companies. Paul Claudel’s L’Ours et la Lune (The Bear and the Moon, 1917) was written principally for puppets but is scarcely compatible with their needs. In this respect, Michel de Ghelderode maintained that his plays “for” puppets were written, in reality, for actors and the label “for puppets” signified a sort of ironic challenge thrown to actors who would never have accepted performing these too innovative works.
Indeed, very often in a text written for puppets, there is a fundamental concept of dramaturgy, which explains the tendency on the part of companies to commission authors, novelists, poets, to work with (Moving Stage with Howard Barker, Clastic with Daniel Lemahieu) or to appropriate texts that, without being written specially for puppets, are compatible with their performance codes – those of Matei Vişniec, Jacques Jouet, Valère Novarina, Jean-François Peyret – and to engage authors in a new kind of textual writing for a new dramaturgy.
Some classics of the actors’ theatre are very close to the universe of the puppet: little or no psychological development, a tight rhythm, short lines, a tone distant from that of realism, a mix of poetry and irony …their language is definitely that of the puppet theatre. This is the case of Georg Büchner’s Léonce and Léna, of numerous plays by Ramón María del Valle-Inclán and by Federico García Lorca, who knew the títeres well, from having manipulated them, or The Tune the Old Cow Died of, a nearly unknown work by Edward Gordon Craig…. Texts by Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Eugène Ionesco, Fernando Arrabal have also been performed by puppets, probably due to their stripped down language. As for Alfred Jarry’s Vieux de la montagne (Old Man of the Mountain, 1896), it was the marottes of the Teatro Antonin Artaud which, seventy years after its publication, first brought to the stage this reputedly unplayable chef-d’œuvre, in which only Raymond Queneau had detected “the jerky carriage of the puppets”.
Alfred Jarry and his Ubu roi (King Ubu) merit a place all their own. Ubu roi, a key work of the modern theatre, was performed with puppets by Jarry himself. Its “crude” style, derived from a schoolboy repertoire, scandalized both the public and the critics at the time of its theatrical creation in 1896 and revolutionized theatre art in general. Other works by Jarry, those that he called his “Théâtre mirlitonesque” (“Doggerel Theatre”), like The Good King Dagobert and The Enchanted Castle, also lend themselves very well to the puppet theatre. He had captured its essence.
The Ideal Dramatist
How does one write a script for puppets? In the beginning, the author, usually a puppeteer himself, or involved with puppeteers, has an idea, an inspiration. A script will grow from this beginning, defining characters, situation, action and dialogue. If the form of the performance is fixed in advance, as in the traditional theatre, this text will suffice. But in contemporary creation, the players will modify it, a lot more perhaps than in other forms of theatre. Each animated figure, every element of the total image that puppeteers of today devise, will impose its demands on the script. The ideal would then be that the playwright works on and modifies the text at the same time as the puppets, the set, the visual framework, even the music are being constructed and chosen and the staging is being developed. Puppetry is all encompassing, and the diverse elements of production are likewise. The staging of a puppet production is thus a veritable montage in which each element comes up against the demands of the others. The text is one of these elements but it has to find its place in relation to the other languages of the stage (music, image, type of manipulation).
Can we, for that matter, do without a text? Many puppeteers have given it a try, even if only in order to offer their work outside their linguistic borders. One can see the growth of productions with a musical character in which sometimes instruments are used as puppets, but an even more pronounced trend is that of the theatre of images. It is in this movement that a deeper coming together of actors’ theatre and puppet theatre is being realized. One only has to think of Heiner Müller’s Hamlet Machine, of the shows of El Periférico de Objetos, of the Grand Cahier (Big Notebook) of Agota Kristof by the Chilean company La Troppa, done under the title Los Gemelos, to the texts of Valère Novarina or Didier-Georges Gabily.
The trend towards a theatre of silence and a theatre of images, close to mime seems to show that a written support, at least a minimal one, is necessary for the puppet if it is to be anything more than a simple sketch, a bravura number, or a short pantomime, such as Jordi Bertram’s The Little Foam Man. In the final issue, puppets love to speak lines: with their ancestral heritage of the gift of the gab, today they are still carriers of the word and of a dramatic art which both supports and transports them.
Scripts of the Imaginary
The actor can disguise himself as an ogre or, with a little more difficulty, as an elephant. The puppet can be ogre, elephant, panther, imp, devil, ghost. The puppet can divide itself in half, clone itself, lose its head on stage and carry it under its arm. It is the ideal scenic concretization (we don’t dare say incarnation) of unreal and surreal characters, of the heroes of tales and legends, of archetypes. In its very figuration, and not only in its gestures, it can become the signs or symbols that it represents, since, as Roland Barthes said, “it animates the inanimate”. It deserves a theatre of images and imagination written for it and with it. “Its performance,” said the Catalan puppeteer Joan Baixas, “should produce the strangeness of a dream.” In the realm of what we call the theatre of images one could complain that the implicit text often serves merely as “pretext” for the image, which often becomes an end in itself. New horizons have been opened up by digital technologies that find a powerful dramaturgical element, in playing with the dematerialization of the actor’s body: from the works of the Canadian Robert Lepage or of the South African William Kentridge to movements in contemporary dance in which motion capture systems invent a genuine dramaturgy.
(See also Repertoire.)
- “Écritures Dramaturgies” [Dramaturgical Writings]. Puck. No. 8. Charleville-Mézières: Éditions de l’Institut international de la marionnette, 1995.
- Écriture et Marionnette [Writing and Puppet]. Actes des journées nationales des écritures pour la marionnette (Auray, 25-26 mars 2003) [Proceedings of National Days of Writing for the Puppet (Auray, 25-26 March 2003)]. Saint-Brieuc: Théâtres en Bretagne, 2004.
- Eruli, Brunella. “Texte et ‘pratique’ dans le théâtre de marionnettes” [Text and ‘Practice’ in the Puppet Theatre]. Les Marionnettes. Paris: Bordas, 1982; repr. 1985 and 1995.
- Lecucq, Evelyne. “Voix d’auteurs et marionnettes” [Voices of Authors and Puppets].
- Alternatives théâtrales. No. 72: Voix d’auteurs et marionnettes. Bruxelles: Alternatives théâtrales/Institut international de la marionnette, avril 2002.
- Lemahieu, Daniel. “Écrire pour la marionnette?” [Writing for the Puppet?]. Mû, l’autre continent du théâtre. No. 6. Paris: THEMAA, 1996.