Even though its origin may be uncertain, puppetry is definitely linked to doll playing and mythological figures. This bond originating with childhood and mythological times presents a dual interpretation: on the one hand, puppet theatre is a form of entertainment specifically for children and, on the other and at the same time, an expression of humanity’s infancy, a sort of archetype, an ancestor of all other forms of theatre. This representation of “the infancy of art” allows us to understand puppetry’s scope of imagination, its disposition to metamorphoses (which any growth process must take into account) and also its educational potential, in the widest sense of the term.

The most promising experiences of the usage of puppetry for educational means are, in fact, those which rid themselves of this notion of a “children’s theatre” and the tendency to reduce puppetry to this stereotypical fossilized tradition instead of bringing it to life. The richest theatrical experiences can then access the universe of figures to explore its intrinsic educational capacity, and use as an instrument and metaphor in a path which man has taken, regardless of his age. This educational aspect of puppetry can be found (in a morally instructive way) in a 1668 text written by Daniello Bartoli, historian of the Society of Jesus. Bartoli, borrowing a metaphor from Plato, compares the play of “humours”, the passions of the soul, to the actions of the puppeteer who makes his puppets appear and manipulates them with strings. Humours and passions would thus direct our fantasies, putting them into motion in a form of dreamlike theatre. This force could lead us to contemplation (such as the spiritual exercises by Ignatius of Loyola), which could edify us, or, if they are badly oriented, could lead us to destruction. Bartoli’s choice of metaphor reveals the powers that puppetry can be used for in non-theatrical means.

Puppetry and Education

The educational and social value of puppet theatre started to be recognized notably in Germany during the middle of the 18th century, and was introduced as an instrument for childhood education only at the highest levels of social class. In that country, however, the Age of Enlightenment frowned upon Puppentheater and certain people in the 19th century declared themselves against its immorality. In contrast, for Goethe in particular, puppet theatre had a definite pedagogical value, which can be seen in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahr (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1795-1796) or Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From my Life: Poetry and Truth, 1811–1833). In Goethe’s “novel of formation” (in literary criticism, Bildungsroman or “novel of education”, or coming-of-age story), Wilhelm Meister is in fact initiated to the theatre (a metaphor of formation in itself) thanks to the discovery of puppet theatre; an edifying discovery frequently experienced by other artists and men of theatre such as Carlo Goldoni, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, Oskar Kokoschka, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Jan Švankmajer, Pier Luigi Pizzi, which proved to be a determining “spark” in their passion for the theatre.

The apprenticeship of puppetry arts presents here a pedagogical and artistic dimension. These two aspects are closely interconnected as witnessed by the role held by puppets in the Bauhaus school’s “qualifying courses” in post-World War I Weimar, Germany, especially at its beginning. In Oskar Schlemmer’s course entitled Der Mensch, the universe of “Man” was explored in all its dimensions, psychic, perceptive, physiological, artistic, philosophic. Today, this educational value, even beyond any specialization, is central in the activity of the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM) of Charleville-Mézières, France. This is a prime example of where the instruction of puppetry is coupled with the instruction by puppetry, without excluding from its domain of action neither the individual nor existential element, nor the social, almost utopist, dimension – without, of course, neglecting its professional objectives. This formative virtue can also be found in puppetry’s applications in the therapeutic field (see Society and Puppets – Social Applications of Puppetry). For several years now, Roland Shön, in cooperation with psychiatric institutions, has been studying the conditional responses exerted by puppets on the person who manipulates them and on the psychological mechanisms underlining this activity. The Italian puppeteer, Mariano Dolci, from the Otello Sarzi School, has been working in nursery schools using puppetry, masks and shadows as pedagogical means. Aside from the symbolic and archetypical value of the artificial figure, elements such as the theme of the double and the call to imagination of the spectator, weave complex ties in this type of activity.

Propaganda and Commitment

Another non-theatrical field in which puppetry could show its potential for subversion and/or (however to a lesser extent) indoctrination – but still for edification purposes towards the public – was politics. The most irreverent puppets were brought out in the 20th century (in particular during both world wars) as a way for ideological propaganda. Thus Guignol was reused in pacific texts (Guignol poilu Hairy Guignol by Guillaume Apollinaire, 1910) as well as for patriotic means (Guignol fait la guerre Guignol Makes War by Gaston Cony, 1914). In this regard, from the 19th century, French authorities encouraged guignol shows in the colonies of Algeria and Tunisia as propaganda in order to counterbalance the increasing popularity of the strongly anti-French quality of the karakouz (the pan Ottoman karagöz), a traditional genre which had been repeatedly banned.

One character that took on very strong “political” traits was Kasperl. In 1908, Anton Tesarek launched the Rote Kasperl (Kasperl the Red) movement which stayed in existence until the 1920s, after having been born from a youth education association which saw in puppetry a way to create a social class conscience in young people. At the end of the war, Alfred Polgar, with his Der unsterbliche Kasperl (Kasperl the Immortal, 1922), lampooned Austrian Society. These events recall the Russian agit-prop (agitation and propaganda) activities, born in Russia during the October Revolution (1917), which also planned for new forms of theatre using puppetry.

Side by side with Guignol and Kasperl appeared Petrushka, to whom V. Markov dedicated a 1918 text, and whose name, it seems, was given to a Red Army Theatre. The influential agit-prop theatre collective, “Blue Blouse” (Russian: Sinyaya Bluza), performed (with a critical view of the revolution) puppet or cut-out silhouette shows. Vladimir Mayakovsky drew from popular fairground shows and puppet theatres to create slogans and images for his “Fenêtres Rosta” (Rosta Windows, 1920), propaganda posters aimed at disseminating the struggles of the worker. A workshop part of the People’s Education Commissariat recruited Nina Simonovitch-Efimova, Alexandra Exter, and Ludmila Popova to draw puppets and shadows. Between 1918 and 1919, Nina Efimova and Ivan Efimov presented puppet shows in theatres and public places such as factories, libraries, fairs, parks, train stations, and hospitals. In 1918, still in Russia, the Italian K.I. Faccioli presented a 60-metre long dragon, symbol of counter-revolutionary forces, which had to be destroyed and burnt while Walt Whitman poems were being read. This use of urban spaces foreshadowed the political nature of theatre that was to appear in the second half of the 20th century, but its subversive force, the contents of which were hijacked towards literature and other themes, was progressively “domesticated” by authorities.

Agit-prop experienced a new phase of development in Germany of the 1920s, particularly in Berlin where the Proletarian Kasperl Theater (the Kasperl Proletarian Theatre) was in operation. In the 1930s, National Socialism also appropriated puppetry by creating a “black” Kasperl in opposition to the “red” Kasperl. In Czechoslovakia, in 1918, Josef Skupa created the first professional puppet theatre, whose members were deported during the Nazi occupation and whose characters became symbols of resistance. Still in a committed political spirit – even though in a different way – Expressionism also used the theme of the individual figure reduced to the state of machine. Erwin Piscator, creator of the Rote Revue (The Red Revue), presented in 1928 in collaboration with Georg Grosz, The Good Soldier Schweik, by Jaroslav Hašek (full title: Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války, literally, The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War), in which appear half-puppet figures, a type of semi-human closely resembling puppets. A marginal character, Schweik fights against Austrians, refuses integration, and incurs the chaotic accumulation of heterogeneous events. The wandering figure of this protagonist, who travelled on a moving treadmill, was the only one interpreted by a flesh and blood actor.

In 1922 Italy, Umberto Tirelli created the Teatro nazionale delle teste di legno (National Theatre of Blockheads): his life-size puppets represented celebrities in the worlds of politics, art and culture such as Futurist leader Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Duse (Italian actress Eleonora Duse), Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, Mussolini, and also the philosopher Benedetto Croce. In the United States, at the end of the 1930s, inspired by Mexican shows, a group of socially-committed artists, among whom were Bernice Silver and the musician Pete Seeger, toured all over New York State presenting themselves as “Vagabond Puppeteers”.

In many countries around the world all during the 20th century, life-size puppets were used to represent political or religious authorities, as street theatre favoured the use of large size puppets – the street having become one of the main protest venues. This was the case in Asia where traditional puppet theatre, strongly entrenched in national and religious identity, was used as political means, for example during the Japanese occupation of China when all types of shows including puppetry served as a way of Chinese resistance. Similarly, Javanese wayang shadows were used as ideological propaganda and in social strife. The symbolic and emblematic nature of puppetry facilitates the communication of the political or social message, and its artificial character makes it a “transgressive” being which can escape human standards.

This spirit of revolt is, in fact, part of the puppeteer himself in the type of life that he leads. At the end of the 1960s, Peter Schumann with Bread and Puppet Theater discarded all aesthetic posture to advocate a politically committed theatre. For Schumann, the efficiency of theatrical communication resided in the allusive character of his codes, not in explicit political themes but in an aesthetic dimension (to cite Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse) that has a political potential. The “bread” to which the troupe’s name alludes to is a metaphor of this necessity to nourish oneself of art, an elementary art which responds to essential needs. The purposely rudimentary figures had a very powerful impact, evoking violence and social contradictions. In The Cry of People for Meat (1969), biblical episodes and Vietnam War references were intermixed as comparisons for the spectator to interpret. The Big Bird giant puppet (a huge bombardier with a pterosaur head and shark teeth beak) was used in anti-war demonstrations. For Schumann – who one day defined himself as a “baker” for whom theatre was a hobby consisting of making and distributing bread as a good of first necessity – art is always political, whether one wants it to be or not. In Poland, also in the 1960s, Zbigniew Wojciechowski in What Time Is It? (1964), made objects, natural forms and children protest against the preparations for a nuclear war.

Today, the use of puppetry for social or political means takes several forms. For example, in Africa and Asia, puppets can be used in the fight against the propagation of AIDS, or in the United States, at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, in the fight against drug abuse and for the protection of the environment. In Maladie Rouge (1989), the puppet theatre of Vilnius, Lithuania (see Vilniaus Teatras “Lėlė”) performed an allegory on the fall of ideologies, reduced to empty symbols, whereas the Elm Seed West Puppet Theatre of Boulder (Colorado, United States) presented The Mushroom Man, a “political puppet theatre” showing a group of “mushroom puppets” resisting the invasion of “boots” that want to pick them and lay asphalt on the field where they grow. In the absence of opposition, the last mushroom (the nuclear menace) comes about, but the boxed hallucinogen mushrooms alter the consciousness of humans and thus are able to save the planet…. In Poland, “political szopka” originating from the Green Balloon cabaret in Krakow from 1905-1915 (see Zielony Balonik) uses the structure of the Nativity replacing traditional puppets with puppets representing political figures. In 1976 Italy, the Reggio Emilia Theatre and Studio Art Company, directed by Auro Franzoni, presented Parlamento de Ruzante reduce de l’Africa orientale (Parliament of Ruzante, Veteran Soldier of East Africa), transforming the old Paduan actor of Ruzante into Emilian dialect and re-situating Ruzante’s text (Ruzante Returns from the Wars) in the Fascist period during the Ethiopian War. Enormous masks representing Mussolini, Victor Emmanuel III, the Pope, and the Capital appeared during cabaret scenes as puppets recited regime slogans.

However, today we can ask ourselves if puppetry still possesses its subversive power since it has been integrated into the official theatre and has merged into several types of shows. But, insofar as its transgressive character is allusive before anything else – and since this is its origin – this force enabling it to surpass the patterns of representation and the usual modes of perceiving reality can still undoubtedly be found.


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