Europe developed its own specific culture in the field of puppetry in spite of folk migrations from Asia and influences (mainly Egyptian) from Africa. Although, at the beginning of the 20th century, the philologist Richard Pischel insisted on its imported aspects (mainly from India: see Origins of Puppets), there are many reasons to believe that, as in other continents, European puppetry arose alongside local practices of magic, ritual and religion. The first puppets functioned as idols, “fetishes” and finally ritual sculptures: participants, up to the 20th century, in ancient customs connected with fertility and ancestor worship (see Rites and Rituals).

Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Antiquity and the Middle Ages knew both ritualistic animated figures and puppets intended for entertainment. In the Renaissance and the Baroque periods, puppets were ever-present in the fairgrounds, used as attractions by charlatans and vendors of all kinds, which may be considered as a deviation from their theatrical vocation. In fact not only was their existence bound up with the arts of theatre from Antiquity to the present day, puppets made a not insignificant contribution to theatre. Thus European practice is distinguished from puppetry on other continents, in that its practice constantly runs parallel to the rest of theatre, with which it shares an equal sensibility to social and cultural change.

Greek antiquity was familiar with various types of puppets, manipulated either from below or from above. Their name, neurospaston, suggests a comparison with the existing mechanical theatre, using figures with hidden strings and wires, rather like nerves within limbs. For lack of concrete evidence it is impossible to come to a more definite conclusion. Puppets also took part in mime (mimus) shows, which seem to have survived up to the 17th century (for example, the Slavonic skomorokhi).

From late Antiquity to the high Middle Ages puppets could be found in the hands of wandering players, acrobats and animal trainers, notably when the animated figure with its natural spirit of mockery was compared with a trained monkey. Another type was known as bavastel, akin to the jigging puppet or marionnette à la planchette in French, enacting knightly combat (the first illustrated document to represent these was the Hortus deliciarum of the prioress Herrad von Landsberg, in about 1170). No evidence of chivalric themes played by glove puppets has been evidenced before the 14th century.

The evolution of liturgical drama (10th century) and, later, of the mystery plays opened the way to Christian religious performances. Certain church implements such as the tabernaculum and the retablo served at that time as illustrative aids for religious storytelling. It seems probable that this practice slowly transformed the said retablo into a cabinet containing movable puppets. In England this sort of cabinet-theatre was called a “motion” whereas in Germany the equivalent was Himmelreich and in Poland tabernaculum. The use of the cabinet or box-theatre spread all over Europe but declined in the 18th century when the puppet theatre of the Renaissance took the lead. However this same type of puppet theatre may still be found in Central and Eastern Europe (the Polish szopka, the Ukrainian vertep and the Belarussian batleyka), which still perform the Christian Nativity with small single-rod puppets.

Puppets in Classical Times

There are two schools of thought about the history of European puppet theatre. One asserts that puppets have played dramatic roles as soon as they made an entrance into any sort of scenic space (George Speaight‘s thesis). The second doubts the early puppets’ links with drama, since no dramatic text for the puppet theatre has come to light before the Renaissance (this author’s thesis). In that period architects such as Sebastiano Serlio, researching the theatre of Antiquity, discovered its “impersonal” forms of expression and recommended the use of puppets in normal theatre practice.

It is certain that the first known theatre piece for puppets dates from the 17th century. Also at this time puppets appeared in the main currents of the theatre – such as opera and commedia dell’arte – soon to be seen all over Europe. Opera with puppets became an entertainment enjoyed by high society – cardinals, princes and other powerful people. Although in Italy at that time various types of puppets were well known (marionettes or string puppets, shadows), the manufacturers of opera theatres offered a special kind of figure, introduced to the stage with a system of counterweights (see Filippo Acciaiuoli). There were also some public puppet opera theatres, available mainly to middle-class audiences.

Commedia dell’arte, born in market squares, included for some time puppets within its productions. Later puppeteers developed their own interpretation of the characters, giving particular importance to the zanni roles (Pulcinella and Arlecchino). Zanni – the comic servants – belonged not only to the tradition of comedy and drama but also to the tradition of the Fool and even further in the past, to the tradition of the mythical buffoon.

In the 17th century the puppet theatre became the principal diversion of the common people and the natural home of the comic characters, naïve and slippery and with a strong instinct for self-preservation. One group, originating in the commedia dell’arte, marked the European puppet theatre with such characters as Pulcinella (in France Polichinelle and in England Punch, then in the 19th century Petrushka in Russia). At first, string marionettes integrated into many kinds of repertoire; they were reinvented as glove puppets in the various versions of the new street comedies that flourished in the 19th century. In most of these, the principal characters always made of their naiveté and comicality a weapon of the poor to fight the rich and powerful. Another group of comic characters originated in the practice of the English Players, who were to be seen on the European continent from the 17th century, offering characters as comic intermediaries with the non-speaking English audiences such as Pickelherring and Hanswurst. These two, soon omnipresent in Germany, were continued in the characters of the German Kasperle and the Czech Kašpárek. The same tradition gave birth in the 19th century to many other characters of this kind including Tchantchès, Lafleur, Guignol, Cassandrino, Gianduja, and Vitez Lászlo.

At the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century the situation of theatre in France, due to the monopoly granted to the royal theatres, caused, for want of performing spaces, the development of fairground puppet theatres. Puppets took part in the fight against the monopoly and attracted the interest and use of independent artists. It is important to remember that the first boulevard theatres of Paris were for puppets. It is true that for some producers they were only a temporary substitute for human actors who were recalled to the stage as soon as the monopoly was abolished.

In 18th century England the situation was much the same. A monopoly was established, although a little later (1738), to protect the Royal theatres in London. To get around the rules and to compete with the official theatres, a number of artists turned to puppetry – some of them, including Henry Fielding, with satirical intent. Certain theatre designers and architects (Servandoni in Paris, Loutherbourg in London) presented purely visual productions, with no live actors, which like the puppet shows consisted entirely of the interplay of design elements and machinery.

The interest shown by writers and artists in the puppet theatre continued in Germany during the Sturm und Drang period and subsequently in the era of Romanticism. Dissatisfied with the state of theatre, the Romantic writers favoured puppets for their private theatres, and wrote many plays for them. The famous essay of Heinrich von Kleist, “Über das Marionettentheater” (On the Marionette Theatre, 1810), reflects this enthusiasm.

The involvement of the better-educated classes did nothing to modify the general situation of puppetry, which had been a popular entertainment for an illiterate public at least since the 17th century. Some theatre managers produced shows that adapted the more intellectual repertory to the understanding of the general public, although the sorry economic condition of the puppeteers and, consequently, their lack of education, debased the subjects of many of the plays. Many of the showmen were as illiterate as their audience. The great dramatic themes such as Faust or Don Juan were transformed into simple morality plays wherein the archetypal hero was no more than a common sinner or murderer. So as to comply with the primitive tastes of the showmen and their public, stories from the Christian gospels or the lives of the saints (see La Tentation de Saint Antoine, Temptation of Saint Anthony) became risible. The situation improved a little in the 19th century when puppetry tried to respond to the expectation of its more educated audiences, some of whom wished to engage the puppet theatre in some national or social cause – even if the greater part of the dramatic arguments remained faithful to their authentic popular roots. The Germans contested the Napoleon occupation; the Czechs pressed the cause of the nationalist renaissance; the Italians militated for the liberation and unity of their country; the Poles mixed political propaganda with Nativity plays.  

In spite of the many obstacles to its practice, the profession of puppetry provided a source of income for many of the poor. The authorities seldom gave permission for performances. In the 19th century a rigorous censorship meant the puppet players were obliged to deposit in advance their play scripts at the local police station. Improvisation was forbidden and those with the courage to include it were often imprisoned.

From the 18th century shows were held in small venues that were either purpose-built or adapted for puppet theatre. Even royalty such as the Eszterházy princes in Hungary and the Radziwills in Poland built special puppet auditoria (see Eszterháza Palace Marionette Theatre). By the 19th century small venues had opened in some of the less prosperous city neighbourhoods. In Italy and Belgium many of these presented a repertory based on fashionable stories of chivalry.

In most cases the puppet players were itinerant, travelling throughout Europe from Madrid to Moscow (see Itinerant Troupes, Travelling Puppeteers). Sometimes, as in France, the companies transported their own baraques, primitive wooden enclosures in which they performed versions of the repertory of the Parisian theatres (usually the melodramas), which one may view as a first attempt at cultural decentralization. However these players normally favoured “entertainment” and thus preferred trick puppets, marionette ballets and short sketches over the true drama. They were also associated with exhibitions of wax figures, demonstrations of automata and other forms. Some ambitious impresarios assembled the best of the puppet manipulators to put together variety or music hall programmes – lucrative enterprises that toured to countries such as the United States or Australia.

From the middle of the 19th century a theatre for children emerged, at first in Germany and Bohemia, then in Italy and Poland. An Italian company was the first to find material for a children’s show in a novel of Jules Verne (see Colla (family)). At the same time as the puppets were losing the attention of adults, they were gaining a devoted audience of children.

However, the interest of artists and educated people for puppet theatre was maintained especially in France during the Second Empire (see Maurice Sand, Louis Lemercier de Neuville). Puppets were welcomed into palaces and salons, by artistic milieux and, it appears, this prepared the ground for the great popularity they enjoyed in the time of Modernism and the various avant-garde movements (the 1920s).

The First Half of the 20th Century

The Modernist opposition to middle-class culture, to the commercial theatre and the realistic playing of actors was strongly expressed the best by writers who attacked a material conception of life and claimed the need to search for the internal truths of the human soul. In consequence they turned to the puppet, which seemed to them the more sincere and faithful actor. Some of them made productions using puppets or mixing puppets with human actors. Edward Gordon Craig, theoretician of this tendency, “disappointed by the life of the theatre”, suggested the rejection of the actor in favour of the Über-marionette (super-puppet).

The avant-garde writers and artists followed this pathway to a material, sometimes mechanical, theatre but above all a theatre of experiment and metaphor. The general public, outside the limited circle of connoisseurs, did not. This fact failed to prevent many in the world of the arts (writers, fine artists and architects) from investing in the puppet theatre and developing it on the basis of its traditional skills. They did not modify it much but they improved its artistic level. The great puppet masters of the time, such as Vittorio Podrecca (see Teatro dei Piccoli) or Josef Skupa continued the variety show programmes, but much advanced in artistry compared with those of the 19th century. Only Sergei Obraztsov, director of the Central State Puppet Theatre in Moscow, set out in a new direction (see Sergei Obraztsov State Academic Central Puppet Theatre, Gosudarstvenny Akademichesky Tsentralny Teatr Kukol imeni S.V. Obraztsova).

The 20th century also aroused an interest in puppetry among educationists who believed in education through art. In the new social context puppeteers were able to found their own associations and professional bodies and to produce the first periodicals for the promotion of their art. Thus UNIMA was born in 1929 (see Union Internationale de la Marionnette). At the same time certain ideologists wished to engage the puppet to their cause, as in Germany where Kasperle was transformed, in the hands of Communists, into “Red Kasperle”. The political pressure was even stronger under the totalitarian régimes, national-socialist, fascist or communist (see Education and Propaganda). In Nazi Germany there was instituted ideological control over puppet shows as a system of political schooling. In the Soviet Union, where Petrushka was made to serve the revolutionary objectives under the name of “Red Petrushka”, the puppet theatres formed an extensive network, which received instructions from the central theatre in Moscow (led by Obraztsov) as to their repertoire and modern means of expression.  

In spite of the ideological divisions of Europe, puppeteers shared a common passion for the specific features of their art. They were in accord in believing that the puppet was the essential element of their theatre and that all the other elements, including its repertory, was subordinate to it. In time they claimed the need for a dramatic literature adapted for puppets. This consensus was to last until the end of the 1950s.

The Second Half of the 20th Century

In spite of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe, the effects of World War II did not interrupt the exchanges of the puppeteers. The financial support given to puppetry in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries resulted in high artistic achievement.  Puppet theatres were supported by a strong infrastructure: dedicated venues, transport, training schools which soon became schools of Higher Education for puppeteers, special social rights, regular sections and criticism in dedicated periodicals or in general theatre journals. The counter-effect was of course rigorous State control. Nevertheless the result of all this was a metamorphosis of the old trade of puppetry into a new profession with a whole chain of institutional support. Starting in the 1960s this model has slowly influenced the western countries, which paid more attention to puppetry and initiated a system of aids for its infrastructure (schooling, periodicals, festivals, centres of information and documentation).

The landscape of puppetry, unusually rich and varied, was characterized by the co-existence of a theatre, traditional or not, intended for children and by many experimental groups. For centuries it has assimilated the influence of other cultures such as the Chinese shadow theatre, the Indonesian wayang and – a fertile source of inspiration – the ningyō jōruri or Bunraku and other forms of Japanese puppet theatre. American puppetry, especially the processional, politically engaged spectaculars of the Bread and Puppet Theater, also exercised a strong influence.

At present there are many new artistic tendencies: a metaphoric-poetic theatre, multi-media shows, the visible manipulation of puppets. The presence of the puppet player, initiated in the 1960s, had lasting impact. The puppet lost its status as “subject”, slowly turning into “object” in the hands of the manipulator. The classical puppet theatre (with puppets as the only visible means of expression) started to be replaced by a multimedia theatre, by storytelling illustrated with puppets and objects, and by a theatre of material. In spite of the puppeteers’ interest in all of these the puppet itself has not lost its attraction, as evidenced by famous drama directors and fine artists such as Peter Brook or Tadeusz Kantor. The links uniting practitioners of an “impersonal” theatre remain strong. They consider themselves as the puppeteers of today and, on a national and international scale, share the same motivation in resolving the problems confronting the profession.


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