From their first appearance, probably in the 17th century, the fairs were occasions for performances of seasonal shows and festivals. But it was at the end of the 16th century, when the professional theatre extended its calendar into the whole year that different genres of performance multiplied, as described by Tomaso Garzoni, in La Piazza di tutte le professioni del mondo (The Showplace for Every Profession in the World, Venice 1585). Throughout Europe fairs were held, as much for trading purposes as for professional shows, but which naturally attracted all kinds of travelling entertainers. Acrobats, jugglers and rope dancers performed side by side with purveyors of medicaments and perfumes, oculists and tooth-pullers who profited from the performers who attracted clients for their wares. The fairs could last from a few days to several weeks and generally corresponded with religious and folk holidays, saints’ days or specific feasts of the agricultural year. The stands were either dismantled or left in place from one year to the next. The principal fairs, those of London, Paris, Hamburg and Saint Petersburg, drew great numbers to their entertainments, to the point that they were obliged to close, even in Holland, in the 18th and 19th centuries, to mark the opening of the theatre season. Towards the middle of the 19th century, almost everywhere in Europe, some of the fairs lost their function as trading grounds to become essentially show-places.

The Puppets of the Fairs in the 18th Century

Puppets have always found a home in the fairs. Their stage cloths, like curtains, made good advertising banners: at the main entry to the fair, an animated figure might be placed to attract the passer-by to the entertainments within, some of which only needed the most rudimentary installation in an ill-defined area of land. The presence of puppets in the fairs, at latest from 1614, is attested by the popular play by Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair, set in London. In 1660, the same fair welcomed the character of Punch or Punchinello, descendants of Pulcinella. Other puppet shows were adapted from biblical stories or folk legends. Around 1730, Yeates was animating up to two hundred transformation figures with a clockwork mechanism in miniature Italianate theatres (see Metamorphoses, Trick and Transformation Puppets), while, at the end of the 18th century, Jobson was presenting a repertoire which included Punch (using wax figures), and Flockton was performing with little Italian fantoccini. In Russia the traditional repertoire of the puppeteers was centred round the character of Petrushka, with puppet dances accompanied by songs and a barrel organ.

But it was in Paris that the true “theatre of the fair” made its début and became the breeding ground for every form of popular theatre. From the end of the 17th century to 1762, the year when the principal “fairground troupe” merged with the Comédie- Italienne, to the end of the 18th century, this kind of theatre enjoyed great success in the most important fairs of the capital: those of Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent, and for a short time Saint-Ovide (1764-1777). The first of these took place from February to Palm Sunday and the second from the end of June to September. Insofar as these theatres attracted more or less the same public as the “official” theatres, they were regarded as rivals, and were subjected to demands for licences and favours, and were often obliged to change their performance genre or to modify their repertoire. Thus the fairground players, when forbidden to speak, changed speech into song, or dance or puppetry. But the reverse happened too, when the puppeteers inserted little “live” episodes, gradually returning the show to an actors’ theatre. If the privileged theatres got wind of this competition, the artists of the fair reverted to being puppeteers.

The first artist in France to win fame as a fairground puppet player appears to have been Fanchon (or François) Brioché in 1657. Jean-Baptiste Archambault, a rope dancer in the Saint-Laurent fair, succeeded him in 1670. In 1675, the King authorized Dominique de Normandin to present shows with the royal troupe of Pygmies which in 1677 took the name of the “Théâtre des Bamboches”. In the 18th century, the puppet stage became more problematic: for example, it is known that in 1762 the puppeteer Jean-Baptiste Nicolet started a fire with some fireworks that were part of his show.

At the end of the century, when certain restrictions were also placed on the actors’ theatre, a number of playwrights began to compose dramas for puppets. In 1772, the playwrights Lesage, Fuzilier and d’Orneval together with the puppeteers Antoine delaPlace, Charles Dolet and Alexandre Bertrand founded the International Theatre of Puppets which enjoyed so much success that performances were given from morning till late at night. This company is evidence of the regular presence of puppet theatres in the fairgrounds, which may also have been the case for the actors’ theatre. If Arlecchino‘s French brother Arlequin was the hero of the human comedies, Polichinelle, close relative of the Italian Pulcinella, ruled in the puppet theatres. The repertoire of the fairground theatres often comprised parodies of successful shows running in the official theatres, as for example Le Glorieux (The Man of Glory) by Destouche, staged by Nicolas Bienfait II (see Nicolas Bienfait).

The 19th Century

At the beginning of the 19th century, certain puppet players active in the Paris fairs set up their shows in the Avenue du Temple. During the century they transformed their rudimentary booths into decorated, roofed theatres that could be dismantled and transported, like that of the Schichtl family in Germany, of Petit-Poucet in France, and the Lawrence family in England. From the time of the Restoration, especially, the puppet shows became successful in the fairgrounds of the provinces. In the Quinconces fair of Bordeaux La Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) was to be seen, presented by the Guérin company. The repertoire consisted of fairy tales and melodramas. Many of these theatres alternated actors and puppets, while in the second half of the century many showmen changed to using actors alone. It appears that the last company of the fairground tradition was the Théâtre des Lilliputiens which remained active until the 1930s.

From the second half of the 18th century to the end of the 19th, puppets were supplemented by mechanical and optical spectacles, panoramas and the theatrum mundi, a kind of exhibition of landscapes with figures animated from below, either by hand or by more complicated mechanisms (see Mechanical Theatres). These figures could be three-dimensional, but most often they were flat silhouettes, pictures in movement more than puppet theatre in the strict sense. The combination of these different genres gave birth to programmes bordering on the variety shows (see Music Hall, Variety Theatre and Vaudeville).

In the fairs, every unusual presentation, magic and exotic, had a place. Amongst all these “eccentric” genres, the “phenomena” and the “freak show” (the man with two heads, the woman speaking without a tongue, giants male and female, the man half-boar half-human, the trained monkeys, rats and fleas … ), all grotesques that mixed the human with the animal, the infa- and the super-human – figures which today might well be classed in the category of puppets. In the same way, the world of artificial creatures might now include the illusionist catoptric (light) boxes illustrated by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), the mondi novi, the shows of the “panoramists” and the various demonstrators of optical phenomena and other illusionists to be seen in the fairs. Glove puppet and marionette (string puppet) theatres, ombres chinoises (Chinese shadows), magic lanterns, theatrum mundi, panoramas and dioramas – all were to be found in the extraordinary performance space which was the fairground, with its charlatan at the entrance, sometimes surrounded by acrobats or dancers, who invited the public into the show and the public might be stimulated enough to start a brawl. There was space for every kind of “eccentricity”, from the mechanical theatre to the fairground “freaks”, from wax figures to the anatomic rarity, themes which were widely taken up by the cinema of the 1920s. In Russia, a fairground booth is called a balagan (a temporary construction with many uses), which became the synonym for popular shows of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The 20th Century

In the climate of experimentation among the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century, the expression balagan became the emblem of a return to spontaneity and physicality in the popular theatre, a watchword against the fossilization imposed by the bourgeois theatre. Alexander Blok, in his play Balaagantchik, illustrated its fascinating and grotesque aspects, while Vsevolod Meyerhold, the Futurists and Sergei Eisenstein celebrated its vitality. Marking the rejection of the everyday, the era of the fairs became a particular time when theatre’s roots returned to something akin to the feasts of fools and of carnival. The German imagination at the turn of the century, the Jahrhundertwende, was characterized equally by these themes: one has only to think of Oskar Panizza who, in his The Cabinet of Wax Figures (1890) inserted a Passion and Death of Our Saviour Jesus Christ for puppets – in fact wax figures animated by kinetic and acoustic mechanisms – performed in a fairground baraque set up in a market square.


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