Officially the French Republic (French: République française), France is located in Western Europe with several overseas departments and territories in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, including Nouméa, New Caledonia, Papeete, French Polynesia, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion, Mayotte, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Wallis and Futuna, Saint Martin, Saint Barthélemy, and French Guiana on the South American continent.

The “Marionnette

The French term “marionnette” has a religious origin. Called mariole or mariolette during the Middle Ages, then marionnette by the mid-16th century, the word referred to the figurines and small effigies of the Virgin Mary – hence the equivalence to “petite Marie” (little Mary) – that were present in churches, streets, processions, and that were used for public veneration. Little by little the term was applied to all kinds of animated figures intended for entertainment.

The Sacred and the Profane

Elsewhere the clergy used statuettes moved by springs, wheels or strings, to instruct the faithful who were often illiterate, and to make the holy figures seem more real. In the 13th century, shows based on the liturgy were performed in front of the altar. However, as early as the 12th century, there existed a miniature representing two street entertainers manipulating two characters (two armed soldiers) by means of a thick cord that went through the figures (in the manuscript of the Hortus deliciarum of the abbess Herrad von Landsberg, Alsace, c.1170, destroyed in 1870; see also Europe). It follows that at that time puppets were part of feudal entertainment. The similarities with other European countries suggest that puppets appeared in profane as well as in religious contexts.

As elsewhere, the religious domain found itself invaded by burlesque episodes. The Mitouries of Dieppe are a famous example of this: it was a festive ceremony to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for the victory of the Dauphin, the future Louis XI, against the English who had laid siege to the city in 1443. In mid-August, in the church of Dieppe, angels put in motion with hidden springs and pulleys flew around the figure of the eternal Father, and a lifesize pure silver statue of Mary, donated by the king, rose up to this figure in the “heavens”. For the next two hundred years the Norman people came from miles around to see this festival that ended with masquerades and bonfires. But when the future Louis XIV, passing through Dieppe, saw the buffoon Gringalet punctuate the religious ceremony with jokes that made the populace laugh, he showed his disapproval and the Mitouries fell into disuse.

The Counter-Reformation of the Catholics had already decided at the Council of Trent in the 16th century to forbid performances in the churches. However, it took more than a century to achieve this. Like the theatre, puppets had slowly emerged from religious trappings during the Renaissance and had found their public in the courtyards of inns, in town squares, at festivals, and in the homes of a few privileged individuals. Later, animated Nativity scenes – notably in Lyon, Besançon, Nice – would return to their sacred origins (see Nativity Scenes).

While pious stories, Mystery plays, and biblical tales continued to be the staples of the repertoire of the travelling puppeteer, other dramatic material, based on the chansons de geste (medieval verse-chronicles of heroic exploits) and the chivalric cycles, also enlivened the castelets – the portable booths or “little castles” that could be set up anywhere. The puppet showman would soon look to the actors’ theatre to find inspiration for his characters or, by contrast, for the freedom and the identity of his art.


The first French player whose name continues to be celebrated as possibly the first writer for puppetry, in the sense of creator of characters and new stories, was a “man of the people”, Jean Brioché (pseudonym of Jean Datelin). Brioché worked in Paris, at the foot of the Pont-Neuf, in the 17th century. His puppet characters were definitive and lasting transformations drawn from the well-known characters of the Italian commedia dell’arte and from local comic traditions: Polichinelle, especially, whose appearance, costume and behaviour he “gallicized”. Brioché improvised on storylines he had himself invented. His talents were appreciated as much by the common folk as by the royal family (for whom he was often invited to perform) and by the well-educated, such as Charles Perrault and Molière. His son, Fanchon, was even more successful. He was emulated up to the 18th century by such as Jean-Baptiste Archambault, Jérôme Arthur, Nicolas Féron, La Grille, Alexandre Bertrand, Nicolas Bienfait, and Jean-Baptiste Nicolet.

They all tried to bypass the rules forbidding speech, whether spoken or sung, a ban enforced up to the Revolution, imposed by the national theatres (the Comédie-Française and Académie Royale de Musique, later  known as the Opéra), by using puppets – often as a temporary measure, in the hope of using human actors later. Sometimes they were allowed space in Parisian buildings, but most often they played in booths in the Paris street fairs of Saint-Germain (on the Left Bank, from February 3 to the beginning of April) and Saint-Laurent (the Right Bank, in July and August), free zones under the biased jurisdiction of the religious orders. This difficult conjunction was actually favourable to the puppet and, for the first time, dramatists such as Louis Fuzelier (who started with Alexandre Bertrand), Denis Carolet, Alexis Piron, Charles Simon Favart (who started with Nicolas Bienfait), Alain-René Lesage, Jacques-Philippe Dorneval (these last two had just created the opéra-comique, or comic opera, of which the baroque genre would provide about a hundred short plays involving Polichinelle) and Valois d’Orville, were all seduced by the fairs’ popularity and the greater freedom of speech enjoyed by the puppets. “J’en valons bien d’autres” (“I be as good as any others”) was Polichinelle’s written declaration on the curtain of the booth in Laplace.

However, the competition for an audience raged not only between the travelling performers and the Grands Comédiens du Roi (loosely, the King’s Great Company of Players – who strictly adhered to their monopoly of speech), but also between the managements of the various small troupes, as attested by numerous police records of complaints of blows or threatening behaviour. The competition forced the puppeteers to come up with more and more special effects, machinery, and other sophistications. Little by little they moved towards the Boulevards, where Servandoni (Jean-Nicolas Servan, also known as Giovanni Niccolò Servando or Servandoni) himself erected a puppet theatre in 1756, on land freed by the demolition of the Marais ramparts and where the Boulevard du Temple had just opened, later known as the “boulevard of crime”.

From the 17th century, Italian fairground performers and shadow theatre showmen came to the public squares of French cities to give shows that were much appreciated. The 18th century brought a fascination for cut-out silhouettes and body shadows, their success attributed to Chinese entertainments, first used in the French theatre by “Ambroise” (originally Ambrogio, an Italian). His talent combined with a real sense of opportunity brought Séraphin (1745-1800) a career more brilliant and stable than any of his peers, with his Théâtre des Ombres Chinoises (Theatre of Chinese Shadows). His performances were seen from the Court of Versailles to the Arcades of the Palais-Royal in Paris, thereby spanning a kingdom, a republic, and an empire, while avoiding any pitfalls and pleasing his audiences, from the poorest to the richest. French imagery still retains traces of the most famous plays of the Ombres Chinoises, and the genre continued to be passed down for another hundred and fifty years.

A few people of the moneyed classes also became intrigued by Polichinelle and the various transgressions permitted to the non-human actors. As early as the 17th century, but especially in the more libertine 18th century, puppets thrilled the guests of the Duchesse du Maine in the chateau of Sceaux, and those of other nobles and prominent   individuals.

Paris was not the only place where the showmen found work. Research by Gaston Baty before World War II revealed that “on the eve of the Revolution, each provincial city had at least one puppet theatre: Patagonians, Cabotins, Crèches, practising Comedians, artificial Comedians, Bamboches, Porenquins, Fantoccini, Pupi or Pygmies” (from Trois petits tours et puis s’en vont Three Little Turns and Off They Go, 1942).

Guignol, Lafleur, Jacques and Barbizier

Aside from the local figure of Barbizier, in Franche-Comté (eastern France) who seems to have been born in the 17th century but whose real existence doesn’t begin until he is connected to the Nativity show of Besançon (see Nativity Scenes), it is in the 19th century that specific puppet characters arose from provincial circumstances. In so doing, it accentuated the differences between the various localities, and brought renewal to an art that was generally held to be a sub-section of the actors’ theatre.

During the first decade of the 19th century, Laurent Mourguet, an illiterate silk worker turned tooth extractor then puppeteer, invented for the entertainment of the workers of Lyon some glove puppet characters more familiar to them than Polichinelle and his acolytes. Gnafron, Guignol and Madelon, had the same contemporary preoccupations as their audience, promoting the voice of the people against authority and all forms of exploitation, in improvised shows with a background of current events. The impact of Guignol was considerable, but after Mourguet’s death the authenticity of the character was sacrificed to its success. Guignol’s widespread popularity beyond his native city – in 1866 he arrived in Paris where he supplanted Polichinelle – and the censorship of the Second Empire finally watered down his repertoire.

What Guignol did for Lyon, Lafleur would do for Amiens. Probably created by Louis Belette during the Empire period, he is, like all the cabotins (the extrovert French puppets), a rod marionette (marionnette à tringle) figure with a rod to the head and a string attached to each limb. As the protagonist of the entire Amiens repertoire – drama, comedy, vaudeville, comic and serious opera, and even Mystery plays – this comic servant was always there to defy authority.

The puppet theatres at first drew full houses in the popular quarters of the town, but little by little Lafleur was replaced by other leisure activities creeping into the lives of his public, and the end of the century marked the beginning of his decline.

In the second half of the 19th century, in Roubaix, Lille, and all of Flanders where the Picard dialect was spoken, puppet theatres developed in parallel with heavy industry. The showmen were almost always workers who found much-needed extra income in this supplemental activity. Only Louis Richard (1850-1915) was able to devote himself entirely to his “Théat’Louis”, founded in 1884 and continued by his family until 1940. All the northern figures were rod marionettes with four strings connected to the arms and legs. The public’s hero – whose origins are unknown – was named Jacques, protagonist of the “bamboches”, the satirical fantasies played in patois that ended each show. But the heart of the programme was serious: cloak and dagger dramas, adaptations from French history or from the repertoire of the actors’ theatre. The puppets gave the illiterate public access to what they otherwise would find difficult to read or understand.

This role was filled by about thirty family-run travelling theatres that toured all over France (see Itinerant Troupes, Travelling Puppeteers). The most important, in notoriety as much as in the resourceful staging of their shows, were those of the Delemarre, Pajot, Pitou, Levergeois, Borgniet and Garat families. Others travelled mostly within a single region: Bocquillon in Lorraine, Collignon in Champagne, Leblanc-Patinier in the Nord, Guérard in the West, and Rolland and Nicolas in the region around Paris. Sometimes they travelled in luxurious caravans, and the frontage of their temporary auditoria measured an average of fourteen metres, with room at each end for a barrel organ and a booth in front of which Polichinelle, a glove puppet, paraded before the presentation of the rod-and-string marionette play inside. The troupes would play every weekday evening, and four times on Sundays. The repertoire was about the same everywhere: La Tentation de Saint-Antoine (The Temptation of St Antony), Geneviève de Brabant (Genevieve of Brabant), adaptations of the lives of the saints, fairy tales, and fashionable plays from the theatre of the time.

Within the vast reach of the puppet shows, we should not forget the numerous urban street showmen whose livelihood was extremely precarious and whose identities are unknown. All that is left of them are their stage names: Mère Gagnepain (Mother Breadwinner), Père Pinson (Father Pinson), Mère Quatremains (Mother Four Hands), Père Phoque (Father Seal)…

Another Aspect

Alongside this popular vein, puppets were also practised in the literary circles of the 19th century, and were to be found in drawing rooms and salons. Half-way between the literary and popular milieu, Louis Edmond Duranty (1833-1880), a novelist and journalist, composed little satirical plays with an audacious and cruel pen for Polichinelle, Pierrot, Mère Gigogne and their puppet cronies. He produced shows with his own texts in the booth of the Jardin des Tuileries from 1861 to 1864.

Maurice Sand (1823-1889), the son of the writer George Sand, at first presented simple puppets in the chateau of Nohant where his mother lived, but gradually became more inventive, improving the structure of the booth, the lighting, the costumes and the sets as well as the puppets themselves. He wrote plays for an invited audience that swelled over time and supplemented his amateur group with professional actors, writers, and musicians from his mother’s circle. By the time he moved his Théâtre des Amis to Passy, around 1880, after the death of George Sand, about fifty prosperous Parisians were attending each of his performances.

Louis Lemercier de Neuville (1830-1918), a journalist, having been part of the short-lived adventure of the Erôtikon Théâtron on the Rue de la Santé along with several other writers, painters, actors and musician friends, began by creating animated cut-out caricatures, silhouettes of personalities from the political, literary and artistic world of the time. He was extremely successful in Parisian and provincial salons with presentations of these, his own version of pupazzi, sometimes painted by Gustave Doré.

Henri Signoret himself tried to set up shop. In 1888, he founded the Petit Théâtre in the Rue Vivienne where the great classical authors and mysteries written or adapted by the poet Maurice Bouchor (1855-1929) were played, using innovative, hieratic puppets more than a metre high. However, he failed to reach beyond an educated milieu, and the experiment ended after only four seasons.

Rodolphe Salis was a better businessman. A painter turned cabaret proprietor, he opened the doors of the famous Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) in 1881. He hired Henri Rivière, a young painter from Montmartre, who, from 1887, gave shadow theatre performances that met with growing popularity over a decade because of their wit and technical invention, added to the talents of Caran d’Ache, Steinlen and Henri Somm. The Black Cat cabaret, at first frequented by a small group of poets and bohemian artists, finally attracted a wider public including well-known Parisian journalists, residents of the two suburbs of Saint-Honoré and Saint-Germain, and many rich foreigners. The death of its owner in 1897 put an end to this enterprise, but its team spirit passed at once into the shadow shows in the Cabaret des Quat’z’Arts (“cabaret of the four arts”) on Clichy Boulevard. It was here that in 1901 Ubu sur la butte (Ubu on the Butts, a mound in Montmartre) was staged, a two-act version of Ubu roi (Ubu the King) for glove puppets which Alfred Jarry had created a few years earlier, Ubu being the last of the great fictional characters of the 19th century. The play led a double life: one that propelled the human theatre into the modern era, and another in the puppet theatre.

The End of a Tradition

The history of puppetry in France is akin to dialectics. While the educated and artistic milieus were starting to explore the potential of metaphor, of poetic convention, or even the abstract in puppetry, the popular productions were being weakened by an excess of realism. Towards the end of the 19th century, travelling theatres, led by the British Thomas Holden, incorporated complex techniques to “humanize” the movements of their puppets. Again, by wanting to imitate too closely the bodies and actions of real actors, the puppeteers lost their souls. Moreover, the coming of photography at this time created an impossible competition that would also bring about the loss of their audience too. The businesses changed identity, or slowly disappeared.

As for the character of Guignol, who now invaded the public parks, he became increasingly infantilized and no longer interested adult audiences. The talent of these showmen – and sometimes whole dynasties – was not in question, and across all the various periods, their work deserves to be recognized: the Guentleurs on the Champs-Élysées (who gave Guignol a son, Guillaume) Gaston Cony and team at the Buttes-Chaumont, the Fraysses in Saint-Lambert Square, the Raphards in the Tuileries, Robert Desarthis and later his son in the Luxembourg Gardens, Pouly in the Batignolles and Anatole Gressigny also in the Buttes-Chaumont. The Lyonnais should also be mentioned, but the content of their shows ignored the latest thinking in childhood education.

However, an important encounter awaited these producers at the turn of the century: that of the conscious (and of course the un-conscious). In every level of society, historical, social, artistic, philosophical, the first half of the 20th century encouraged the loss of a certain naivety, the loss of innocence.

A Theatre Art

This transformed perception of the world gave rise to ironic or burlesque styles of artistic expression, for example, in the vision of Alfred Jarry with Père Ubu, or the Nabi painter Paul Ranson (Les Nabis, a group of French Post-Impressionism avant-garde artists in the 1890s) with the character of Abbé Prout, or Pierre Albert-Birot with his creations Matoum and Tévibar, all evidence of the aesthetic revolution that underpinned them. The influence of Futurism, Cubism, Dada and all the other art movements that rocked the worlds of the fine arts and the anti-naturalist theatre (see Plastic Arts / Visual Arts) penetrated the research of those no longer coming to puppetry through family tradition. In return, the pure theatricality of the puppet and its essential nature of “form in motion” attracted both directors and artists. Between 1919 and 1933, the theatre Laboratory Art et Action created by Louise Lara (a former actress of the Comédie-Française) and Édouard Autant (architect and writer), mixed actors, mannekins, shadows, puppets and masks. Paul Claudel wrote L’Ours et la Lune (The Bear and the Moon) for puppets in 1917, and greatly deepened  knowledge of the art form in Japan by editing his introduction to the Contribution à l’étude du théâtre de poupées (Contribution to the Study of the Theatre of Dolls, 1928) a book by the writer Miyajima. The chapter on the “acting word” would have immense repercussions on the thinking of French puppeteers.

Jacques Copeau (1879-1949) and his wife, Marie-Hélène Dasté, used puppets with their troupe, known as Les Copiaux, in Pernand-Vergelesse. Marie-Hélène Dasté also created costumes for the puppet characters of Gaston Baty, whose activity was both artistic and patrimonial. Before the 19th century puppeteer-showmen disappeared, Baty collected their stories and wrote important works about their repertoires and their lives. Baty created the character of Billembois, staged puppet plays to a wide theatre audience, and above all urged André-Charles Gervais, a member of his troupe, to write a manual on the manipulation of glove puppets. Before him, Marcel Temporal, previously an architect, had exposed the secrets of puppetry by starting a puppetry course for enthusiasts in Paris in 1936, and by publishing the first technical book for teachers, puppeteers, and amateurs. In 1937, at the world exhibition in Paris, the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (International Exhibition of the Arts and Technical Sciences in Modern Life), many spectators attended about thirty plays of greatly varied styles selected by Temporal for adults and children, adding up to a first International Puppet Festival.

The painters, Fernand Léger and Yves Brayer, among others, designed the string puppets of Jacques Chesnais whose plays were well received on the stage of the Vieux-Colombier and, after the war, the Comédie des Champs-Élysées. The greatest innovator of the times is, without a doubt, Géza Blattner, a Hungarian painter living in Paris. His Théâtre de l’Arc-en-Ciel was responsible for the renewal of the techniques, staging, and the repertoire, all at the same time. As early as 1929, his highly stylized productions fascinated adults.

Furthermore, for the first time the puppeteers began to congregate. They held regular meetings, got to know each other, and looked for social recognition. The important contributions of the Frenchman, Paul Jeanne, who did a considerable amount of work in the areas of information, historical research, and canvassing support, along with the Czech Jindřich Veselý, was instrumental in the creation of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette (UNIMA, International Union of Puppetry) in 1929, which then opened the way to East-West contacts and the exchange of ideas. The same year, UNIMA held its first Congress in Paris. Shortly afterwards, the Association Syndicale des Guignolistes et Marionnettistes de la Région Parisienne (Union of Guignolists and Marionettists of the Paris Region) was founded, which, in 1937, became the Union Corporative et Nationale des Montreurs de Marionnettes (Corporate and National Union of Puppet Showmen), and then the Syndicat National de Guignolistes et Marionnettistes (National Union of Guignolists and Marionettists or glove and string puppeteers). The puppeteers claimed the status of professional artist. Everything was set to entitle puppetry to a place in the theatre arts of the 20th century. World War II, however, halted this momentum.

Nonetheless, even in the camps, from a few pieces of dough or a few splinters of wood, puppets emerged.

The Cabarets

When the world emerged from World War II, everything changed. From André-Charles Gervais’ book, Marionnettes et Marionnettistes de France (1947), we witness the interaction of traditional artisans – Louis Bellesi, Francis Raphard, Gaston Cony, the Waltons (see Pajot-Walton (family)) – and a new generation of puppeteers who envisaged their practice as an injection into the artistic world which would reveal the potential of the contemporary puppet theatre. This generation came primarily from two trends: on the one hand, the French-style puppets of Gaston Baty (André Blin, Alain Recoing, Claude-Andre Messin, Maurice Garrel, Jean-Loup Temporal), and on the other, the touring performers (Yves Joly, Georges Tournaire, Hubert Gignoux and others). These newcomers to a freely-chosen profession fought to gain a legitimate social standing. In 1956, about forty of them trod the same path as their elders and took control of the French organization that now became the Syndicat National des Arts de la Marionnette et de l’Animation (National Union of the Arts of the Puppet and Animation), with Yves Joly as president. Their activity was supported by a third current born out of the Scouts and the amateur puppetry movement, that of Jacques Félix and the Petits Comédiens de Chiffon (Little Actors of Cloth).

With the exception of plays by Molière, Federico García Lorca, Jean Cocteau and Georges Courteline performed at the Studio des Champs-Élysées by the puppets of Hubert Gignoux, before he went back to the theatre of actors, the need for innovation found its outlet in the newly created literary Parisian cabarets where young puppeteers encountered an adult audience, eager for pleasure and surprise, through essentially visual pieces that were primarily staged as breaks between two turns by poets or singers.

From 1946, La Rose Rouge presented the shows of Yves Joly whose performances with gloved or bare hands earned him first prize in the 1948 Concours des Jeunes Compagnies (Competition of Young Companies) (see Bare Hand Puppetry). For seven years, beginning in 1951, Pierre Prévert employed Georges Lafaye at La Fontaine des Quatre-Saisons. He enjoyed triumphant success with his John et Masha, a romantic rendezvous, lit by a single projector, between an old top hat and a feather boa. Lafaye had just invented the lighting booth (castelet) for black theatre. In 1951, L’Écluse cabaret hosted the Compagnie des Trois (the Company of Three: Alain Recoing, Claude-André Messin, Maurice Garrel) with their parodies of detective novels, followed by the Marottes of André Tahon, Yves Joly’s company, Mathilde and Paul Dougnac, the Tournaires (Georges Tournaire and Henri Gouge), and, in the 1960s, Jean-Paul Hubert and the Philippe Genty company with their famous ostrich ballet. Some of these could be found in other cabarets: the Échelle de Jacob (Jacob’s Ladder), Galerie 55, the Lapin Agile (Lively Rabbit) or À l’Échanson where André Tahon played for three years.

The challenge for these performers was to capture in a few minutes the full attention of an audience seated at tables, to sustain a strong rhythm and to be effective in astonishing the clientèle with very simple means: without any booth to construct (Jean-Paul Hubert carried his “Théâtricule” Chinese style on his shoulders with his props and puppets hung all over his costume), sometimes they added a playboard without sets or refined puppets, only a black frame with hands, materials in movement, everyday objects transformed, and some simple lighting effects. In these few square metres of stage space could be seen all the inventiveness and techniques of puppetry that were to come.

Financially exhausted, the cabarets closed their doors in the 1960s.

A New Public

When the festival known as the Théâtre des Nations became open to puppet theatres – there were twelve French troupes during the 1959 season – and while television employed the talents of puppeteers (Marcel Temporal in 1950, then Frédéric O’Brady, and Robert Desarthis, followed by Alain Recoing and all his team with Martin-Martine), the standard of life of the practitioners, of whom there were more and more, continued to be precarious, and was mainly lived as it had been for a decade, in an atypical context for artistic activity, i.e. the schools. The various pedagogical commissions, in looking for quality repertoire that took into account the recent advances in the understanding of childhood psychology, demanded a high level in terms of form and content. This provided puppeteers with the opportunity to be first choice for programmes geared toward young people, since cultural centres and regional theatres had already taken responsibility for them when planning their yearly activities – the Maisons des Jeunes et de la Culture (“MJC”: Centres for Youth and Culture) having been pioneers in this field.

New groups now emerged: the Monestiers, the Roches who revived the use of coloured shadows, the Baziliers, Pascal Sanvic and Jacky Beffroy, the Raymond Poirson troupe in Metz, etc. When the troupes started to play on large theatre stages they became aware of certain necessities: to bear in mind the distance between performers and audience, to enlarge the scenography, to modify the scale of the puppets, to rethink possibilities for the sound and lighting. The puppeteers were being integrated into the world of mainstream theatre.

During this period, the year 1961 saw the creation of the French section of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette (UNIMA-France) as well as the first Festival International des Théâtres de Marionnettes (International Festival of Puppet Theatres) held in Charleville-Mézières, organized by Jacques Félix with the support of the Syndicat (Trade Union). Ten years later, the professional companies agreed to regroup within the Centre National des Marionnettes (CNM). A new generation was active, coming from the plastic arts or from theatre, ready to undertake staging and dramaturgy researches which involved all the arts of theatre. Very quickly the mobility of those artists favoured by UNIMA, the proliferation of festivals (including the Giboulées de Strasbourg in 1977, the Biennale de Cergy-Pontoise in 1979, the Biennale des Jeunes Compagnies de Caen in 1981, the Semaines de la Marionnette (Puppet Weeks) in Paris in 1981, to mention only the most important of the period), in addition to other international meetings and conferences, provided a heady brew of aesthetics and cultures, and permitted vast numbers of programmers to make new artistic discoveries. Puppets entered the national theatres, the shows of Philippe Genty attracted crowds, and the satirical Guignols of Alain Duverne took their long-running place on television. This constant increase in the size of the audiences supported the long-standing petition of the artists to the State for the establishment of continuous training of practitioners and a first-degree training for beginners. Jacques Félix from Charleville-Mézières, his home, contributed all his energy to the project, and with the help of the Charleville municipality, the Ardennes region, France’s Ministry of Culture, and UNIMA’s executive, notably Henryk Jurkowski, and Margareta Niculescu, the Institut International de la Marionnette (International Institute of Puppetry or IIM) opened its doors in 1981 and its School of Higher Education, the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM) in 1987.

Multiple Territories

Puppet troupes began to increase exponentially. Only a sample representing the most interesting will be mentioned here. The most diverse techniques were used and adapted, including those from foreign countries such as the Japanese Bunraku (employed by the companies of Houdart-Heuclin, and François Lazaro, Nada Théâtre, Ches Panses Vertes) or Chinese glove puppetry (Théâtre Sans Toit Theatre without a Roof and Théâtre du Chemin Creux Theatre of the Sunken Path; revived styles, such as shadow theatre (the companies of Jean-Pierre Lescot, Alain Lecucq and Amoros et Augustin), paper theatre, also known as toy theatre (Papierthéâtre, Patrick Conan), rod marionettes (Théâtre de l’Arc-en-Terre of Massimo Schuster, Théâtre du Fust), Lyonnais-style glove puppetry (Théâtre aux Mains Nues, Fust, Cirkub’U), body puppets (companies Hubert Jappelle, and Houdart-Heuclin); new forms such as tabletop puppetry (Flash Marionnettes, La Compagnie Arketal Cannes), or special types of manipulation with myriad uses of new materials and machines (ALIS, Philippe Genty, Théâtre La Licorne, Théâtre de l’Arc-en-terre, Turak). The situation was the same in many other countries, but the origins of object theatre in the 1980s, now widely practised, is attributed to the French, practised by companies such as Théâtre Manarf, Vélo Théâtre, and the Théâtre de Cuisine).

Some buildings became specialized sites of performance: the Théâtre Massalia in Marseille, the Théâtre de la Marionnette in Paris, even though it did not have its own space, the Théâtre Jeune Public in Strasbourg. Some companies, whether temporary or permanent, also set up centres of cultural activity. In 1993, the federal activities of amateurs (UNIMA-France) and of professionals (CNM) were united in the Association Nationale des Théâtres de Marionnettes et Arts Associés (National Association of Puppet Theatres and Related Arts; THEMAA). One of the central principles of the artists’ work was to reveal the close correlation between the treatment that contemporary playwrights were inflicting on language, and the living art of montage and démontage (setting up and dismantling) that is puppetry. To that one could add the legitimate desire to keep up with the times. THEMAA and the Centre National des Écritures du Spectacle de Villeneuve- lès-Avignon (National Centre for Writing for the Stage at Villeneuve-lès-Avignon), and the TJP of Strasbourg have organized workshops to promote mutual discovery. In the past, the first collaborations were between Alain Recoing and his son, Éloi Recoing, between Monique Créteur and the writer Victor Haïm, between the company Houdart-Heuclin and Gérard Lépinois; but now the territory of exchange between the manipulation of material and the manipulation of words has been considerably enlarged. Most French authors are conscious of the new area of theatre on offer. The young companies born of ESNAM, or the private school of Théâtre aux Mains Nues, or a university, are no longer stubbornly adhering to a sensory means of expression but with the help of their elders are venturing on demanding pathways towards a true theatrical dramaturgy. Symbolizing this cluster of convergences, the first Rencontres Nationales (National Encounters) organized by THEMAA in 2001 focused on the understanding of puppetry by living authors.

Profound changes in perspective have marked the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. Puppeteers no longer specialize in a single technique, but choose the most appropriate one for a given production, going so far as to show mixtures and inventions to a public no longer easily surprised. The specific work of the “interpreter” – the term has replaced that of “manipulator” – is highlighted. Often “in view” of the audience, they are trained in the different structures, like an actor required to integrate notions of “distancing” (in the sense of Diderot) or to delegate certain functions of a character to an object, in addition to reaching for excellence in manipulation. This versatility is arousing the interest of theatre directors and film makers more and more, thus expanding work opportunities for puppetry artists, inviting them to train as actors and even including them in their shows, whether theatre or film.

Various mentoring networks have been put in place to help young companies take their first steps (the festival of Scènes ouvertes à l’insolite, Stages open to the unusual, at the Théâtre de la Marionnette in Paris, a Year of Experiment at ESNAM, residencies and internships in various establishments where the puppeteers may find courses and workshops led by other artists, also introductions to the fields of dance, music, and video. Thus, the puppeteers borrow the languages of other art forms and, reciprocally, other art forms are sometimes inspired by the visual and dramatic codes of puppetry, using them more and more on their own stages. Finally, to observe and analyze an expanding art form, France needed to equip itself with the critical and referential tools necessary to creativity: publishing reviews, collections, research. Most recently the Portail des Arts de la Marionnette (PAM) on the Internet has opened wide the field and resources of puppetry.

(See also Antoine Vitez, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Bjorn Fülher, Éclats d’États, Geo Condé, Hector Duchemin, Ilka Schönbein, Là Où, Ladislas Starewicz, Louis Valdès, Musée Gadagne, Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, Roland Shön, Royal de Luxe, Théâtre du Petit Miroir, Théâtre sur le Fil.)


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