technique

Giant Figures

Country

Puppets are often thought of as diminutive figures, but this is not necessarily the case. The definition of a giant is a matter of scale, either in relation to other figures or to live performers.

Giants form part of popular mythology in many cultures. In London the giant figures of Gog and Magog, guardians of the city, have been paraded through the streets since the time of King Henry V. Giants, gigantes, gigantones are widespread in Europe. In the north of France and Belgium many cities have their giant figures which are brought out for special celebrations. In Douai the tradition of the “gayants” goes back to the 16th century and large figures are carried through the city at the beginning of July. Today the main figure is over 8 metres tall, weighs over 300 kilos and requires eight bearers.

In Portugal there are references as early as 1265 to the use of a gigantone in a religious procession in Evora symbolizing one of the evils conquered by Christ. Various Portuguese celebrations have giant figures, which usually measure between 3.5 and 4 metres in height and have very large papier-mâché heads.

Large figures are exceptionally important for the fallas of Valencia, Spain, where many can be described as works of art in their own right. The origins of this festival are medieval and it was later associated with the feast of Saint Joseph in March. The festival retains its association with pre-Christian bonfires, and the fallas themselves are burnt at the conclusion of the festivities.

Giant puppets really came into their own in the West with the Bread and Puppet Theater, one of the most influential and inspirational groups of the 20th century. Such figures have an immediate visual impact and are highly suitable for street work, whether for protest or simply popular spectacle. In Brazil, especially in Olinda and Recife, giant puppets have become a significant part of carnival, and the same its true of the modern Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin with groups such as Macnas, whose reputation is built on such work. In most cases their use is more processional than dramatic and it is not uncommon for figures to be mounted on floats. However, some companies have tried to dramatize the urban environment. The most significant of these is probably Royal de Luxe whose huge mechanical figures, often with many operators, are on a scale to compete with city buildings.

In India, in October each year the festival of Dussehra, which celebrates the triumph of Good over Evil, takes place. There are many local celebrations in some areas in India that can last for up to ten days. As part of the Dussehra celebrations, outdoor fairs (melas) and large parades are held with effigies of the principal demons of the Ramayana: Ravana with his ten heads, the symbol of destruction and the forces of Evil, accompanied by his son Meghanada (Indrajit) and his giant brother Kumbhakarna. Vividly painted puppets 15 metres high, made with a bamboo framework covered in paper, are dressed and carried through the town and then burnt ten days into the festival accompanied by fireworks to ensure a most spectacular conflagration.

The drift of rural populations to ever-larger metropolises, combined with accelerated secularization of society, led to attempts to rediscover roots and to create community festivals in the 1960s. Undoubtedly the work of Bread and Puppet Theater was a powerful influence, but there were also organizations such as Britain’s Welfare State International that drew heavily on giant puppets for their work, and also ran workshops and published instructions on how to construct and operate extra large figures.

Giant figures may consist of no more than a head mounted on a pole, with a long costume falling from the shoulders to conceal the operator. Arms may be operated by rods held by the single operator, but often additional external helpers may also work the arms. More complex structures may be built on lightweight frames or even made of wicker or basketwork. Where there is a greater element of construction involved it is common, especially today, for the figure to be mounted on a harness worn by the operator so as to diminish the risk of damage to the back.

Ritual African giant puppets are famous even though many have now disappeared. The “puppet-horns”, anthropomorphic musical instruments of the Bembe of Mouyondzi, Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo), reach a height of 1.5 metres and are carved from wood and hollowed to create a resonant effect for the breath of those that carry them. Many tribes make up effigies of dead people as part of the funeral ceremony. The Pende tribe carries a mbambi puppet 6 to 10 metres high deep into the bush at the end of a masked dance, and then it is raised into a vertical position. The figure is made up of fabric held together by circular rings of palm branches. The head is that of a bearded mask and the arms, holding fly swatters, are animated using twine attached to their outer-most extremities.

Amongst the Bamana people of Mali giant figures are especially evident. Their heads are relatively small in relation to a body that may be nearly 3 metres high, and their use is celebratory rather than dramatic or specifically ritualistic.

In China, for the New Year and other occasions, large dragons coil, weave, and dance in the streets. They require three, five, even ten carriers that use rods to manipulate the dragon. In Japan, huge traditional hinkoko marottes, dressed in a long cloth robe, consist of a vertical manipulation rod, on the top of which is a grimacing head, and a horizontal rod that simulates the arms.

On what might be thought of as the “traditional” puppet stage, giants are frequently amongst the dramatis personae, and are large in relation to the other figures. Giant warriors (often with heads that can be split open) are common on the stages of the Sicilian pupi, and likewise can be found as grotesque figures in the Indonesian wayang kulit. In Europe extending figures were very popular and can be found in most countries. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia the term dupac is used for these, whilst in 19th-century Britain they acquired the name of a popular music-hall act, the “(Perfect) Cure”. In Italy the general name is nano-gigante (dwarf giant). The puppet stage has always lent itself to playing with differences in stature and scale, a popular example being productions of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or Jacopo Martello’s Starnuto di Ercole (The Sneeze of Hercules).

In some cases, especially since the beginning of the 20th century, large puppets have been combined with human performers. Often both are found on the same stage and the puppets are freed from the enclosed framing of the more traditional miniaturized proscenium arch. In many cases the dimensions of the puppet are increased to be in harmony with the actor. A consequence of this is that often the puppet becomes one of the means of theatrical expression available to theatre makers. When Wagner’s Siegfried was staged at the Paris Opera in 1902, Fafner was represented as a gigantic dragon puppet, and a singer with a megaphone was placed beneath the structure on which he was mounted.

Puppetry as an integral part of a performance was particularly evident in Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (1931) designed by Robert Edmond Jones. The singers were visible as a massed choir, whilst the main characters were puppets ten feet (over 3 metres) high controlled with strings by operators on a bridge forty feet (12.3 metres) above the stage, and also by operators on the ground using rods. In 1967 the Stolichen Kuklen Teatur (Sofia Central Puppet Theatre) of Bulgaria in their Krali Marco (King Marco) used very large rod puppets that successfully dwarfed the one human performer.

Today there is an increased use of puppetry and often of very large figures in the context of performance. Largely inspired by the street work of Bread and Puppet Theater, Ariane Mnouchkine with the Théâtre du Soleil introduced both small puppets and very large ones in her production of 1789 (1970). At one point of the production the giant figures of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, operated with long rods above the heads of the largely standing audience, were literally rushed through the crowd after their attempted flight to Vincennes. Whilst giant puppets are mostly used in more experimental theatre work, they have also been embraced by the mainstream stage in shows such as The Lion King and Warhorse, in which larger figures, such as elephants and horses, are often controlled by more than one operator.

(See Giant Puppets.)