A giant puppet can be manipulated from below or behind using rods whilst the puppeteers that surround it manage and participate fully in its theatrical representation.
Long before this genre was fashionable, the Manifole de Geneviève and Yves Vedrenne presented, at the Récamier theatre in Paris, a piece called Don Quichotte (1964), directed by Edmond Tamiz, using actors and giant puppets. Then, in 1970 at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes (the Vincennes arsenal), the Théâtre du Soleil, run by Ariane Mnouchkine, played certain scenes from 1789 with giant rod puppets that required a collective effort of elevated manipulation.
In Der Tag des großen Gelehrten Wu (The Day of the Great Scholar Wu) by Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, directed by Dominique Houdart (see Houdart-Heuclin), with scenography and animated figures by Marcel Violette (1973), giant linear puppets made from aluminium perform whilst the actor-puppeteers narrate, lend their voices to the characters, and contribute to the symbolic performance by amplifying each of their gestures using the manipulation rods and thus creating an “ideogram” within the performing space. Several meanings could thus be interpreted, the spectator’s gaze would switch from the upper part, 3 or 4 metres from the ground, to see the puppets’ actual movement, to the lower part, to observe the interaction of the actors themselves as well as the chorus, made up of both the actors and the animated forms.
Due to their weight, giant puppets are often placed on hidden chariots (the giants of the North; see below). Sometimes, they are animated on a stage fitted with a set on floats (such as during parades). In the form of costume puppets, they become the “Big Heads” of carnivals. In these cases, the manipulation does not feature the same degree of technical nuance and complexity. Having to be seen by a large number of spectators and from afar, they are more often shown outside, with the puppeteer perched on stilts to offer a better view to the public.
Giant Puppets and Street Theatre
Spectacles that travel through streets and are in the open air are best suited to this kind of puppet. One of the most important traditions is found in the north of France and in Belgium in the Flanders area. The origins of the giants of Douai (belonging to the family of Gayants) goes back to 1480. It was during a procession commemorating the French defeat in attempting to recapture the town, Douai, from the Dutch that these giant, grotesque figures such as Gayant, Cagenon, Saint Michael and his devil, were first introduced. This festival, held until 1771, was then replaced by a procession celebrating the return of Douai to the kingdom of France. It was later cancelled following the Revolution of 1789, only to be re-established in 1801. “During the course of this communal festival, we walk the wheel of fortune, the silly or crazy gunners, and Gayant, and his family, consisting of his wife, and of Jaco, Fillion and Tiot-Tourni, his children …There is nothing truly certain concerning the origin of this illustrious family; what appears most probable is that it was Charles Quint, who, with the aim of bringing together the various inhabitants of the diverse provinces of the Netherlands in order for them to meet and fraternize, established these festivals in which we see gigantic figures, like Gayant, whose head reaches the height of the first floor of the houses. Similarly to Douai, giants have played important roles in popular entertainment in Dunkirk, Bruges, Brussels, etc.” (Le Magasin pittoresque, 1833).
On July 14, 1990, some two and a half million spectators gathered in Paris’ Quartier de la Défense to witness huge, exuberantly colourful puppets manipulated to steel band music. As part of a massive festival orchestrated by Jean-Michel Jarre, these immense, mobile skeletons were literally attached to the puppeteers. In 2004, the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Athens was marked by the appearance of a gigantic head exemplifying Cycladic art emerging from the water. Opening into several pieces, a kouros statue appeared, which itself then separated into several pieces, revealing a third form. These sculptures are of interest for their use of string manipulation run by computer programmes and connected by electric pylons.
The Royal de Luxe was created in Aix-en-Provence in 1979 by Jean-Luc Courcoult and Didier Gallot. François Delarozière, artist-engineer, is the inventor of the mechanical and pneumatic devices used for the immense puppets mounted onto automobile engines. Among the company’s other creations, the most notable is Le Géant tombé du ciel (The Giant Who Fell from the Sky, 1993), a string puppet 9 metres high, encased in mobile scaffolding to which all the points of leverage and manipulation were attached (chords, pulleys, etc). This giant puppet was manipulated by a crowd of “servers” dressed in red livery that jump, pull and generally busy themselves with its levers with perfect coordination. In Les Chasseurs de girafes (The Giraffe Hunters, 2000), the largest giraffe was 12 metres tall, needing twenty manipulators, with six using pneumatic jack handles. Each of Jean-Luc Courcoult’s spectacles relies on a strong dramaturgical element that addresses an entire city.
In this sense, Courcoult evokes Tony Sarg and his Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City in the 1930s. Gigantic balloons made with rubberized silk and filled with helium were manipulated from the ground using strings. The Bread and Puppet Theater, founded by Peter Schumann in 1963 in New York, also uses giant puppets in shows that tie in with the sacred ceremony both in their shape and their meaning. In 1967, Bread and Puppet had protested in the streets against the Vietnam War with rod puppets of impressive size, whilst in The Cry of the People for Meat (1969), the nuptial dance of Mother Nature and Uranus was performed by 5-metre-tall rod puppets: the main rod for the head, to which the costume was attached, a rod for each hand and a crew of six manipulators around the puppet itself.
Religious Festivals and Rituals
In India, in the months of September and October each year, the festivals of Dussehra, which celebrate the triumph of Good over Evil, takes place in Simla in the Himalayas. Puppets 15 metres high are dressed and carried during a procession in the town and then burnt ten days into the festival. The principal demons of the epic Ramayana are represented: Ravana with his ten heads, the symbol of destruction and the forces of Evil, accompanied by his son Meghanada (Indrajit) and brother Kumbhakarna. The puppets are made of a bamboo framework covered in layers of paper. Painted in vivid colours, they are accompanied by fireworks to ensure a most spectacular incineration.
Ritual African giant puppets are famous even though many have disappeared. The “puppet-horns” (marionnettes-trompes), anthropomorphic musical instruments of the Bembe of Mouyondzi, Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo), reach the height of 1.5 metres and are carved from wood and hollowed to resonate the breaths of those that carry them, their mouth placed over the puppet’s back. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire) the Bwende people take part in a funeral ceremony that consists of carrying, on a stretcher, an enormous puppet called niombo, an effigy to the dead chief. Stitched in woven fabric ornate with symbols, it is made of wood, raffia and herbs and contains the dried remains of the chief. Its size can be up to 2.5 metres both in height and width. The Pende people lift a mbambi puppet, from 6 to 10 metres high, deep into the bush, at the end of a masked dance. It is raised by sliding bamboo under the body – which 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.
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 consist of a vertical manipulation rod, on the top of which is a grimacing head, and a horizontal rod that simulates the arms. They are dressed in a long cloth robe.
There are, throughout history and the world, many other spectacles and traditions that use giant puppets.
(See Giant Figures.)
- Baird, Bil. The Art of the Puppet. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
- Lehuard, R. “Trompes anthropomorphes du Bas-Congo” [Anthropomorphic Horns of Lower Congo]. Afrique noire. No. 6, 1973.
- Sousberghe, Léon de. L’Art Pende [Pende Art]. Bruxelles: Palais des Académies, 1959.
- Widman, Ragnar. “Le culte du ‘niombo’ des Bwendé”. Arts d’Afrique noire. No. 2, 1972.
- Widman, Ragnar. The Niombo Cult Among the Babwende. Stockholm: Etnografiska museet, 1967.