The glove puppet is one of the simplest and most widespread types of puppet and can be found across the world in a variety of cultures. Because it is extremely portable and need cost very little to make, it has long been the favourite type of puppet for street performance.

Traditionally operated from below and worn on the hand of the performer, it is sometimes known as a “hand puppet”, especially in the United States. However, this terminology may be misleading today when, in some cases, the naked hand itself becomes a puppet. The glove puppet, known as a “marionnette à gaine” or “sheath” puppet in France, resembles a glove in that the fingers of the performer enter respectively into the head and arms for operation, whilst the arm and hand of the puppeteer form the body beneath the costume.

Generally the performer places the index finger inside the head whilst the thumb and middle finger operate the arms. In some cases (Guignol and Northern Italy), the thumb is in one arm, whilst the middle, ring and little fingers operate the other one.

Sometimes the fingers of the performer go right into the hands of the puppet, but quite often small wooden hands are simply attached to the end of the arms, as with the Neapolitan Pulcinella. Guignol generally has leather tubes inserted into the arms and this allows for a slight extension of the length.

To get a greater sense of symmetry in the figure, some performers prefer to use the thumb and little fingers to operate the arms, whilst the middle and ring fingers are tucked into the palm. In Barcelona at the Els Quatre Gats (“The Four Cats”, often written Els 4 Gats) cabaret in the 1890s puppets were a part of the entertainment, and there evolved a specific mode of operation which allowed for the head and shoulders to be carved in a single piece with three holes into which the index, middle and ring fingers entered, whilst the thumb and little finger operated the arms. Unlike the more usual glove puppet, in this case the arms were in proportion to the body with the thumb and little finger entering at the elbow. The shaped shoulders and apparently longer arms gave the figure a more “realistic” appearance, which suited the cabaret numbers performed. Harry Tozer presented this as the Catalan method and aspects of it, notably the longer arms, have been adopted by later performers (see Putxinel·li).

In many cases the costume and the body of the puppet are one and the same. However, in Europe the classic glove puppet usually has an under-sleeve that is attached to the base of the neck and specific costumes can then be superimposed. This under-sleeve is made in a heavy cotton (partly to provide some volume to the body, partly to absorb sweat). The simplest under-sleeve is cut in a T shape, but most puppeteers prefer more shaped arm holes, and allowance is then made for the hand of the performer, creating a difference according to whether the figure is worn on the left or right hand (the armhole to take the thumb needs to be cut lower than that for the other finger or group of fingers).

Often the armholes are placed not at the sides or top of the under-sleeve, but are inserted a few centimetres down into two vertical seams in the front of the under-sleeve. A narrow front panel combined with a fuller back both allows for a greater range of arm movements and helps obviate the effect of figures with their arms always held up in the air. At the base of the sleeve there is often a ring which allows the puppet to be hung upside-down backstage in a way that the performer can easily plunge the hand in and produce the figure almost instantaneously on the stage. This usually implies a row of hooks below the stage, although another traditional method of storing the puppets before their entrance was simply to hang them over a line, and some performers opted for a rack into which they simply inserted the neck of the figures.

Chinese glove puppets vary considerably according to region. Generally they are more agile than their European counterparts, especially when it comes to handling sticks, weapons and other props. In Taiwan and parts of China the glove or under-sleeve may be quite loose fitting and very short, whilst the hole in the neck to take the index finger is funnel-shaped. This makes it very easy for the performer to slip his hand out of the puppet which, with a flick of the wrist, he can make fly in the air and then he can catch it on his hand again. The great puppeteer Yang Feng (died 2003) was the fifth generation of a family of puppet masters. His performances of acts such as a tiger swallowing a monk or those involving martial arts could be as lively as any performances with live acrobats. The puppet masters of Taiwan often work with quite small puppets held in front of them rather than above the head. Here too there is close observation of the most delicate movements of everyday life, as well as extraordinarily acrobatic leaps and somersaults. For the handling of props very thin removable rods are sometimes inserted into the sleeves.

The majority of glove puppets are operated at least at the level of the head of the performer, if not above it (sometimes at arms’ length). However, in parts of India it is possible to see a seated performer, without a stage, simply holding the puppet in front of him – something that is well illustrated with the (happily revived) tradition of the pavakathakali of Kerala where the puppets are made to resemble the actors of the Kathakali dance-drama in costume and make-up and the seated performers, accompanied by musicians, execute the same repertoire as the live actors.

Occasionally the classic glove puppet is equipped with an opening mouth, a common practice with the comic figures of the marionette stage but unusual with glove puppets.  The Italian performer Italo Ferrari used it, especially for his main puppet, Bargnocla (see I Burattini dei Ferrari). Here the tip of the index finger that operated the head entered into a small sleeve that allowed it to move the jaw. A much simpler alternative to this can be found with the Brazilian mamulengo Cachorro figure, which has an animal head and a jaw operated by a separate external rod. Fundamental to the European glove-puppet tradition is the monster, which has distinct diabolical associations with origins going back to the idea of the medieval mouth of Hell. In Russia the dog Barbos drags off Petrushka, presumably to hell, and in the Hamburg Kasperl show the dog becomes the devil. A similar figure is found in the Neapolitan guarattella (Pulcinella) and in the British Punch and Judy show a crocodile was introduced in the mid-19th century – today this puppet seldom does more than chase Punch or eat sausages.

The dog/monster/crocodile consists of a head with a set of hinged jaws and the hand of the performer enters this, placing the thumb in the lower jaw and the other fingers in the upper one. This allows for a very strong movement that counterpoints the handling of the stick or club of the main figure. The principle of the whole hand as mouth mechanism in more recent times was taken up by Shari Lewis with her sock puppets and by Jim Henson and his Muppets, and one result has been a shift in focus back from the bodily movements of the puppet to the talking head.

In some situations the head of the puppet is mounted on a rod. This is most useful for the effect of an extending neck, often for a devil, death or other terrifying figure. With Punch and Judy this used to appear as a courtier who performed a comic dance, sometimes took off his hat, and then extended his neck. In another version a ghost figure with an extending neck appeared to scare Punch because of the crimes he has committed. He is sometimes called Scaramouch, a name already taken over from the commedia dell’arte by a popular extending figure of the marionette stage, that might appear first without a head and then produce anything from one to four heads out of his body.

In Northern Italy, in Bergamo, heads of glove puppets sometimes reached exaggerated proportions and could occasionally weigh as much as four kilos. Such a head could not be operated by an index finger pushed into it and so was provided with a short rod grasped against the palm by the middle, ring  and little fingers, whilst the thumb and index finger entered the arms.

Normally the glove puppet is seen only from the waist upwards and this, combined with the stunted arms, reminds us that this is a puppet and not a miniaturized theatre actor.

In some traditions a pair of legs is attached, hanging from the waist. This can be found quite often with the German Kasperl and Dutch Jan Klaassen, and may even extend to the entire set of figures. In practice such legs do not make the figure appear any more realistic. In Britain Punch often has legs and these are used for specific effect: he will sit down and throw his legs over the playboard. In a classic scene with the doctor he lies on his back to be examined, and then kicks the doctor in the eye as a joke. In some cases legs, not actually attached to the puppet at all, pop up when the character decides to lie on a bed.

The European glove puppet tradition emphasizes vigorous physical action, whether we look at the 14th century manuscript of the Roman d’Alexandre with its sketch of a stage with fighting knights or the more familiar Punch and Judy show today (when violence has not been excluded for reasons of political correctness). Skilled performers have made special numbers out of carefully choreographed fights, often accompanied by the percussive effect of wood hitting wood, whether it is a stick meeting a puppet’s head, or even the puppet’s head banging on the playboard or against the wooden sides of the stage. An additional percussive effect is produced by the essential prop of the stick or club which often takes the form of a slapstick. Timing is essential and the shows of modern performers such as Salvatore Gatto (Pulcinella, Naples), Rod Burnett (Punch, England) or João Paulo Cardoso (Robertos, Portugal) and others have been distinguished by their physical and acoustic rhythms.

Today puppetry is often ranked with the plastic arts and the verbal aspect of the performance is sometimes undervalued. In fact it is a fundamental element of most simple glove-puppet shows, even when a musician or external compère is needed to interpret the often unintelligible squeaks produced with the swazzle.

The classic street show is generally operated by a single performer and the dramatic action consists of a series of encounters of different characters with the central one. This structure is dictated by the fact that the puppeteer is dependent on his two hands. In some cases a more complex dramatic structure with a larger number of characters onstage evolved. This meant a larger booth, a greater number of performers and in the 19th century a repertoire that was less far removed from that of the marionette stage and on occasion offered glove puppet adaptations of the repertoire of the actors’ theatre. This led to a greater emphasis on characterization, movements and attitudes. By the mid-20th century the glove puppet was being rediscovered as a medium for serious dramatic work, and this went hand in hand with a greater awareness of the qualities (and limitations) of the puppet as opposed to the living actor.

In France in the 1940s the great theatre director, Gaston Baty, a long-time admirer of Guignol, following in the steps of Maurice Sand a century earlier, tried to provide a new relevance for the glove puppet in a world where its mainly popular adult audiences had been largely replaced by children. Baty grouped a number of young performers around him, including Alain Recoing and Jean-Loup Temporal, whilst André-Charles Gervais, in his Marionettes et Marionnettistes de France (1947) produced what remains the classic grammar for the training of the aspiring glove puppeteer. Training for glove puppet work in the past was more by observation and imitation. Today there is a greater consciousness of skills that need to be transmitted. Whilst some schools of puppetry do include courses in this medium, even there it is more usual for the individual performer to transmit skills directly, and this has been done by such dedicated performers as Alain Recoing, Bruno Leone, or João Paulo Cardoso, all conscious of the tenuous link with the old street performers of the past.