For most people the term “hand puppet” is synonymous with “glove puppet” but in more recent years it has also come to apply to the human hand used as a puppet and not merely concealed within one.
The human hand has always been the main channel through which the performer passes energy and therefore life into the animated figure, whether directly, as in the case of the glove puppet, or indirectly through a system of controls, as in the case of the string puppet (marionette) or rod puppet.
There is no novelty about the idea of the bare hand as a puppet in its own right. For centuries it has been used expressively for the casting of shadows (usually animal heads or human profiles) on a wall or screen. Today it has acquired a more official theatrical status in the work of such performers as Valeria Guglietti, who often adds some small silhouette properties, such as a hat or a stick to turn the silhouette into a more specific figure.
In 1915 the Italian futurist artist Filippo Marinetti published a short play called Mani (Hands) in which a number of male and female hands appeared above a curtain and performed a number of small actions. The idea behind this was to focus attention on the hand without the distraction of the rest of the actor’s body. In the same year Marinetti also had another piece performed, Le Basi (Feet), where the curtain rose only enough for the audience to see the lower legs and feet. In 1949 the French puppeteer Yves Joly moved to the Rose Rouge (Red Rose) cabaret in Pairs and here presented his celebrated piece using only hands, Les Mains Seules.
A slightly different approach was that of Sergei Obraztsov who stripped the glove puppet of its outer covering and revealed the hand, with a ball for a head and created small scenes this way. This technique is reminiscent of the neutral mask used by Copeau in the early years of the 20th century, and the stripping away of the external covering to show the animating principle beneath parallels similar experiments in constructivist staging in the productions of the great director Vsevolod Meyerhold. In another experiment Obraztsov wrapped his right arm in a cloth and cradled it in his left to produce his celebrated “baby”. In his number, The Drunkard, Obraztsov may also have been one of the first puppeteers to introduce his own arm as if it was that of a puppet, a common technique today.
Following these earlier experiments, the bare hand has become an accepted puppet genre in its own right. In Italy Claudio Cinelli created an immensely entertaining piece, Just one more kiss, in which, with the addition of some eyes and a few feathers, an array of outrageous opera singers perform their version of La Traviata.
The bare hand has also acquired considerable popularity as a form of tabletop puppetry, notably with the Catalan company Zootrop. In this case the fist of one hand becomes a head whilst the fingers of the other hand become the limbs. This technique has been brilliantly illustrated in the work of the Yerevan State Puppet Theatre in A Fairy Tale from Cloud, a complete performance with music and clever lighting in which the hands become a complete cast of characters.
(See Bare Hand Puppetry.)