The puppet theatre is linked to travelling. It was in the 16th and 17th centuries that the commedia dell’arte’s itinerant shows gave birth to the myth of the “travelling comedian actor”. During the same period, city squares throughout Europe would welcome numbers of people of many trades, who all lived alongside one another, competed against one another for business, and sometimes came into contact with professional actors. This colourful crowd was made of acrobats, street entertainers, dancers, clowns, crooks, perfumers or salve-sellers. They were described by Tomaso Garzoni (1549-1589) at the end of the 16th century in La piazza universale di tutte le professioni del mondo (The Universal Square of All Professions in the World). In the first decades of the 19th century, an artist could still make a living out of several trades. This was the case of Luigi Rimini Campogalliani (1775-1839), the archetypal member of an Italian dynasty of puppeteers active up until the 1930s, and the creator of the Sandrone character, who was a puppeteer as well as a tooth-puller. Puppeteers of all kinds were travelling with other showmen. All were from modest social backgrounds and became, during the following centuries, the emblems of the “underworld” described by Italian anthropologist and historian of literature, Piero Camporesi (1926-1997).
The 17th and 18th Centuries
Information about travelling puppeteers is scarce and consists mainly of images. This is because artists, for the most part, only owned basic equipment and did not need a license or a specific place to set up their trestles or “boards” for a performance. This is why licenses, when there are any, are a crucial resource to trace the history of travelling troupes. They allow historians to find records of Italian or English puppeteers in German-speaking countries. The Italian Pietro Gimondi, for example, was found in Munich in 1656, in Frankfurt in 1657, in Vienna in 1658, at the royal court in Munich in 1672, and in Paris and London in the following years.
The puppeteers’ willingness to travel plays a part in explaining the blending of cultures and traditions in the early 17th century. This is also probably how some specific characters (“masks”) were exported. Pulcinella is a striking example of this process: a firm favourite of many puppeteers, he is found across Europe under such names as Polichinelle, Punch, Petrushka, and Kašpárek.
Unlike actors, who settled down over the centuries, puppeteers have always kept a certain taste for travelling. Itinerant artists were never linked to the “official” theatre, as was the case for the actors of the commedia dell’arte who, during the 17th century, were eventually hired by royal theatres. In the early 17th century, the Saint-Germain fair in Paris welcomed puppeteers and other travelling performers who, thanks to their freedom of movement, always managed to escape the local authorities’ interdictions or controls – to the extent that some actors turned to puppetry when unable to obtain a license to perform. The situation was similar in England. At the end of the 17th century, because of the restrictions enforced by the state, many actors became puppeteers. Meanwhile, actors who were usually foreign travelled through Germany and would also show puppets. A group of people, formed around then, sought to implement norms which included a sort of “uniform”, consisting of black hats and wide black coats. They also tried to ban the transcription of texts so that the oral and improvised character of the art could be preserved, and thus bear more resemblance to the commedia dell’arte.
During this period puppeteers and shadow showmen had a repertoire that was still linked to religious representations, and had borrowed elements from popular puppet dramas (such as Doctor Faustus; see Faust), but also many elements from English or Italian travelling actors. Indeed, shows made of stock characters had much in common with the latter’s performances.
The Englische Komödianten (English Comedians) appeared in the fairs and fetes in Denmark and Germany at the end of the 16th century, following the harsh campaign against the theatre launched by the English Puritans. The character of the clown (bouffon, Narr) was often the leader of the troupe, and the one the troupe was named after. On the stage, local characters would also appear by his side. The “head comic”, or clown (Bouset, Pickelhäring, Stockfisch), spoke a little German and could therefore create a relationship with the audience, using jokes or even multilingual puns.
Those characters (the “masks”) were what puppeteers borrowed the most from the comici who travelled through the German-speaking world from the end of the 15th century on. The Pulcinella character thus became popular while exhibited by Hanswurst’s side. The travelling performance in general encouraged cultural exchange. It contributed to the exportation of the commedia dell’arte characters. It also contributed to the exportation of existing style conventions and genres, and to the creation of new ones. A testimony of this contribution is found in the puppet operas which became popular in Italy and France in the 17th and 18th centuries, or the texts of the 19th-century German puppeteer Johann Georg Geisselbrecht (1762-1826?), whose repertoire combined puppetry and vaudeville (see Variety and Music Hall).
The 19th Century
In the 19th century, many travelling artists included a range of techniques in their shows: shadow puppetry, optical-effects performances, panoramas, dissolving views or theatrum mundi. The Flemish Van Weymeerschs used to end their shows with “transparencies”. Some European puppet troupes emigrated to the United States where, until the beginning of the 20th century, they collaborated with other people from the circus or variety theatre (see United States of America).
At the same time, however, puppeteers started to settle down. Tours became increasingly organized, and the same fairs were attended more regularly. From the mid-19th century on, troupes of puppeteers were more often created around a stable family structure – this was the case of the Van Weymeerschs, based in Ghent and travelling across Flanders. In the 20th century, however, this family tradition started to disappear: for example, the Sicilian pupi, at risk of disappearing for good, were preserved thanks to the work of some contemporary “paladins” such as Mimmo Cuticchio. Some companies that travelled across Europe in the 19th century are still remembered: the Pratte from Prague travelled from the Balkans up to Sweden, Pötau from Hamburg toured in the Baltic countries, and some travelling puppeteers went as far as Saint Petersburg. Before those exchanges could benefit from the development of the rail networks, rivers such as the Danube or the Dnieper played a crucial part. Meanwhile, the stagings became more refined and the number of scenographies increased. Troupes were more organized and, when traveling by rail, used up to two coaches: one for themselves, and one for their equipment.
The 20th Century
Itinerant performances have been celebrated in the cinema, from Federico Fellini (La Strada The Road, 1954) to Totò (Che cosa sono le nuvole What are Clouds?, 1967, written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini) or Ettore Scola (Il viaggio di Capitan Fracassa The Voyage of Captain Fracassa, 1990). In the late 20th century, however, with contemporary systems of production, a nomadic life like that of actors and puppeteers of previous centuries became harder to contemplate, even though some artists still keep this tradition alive, to an extent. Tours are usually organized around festival dates, or events that take place especially to celebrate a form of art which can appear, sometimes, as a sort of “protected territory”.
Moreover, during the 20th century, the nature of travel itself changed. On the one hand, it became that of memory, in search of forgotten, more authentic forms of representation. On the other hand, directors and actors with a more or less traditional training started to travel in order to find other forms of theatre, with an aim to transgress both the limitations between genres and geographical borders. The work of Peter Brook is a fairly recent example of this trend, and so is the work of Gaston Baty (1885-1952). During the last years of his life, Baty travelled throughout the south of France in search of the roots of the guignol, with tours that resembled, in his words, “a dead man diving into the living water of memory”, and pursued the utopian ideal of a return to the roots of popular culture.
In the United States, Peter Schumann and the Bread and Puppet Theater also draws inspiration from the folkloric, working with large figures, giant puppets, and sculptures manipulated by actors. In the process, the scenic event is given back its community, almost “religious”, significance. Here, the spirit of the jester in search of truth, the idea of the animation of nature and the matter and the dream of finding theatre’s childhood again are reunited.
The Renaissance of Street Theatre
The legacy of itinerant actors seems to be found essentially in modern “street” theatre. The term “street theatre” already contains the idea of movement which becomes an intrinsic part of the poetics of the new street artists. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, exalted by the city and urban life, the Futurist movement had underlined the opposition between the irruption of urban life on stage and the closed rooms of the bourgeois theatre. This blending of theatre and urban spaces, which had an equivalent in mechanical characters or character-objects, is found in the street performances of such companies as Els Comediants, La Fura dels Baus, Royal de Luxe (Le Géant The Giant), and Générik Vapeur: they storm through the streets in real “urban assaults”, with bodies metamorphosed by objects and grotesque costumes.
The Mascheramenti urbani (Urban Masking) of the Sartoris is a particular form of street theatre which relies on both the celebration tradition and the “happening”: the family’s traditional knowledge of the fabrication of the masks is used to transform a whole city. For example, one of their performances consists of covering vast spaces, such as the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) in Venice, the Maschio Angioino in Naples, or the Place Stanislas in Nancy (1980-1982), in kilometres of coloured acrylic fibre threads.
When it is not an excuse for rushed, simplistic productions, street theatre now appears as a radical choice, which in itself already contains a poetics. The Italian director, writer and puppeteer Guido Ceronetti (b.1927) provocatively wrote: “he who has known street theatre should not waste his time in closed-up theatres”.
(See also Travelling Puppeteers.)
- Bergonzini Renato, Cesare Maletti, and Beppe Zagaglia. Burattini e burattinai. Modena: Mundici e Zanetti, 1980.
- “La marionnette dans la rue ” [The Puppet in the Street]. Puck. No. 12. Charleville-Mézières: Éditions de l’Institut international de la marionnette, 1999.