Character of popular Dutch puppet theatre in the Netherlands, related to the Italian Pulcinella. The name of Jan Klaassen is derived from that of a trumpet player, Jan Klaaszoon, who served in the guard of the stadtholder (Dutch: stadhouder, the de facto hereditary head of state) of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, Willem II, Prince of Orange. After Willem’s death in 1652, power was taken over by the “Grand Pensionary” (Dutch: raad(s)pensionaris), Jan de Witt (or Johann de Witt), representative of the bourgeois oligarchy and the most important Dutch official during the time of the United Provinces. Anyone who was an Orangist was discharged, including the trumpeter Klaaszoon, who moved to Amsterdam. There, he earned his living in the streets performing his puppet theatre. Through the words and actions of his puppet characters, the new government was ridiculed. He became so popular with his shows that the protagonist, hitherto named Hanswurst or Polichinel, took the name, slightly altered, of its author: Jan Klaassen. Later, the puppeteer’s own marital problems furnished the material for his shows.
The old Jan Klaassen is a hunchback with a red hooked nose and a wide smiling mouth. His classic costume is that of a trumpeter’s uniform: a military-looking red jacket with golden trim, yellow trousers and wooden clogs (in contrast to the other puppets, Jan Klaassen has legs). He wears a conical cap bent forward and adorned with a bell or tassel. Jan is an Amsterdam type, good-natured with a robust sense of humour. He is poor, but light-hearted and often drunk. He fears only one person: his wife Katrijn. She is as ugly as he is. Their arguments always end with reconciliation.
The puppet booth decor typically depicts a canal spanned by a bridge. If there are side wings, then the Het Zwaantje (The Little Swan) tavern is on the left and the house of Jan Klaassen and Katrijn is on the right.
The Jan Klaassen shows are usually performed with glove puppets. The scripts are variations on the international repertoire of characters and confrontations: Jan as father, Jan as soldier, Jan in confrontations with the Policeman, the Landlord, the Doctor, the Baker, the Crocodile, the Hangman, the Devil. A character peculiar to the Dutch tradition is the Death of Pierlala. Death is a rod puppet, a skull and a sheet attached to a long pole; it is connected to Pierlala, a version of Pierrot dating back to the 17th century.
Jan Klaassen faces all the dangers that come his way. He ridicules his adversaries; and if his tongue doesn’t chase them away, he gets rid of them with his stick. The old Dutch Jan Klaassen booth was called ronzebons, a term referring to the sound of the beatings. According to authors of the 19th century, the puppeteers of the time used a swazzle for Jan’s voice.
The Jan Klaassen show was entertainment from and for the poor. The 18th and 19th century puppeteers had, besides their street puppet booth, a small theatre suitable for the homes of the rich. They performed Jan Klaassen plays, but also variety and trick acts. If the customer wanted a show with less vulgar language, an additional fee was charged.
There have been several “dynasties” of Jan Klaassen players, such as the Hofman family in Utrecht, the Remmert family in Rotterdam, and the Cabalzi family in Amsterdam. The Cabalzi were an Italian family of fair showmen who came to the Netherlands (Holland) in 1830. The most famous member of this family was Janus Cabalt (1869-1935) who earned in 1883 the right to give his performances in a permanent location at the Dam, a square in the centre of Amsterdam.
In the 1960s and 70s, the tradition of Jan Klaassen declined, probably due to the popularity of film and television. The last puppeteer of the Cabalzi family, Daan Kersbergen, stopped performing his shows at the Dam in 1981. Wim Kerkhove (b.1953), from the puppet theatre Poppentheater Pantijn, succeeded Kersbergen, injecting new life into the tradition. Just like the legendary trumpeter of the 17th century, Kerkhove brought contemporary political events into his performances: Jan Klaassen battles against a general with a neutron bomb; Jan’s son, a punk who illegally takes up residence in an unoccupied house, collides with the landlord. To reflect the multicultural society of the Netherlands, Kerkhove created characters representing the newcomers, not to ridicule them (as was often the case in the past), but to present them in their roles of good neighbours and friends of Jan and his wife Katrijn. Also, in Kerkhove’s shows the role of Katrijn took on more importance than in the past.
Public interest in the Jan Klaassen subsequently grew. For a time around 1997 there was a theatre building in Pieterspoortsteeg for winter performances of Jan Klaassen, while Dam Square remained the permanent location for the Jan Klaassen booth for summer performances. In 2011, the Pieterspoortsteeg theatre closed. Misha Kluft took over from Wim Kerkhove for summer performances at the Dam for several years.
In 2009, Wim Kerkhove established the Jan Klaassen Academy, to continue the tradition and to resume Jan Klaassen at the Dam in Amsterdam. In the same year, Wim Kerkhove performed his then most recent show, Jan Klaassen – the man met de poppenkast (Jan Klaassen – The Man with the Booth) to Internationaal Volkspoppentheaterfestival Banská Bystrica (Slovakia) and again, in 2011, at the festival Global Clowns in Turkey.
In 2011, there were around ten professional puppeteers who performed Jan Klaassen, suggesting a new future for the Netherland’s old hunchback.