Character of German-language string puppet and glove puppet theatres. Kasper is known as Kasperl and Kasperle in southern Germany and Austria. The character of Kasper is so popular in Germany and Austria that “Kaspertheater” is in everyday German a synonym for glove puppet theatre. This type of theatre with its main character of Kasper has seen many variations and has featured a multitude of different figures over time. The German Kasper can be traced back to the Neapolitan Pulcinella, a character of the Italian commedia dell’arte.
The name Kasper has existed in theatre for a long time. He was, for example, played by the comic actor Johann Laroche (1745-1806). He had succeeded the earlier Hanswurst who was a popular character of Viennese burlesque shows. Shortly after the death of Laroche, the Kasper character disappeared from the actors’ theatre. At the same time, Kasper became a popular figure of the German-language puppet theatre.
Of all the variations of Kasper, one can distinguish two main types. There was, in popular theatre on the one hand, the Kasper as string puppet who played secondary roles as servant, soldier or thief (see Faust), and on the other hand, the Kasper as glove puppet who is the lead character of the show surrounded by other characters like the Judge, the Executioner, the Policeman, the Crocodile, Death and the Devil. The story lines of the glove puppet Kasper had no literary source but consisted, as in Punch and Judy in England, Jan Klaassen in the Netherlands or Petrushka in Russia, of typical scenes where fights and disputes were settled by cruel jokes, the Pritsche (a split paddle or slap-stick) or frying pan. The show always ended the same way: “Kasper survives and does not die.”
In the second half of the 19th century, the Kasper of the puppet booths at fairs became, thanks to the works of Count Franz von Pocci, a character in dramatic literature which was specifically aimed at child audiences.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Kaspertheater was caught up in the current of educational reforms and other movements for young people that concerned themselves with children’s theatre. As a result Kasper was tamed, and violence and licentious behaviour were suppressed. New types of characters appeared: Grandmother, Seppel and Gretel. From then on the Kaspertheater was often used for educational and moralizing purposes or even for political propaganda (see Germany, Education and Propaganda, Max Jacob, Reichsinstitut für Puppenspiel) and the trend has never really stopped.
However, from the 1970s, a renewed interest in the origins of Kasper as a humorous alternative with subversive potential was observed in Germany and elsewhere, including in the productions of Peter Waschinsky and Theater o.N. (Zinnober). Finding a new and intellectual interpretation of the historical Kasper of the fairgrounds, young filmmakers showed in the early 21st century a nonconformist Kasper, a comedian and philosopher, who is faced with the inevitability of his survival at the end of each show. This was of course a question about the survival of Kasper as theatrical principle.
- Bernstegel, Olaf, Gerd Taube, and Gina Weinkauff, eds. Die Gattung leidet tausend Varietäten . . . Beiträge zur Geschichte der lustigen Figur im Puppenspiel [The Genre Suffers a Thousand Varieties . . . Contributions to the History of the Comic Figure/Character in the Puppet Theatre]. Frankfurt, 1994.
- Demet, Michel-François. “Hanswurst, Kasperl et Mozart”. Les Marionnettes. Paris, 1982 and 1995.
- Guillemin, Alain. Polichinelle(s) d’Europe. Pour marionnettes à gaine et à tringle [Polichinelle(s) of Europe. Glove Puppets and Rod Marionettes]. Roubaix: Théâtre Louis Richard, 1991.
- Miller, Norbert, and Karl Riha, eds. Kasperletheater für Erwachsene [Kasperl Theatre for Adults]. Frankfurt: Puppen und Masken, 1978.