French puppeteer. Starting life as a silkworker (canut), Laurent Mourguet was twenty years old when the Silk Crisis forced him to change careers. He became a peddler, going from fair to fair where he befriended and occasionally assisted an Italian puppeteer (see Fairs and Fairground Performers). He subsequently became a tooth puller and used a short performance of Polichinelle to attract customers (a practice used by Brioché who wanted each session to begin with a small play to attract customers). Mourguet then became exclusively a puppeteer and performed with a booth (French: castelet) that he made himself from cloth. This consisted of four attached masts surrounded by painted cloth with a narrow stage opening in one of the panels.
As Polichinelle performances required a second character which could respond to the main character, Laurent Mourguet was joined by Père Thomas, a violinist and public entertainer. Thomas was said to be a great lover of Beaujolais and that he often fell asleep in the castelet. This, it is reported, was the origin of the character Gnafron, the drunkard. It appears Laurent Mourguet also worked at the crèches in the Rue Noire and the Rue Ferrandière. Subsequently he created the character of Guignol, the most prominent puppet character in France, where his name became synonymous with puppet theatre. The glove puppet Guignol was performed with regional dialect and mannerisms and in the traditional garb of a Lyonnais local “à la mode de l’aprés Terreur”. Mourguet’s Guignol, filled with bon sens, bonhomie, wit and humour, was as his creator describes him, “un Lyonnais d’ici et pas un étranger d’ailleurs”. From Lyon and of modest means, this argumentative puppet was soon followed by Madelon, his wife.
Not knowing how to write, Laurent Mourguet improvised all of his plays. His dialogues were intense and filled with off-colour allusions, droll humour, pungent satire, commentaries on current events, and violent quarrels. Indeed, part of the charm of this master of improvisation was said to have come from the fact that an event that happened in the morning would be mentioned on the stage the same evening. In the summer he played in the gardens (Petit Tivoli) and the popular fairs. Winter found him performing on the ground floor of his building in Rue Saint-Paul. He also performed in the cafes of Ainay Port.
After initially working alone in his castelet he eventually added his children – Étienne and Rose-Pierrette – whom he trained in puppetry and incorporated into a strong company. He retired in Vienne in 1840 and set up a small theatre where he worked in the traditional way with his wife. He died in 1844, after creating a dynasty of puppeteers that perpetuated the existence of Guignol.
- Fournel, Paul. Guignol, les Mourguet [Guignol, the Mourgets]. Paris: Le Seuil, 1995.