A puppet manipulated by a series of commands or separate controls (operated from below or behind the puppet). This type of puppet, sometimes called a keyboard, piano or pedal puppet, already existed in 19th century Italy, as confirmed by Charles Magnin’s description in his Histoire des marionnettes en Europe (The History of Puppets in Europe): “A system …has been introduced …by Bartolomeo Neri, a distinguished painter and mechanic. This process consists of constructing grooves/channels on the stage floor into which the base of the puppet is placed. Counter-weights or a person is placed under the theatre to move the puppet’s base and manipulate the strings.”
In 1934, Roger Roussot, actor and puppeteer, asked Pierre Albert-Birot to adapt Le Mystère d’Adam (The Mystery of Adam) and Géza Blattner to make the puppets. The latter realized that neither the glove puppet nor the string puppet could recreate the hieratism of the characters, and so decided to perfect the rod puppet in such a way that allowed the strings and flexible rods that animate the figures to be manipulated by a keyboard-like control apparatus held by the puppeteer. For the medieval sung-fable Aucassin et Nicolette, Blattner himself chose to use lever-operated puppets, accompanied by twelve chorus singers. In 1936, he presented Le Secret d’animation (The Secret of Animation), a demonstration of puppet manipulation visible to the viewers using an extract from The Mystery of Adam, during which he unveiled the secrets behind the manipulation of lever-operated puppets.
Examples of Lever-Operated Puppets
In Japan, dashi karakuri ningyō features an elaborative form of lever-operated puppets. The puppets, manipulated by a very complex system of strings and toggles, are presented on hand-pulled chariots higher than six metres in the shape of a temple or pagoda and elaborately decorated. The puppets represent calligraphers, musicians, mythological heroes, warriors, acrobats, and characters from nō theatre. These spectacles pass through the streets and are accompanied by musicians. The puppeteers, numbering up to five for one puppet, are generally underneath (but sometimes on the same level, or elevated) and are hidden from the public by drapes. Originally from China, the shinan-sha (cart or chariot with image) goes back to the 5th century, and was reportedly shown for the first time in Japan to the emperor, in the year 666, by a Chinese immigrant, Chiyū. In 869, sixty-six chariots, each representing a different province, passed through the capital. In 1730, Tagaya Kanchūsen revealed the secrets of these puppets in his book Karakuri kinmō kagamigusa (Karakuri Pattern Notes). Between 1868 to 1950, the karakuri ningyō practically disappeared. Today, numerous, new festivals of animated chariots take place, namely in the regions of Nagoya and Takayama.
The museum of Vieil Aix in France has eight mechanical crèches parlent (literally “speaking cribs” or Nativities) from Aix-en-Provence and Marseille, dating back to the 19th century, that present the Nativity scene: “The theatre, bigger than a puppet theatre, is mechanized; it contains several sets/scenery. The characters – of different sizes, depending on their stage position – are mechanized with true perfection. They move their arms, legs, head, fingers, eyes, they climb ladders, struggle up hills, get into boats and light streetlamps, etc. Raised on plinths hidden by elements of the stage, the one who gives the puppet its voice moves them via planks suspended underneath the theatre and makes them gesticulate appropriately. Violin strings join the various articulations to a keyboard attached to the plinth.” (Ernest Maindron, Marionnettes et guignols, 1900).
Heinrich Apel’s Theatrum Mundi (literally, world stage or world theatre), based in Dresden in the 19th century, used group-puppets animated by a mechanism of rods. These were not strictly speaking keyboard puppets, but more rod ones.
In China, in the regions of Beijing and Nanjing, the traditional manipulation of rod puppets is sometimes done by controls with levers. The central rod, which allows the body to move, has an ergonomic handle that sits between the thumb and the index finger. It is surrounded by a keyboard composed of small levers that influence strings that go inside the puppet. These strings control the lateral, forwards and backwards movements of the head, the eyes, the closing of the eyelids, the opening of the mouth and sometimes, mobile elements in the hair. The hands are completely articulated (from knuckle to fingertip), to ensure a firm grasp on objects. The movement of the arms is permitted by a rod attached to the puppet’s wrist that ends with a lever that animates the fingers by the medium of strings. A rod attached to each foot allows the legs to move. Manipulation of this kind requires three puppeteers. Xu Hong, director of the Jiangsu Puppet Theatrical Company, has a breath-taking show during which she manipulates a puppet with a built-in lever control to calligraph an illustrated poem. Her “artist” takes the paintbrush, wets it in ink, prints the characters and draws bamboo on a sheet of rice paper, and all this is done on the end of rods of more than 1 metre.
In his work Figurenspiegel, the Viennese Richard Teschner (active in Prague and then Vienna from 1906 to 1946) invented puppets with meticulously secreted manipulation that were animated by a system of strings that passed inside a hollow manipulation rod and ended in a series of loops threaded over the thumb and the index finger of the puppeteer, allowing him to move the puppet’s head, which was mounted on a double articulation, giving him the possibility of back and forth and left to right movements. Teschner’s playboard stage utilized grooves in which the extremely refined puppets could be slid. In 1982, at the festival of Charleville-Mézières, the Austrian Gustav Dubelowski-Gellhorn manipulated astonishing, miniscule lever-controlled puppets on a table (see Pupilla). In the review Poppenspel of September 1981, he unveiled the mechanical secrets of his puppets.
Certain puppets used by ventriloquists are equipped with mechanical systems situated on the control handle that is found in the neck of the puppet (see Ventriloquism). We could also consider these to be lever-operated puppets.
(See also Ensecrètement/Vow of Secrecy, Secrecy.)
- Gervais, André-Charles. Marionnettes et marionnettistes de France [Puppets and Puppeteers of France]. Paris: Bordas, 1947.
- “Karakuri Ningyo”. http://www.allonrobots.com/karakuri-ningyo.html. Accessed 12 May 2012.
- “Karakuri Info”. http://www.karakuri.info/about.html. Accessed 12 May 2012. KITO, H., 1997. Karakuri Ningyo Sekaiten [The World of Karakuri Ningyō]. Tokyo: NHK Kinki Media Plan.
- Maindron, Ernest. Marionnettes et guignols [Puppets and Guignols]. Paris: Éditions Félix Juven, 1900.
- Senda, Yasuko. Karakuri Ningyo: Japanese Automata. Trans. Tom Slemons. Japan: Yasuko Senda Publishing, 2012.