The marotte is originally a staff topped by a grotesque or grinning head with bells attached, shaken by the king’s jester to punctuate his speech or interrupt the sovereign. In the most elementary version, a single rod to the puppet’s head manipulates a marotte. In Philpott’s Dictionary of Puppetry, a marotte is defined as: “Originally the medieval fool’s stick or sceptre, a short rod topped with a small head …Andre Tahon in particular and some other French and East European puppeteers have added non-controlled arms. The heads are generally fixed. Stiff, but charming puppets good for dancing choruses” (p. 151).
A costume may cover the rod and hang or move naturally whether it be a rotary motion or shift from left to right or high to low when the rod is twisted or moved, making it appear that it is the puppet that moves of its own accord.
In some marottes the jaw, a beak, arms, or even a phallus, are articulated elements and may be moved using strings or rods placed inside the costume, as in some African marottes. For instance there is the example of Bambara puppets of Mali in 1931, with a moving beak animated using a string or in other cases an arm may be manipulated with an internal bamboo stick. Another example is a Nago puppet from Benin, called Agbo Legba (literally, father/begetter resembling a bull), which possesses an enormous phallus raised by a string to split his loincloth.
In the Lobi tribe in Burkina Faso, there exists a marotte representing a cylindrically shaped male character, forty centimetres tall, dressed in a sort of poncho. This puppet is sculpted from hard, dense wood in two parts: the body, which includes the lower jaw, and the top of the head. This allows articulation in the mouth. The upper part of the head is held and articulated through the hair/fabric of the headwear. By sending an impulse through the marotte’s body, the top of the head wobbles gently backwards and, thus, the mouth opens and closes, using gravity. In other instances rods may be attached to the hands and manipulation corresponds to the wayang golek of Java.
A marotte can also have a combination of manipulation techniques, for example rod and glove. Instead of placing the index finger in the head as is normal in a glove puppet, a rod is placed there that is then held by the forefinger, the little finger and the ring finger, whilst the thumb and the index finger are slid into the “arms” of the glove figure. This mixed-technique puppet is easily held. For hand-held marottes, the head is always mounted on the principal rod. The puppet is dressed in a rectangular costume (about eighty centimetres wide and sixty centimetres in length), which resembles a bag, open at the bottom but with closed sides and top. The top two corners are opened and hands or mittens are stitched on. A hole halfway between the two hands accommodates the central rod on which the head is positioned and the costume can be fitted to give the illusion of a figure. All sorts of accessories can personalize the puppet: collar, cuff links, buttons, pockets, laces, etc. The manipulation is performed by holding the central rod with one hand, and placing the other hand inside the hole at the bottom of the costume in order to animate the glove or mitten (depending on the size of the puppet, a glove can be manipulated by the thumb and two or three fingers, allowing it to pick up objects and respect the proportions of the character’s scale). In this example, one of the puppet’s arms is left dangling. To avoid this lack of animation, two puppeteers may be used for a single puppet. In this scenario, one would manipulate the head using the rod, leading all the character’s movement, while the other animates the two hands, giving the puppet a delightful breadth when the arms open wide.
However, some prefer to have more control over the figure. This is the case in Bunraku manipulation in which the master puppeteer holds the central rod, and manipulates one of the hands directing the general behaviour and movement of the figure. His assistant manipulates the other hand and must follow the senior manipulator’s movements appropriately.
If mechanisms, levers, strings, rods, and/or springs are built into the bottom of the marotte, it may be transformed into a lever-operated puppet.
André Tahon’s marottes (of which the star is Papotin, a hand-held marotte), with their impeccable costumes, were of a remarkable quality and modelled elegance. The eloquence and spirit of André Tahon, the humour of his gags, the precise manipulation and perfect gestures, set to the most minute detail, the performance centred on a crowd of puppets on stage (Sourissimo), created, as Tahon wrote himself, “this marvellous language of optical illusion, using little nothings – bits of cloth and hands: hands inside, behind, underneath, above … ” which make his performances “a refining of shapes and colours in a lacing of mockery.”