Traditional Danish puppet character. Mester Jakel arrived in Denmark around 1790. In all probability he came from Northern France with French touring puppeteers. The origin of the name is not completely clear, but according to Svend Smith it must be regarded as a Danish form of Maître Jacques, one of the local puppet heroes in Northern France.
According to police licences, Mester Jakel shows were held from 1795 in a tent next to the potter’s workshop by Kirsten Piils Kilde (Kirsten Piils Well) at Dyrehavsbakken in Klampenborg (the worlds’ oldest amusement park) not far from Copenhagen. At first, the pots played a role in the Jakel shows, being used instead of Mester Jakel’s stick, which got broken during the performance. In 1863, the tent was replaced by a wooden booth painted in the traditional Danish colours of red and white. The booth, in different forms, remained there until 1983. It was equipped with a stationary stage and was large enough for the puppeteer to be completely hidden from the public.
Mester Jakel is played as two-hand comedies with glove puppets. The cast includes his wife Rosalia, the Jew, the Recruiting Officer, the Doctor, the Wizard, the Devil, the Dog, and the Sausage. The plot is absolutely fixed, with elements of repetition and greatly simplified characterization. The comedies consist of a number of acts in which the hero – Mester Jakel – is confronted by the other characters, one by one. Most of the acts end in fights, which the hero, in accordance with the convention, always wins.
Mester Jakel is a comic character, but he is also cunning and disrespectful, and his faithful henchman is his stick with which he batters his partners and opponents. His voice is shrill and penetrating, but without the use of the swazzle, and he demonstrates his invincibility with immense verve. In the oldest comedies, Mester Jakel’s costume consisted of trousers, sweater and a red hat with a tassel. He was sometimes equipped with legs that could be thrown up over the ramp or could kick. His features were not so caricatured as they became later on, as Mester Jakel turned into a far more grotesque figure with a big, long nose, jutting jaw, protuberant eyes and a wide, ferocious grin – wearing a jester’s costume complete with bells on the hat – not unlike the English Punch. The words/dialogues largely came from German puppet comedies, although the repertoire still includes the Madame Rosette comedy, whose theme has roots in antiquity. The dialogues, with some improvisation, were based on fixed scenarios and were handed down from generation to generation until about 1900, when they were written down. They thereby became far more stereotyped, losing the originality that had been guaranteed by the custom of improvisation.
For more than 200 years, Mester Jakel’s only permanent home was at Dyrehavsbakken with the funfair’s performers, who kept him alive. For many years, Mester Jakel has been played by Erico Lund, who also played the Pierrot character from 1963 till 1983. Besides playing these two figures, Lund revitalized the Mester Jakel comedies and added several new texts to the repertoire. When he died there was no one to take over the Mester Jakel part until 1997 when Kurt Flemming took on the role of Pierrot. Flemming took up the tradition, playing the old comedies in his new red and white booth several times a day during the summer.
In 2001, Thy Teater (Thy Theatre) staged Jakel og pølserne (Jakel and the Sausages), re-written and directed by Hans Hartvich-Madsen. The performance was played more than 200 times in Denmark as well as abroad during the following eight years. In 2003, Marionetteatret i Kongens Have (Puppet Theatre in Kings’ Gardens) in Copenhagen staged Jakels fataliteter (Jakels’ Fatalities) in an updated version.
Mester Jakel is still very much alive and kicking…