Flat puppets which evolve from one image to another. “Metamorphoses”, or transformation puppets, are a variation of what is called trick puppets in English-speaking countries (marionnettes à subterfuge in Francophone countries). “Metamorphoses” are technically complex puppets and require virtuoso manipulation. Metamorphoses became popular in Western puppetry around 1850, and are essentially created to amaze.
Metamorphoses are made of glue brush painted sheet metal and cardboard. The wooden horizontal control is in the shape of a short ruler. One or two metal rods provide suspension. Placed beneath the control, various articulated levers or horizontal bars hold the strings from the moving parts. A handle can also be included if a part needs to be turned. The puppets appear to be flat, but create a magical illusion as they transform in plain sight. For example, a peacock may raise its neck, nod, turn a cartwheel, then lower its tail and open it – revealing a cloud which is a jewel-encrusted spinning wheel above which a blindfolded Lady Luck holds a cornucopia of abundance.
This transformation/metamorphosis effect impresses due to the manipulator’s skill and speed of execution. Technical prowess usually takes precedence over dramaturgy, which can only be allusive. Comic effects are frequent, as when a butcher transforms into a pig or when a miller on his donkey becomes a donkey on his miller. Sometimes, elements disappear or are lowered into the scene. M. and Mme Topinard stroll in, disappear above the stage only to reappear in a wheelbarrow (in this case there are two superimposed puppets, each with a separate control). Or Madame de Pompadour enters, changes into a Cupid on a pedestal, who then morphs into a sedan chair carrying Madame de Pompadour; the two porters are lowered from the control and are placed at the front and rear of the chair.
A myriad of other marvels constitute classics of this genre: barnyard animals, assorted professions, mythological, literary or historical figures, commedia dell’arte stock characters, exotic scenes, modern machines. Indeed, anything can be transformed into some other thing: the most important elements being wonder and humour. Metamorphoses are seldom seen today and largely disappeared during World War II. Contemporary puppeteers like the Australian Richard Bradshaw, however, includes transformations/metamorphoses in his shadow shows.
A variant of “metamorphoses” is the trick puppet. According to A.R. Philpott, trick puppets can be glove, rod, or shadow puppets (see Alexis Robert Philpott). For example, in Chinese shadow puppetry the illusion of transformation by substitution is often developed, such as a character suddenly “disappearing” from the screen and being rapidly replaced by another figure. Another example from China is certain Chinese glove puppets which are capable of spinning plates on the tip of a stick. These puppets have been variously called “trick puppets”, “transformation puppets”, “special effects puppets”, “virtuoso puppets”, or “subterfuge puppets”. Puppets that perform exceptional acts (tightrope-walkers, balancing acts, contortionists, jugglers and such) were inserted as short skits and interludes in the productions of fairground theatres of the 19th century (see Fairs).
Transforming puppets, puppets with a head that pivots inside a hood, enabling it to change faces three times, “nestling puppets” (French: “marionnettes-gigognes”), like Matryoshka dolls, Mother Guigogne hides her numerous children under her skirts …or the transformation/metamorphoses style puppets, are all part of this same category. Trick puppets are also performed in virtuoso music-hall turns: fakirs with multiple heads, skeletons which disarticulate and then re-assemble (apparently invented by British Thomas Holden), an English devil-violinist who places the instrument under his chin, places his bow over it, kneels, and then mimics the act of playing the instrument; or even unicyclists, such as that of Philippe Genty …
The so-called “marionnettes en abîme” also deserve a mention, in particular the puppets of the phenomenal Louis Valdes who used to manipulate around the 1960s a puppeteer puppet that manipulated another puppet, which in turn manipulated a ball juggler, which, quite incredibly, manipulated a fourth, the smallest puppet. Finally, we can complete this partial list and include “group” puppets, whose movements are synchronized by a single control (e.g. chorus girls, singers, marching soldiers, etc.), two-headed puppets, one of which is visible, the other which is hidden under the dress, appearing only when the head is turned 180 degrees, notably, as in the Rajasthani kathputli tradition, or which open like altarpieces, retablos or reredos, such as in the nishka tradition, on the north-west coast of India.
- Nelson, Nicolas, and J.J. Hayes. Illustrations Paul McPharlin. Trick Marionettes. Puppetry Handbook VI. Birmingham, Michigan, 1935. (“Republished” on Internet. http://puppetnet.com/book/print/10.
- Philpott, A. R. Dictionary of Puppetry. London: Macdonald, 1969.
- Philpott, A. R. Dictionary of Puppetry. Boston: Plays, Inc., 1969.
- Whanslaw, H.W., and Victor Hotchkiss. Specialised Puppetry. Redhill (Surrey): Wells Gardner, Darton & Co, 1948.