Charles Magnin (1793-1862), the first puppet theatre historian, states in his Histoire des Marionnettes (History of Puppets, 1852, new version 1862) that puppets originated from ancient idols and therefore appeared in the context of ceremonies and in terms of religious customs. At the beginning of the 20th century, other researchers proposed different hypotheses.
From Germany, Richard Pischel (1849-1908) asserts that this type of theatre has only one geographical origin and that India is the birthplace of puppetry. To support his position, this philologist – specializing in India – makes references to the Sanskrit terms sutradhara (he who holds the strings) and sutraprota (puppet), which would denote the first written accounts of puppetry in world literature. Another argument in favour of this thesis would be the role played by Gypsies in the dissemination of this art throughout the world. Several scholars share this view regarding these itinerant puppeteers. On the other hand, other researchers like Hermann Reich (1868-1934) and Berthold Laufer (1874-1934) believe that Asia owes its tradition in this domain to Greek culture. However, 20th century ethnographic research on the first cultures and civilizations confirms the theory set forth by Magnin and his followers, among whom were Gaston Baty (1885-1952) and Otto Spies (1901-1981).
Researchers have well proven that puppets existed in religious rituals and mostly in those of “primitive” communities. At this stage they were not called puppets and were obviously not used as entertainment objects or theatrical elements. However, they were crafted to replace either humans or divine beings and were often manipulated. Traces of these can still be found in Africa and anthropological sources have confirmed this; from observations made on the Maori populations of New Zealand and in the Polynesian Islands to ritualistic dolls discovered in certain parts of Asia. Evidence from the 19th century has also shown the existence of puppets used during ritual, magic and shamanistic ceremonies by Native North Americans (see Native American Puppetry), whereas it is established that figurines were part of the Aztec culture before the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés.
Indigenous Origins of Puppets
Puppetry could therefore have been born in each culture and community at a certain stage of its development and in a specific religious, ritualistic or shamanistic environment. However, the indigenous origin of puppetry theory does not answer the other question of the birth of puppet theatre. Most researchers agree that the birth of puppet theatre has the same origin as that of live theatre, which is also derived from religious and ritual ceremonies (see Rites and Rituals). However it is difficult to pinpoint an original moment in time regarding this matter as it is difficult to give a precise and global definition of theatre based on a clear distinction between ritual and theatre arts. Still today, puppet theatre in India and South East Asia provides several religious functions whereas African puppeteers are often part of much larger ritual ceremonies. The transformation of a rite into a profane spectacle was a very long process and depended on the culture of each people.
The European notion of dramatic art comes from a clear historical differentiation between the sacred and the profane, between the religious participation in a ritualistic event and the profane perception of a theatrical event. However, even European theatre has often included in its repertoire religious representations such as themes from the Passion, the Nativity (see Nativity Scenes) and the Mysteries during the Middle Ages. Today, the situation is more complex due to a return to the source element in certain shows performed by companies who use certain ritualistic components. Western theatre mixes participation and perception, and certain works are closer to certain ancient forms that can also be observed in certain types of shadow and puppet theatre in Asia.
But it seems undeniable that behind its very large diversity, and in spite of being unable to find a general definition, puppet theatre was indeed born “on the steps of the altar” in most countries.
- Baty, Gaston, and René Chavance. Histoire des Marionnettes [History of Puppets]. “Que sais-je?” series. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1959; 2nd ed., 1972.
- Laufer. Berthold. Chinesische Schattenspiele [Chinese Shadow Play]. München, 1915.
- Magnin, Charles. Histoire des marionnettes en Europe, depuis l’Antiquité jusqu’à nos jours [History of Puppets in Europe, from Antiquity to the Present Day]. Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1852; 2nd ed., 1862; facsimile reproduction of 2nd ed.: Genève: Slatkine, 1981; Bologna: Arnaldo Forni, 1983.
- Reich, Hermann. Der Mimus [The Mimus]. Vol. I-II: Weidermannsche Buchhandlung. Berlin, 1903.
- Spies, Otto. Türkisches Puppentheater. Versuch einer Geschichte des Puppentheater im Morgenland [Turkish Puppet Theatre. Attempt at a History of Puppet Theatre in the East]. Emsdetten: Verlag Echte, 1958.