French puppet character. Polichinelle is a French adaptation of the Italian Pulcinella that is itself inspired by the character of the commedia dell’arte with the same name. Because of the lack of historical documents, the presence of this character as a puppet in France is known only through Brioché (17th century), and it was recorded in 1680 in Richelet’s dictionary.
Polichinelle is a vulgar, rough puppet, one of the archetypal characters of the masquerade. Whether a string puppet or a glove puppet, performed in the streets or in a theatre, his story is always the same. His birth is diabolical – he was born in an egg – and his life is in constant flux. He is totally beyond redemption. In France, Polichinelle loses his Italian mask and changes his costume, copying that of the actor Fracanzani from 1685 onward: a tight jacket, belt, and striped pants instead of the white Neapolitan outfit. In addition, he now has two humps, one on his back, and the other on his belly, the effect being extremely comical and sexual. This sexuality brings him closer to other puppets from the Mediterranean Basin, among which are Karagöz, of course. Always presented with the swazzle (French: sifflet pratique), he is mostly incomprehensible and his voice gives the impression of a character profoundly foreign to the world around him. Some claim that Polichinelle is the original Don Juan, others see him as an ambiguous man/woman with the two spellings of his name: Polichinel/Polichinelle; above all, the character instils fear: the two famous sayings on theatre posters and front cloths being – J’en valons bien d’autres (I’m worth as much as anyone) at the Lesage pitch, and Il luit pour tout le monde (The sun shines on everyone) on the front of his booth (castelet) in the Champs-Élysées. Both clearly manifest this character’s anarchic origins.
In the 19th century, Polichinelle became an emblematic character for the Romantics, particularly for Charles Nodier, but also for Théodore de Banville, Gérard de Nerval, and Maurice Sand. He also appeared in the works of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. But Polichinelle was by then slipping from puppet to doll, chased out of his booth by Guignol, now considered more “acceptable”, more typically French. However, in 1880, Louis Edmond Duranty published twenty-four plays for the Tuileries repertoire, and the Guentleurs at their puppet theatre of the Champs-Elysées continued to keep him alive.
Renewed interest in Polichinelle came in the 1970s and 1980s through the English character Punch, promoted and defended by Alain Recoing (Théâtre aux Mains Nues) and by Alain Lebon (Cirkub’U). He was then taken up by Cyril Bourgois (Punch is not dead) and by Romuald Collinet and Estelle Charlier ()., whose outstanding work on a very contemporary Polichinelle, still strongly connected to his roots, gives hope for a real future for him.
- Cahiers Robinson [Robinson Papers]. No. 6: Polichinelle. Arras: Université d’Artois,
- Duranty, Louis Edmond. Théâtre des marionnettes du Jardin des Tuileries [The Puppet Theatre of the Tuileries Gardens]. Paris: Dubuisson et Cie, 1863; Arles: Actes Sud, 1995.
- Nodier, Charles. “Polichinelle”. Paris ou le Livre des Cent et Un [Paris or the 101 Book]. Paris: Ladvocat, 1831.