The word “puppet” has old roots. It is derived from the Latin pupa (girl, doll) or pupilla (little girl-doll), to Vulgar Latin puppa, to Old French poupette, diminutive of poupée (doll), and Middle English popet (doll, c.1300; cf. poppet, one whose actions are manipulated by another), even pupil (orphan child, ward, to its later meaning of student) and pupil (centre of the eye; so called from the tiny image one sees of oneself reflected in the eye of another). The word “puppet”, to refer to a doll moved by strings or wires (later applied to puppets in glove form), seems to have first appeared around the 1530s.
The word “marionette” used in English was a synonym for “puppet” but now refers specifically to a string puppet (also called a string marionette), whereas the French use of marionnette is still the generic label for a puppet. It derives from the name of the Christian Virgin Mary, Marion in French, – the mother of Jesus, at first denoting objects bearing her image such as medals, as well as a musical instrument similar to the rebec. The word “marionette” is first recorded, in the sense in which it is used today, in a French translation of Girolamo Cardano’s De subtilitate (On Subtlety, c.1550-1560), designating a figure animated by human agency.
Other languages too, when naturalizing the French word, have reserved it for the stringed or wired puppets operated from above. This is the case in English (marionette), German (Marionette), Spanish (marioneta) and Italian (marionetta) and several others, even if there are a number of important exceptions.
Other terms are used, often derived from words meaning “doll”: English derives “puppet” from the Old French poupette, diminutive of poupée, like Puppe in German and the Sicilian pupi (although in Italian there are also the burattini, glove puppets). In certain Indian languages, the term for puppets is derived from putul or pava (see India) and in Japanese it is ningyō. In Spanish and Portuguese, títere, like marionnette in French, has a generic sense. In the Slav languages there is kukol and lalka and so on, but marionette is the most easily recognizable term all over the world.
Given the explosion of genres and techniques which has characterized puppetry in the 20th century, the contemporary tendency in Europe is to group all those scenic arts in which non-human forms are animated under the general heading of “puppet theatre”, “animation theatre” or “figure theatre” (in German, Figurentheater), a term for which, however, there is no commonly used English equivalent.
The Puppet as Object
Besides being an “actor”, the puppet is an artistic object. Puppeteers are most often artists from a visual arts background, bringing the visual, kinetic and dramatic aspects of the stage together. While puppets are rarely self-contained sculptures, separate from the movement that they are given and their relation to the scenic space, it is undeniable that their intrinsic artistic qualities and their apparent “animation” or “bringing to life” do fascinate spectators. Looking into the origins of this fascination one inevitably finds its roots in the animist belief in the presence of life in all things. The variety of puppets that reflect the human and animal form, whether copying or distorting it, is huge, taking in all the materials and styles which have been employed in art across the centuries. We can restrict the field somewhat if we consider only those figures created for use in a theatrical or filmic performance, “doubles” which aim to reproduce character and movement in a manner at once expressive and mechanical.
The puppet as a “theatrical object” therefore includes all the techniques used in the puppet theatre, carrying all the imaginative freight which has, according to the era, been loaded onto this figure. Taking into account the diversity of examples, we should attempt to draw up a typology of the puppet.
Firstly, there is the category in which one finds, on a reduced scale, all the skill and refinement of the applied arts, for example, the Venetian marionettes of the 18th century, and those which are made today in Salzburg (see Salzburger Marionettentheater) by highly skilled experts, or those made by the Italian Colla family, which are both lavish and precise. It makes sense to refer to these figures as “doubles” – in other words, they represent a “naturalism” the value of which is, in general, proportionate to the precision of the work and the preciousness of the materials. In the Western tradition, the preferred material for the bodies and limbs of these puppets is wood.
At the opposite extreme are glove puppets which, far from imitating the realist theatre, aspire to an existence governed by quite different codes. Their force lies precisely in their elementary character and in the distortion of human traits. A range of materials and allusive elements correspond to the simplicity of the movement.
String and Rod Marionettes
Traditionally, marionettes can be set in motion with the help of steel wire, linen or hemp threads, or stiff rods, as with the Sicilian pupi. They are attached to the centre or to the sides of the head, and at various points of articulation, according to the type of puppet. The legs and feet are of wood, articulated with carved or leather joints, with small lead weights sometimes inserted in legs or feet to aid the illusion of gravity. Each limb corresponds with a particular bar on the control.
The head, face and gait of the puppet depict the character of the puppet: as with masks, the face corresponds to its role and is shaped to allow nuances of expression to be produced through movement and the angle of lighting. The eyes may be painted or glass set into the eye socket, and can be made to be moved if a mobile gaze is desired. The face paint was in oils, avoiding fixatives in order to give the colour the patina of age. Papier-mâché, one of the most indestructible of materials, is often used for marionettes or glove puppets intended, for instance, for violent combat. The puppet’s hair may be of silk, horsehair, crêpe or real hair. Nylon thread was discovered to be useful for fantastic characters because of its reflective quality. The hair should allow for dressing, with beards and moustaches glued in place using a special wax applied with the fingers.
Costumes for string puppets or rod marionettes may be of any pliable, lightweight material, fixed with special pins that do not tear the fabric in the course of movement. Traditional puppeteers are careful to model their costumes on antique examples: modern materials react very differently to light. The fabrics are aged using artisanal techniques to create the illusion of wear. While puppets may weigh as much as 8 kilos and measure a metre in height, some Sicilian pupi reach 18 kilos and 1 metre 40 in height, leading to significant differences in technique and manipulation. Due to their chivalric repertoire, the male pupi wear authentic armour, and the female costumes are inspired by the baroque period. (See Pupi, Opera dei Pupi, String Puppet, Rod Marionette.)
Papier-mâché or wood (beech, pine or limewood, for example) are the base materials for glove puppets, although only for the head – hence the nickname “woodenheads” or “woodentops” – and sometimes for the hands. The body is usually made of cloth and usually has no lower limbs, although some have fabric legs that allow them to sit on the edge of the playboard, feet dangling out of the booth. The head must be very robust where it has to withstand constant beatings and blows, and the limbs are not necessarily in proportion to the whole. Should the nose break, it is quickly reconstructed out of papier-mâché, wheat-flour glue or starch. The arms and hands are normally able to pick up props: in the Chinese tradition, glove puppeteers are amazingly dexterous.
Rod and Shadow Puppets
There exist many other kinds of puppets, as diverse as the cultures to which they belong. Richard Teschner, for example, was inspired by the Indonesian wayang golek. His three-dimensional puppets were manipulated from below with a central rod to the neck and other slim rods supporting the hands, while the flexible head, neck and trunk are moved by wires or threads that run through the puppet and are pulled from below. In the shadow theatre, figures are often cut out of leather and manipulated by one or more rods beneath or behind them (see Karagöz, Tolu Bommalata, Togalu Gombeyata, Wayang). They may also be cut out of thin metal (see Le Chat Noir), black paper or parchment and, nowadays, different forms of synthetic materials. In Slovenia, the likeli, similar to marottes, are dolls mounted on a baton with a loose, floating costume. (See Rod Puppet, Shadow Theatre.)
Objects of Diverse Materials
From the moveable figures of the theatrum mundi, cut out of tin and painted, to the transformation or trick puppets (Metamorphoses) which allow instant changes, and from the hands of Drew Colby transformed in shadow play to the camouflaged feet of Laura Kibel which become characters – the range of objects used as puppets is vast (see Object Theatre, Theatre of Objects).
In the avant-garde, modernist movements of the 20th century, puppets followed the route of abstraction. Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Kurt Schmidt, Fortunato Depero (who created scenery and puppets for the Balli plastici Plastic (Artistic) Ballets of 1918), to mention just a handful, created puppets in wood or coloured metal, reducing the human body to geometric elements. In the 1950s, Luigi Veronesi made the same choice for his puppets for the Colla company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Enrico Baj used Meccano and wood for his allusive creations in which the smallest of signs distinguish the characters. Building on procedures of visual art such as collage, Dadaist compositions and the Surrealist object, avant-garde artists also substituted parts of the body with everyday objects. Thus the figures made by George Grosz for Yvan Goll’s Methusalem (German title: Methusalem oder Der ewige Bürger, Methusalem, or The Eternal Bourgeois, 1919/1922) use everyday elements of modern life (telephones, typewriters, bells, bulbs, etc.) to replace parts of the body. It was in this context that Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbühne was born, a project that staged mechanical objects with incongruous associations. The work of Tadeusz Kantor shows his view of the tragic aspect (and the grotesque element) of this eruption of objects onto the 20th-century stage. Indebted to the surrealist “found object” (for Picabia, a light bulb became La Fiancée Américaine) but also to the discarded mannequins described in the “treatise” by his compatriot Bruno Schulz (Sklepy cynamonowe, 1934, literally, “Cinnamon Shops”, produced in English as The Street of Crocodiles), Kantor made use of props that were both material and metaphorical objects, drawn into an allegory of death that evoked the medieval “Dance of Death”.
In the contemporary theatre, divisions between genres and techniques are being abolished, and few materials are excluded from puppet-making. The various types of puppet are mixed, each one depicting a different scenic practice, so that it is impossible to make an exhaustive catalogue. From puppets that belong to a particular tradition, to paper figures, shadows and projections of virtual images – and not forgetting object theatre and the animation of musical instruments – anything is possible. Animated material becomes the symbol of a dramatic character. In the case of the paper puppets of Yves Joly, the material expresses human fragility and incarnates a sense of the tragic. Similarly, various materials have been used in the construction of fantoches (see Fantoccini), whether a continuation or an evolution of the tradition: from the most traditional materials to plastics such as expanded polystyrene, polythene, foam rubber and fibreglass, carved with a chisel or hot wire. One must also mention recycled material such as packing cases, cardboard boxes, bottles and drinks cans, the use of which is, to some degree, indebted to the currents around Pop art. In the last quarter of the 20th century, a new and more ephemeral form of the theatre of animation emerged, making use of poor and even perishable materials: representation was the priority and if the object did not last, and was not beautiful when at rest, that was of little importance, since its only function was as a player onstage where it lived only through the animation created by the animator’s imagination.
In most cases, puppets are made by the performers themselves: this is an expression of the decision to remain master of one’s own creation and to work directly with the hands, in construction as in manipulation. In manipulating a puppet which you have made yourself, it is easier to obtain and modify the desired expression or movement, and the notion of the “craft” is preserved: when puppeteers manipulate puppets made by others, the relation between the object and the artist is not so close. If the puppet is in the first place a material object, it is also a figure of the transition from materiality to symbol and metaphor. Many theories of the puppet pay particular attention to the process which gives life to an inert object through movement and the dramaturgy, which gives inanimate matter the “spark” which transforms it into a living presence.
Construction techniques and the value of the puppet as an object bring us to the question of conservation. In some cases, puppets are real works of art, demonstrating a very high level of craftsmanship.
Active puppeteers usually keep their puppets in the workshop, hanging from a hook in the case of glove and rod puppets, or stored in cases. In Africa, in the villages where puppets play a role in ritual, there are “puppet houses” and guardians of the puppets. In Indonesia, the dalang keeps his figures in a chest, the kotak, respecting their hierarchy and keeping enemies apart. This chest is also part of the structure of the performance (it is placed to the left of the dalang and during performances is fitted with metal plates, called kepyak, that the dalang strikes with his bare foot to create dramatic sound effects). In Portugal, the two chests which ordinarily house the Bonecos de Santo Aleixo have a utilitarian function during the performances: turned on one end and placed just behind the opening of the stage, they raise the manipulators 45 centimetres above ground level.
As a result of the artistic, anthropological and historical interest which some puppets hold, they form part of the collections of many important museums: the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in France, the Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics) in Amsterdam, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Ca’ Rezzonico (museum of 18th-century Venice) in Italy. There are also specialist puppet museums such as the Musée Gadagne (Lyon), the Puppentheatermuseum in the Münchner Stadtmuseum (Munich), the Museu Internacional de Titelles d’Albaida (Albaida Museum of Nativity Scenes and Dioramas in Spain), the Museo Nacional del Títere – Huamantla in Mexico, and museums specializing in particular types of puppet such as the Spathario Shadow Theatre Museum in Maroussi (Greece; see Eugenios Spatharis) or the Museum Wayang in Jakarta and Rumah Topeng dan Wayang Setia Darma (Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets) in Gianyar, Bali, among other private and government run museums in Indonesia. Some puppeteers have created puppet collections and preserved their own creations, such as [lier]Maria Signorelli, Guido van Deth, Anton Anderle, the Slovak traditional puppeteer, and Bread and Puppet Theater, among others. However, collections of puppets often lie ignored in boxes on the floor of sheds and attics and storage cellars. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London holds a large collection of figures, but very few are on display.