In the English language, the term “repertoire” refers to a stock of plays, dances, operas, ballets, pieces or parts that a company or a performer knows, has rehearsed or is prepared to perform. The term “repertory” refers to the performance of various plays, operas, ballets or pieces by a company at regular short intervals. However, “repertory” and “repertoire” tend to be used interchangeably in spite of these subtle differences in their meaning.

In Marionette e Burattini (1958), Roberto Leydi wrote that puppets were “first a language, then a repertoire”. The puppet theatre repertoire (cf. repertory), closely linked to the possibilities and expressive characteristics of this theatrical form, is difficult to reconstitute in an historical and cultural order because these materials have either been scattered or lost. Puppeteers have often considered these as simple work instruments, not worth preserving. However, many outlines and drafts are still in existence today, waiting to be recorded, filed and studied. With the exception of a few historical research works, no systematic analysis that would allow the creation of a complete study of the theatrical culture of a country or era has yet been undertaken.

The puppet repertoire can be separated from the start into oral tradition and written tradition. Both were passed down within the profession from father to son and teacher to pupil. The first is based on text and voice (or even onomatopoeia) memorization and on gestures executed by the puppeteer within specific dramatic situations. The two typical examples are the Guignol repertoire and the Pulcinella repertoire – from the Neapolitan guarattelle – in which the personality of the character is inseparable from these “immaterial” elements. This rule also applies for other traditional characters such as Hanswurst, Kasperl, Petrushka and Punch. Many manuscripts that have been uncovered, most of the time in a deplorable condition, are copies of much older materials which attest to the extraordinary permanence of the fundamental traits of the puppet repertoire. The written content comprises texts, much of which comes from non-dramatic literature, as well as tragedies and comedies intended for actors’ theatre, that includes great classical works of Antiquity and the works of Shakespeare and Molière. This repertoire thus draws from a very diverse set of sources: biblical texts and the lives of saints; songs of heroic deeds and knight tales (e.g. the Carolingian cycle, Emperor Charlemagne and his knights against the Saracens); epic and legend poems; classical and lyrical works; popular novels, masterpieces and great myths of literature (e.g. Faust and Don Juan); historical dramas, and fantasy tales of war and patriotic episodes (with exaggerated or caricatured historical characters like Napoleon in France, Garibaldi in Italy, Alexander the Great in Greece); and stories of robbers and “sensational” dramas. Heroes of children’s literature, fables, fairy tales (Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast, the works of Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen … ) have also nourished the very vast repertoire of children’s puppet theatre. This diversity explains why the “scenario” of plays has often taken complex paths, creating derivative works, adaptations and parodies, with a reshuffling of elements from the official and “noble” culture, re-examined in the light of popular tradition and morality; always re-arranged according to the circumstances, the nature of the public (city or rural, bourgeois or popular, adult or child) and logistical constraints. Thus, among other examples, Victor, ou l’Enfant de la forêt (Victor, or the Child of the Forest), a prose drama in three acts which entered into the Béranger Company repertory in 1816 and was an adaptation of the work by French theatre director and playwright, René Charles Guilbert de Pixerécourt (1797), itself came from a novel by François Guillaume Ducray-Duminil (1761-1819).

Repertoire Inspired by Religion

Among the recurrent themes in traditional works for the stage, episodes taken from the Old and New Testaments and the lives of saints are noteworthy due to their mix of moralizing or edifying messages and their spectacular dramatic effects. In the 17th century, according to Ben Jonson in his Bartholomew Fair, puppets performed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and of Nineveh. In the following century, William Hogarth (1697-1764) painted the Southwark Fair showing a puppet play performing the scene of Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise (see Fairs and Fairground Performers). Still in this religion-inspired repertoire, the Massacre of the Innocents constitutes a violent scene in the Nativity shows, whether they come from a Liège tradition (Li Naissance) or an Eastern European one (notably the Polish szopka and the Ukrainian vertep). Certain themes, more than others, allowed for more powerful and spectacle-ridden scenes such as the attack of the demons in the The Temptation of Saint Anthony (French: La Tentation de Saint Antoine). At the beginning of the 20th century, the Pitou family company became famous for its “special effects” that accompanied the Crucifixion scene with lightning and thunder above the cross, or the Pentecost scene with tongues of fire descending on the apostles.

During certain periods of the year (Christmas, Easter, Holy Week, patron saint celebrations), puppet theatre would accompany the liturgy, and the Nativities tradition had an essential role in puppetry taking root in popular culture. In this type of repertoire, religious events were interspersed with comical sketches with the appearance of local traditional characters, devilish or monstrous figures, or more characters typical of the region, often caricatures (the Cossack, the Jew, the Gypsy). In Spain, episodes like the expulsion from Paradise included Don Cristóbal, whereas in Portugal, in the shows of the Bonecos de Santo Aleixo, the creation of the world was interspersed with comical and musical sketches. The Legend of Geneviève de Brabant (a morality type tale widely disseminated in the Middle Ages which became, starting from the 18th century, one of the favoured themes of travelling puppeteers, especially in Germany and France) incorporated different local characters depending on where it was performed. Moreover, the struggle of Good and Evil, other than its theme of social injustice, was equally at the core of bandit stories that successfully spread throughout Bohemia, Slovakia and Germany.

The Satirical Repertoire

Another characteristic essential to the puppet repertoire is parody. During the 19th century, the Teatro Gerolamo of Milan and the Teatro Gianduja of Turin frequently presented parodies of important lyrical works; the comical effect was created from the start just by the small size of the stage presenting an opera like Verdi’s Aida. In Lyon,  between 1878 and 1888, Pierre Rousset was doing the same thing with his adaptations of “big theatre” dramas like Guignol Tell, Guignol et Juliette or Robert le Diable (Robert the Devil), in which Guignol would sing tenor arias while Gnafron sang bass. In the second part of the 20th century, José Géal of the Royal Theatre of Toone in Brussels, Belgium, exploited this genre with Cyrano de Bergerac or Don José taken from the opera Carmen. Very often in this satirical repertoire, the diatribes from characters such as Pulcinella, Guignol or Ghetanaccio were directly aimed at institutions.

Asian Traditions

Asian puppet theatre repertoire is very diverse as well, and is also divided into oral and written traditions. This complexity is accentuated by the plurality of its modes of expressions and its techniques, some of which are specific – shadow, mask, dance, “living” puppets (or “flesh puppets” as in China), water puppets – each genre having its own appropriate repertoire. However, common traits can be found in all, in particular the importance of song and music in regards to the written text, the narrow and subtle relationship with live theatre – kabuki thus even borrowed certain of its characteristics from puppet theatre – the central role of ritual and religious elements (especially in Indonesia and in Taiwan) or the great epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in India and the Journey to the West (Xiyou ji) in China (see Monkey King). Japan also stands out due to the wealth of its written repertoire thanks to Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who is at the core of ningyō-jōruri or Bunraku.

More Recent Western Repertoire

In this regard, Western puppetry has also generated the creation of specific texts that have entered into the repertoire of companies (certain works by Michel de Ghelderode for the Toone Theatre, Maurice Maeterlinck, Federico García Lorca, Ubu roi (King Ubu) by Alfred Jarry). And today, a trend is taking shape in the renewal of theatrical writing, using as a starting point in writing text characteristics that are specific to puppet theatre.

(See also Dramaturgy, Opera dei Pupi.)