Rod marionette is a relatively recent term in English. It came into existence to distinguish between a jointed figure operated from above by strings alone, and one operated with a wire or rod attached to the head.
The rod marionette was the classic European marionette until the end of the 19th century. The earliest traces include small figures dating from antiquity that have been found in the graves of children in Greece and the south of Italy. These are generally made of clay, but may also be of ivory or bone, and are jointed at the shoulders and hips (and sometimes knees). Most probably these were toys but some have an indication of a head rod which suggests that they were intended to be used as puppets. A well-known medieval engraving depicts a man with a puppet on his lap and a rod attached to the head is clearly indicated. From the 17th century onwards it is clear that the normal way of operating a marionette was by means of a rod attached to the head. However, by the mid-19th century English performers were beginning to replace the rod with support strings to either side of the head.
Towards the end of the 1870s the companies of John and Thomas Holden embarked on a decade of highly successful touring in Europe, and, in the case of Thomas Holden, even further afield. Their shows depended heavily on clever variety and trick numbers with direct visual appeal and were rapidly imitated. Passing from rods to strings meant the means of control became far less visible and the new style of manipulation allowed for greater realism in movement. Thomas, clearly a virtuoso performer, was widely, but erroneously, credited with having invented the “all-string” marionette.
Many European companies continued to perform dramatic or narrative pieces using the classic rod marionette, and some still do today. The most notable areas where the rod marionette has survived are Sicily, Belgium and the Czech and Slovak republics, but it has also persisted in a form of crib show in Portugal, the Bonecos de Santo Aleixo (see also Nativity Scenes).
In Italy the Colla family of Milan replaced the head rod with strings in the 1880s, whilst the great Lupi company of Turin were still using the head rod in the 1990s. The Pitou company in France continued to use the head rod until they put the puppets aside in 1913 (to open a cinema).
The success of Holden’s led to the commercial production of “Holden-style” marionettes by suppliers of puppets such as the English De Vere in Paris. Many companies retained the classic rod marionette, but bought or made some all-string trick numbers which they used at the end of the show.
There are many varieties of rod marionette, depending on the size and weight of the figure and the amount of movement required. The rod itself may be made of iron, or be a lighter wire, sometimes of brass, but in some cases (as with Van Weymersch in the 19th century in Flanders) it was a very short wooden rod less than 15 centimetres in length with a couple of projections at the sides for hand strings and one at the back for a back string. The length of the rod can vary enormously depending on where the performer stands in relation to the puppet. A common height for a marionette in the 19th century was between 70 and 80 centimetres although in Catania the height might be as much as 1 metre 20 centimetres. If the performer was on the stage floor a relatively short rod would be used, but if the performer was on a bridge over the stage, the length would be dictated by the relationship between the feet of the operator and the top of the puppet’s head, making allowance for the fact that most marionettes are operated at approximately waist height. The height of the backcloth (and therefore the bridge) might be a further factor, as in the case of the Lupi company where backcloths measure 1 metre 80 and the rods are therefore over 1 metre in length.
The control rod may be embedded in the top of the head or, in many cases, hooked onto a staple firmly planted in the crown. The neck and torso are then joined by some system of interlinked staples or by a wire loop at the base of the neck that is held in place by a pin or wire passing through the torso. In the case of the Sicilian pupi the head rod passes right through the head and emerges below the neck. It is then bent back into a sort of hook, which can engage with a staple or wire in the torso, whilst the end lodges in a second hole in the neck. This ensures that the head cannot swivel round on the wire. To remove or change the head (something that happens a great deal in the Opera dei Pupi), it is a simple matter to slide the head up the rod, releasing the end of the hook and making it possible to disengage it from the torso.
The simplest rod marionettes are jointed figures with no more than a single rod to the head. Such a system has survived with the Tchantchès of Liège, Belgium, but can also be found with most of the figures of the Bonecos de Santo Aleixo. Far more common is an arrangement of two strings attached to the hands which allow for free gestures, and this was adequate for most of the dramatic work performed at a period when gesture was essentially a support to speech and realistic movement was not a requirement.
Before the later 19th century leg strings were not thought of as a necessity for marionettes. Emphasis on realistic walking would only come later with the all string figure. Women’s legs were well concealed under their long skirts, and in some cases female puppets had no lower body, or else were provided with a wooden peg which acted as a spacer between the pelvis and the ground. An idea of walking and especially a bold stride for a warrior, who might also need to take up a strong posture, were achieved by making one leg marginally shorter than the other. By a slight swivelling movement of the wrist the performer could shift the weight of the figure from one leg to the other in such a way that the shorter leg would swing forward in a way that evoked a step. This device was widely used, whether for the tiny Casa Grimani figures in Venice or the large pupi of Sicily and helped provide an image of a typical puppet gait. By the mid-19th century leg strings were in fairly common use, as with the Théâtre Séraphin in Paris, but in many places a string to a leg was used for special effect. Today in Palermo a string to the left knee allows a puppet to strike an attitude, or bend the knee to bow if so required (the traditional Catanian puppet has no knee joint). With Lafleur of the Cabotans of Amiens and the Pierke of Ghent a leg string had the additional function of offering a kick to sort out a situation, rather in the same way that a stick could solve most problems on the glove-puppet stage. In the Czech-Slovak tradition it is possible to find concealed leg strings that pass through the body of the puppet. The origins of this are unclear, but there are a small number of Italian 18th-century figures with concealed stringing. It is possible that the technique derives more from automata than from any mainstream marionette tradition.
Sometimes the right arm of a puppet would be controlled by a second rod. Generally this was for a special strong movement and was particularly effective for fighting. The Poesje of Antwerp were noted for the heavy clubs which swung freely from the right hand and could be used to good effect (most of the older figures have replacement leather noses because of blows from clubs). Mestre Salas, the master of ceremonies with the Bonecos de Santo Aleixo, is equipped with a club which is directly controlled by a rod. Today the main use he makes of it is to chase recalcitrant animals in the Garden of Eden or to beat the priest (who also has a rod to his right hand so that he can take off his biretta).
The Sicilian pupi warriors are often equipped with a second rod for the sword arm and this allows for vigorous and precise choreography of battle scenes. Women and characters “in paggio” (not in armour) have a hand string rather than a rod. In Palermo additional strings allow the sword to be drawn by pulling the hilt into the right hand, which is then controlled with the rod, and another string is sometimes used to allow for the lowering of the visor if the warrior engages in combat.
Travellers to Italy in the first half of the 19th century commented on the grace of marionette ballet dancers when visiting Genoa and Rome. Marionette versions of the great Vigano ballets, such as Le creature di Prometeo (The Creations of Prometheus), found their way into the repertoires of the larger marionette companies (the Teatro Fiano and Guiseppe Fiando’s theatre, the Nocchi and Zane companies). Surviving rod marionette ballet dancers can still be found with the Lupi and Colla collections of puppets. The grace with which they can move is astounding and one reason for this is a second rod attached to the base of the spine. Working the two rods in harmony allows for remarkably subtle movements of the torso and facilitates precise choreography, especially leaps, whilst additional strings help attitudes and allow for battus and other specific dance steps.
The configuration of the rod control has a number of variations. Sometimes the top of the rod is simply bent over, so that the puppet can easily be hung up. It is quite common to have a wooden grip such as a turned piece of wood, which may take the form of a small pear. In northern Italy this “pear” often had four or five leather tags to which additional strings could be attached. Another variant is a small cross bar mounted at the top of the rod to which strings for arms, and possibly legs or the back of the neck can also be attached. Sometimes extra strings are simply tied in a bunch to the top of the rod, as with the Séraphin theatre in Paris in the 19th century.
In Italy the head rod is generally referred to as the “ferro” (iron). The Sicilian rod is bent over at the top for hanging. In Palermo it generally has a wooden grip at the top and then the second rod, which often ends in a loop, is held in the performer’s other hand, whilst strings are tied in a bunch at the top of the control. An almost identical arrangement was used by the Séraphin theatre in Paris in the mid-19th century. The Catanian puppets are distinguished by very heavy rods that may have a diameter of a centimetre. The sheer weight of these puppets with their controls means that the operator often uses a suspended leather sling to support the wrist when performing.
Puppeteers in Germany generally converted to the all-string figure, but the rod tradition continued in the Czech and Slovak republics. Here the distinguishing feature of the control is that the top of the rod is bent back. The grip, which has projections on either side to take the leg strings, is placed on the bent back top of the rod and thus becomes a rocking bar which also controls the legs. Having passed through this grip, the end of the rod is then bent forward and terminated with an eyelet through which a string linking the hands is passed. After the 1950s, the Slovak rod marionette became closely associated with “tradition” and carried implications of an older more national form that predated the introduction of the Soviet system of central puppet theatres and their “modern” puppetry. Anton Anderle and family were compelled by the Soviet authorities to cease performing in the 1950s, but subsequently Anton Anderle picked up the tradition and became one of its greatest exponents.
By the 1980s the rod marionette was beginning to be revived, sometimes in a rather folksy way, as a means of reviving a disappearing or disappeared tradition. Today it has acquired a new currency as a genre in its own right rather than just the earlier way of operating, and a performance may be classified as a “rod marionette” one. It lends itself to strong dramatic movement and offers the performer a direct control closer to that of the rod puppet or even the glove puppet. The rod marionette is propelled by the hand of the puppeteer, whilst the all-string marionette (see string puppet) depends upon gravity and a play of tensions, which ultimately makes for the development of a rather different set of performance skills. A comment on performances in London in the 1850s by Brigaldi’s theatre noted that figures seemed to float, which suggests manipulators not yet very familiar with the manipulation of all string marionettes. Some of the Sicilian pupi are so well grounded that they can almost stand on the stage floor without any assistance from the puppeteer.
Some of the most interesting work with the rod marionette since the 1970s has been that of the Naivní Divadlo (Naïve Theatre) of Liberec in its reworkings of the older Czech repertoire, in pieces such as The Headless Knight (1993), and Divadlo DRAK (DRAK Theatre) of Hradec Kralove with rigorously modern productions such as Till Eulenspiegel (1973) where the rod puppets had all the morphological characteristics of traditional figures, but were without costumes and there was an emphasis on the natural wood from which they were carved, whilst the manipulators themselves were visible. Massimo Schuster had a one-man performance of Macbeth (1984) in which he appeared without any proscenium arch to conceal him and performed a version of Shakespeare’s play with not more than two rod marionettes onstage at any one moment. In Palermo Mimmo Cuticchio has also brought the “puparo” (puppeteer) onto the stage, and even given one production the title of Guided visit to the Opera dei Pupi (1989), a sort of presentation/evocation of the Opera dei Pupi employing Brechtian techniques of demystification and deliberate destruction of any dramatic illusion.
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- Jeanne, Paul. Le Théâtre de marionnettes d’Anvers [Puppet Theatre of Antwerp]. Paris: La Très Illustre Compagnie des petits comédiens de bois, 1934.
- Leroux, Andrée, and Alain Guillemin. Al’comédie! La Voix du Nord, 1997.
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- McCormick, John. The Italian Puppet Theater – A History. Jefferson (NC): McFarland & Co., 2010.