A rod puppet is a figure operated from beneath by means of wooden or metal rods. It is ubiquitous in many puppet traditions, but the term was more generally employed in Europe only from the middle of the 20th century. At its simplest the rod puppet is a basic marotte or stick puppet operated with a single rod. In Northern Italy there are indications that figures of this sort may have been used to perform plays at the end of the 18th century. On the Italian glove puppet stage the marotte has been used for a very long time, normally for a female puppet whose main role is to dance, and who is given full- length arms which can swing around. The marotte appears quite frequently on the mamulengo stages of Brazil, where it generally mixes with other types of rod and glove puppets.
Today glove-puppeteers such as the Niemen family of Piedmont have continued to use this type of puppet for additional less important roles. In Paris in the 1950s, La Compagnie du Manifole of Yves Vedrenne and Geneviève Serreau devoted itself especially to the technique of the marotte.
The rod puppet is the most common form in Indonesia, whether for three-dimensional figures or for shadows. The wayang golek is the standard rod puppet today and is thought to date back to at least the 16th century. In most cases it has a long batik sarong and is without legs, but in the northern Japara region of West Java figures were sometimes provided with legs. The central control rod tapers to a point at the bottom so that it can be jammed into the fibrous banana log that runs along the base of the stage. This allows the dalang to stock characters on either side till they need to appear, or to multiply the number of figures onstage. The diameter of the control rod is reduced at the point where it enters a hole that runs through the carved torso. At the top it emerges, often tapered, and the head of the figure is planted on it. This arrangement allows the dalang to turn the head of the puppet without turning the body. Arms, articulated at the shoulder and elbow, are controlled by lighter rods tied to the hands. The wayang kulit or leather shadow figures, where head and body are cut in one piece, likewise have a support rod that is held in the hand. This is often a bent piece of bamboo or buffalo horn that follows the contours of the figure to ensure maximum support. Occasionally a string mechanism comes into play to allow an articulated jaw to function. Arms are articulated at shoulder and elbow and are disproportionately long, especially in Java. Many figures, especially comic and grotesque ones, like the marotte, have only a basic support rod and the arms are incorporated into the overall silhouette. The wayang klitik is a flat figure, carved in relief with articulated leather arms and is operated in much the same way as the wayang kulit, but without a shadow screen.
China has/had a huge variety of different styles of puppet but the rod puppet is one of the most widely used, especially in Guangdong province. Small figures of 50 centimetres or less have a head mounted on a short rod or handle held in the right hand. This is often equipped with strings to allow for movement of eyes, eyebrows, the mouth, and even the ears. These puppets have no actual body. The head rod passes through a ring in the top of an under costume which is held in place by a small wooden pin running through the rod below the ring. The puppeteer’s left hand manages the two arm rods which are operated from below but are bent to follow the line of the arms inside the under costume. Larger figures of about one metre sometimes have a more substantial support rod which reaches almost to the ground, whilst life-size ones, particularly used in Beijing, have a rod that sits in a holder in a leather belt worn by the performer. Larger figures also tend to have a more fully carved torso. In some cases such figures may be equipped with trigger-operated strings on the control rods that allow for both facial movements and articulation of the hands for handling props. In such cases more than one manipulator may be required. Larger rod puppets in China sometimes have hidden arm rods, but this practice which may have originally helped suggest that the figures moved without human agency has often been abandoned today, as external rods allow for a wider range of gesture and expressiveness.
Concealed control rods are a feature of the beautifully carved and decorated hun krabok puppets from Thailand which have a central bamboo rod for the head whilst the arm rods run inside the costume, which is a rectangular bag some 60 centimetres wide, terminated by small hands at the two top corners. Taiwanese glove puppets sometimes have rods inserted during the performance to achieve a special effect such as the handling of a prop.
In Mali puppets with arm rods concealed in the costume are quite common. In the case of very large puppets, which may reach nearly 3 metres, the puppeteer is inside a voluminous costume and the head of the figure is worn above his own head, whilst he operates rods terminated with hands that run inside the forearms.
In most cases the rod puppet is operated from below, but there are also cases where the puppeteer stands behind the figure and the rods are therefore horizontal to the ground. Broadly speaking the Bunraku figures are operated in this way and the technique is used in the Chaozhou region of China, where the much smaller figures are effectively tabletop puppets. Some Chinese shadow performers also use the horizontal rod, and the light is placed high up above the head of the performer. In the tolpava koothu shadow theatre of Kerala, India, or the Turkish karagöz and Greek karaghhiosis the lights are placed at the base of the screen and the performer stands directly behind the figures.
Long before the “discovery” of oriental puppet techniques the rod puppet or elements of rod puppet technique existed in Europe. The most specific case is the various cribs of Eastern Europe, notably the Polish szopka (see Nativity Scenes). A unique example of a puppet theatre that evolved out of the crib tradition is the Hänneschen-Theater of Cologne where the central support rod is prolonged to reach the floor and where, curiously, the puppets themselves are surprisingly similar to some of the rod marionettes of Belgium, but operated from below rather than from above.
In Europe the notion of the rod puppet as a new genre came with Richard Teschner and Nina Simonovitvch-Efimova, both inspired by the Indonesian wayang golek. It was taken up by Sergei Obraztsov and became one of the main techniques to be used and developed by the Moscow Sergei Obraztsov Central Puppet Theatre (see Gosudarstvenny Akademichesky Tsentralny Teatr Kukol imeni S.V. Obraztsova). Obraztsov would sometimes multiply both the number of rods and the number of operators concealed beneath the playboard. With the development of Central puppet theatres throughout Eastern Europe in the years following World War II it became widely employed in those countries and was subsequently picked up in the West and also in countries that came under the cultural influence of the Soviet Union, from Egypt to India, such as the Calcutta Puppet Theatre of Suresh Dutta.
In many cases the central rod is equipped with a mechanism to tilt the head and to operate the mouth and/or eyes. The head pivots on the top of the neck and a simple lever or trigger with a string or wire moves the head and sometimes some of the features.
The basic rod puppet is a figure operated by a rod to the head and rods to the hands. A popular variant is a figure whose head is operated by the hand, more like a glove puppet, and whose arms are managed with rods. Jim Henson with his Muppets employed this technique. In many cases Western puppeteers have adopted the rod puppet in this manner, but reduced the number of arm control rods to a single one to reduce technical complexity and allow for greater dramatic expression.
- Buurman, Peter. Wayang Golek – The Entrancing World of Classical Javanese Puppet Theatre. Singapore, Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988.
- Liking, Werewere. Statuettes peintes d’Afrique de l’Ouest. Marionnettes du Mali [Painted West African Statuettes. Puppets of Mali]. “Traditions africaines” series. Paris: Nouvelles Éditions africaines/Arhis, 1987.
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- Stalberg, Roberta Helmer. China’s Puppets. San Francisco: China Books, 1984.
- Wright, John. Rod, Shadow and Glove Puppets from the Little Angel Theatre. London: Hale, 1986.