Located in the south-western portion of Central Europe, Romania (Romanian: România) borders the Black Sea and is located between Bulgaria, Ukraine, Hungary, Serbia, and Moldova. The regions that are now part of modern Romania (Wallachia, Moldavia, Transylvania, southern Dobruja) came under Ottoman suzerainty until the newly formed Kingdom of Romania (1859) achieved full independence in 1877. From 1947-1989, the Socialist Republic of Romania was aligned with the Soviet Union.
Puppetry in Romania
The first traces of what appear to be puppets were discovered at Cucuteni at a site dating from the Neolithic period (6000-4000 BCE). They consisted of a number of earthenware or bone figurines probably used in magic or religious rituals, some of which have lasted until the present day, for instance the caloianul, during which two characters made of clay, the Mother of the Rain and the Brother of the Sun, are buried as “sacrifices” to bring rain. At Christmas or in the spring, archaic rituals are repeated with masks made of fur, bone, and wood featuring Capra (the Goat), also called Brezaia or Ţurca, a large puppet with a mobile jaw. The character is animated by a puppeteer hidden in the folds of the costume. Other great figures of animals and birds are known in Romania, notably Cerbul (the Stag), Boul (the Ox), Berbecul (the Ram), Cocostârcul (the Stork). Masks may also be anthropomorphic, to represent the characters of the Gypsy, the Turk, the Russian, the Jew, the Devil, and the Sorcerer, in games, which, puppet-like, accompany certain celebrations such as weddings and funerals. Another variant is the jigging puppet (French: marionnette à la planchette), where two little figures are animated on a table by a string attached to the little finger of a musician playing a pipe or bagpipes.
The first written mention of a popular puppet theatre, at first called paiața (jumping jack or pantin) then Vasilache, from the name of the show’s principal character, dates from 1715. Its origin has been the subject of lively controversy. According to Moses Gaster, it was the result of puppets imported in the 13th century by Saxons in Transylvania, whereas Nicolae Iorga attributes it to the Turkish Karagöz show introduced in the 18th century. It is notable too, both in dialogue and gesture, that Vasilache shows elements of the English *Punch, Russian *Petrushka, and Hungarian *Vitéz Lászlo. Altogether, Vasilache seems to be a synthesis of diverse influences overlaying a traditional Romanian base.
At Christmas, Vicleimul (The Bethlehem), also called Irozii, combined a biblical production played by actors with a puppet show played in a sort of glass-sided cabinet known as a hârzob, resembling the Polish szopka and the Ukrainian vertep (see Nativity Scenes). In it glove puppets of animals briefly appeared, as did Vasilache and his wife Marioara, in a sharply satirical piece about social problems and the politics of the moment. During the 19th century, the performance was a great success: police records reveal more than six hundred demands from the puppeteers for permission to play at Christmas. In Valachia, the shows alternated comic scenes such as Țiganul cu Ursul (The Gypsy with the Bear) and Șoarecele și Pisica (The Cat and the Mouse) with the satires, making fun of unscrupulous prelates, dishonest merchants, cynical soldiers, and bent policemen. Sometimes these shows aroused the wrath of the authorities and certain personalities of influence from the world of culture had to intervene to smooth things over.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the part of the show played by puppets became independent and the travelling puppeteers played wherever there were fairs celebrating religious festivals, like that of St George. We know the names of certain of these players, notable among them Constantin Punte and his students C. Borţea, Ilie Dobre, Ioniţă Gheorghe. By the end of World War II, there were few left of these traditional puppeteers, and in 1974, on the occasion of a festival organized by the Muzeul satului (Museum of the Village) in Bucharest, one could count only eight. The most important were Ion Borţea and Gheorghe Mocanu who also played the traditional Vasilache show at international festivals; Ion Ciubotaru who played with lever-operated puppets; Ghiţă, “artistul din lume” (Ghiţă, the world artist), a rural artist and one-man band who performed village stories; Rudy Nesvadba who manipulated a large puppet called Gogu; and Stâncion Domnosie who did a show à la planchette.
Today, none of these traditional artists survives. But the characters Vasilache and Marioara still live in the hands of a few professionally trained puppeteers. Among them is Liviu Berehoi (b.1952), who toured with the show Vasilache şi Marioara (Vasilache and Marioara) to many European countries and participated in several festivals of the “Punch and Judy Family”.
The Courtyard and the Street
The royal entourage of Romanian princes included jesters, acrobats, and other entertainers whose job was to attract the population of the capital onto the streets. Within the palace they amused the prince, his family, and their guests. The farces of Karagöz were at the centre of these traditional festivities. In the courtyard, they would be played by six comedians dressed in wide, red and white Turkish pantaloons with high fur hats, manipulating and improvising with puppets. The characters were either shadow figures performing in front of oil lamps, or marionettes (string puppets). Karagöz did not always have the principal role, but always enjoyed great freedom of speech and movement. The show always had a musical accompaniment. The themes, dictated by current affairs, were treated with some vulgarity (obscenities, double-meanings) spoken in Romanian, Greek or Turkish.
The character of Geamala, a giant puppet popular in the 19th century, three or four metres in height, was animated by strings fixed to its extremities.
From 1806 to 1945
It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the first literary pieces for puppets were written: Comedia guvernatorului Canta (The Comedy of Governor Constantin Canta, 1806) by Costache Conachi, Nikolae Dimachi, and Alecu Beldiman, performed by a group of young intellectual progressives in Iaşi, and Mavrodiniada by Iordache Golescu. They were social and political satires along the lines of the popular theatre of the day, so biting that, in 1864, a decree was issued from one prefecture forbidding all puppet shows to be performed in the town for several years. The affair inspired in 1865 a monologue by Vasile Alecsandri: Ion păpuşarul (John the Puppet Player); the same author mixed some puppets into his comedy Iaşii în carnaval (Carnival in Jassy). In the same vein, Mihai Eminescu, the great Romanian poet (1850-1889), wrote a virulent piece for puppets, Infamia, cruzimea şi desperarea în peştera neagră şi căţuile proaste sau Elvira în disperarea amorului (Infamia, cruzimea şi disperarea sau Peştera neagră şi căţuile proaste sau Elvira în desperarea amorului, Infamy, Cruelty, Despair, Or the Dark Grotto and Silly Songs or Elvira Desperately in Love).
In the first half of the 19th century, a young Moldavian, Iordache Cuparenco (1784-1844), passionate about the technical innovations of the time, constructed a series of “automatic puppets” for shows, which he organized in Iaşi and some other country towns. Disappointed by the failure of these productions and the indifference of the authorities, he left for Poland where he continued to give performances. In 1830, he founded the Picturesque Mechanical Theatre of Warsaw, one of the first in the country.
From 1882 to the end of World War II, the Brauer-Berger troupe of puppeteers gave shows in Romanian, Hungarian, and German, in the Banat region and in Transylvania. The repertoire consisted of comedies, short musical pieces, and operettas. The puppets (large-scale rod figures made in Czechoslovakia), the settings, and the texts are in the local history museum of Buziaş, a district of Timişoara.
In spite of the persistence of the Vasilache travelling shows, the first permanent puppet theatre was founded in 1928 within the National Theatre of Cernăuţi by the theatre director, Professor Teodor Năstase (Theodor Nastasi). He created several shows with designer Ioana Basarab. A year later, for the inauguration of UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette), Romania was represented in Prague by Professor Valerian Şesan, a personality of the arts world, who had created a family theatre with his son Pavel Milan and his daughter Carolina (alias Vera Mora).
From 1935, Renée George Silviu set up a little glove puppet theatre, giving shows in the toy department of the Galeries Lafayette in Bucharest. The group was to join the Țăndărică (Teatrul de păpuşi Ţăndărică Ţăndărică Puppet Theatre) in 1949, initiating its glove puppet ensemble.
In 1939, the actress Lucia Calomeri, after taking part in a workshop in Prague run by Josef Skupa, created a travelling puppet company which employed young teachers and artists. Dedicated to the artistic education of children, it played in schools and holiday camps. In 1945, this modest group enlisted other artists, the painters Elena Pătrăşcanu, Lena Constante, Alexandru Brătăşanu, Ileana Popescu, the young director Nicolae Massim, and musicians Marius Constant and Edgar Cosma, and was able to establish a small permanent theatre in the centre of Bucharest, thanks to the support of the Cultural Foundation of King Michael I. This was the Ţăndărică Puppet Theatre, which was to become a laboratory of major creative influence in Romanian cultural life from 1950 to 1984.
The 1950s and 1960s
Against the background of a general revitalization of the performing arts, the 1950s and 1960s marked a turning point in Romanian puppetry. The cultural authorities of the country (now a “people’s republic”) entrusted the puppet with part of the task of artistic and ideological regeneration. After 1949, about twenty permanent theatres dedicated to puppets were formed in the principal towns and cities, notably Arad, Alba-Julia, Baia Mare, Bacău, Braşov (see Teatrul Pentru Copii Arlechino, Arlechino Theatre for Children), Brăila (Cărăbuș Puppet Theatre), Botoşani (see Teatrul de Păpuşi Vasilache,
Vasilache Puppet Theatre), Cluj-Napoca (see Teatrul de Păpuşi Puck, Puck Puppet Theatre), Constanţa (see Teatrul Pentru Copii și Tineret Constanța, Constanţa Theatre for Young Audiences), Craiova (see Teatrul Pentru Copii și Tineret Colibri, Colibri Theatre for Young Audiences), Iaşi, Galaţi (see Teatrul de Păpuşi Gulliver, Gulliver Puppet Theatre), Oradea, Piteşti, Ploieşti (see Teatrul de Animaţie Ciufulici, Ciufulici Theatre of Animation), Sibiu (see Teatrul Pentru Copii si Tineret Gong, Gong Theatre), Piteişti, Timişoara, and Târgu Mureş. Most of these grew out of small private groups, modest in their resources and objectives. Thanks to efforts lasting several years, their buildings were equipped with specialized additions such as trap doors, manipulation bridges, workshops, recording studios, and means of transport. Training for puppeteers, puppet-makers, designers, and technicians was intensified and a common aesthetic emerged, inspired by the wish to distance the work from any physical imitation of the human.
In Bucharest, the Ţăndărică became a State theatre in 1949, and under the leadership of stage director Margareta Niculescu tended (after 1953) towards aesthetic experiment and the use of metaphoric expression which were to become the twin signs of modernity in matters of puppet theatre. The scenic space was expanded, decoration abandoned in favour of the simple image, gestures and movement stylized, the scenic language and the technical resources diversified: the theatre of animation found a new theatricality.
In the regions where there were significant numbers of national minorities, a Romanian and a Hungarian ensemble worked in the same theatre (as in Cluj-Napoca, in Oradea, and Târgu Mureş), and another ensemble played in German in Sibiu, each with their own repertoire.
The most notable productions (theatre in theatre, “cinematographic” montage, scenic designs free of any constraint, in a continual play of transformations) from 1949 to 1970 were those by Margareta Niculescu in Ţăndărică: Umor pe sfori (Humour on Strings, 1954); Mâna cu cinci degete (The Hand with Five Fingers, 1958); Cartea cu Apolodor (The Book of Apollodorus, 1962); and by Ștefan Lenkisch, Elefanţelul curios (The Curious Little Elephant, 1963) after Rudyard Kipling; and Amnarul (The Tinderbox, 1965) after Hans Christian Andersen. Stage designers Ella Conovici, Ioana Constantinescu, Mioara Buescu and Ștefan Hablinski all played a determining role.
Innovation could be found in other theatres too, notably in Craiova with artistic and stage director Horia Davidescu: Jucăriile Mihaelei (Mihaela’s Toys, 1958); Domnul Goe (Mr Goe, 1977), with set and puppet designs by Eustațiu Gregorian; in Bacău where Petru Valter who put into practice an original system of animation with images based on moving lights; in Oradea and in Cluj-Napoca (1956-1966) where Pál Fux and Ildikó Kovács experimented with object theatre; and again, in Târgu-Mureş where Antal Pál experimented with black theatre and, together with the designer Jószef Haller, brought a new approach to the glove puppet. In addition, there were also Claudiu Cristescu, stage director in Constanţa, Constantin Brehnescu and Natalia Dănăilă, directors in Iaşi, Mircea Petre Suciu, director, and Phöbus Ştefănescu, stage designer, both of Sibiu, Alexandru Rusan, stage designer in Cluj-Napoca, Florica Teodoru, director, and Ileana Popescu, designer, both of Timişoara, and Maria Dimitrescu, designer in Braşov.
One consequence of the proclaimed vitality of the puppet was its attraction for a number of writers (Nina Cassian, the surrealist poet Gellu Naum, Alexandru Popescu, Alecu Popovici, Valentin Silvestru) and composers (Anatol Vieru, Pascal Bentoiu, Ștefan Niculescu in Ţăndărică, Hary Maiorovici, Csiki Boldiszar in Cluj-Napoca). Ţăndărică, as part of their guiding principle of opening the door to the other performing arts, brought in directors from the actors’ theatre, choreographers, and musicians. In 1960, Radu Penciulescu produced an experimental version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Micul Prinț (The Little Prince) in which an actor appeared alongside a string marionette and other animated objects (for example, a length of cord as the serpent); the design was by Ștefan Hablinski.
The policy initiated by Margareta Niculescu in order to enrich and diversify the creative palette of her theatre has resulted in the recognition of puppetry as truly one of the theatre arts.
The 1970s and 1980s
The generation emerging in the 1970s and 1980s explored the use of mixed media, the combination of masks, giant and small-scale puppets, and “transformational” puppets. As for visible manipulation, it revealed its multiple dramaturgical meanings unknown up to that time, for instance the death scene in Oscar Wilde’s Copilul din stele (The Star-Child, 1970), in the Elpis theatre of Constanţa (see Teatrul Pentru Copii și Tineret Constanța [lier]Constanţa Theatre for Children and Youth[/lier]), directed by Geo Berechet.
The assembling of actors, puppets, and other images also characterized the following: Călina Făt-Frumos (Călina Prince Charming, 1974), directed by Silviu Purcărete in Constanţa; Till Eulenspiegel (1979), after Charles de Coster, in Ţăndărică, directed by Cătălina Buzoianu, designed by Mihai Mădescu, with costumes and puppets by Liana Axinte; Sergei Prokofiev’s Petrică și lupul (Peter and the Wolf, 1975), designed by Ella Conovici; and Don Quixote (1979), designed by Mioara Buescu, both productions directed by Ștefan Lenkisch. Anotimpurile mânzului (The Seasons of the Foal, 1977) by Vladimir Simon, Frumoasele pasiuni electrice (Electric Passions, 1980), and Nocturn Stravinsky (Nocturne Stravinsky, 1982) with Petrouchka (Petruchka) and the opera Vulpea (Renard) by Igor Stravinsky, directed by Irina Niculescu were evidence of her research into different theatrical aesthetics exploring the relation between the actor and the puppet, the capacity of the puppet to transmit an emotion, and a new relation between the puppet and the space.
In Cluj-Napoca, Baia Mare, and Sibiu, Ildiko Kovács produced modernist plays that gave new life to rod puppetry: Ubu rege (King Ubu, 1979), Pickeltieck (1984). In Braşov, director Liviu Steciuc, using different types of puppets, presented Aventurile lui Talion (The Adventures of Talion, 1987) by Călin Gruia, harmoniously combining mime and puppetry. She collaborated with sculptor and designer Dan Frăticiu, who later became the Artistic Director of Gong Theatre. Designers Mircea Nicolau in Galaţi, Eugenia Tărăşescu-Jianu in Constanţa, Irina Borowski in Ploieşti, Virgil Svinţiu in Cluj, and Sever Frenţiu marked the theatre with the novelty of their approach. Creative actor-puppeteers brought their talent and research and contributed to the artistic development of the puppet theatre and the training of new generations of performers. Among such artists are Justin Grad, Georgeta Nicolau, Aneta Forna-Christu, Didina Davidescu, Branduşa Zaiţa Silvestru, Dorina Tănăsescu, Péter János.
During the years 1979-1986, Cristian Pepino was very active in the Constanţa theatre, with among other productions Metamorfoze (Metamorphoses, 1980) after Ovid, and finding time to direct at Galaţi, Craiova, and Ploieşti. Later, he directed in Ţăndărică, putting into his productions a multiplicity of expressive means, including: Scufița roşie (Little Red Riding Hood, 1988) and Visul unei nopți de vară (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1988).
After 1990, private companies created by graduates of the arts faculties appeared all over the country, notably in Bucharest where small-scale shows were given in schools and hospitals. Most of these have not survived the market economy and have disappeared.
At first, the Romanian puppet theatres themselves provided training for the puppeteers with courses designed to meet their company’s own specific needs.
Ţăndărică, from 1972 to 1976, organized a “Puppeteers’ Studio” where they welcomed students from abroad (France, United States, Switzerland, Argentina, Egypt, Norway) and from Romania itself, wishing to study in a professional theatre. In 1958, the theatre played a determining role in the foundation of a puppet theatre in Cairo, Egypt, and, in 1976, the puppet company of the Riksteatret in Oslo, Norway.
It was not until 1990 that a Department of the Art of Puppetry was founded on the initiative of Prof. Dr Michaela Tonitza-Iordache within the UNATC (Universitatea Națională de Artă Teatrală și Cinematografică National University of Theatre Arts and Cinematography) of Bucharest. The four years of study led to a Diploma (BA, MA, MFA, PhD). The teachers were mainly the actor-puppeteers Brândușa Zaiţa Silvestru, Dorina Tanăsescu, and the director Cristian Pepino. Performances generated by the school were presented at many international festivals, such as: Conferinţa păasărilor (The Conference of the Birds, 1994), adapted by Tonitza-Iordache after the epic poem by Farid ud-Din Attar with performers Liliana Gavrilescu, Gabriel Apostol, and Ioan Brancu; Sânziana și Pepelea (Sânziana and Pepelea, 1995), written by Cristian Pepino after Vasile Alecsandri; Playing Faust (1996), directed by Cristian Pepino.
A second puppetry department was founded in 1991 in the Academy of Theatre Arts in Iaşi, where the teachers were Natalia Dănăilă, Constantin Brehnescu, and Ana Vlădescu.
Lately, another department dedicated to the formation of the actor-puppeteer opened in Târgu Mureş, with courses conducted in both Hungarian and Romanian.
The first International Festival of Puppet Theatres was held in Bucharest in 1958; it was coupled with the 6th UNIMA Congress. Other international festivals took place in the same city in 1960, 1965 and 1998.
Several national festivals have also been created since 1969: in Constanţa, in Bacău, Botoşani, Galaţi, Arad, and Cluj-Napoca, providing opportunities for discussions, seminars, and the exchange of experience in theatre practice. In Bucharest, in 2004, Țăndărică created an international festival for “theatre of animation”, called “Bucurii pentru copii. Spectacole de colecție” (Joy for Children: Top Notch Shows). The festival targeted both young audiences and adults.
The critics have followed the puppet “phenomenon” for many years. Articles have appeared in the arts pages of periodicals by respected theatre critics such as Andrei Băleanu, Călin Căliman, Virgil Munteanu, Mihai Crişan, and Valeria Ducea, among others. The monthly revue Teatrul Azi (Theatre Today) regularly devotes ample space to the history, theory, and analysis of puppet productions.
(See also Ioana Bassarab.)