Open knowledge of the puppet and its techniques is a recent phenomenon, dating from the 20th century. The origins of the art did not make it prone to sharing. Shamans and secret societies drew their power and their subsistence from the manipulation of objects. The handling and construction of the puppets were always wrapped in mystery by the shamans and the priests who shared their secrets only with a selected group of apprentices and assistants.
As Paul McPharlin notes, among the Hopi, Kwakiutl and Toltec societies, for example, these methods were hidden not as professional secrets but as sacred mysteries (see Native American Puppetry). Societies using puppets for social criticism were also jealous of their secrets. For instance, the anonymity of the performers in the Ekon society of Nigeria was preserved, and their work methods were not revealed. If the puppets fell to the ground, exposing their hidden mechanisms, the whole troupe was to be killed by the village. At best, only the puppeteer responsible for the offence was executed and the others sold as slaves.
The wandering showman had no more interest than the shaman in revealing the secrets of an activity from which he made his livelihood. Even at the end of the 19th century, showmen did not let anyone examine their puppets up close. Their construction was regarded as a secret, which was to be transmitted only from father to son and jealously protected. Thomas Holden had the habit of hiding the back of his booth with a type of tent to keep the mechanisms away from view (see Itinerant Troupes, Travelling Puppeteers). This is an old custom following the example of “conductors of the secrets” who, in the Middle Ages, were in charge of special effects, machinery and tricks (in 1459, theatre engineers joined together in Ratisbon imposed “the law of secrecy”). Some marionettists still today speak about keeping their stringing and controls undercover.
In Japan, starting from the end of the 17th century, the theatres of ningyō-jōruri, later *Bunraku, entered in competition with kabuki but also with each other. The techniques of handling were not discussed in detail. Licenses to teach and practise this art were very coveted, and the secrets became an invaluable asset only transmitted to some selected individuals. Yoshida Minosuke III, a contemporary Master Puppeteer of the National Bunraku Association, agrees to give conferences and make demonstrations, including on television, but he states that his artistic level is not likely to be reached in this way because only teaching “face to face” long-term can give results.
It is only when puppetry became a recognized performance art form and a major tool in education that sharing knowledge and techniques was considered. In 1906, Edward Gordon Craig developed his theory of the übermarionette and published sketches and descriptions of various puppets, including examples of Bunraku, in The Mask and The Marionette. Teaching movements, under the influence of psychology, and the cultural policy of certain states (for example, communist China) also contributed to the puppet leaving its reserved domain. Starting from World War I, with the increasing internationalization of the relations between peoples and nations, festivals started to multiply in all arts, including puppetry. The idea of sharing experiments progressed, and the multiplication of public education made null and void the tradition of secrecy.
(See also Ensecrètement, Festivals, Slangs, String Puppet.)