The Republic of Serbia (Serbian: Republika Srbija, Република Србија), situated between Central and South East Europe, has a complex history. It became a part of the Ottoman Empire up to the 19th century. After the independence movement it was incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire until World War I. It was briefly a Serbian kingdom prior to World War II, and then part of the Socialist Federated Yugoslavia until 1992, after which political differences split the region. Serbia and Montenegro were united until 2006 when the latter voted for independence resulting in the self-standing Republic of Serbia whose puppetry is detailed here.
Serbian puppet theatre (Srpski lutkarski teatar) rests on the rich folklore traditions of the Serbs and other southern Slavic nations. Theatre with figures ranges from symbolic representations to anthropomorphic puppets and has been preserved in the folk customs up to the present. Shadow theatre puppetry, usually performed by hand and fingers that pantomime in front of a burning candle, is very old. Masks and mimes are equally old and widespread in the folk tradition, from the maškara masking games associated with Christmas, Carnival, and occasionally Easter, to čauši (the jesters). The vertep Christmas puppet play is also venerable and continued in Belgrade until World War II, and is now being renewed in Serbia with the re-introduction of religious education in the elementary school system. Although such use of masks and images was associated with Christian feasts, many of the figures seems to originate from pre-Christian practices and, as a result, much of the masking (animals, hobby horse, etc.) was in the early period banned or frowned upon by the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The 19th and early 20th Century and Reconstructions
The first modern Serbian puppet play script was written and published in the journal Neven (Marigold) by Zmaj (birth name Jovan Jovanović, 1833-1904), the greatest Serbian poet for children (see Jovan Jovanović “Zmaj”). This was the potato verse drama Nesretna Kafina (Unfortunate Kafina, 1881) where Princess Kafina is loved by the outlaw chieftain Kozoder who kills her father, King Ritibim. Characters were performed by Potato head figures, and death was evoked by the potatoes being flung into the audience. Zmaj is considered the “father of Serbian puppetry”, and the first Serbian puppetry director and performer.
In the early 20th century, there were travelling puppeteers and entertainers at country fairs. The first recorded Serbian professional puppeteer was Ilija Božić, who performed the farce Kuku Todore (Alas! Theodore) in a travelling puppet show of the same name. His characters and performance were similar to the British Punch and Judy or Russian Petrushka shows. Božić gave performances in the Tašmajdan Park near St Mark’s Church in Belgrade.
Each of these historic shows has been successfully revived in the modern period. Zmaj’s play is still widely performed in schools, however the only relatively recent professional performance of Nesretna Kafina was adapted and directed by Miroslav Belović (1927-2005) at the Little Theatre Duško Radović in Belgrade in 1985 under the name of Pozorište Ka-Ri-Ko (Ka-Ri-Ko Theatre), while Kuku Todore was successfully revived by writer, director, and doyenne of Serbian puppetry, Marija Kolundžić (1916-1998), who made a witty reconstruction and published it in Moj život s lutkom (My Life With the Puppet, 1988).
Between the World Wars, the magician Kostolani performed puppet shows in circus tents, cafes and the streets with his sailor puppet Ćira, later joined by the puppet Mileva, who danced to entertain the enthusiastic spectators. Together with the rise of the Sokol, literally, “Falcon”, movement (a coming together of youth which helped build Slavic national feeling through arts, sports, and cultural gatherings) many puppet stages appeared in Serbia just before World War II. This led toward professional puppet groups that would rise in Novi Sad and Subotica.
Second Half of the 20th Century
It was only after World War II that puppet theatres in Serbia were organized as professional ensembles, with wide repertoires and regular audiences – primarily children from the pre-school to adolescent populations. From the 1960s, puppet theatre in Serbia had achieved high artistic achievements. In 1970, the performance of Na slovo, na slovo (It Begins With the Letter … ) by Duško Radović (1923-1984), directed by Vera Belogrlić (b.1926), won the award at the Sterijino pozorje Yugoslav Theatre Festival. Applying different puppet manipulation techniques (string puppets, glove puppets, shadows, stick puppets, black light theatre), the puppet theatre in Serbia reached its maturity by the mid-20th century. Through the cooperation of distinguished writers, directors, and puppet actors who fully dedicate themselves to the creative possibilities of this ancient art in its modern context, the Serbian puppet theatre in the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (the name of the country after 1946) attained recognized aesthetic achievements on a European and worldwide level.
Imaginative plays for the puppet stage were written by Roma author and travel writer Stevan Pešić (1939-1994), who was awarded at the Biennale of Yugoslav Puppetry in Bugojno for his play Petao s repom duginih boja (The Cock with a Rainbow Tail). His other whimsical tales of fantasy have been frequently produced to the present. Perhaps the greatest achievement of modern Serbian puppetry was the performance of the project by Srboljub Lule Stanković (1921-2000), the ritual wordless total theatre production, Mitovi Balkana (The Myth of the Balkans), which premiered at the Theatre Toša Jovanović in Zrenjanin in 1991. It took masks, folk dances and songs as its source to make a strong piece of total theatre with full understanding of the distinct strengths of puppet/mask performance.
Serbian Puppetry in the 21st Century
Serbia entering the 21st century had about ten professional artistic ensembles, primarily performing puppet plays for children. These are the Little Theatre Duško Radović, Belgrade (established in 1948) where Milena Jeftić Ničeva Kostić (b.1943) excels in puppet design and costuming. The master performer Janko Vrbnjak (1931-1988) was a long-time manipulator, designer and performer for the company and frequently performed for state guests during the era of President Tito. Puppet Theatre Pinokio in Zemun was established in 1972 by Živomir Joković (b.1929) and was then headed by Igor Bojović (b.1969). Both are important artists of Serbian puppetry. Other professional companies include: Youth Theatre, Novi Sad (established in 1931); Children’s Theatre Gyermek Szinhaz, Subotica, with Serbian and Hungarian language stages (1934); Puppet Theatre, Niš (1951); Puppet Stage Fenix, Niš (1974); and Kekec Puppet Stage, Belgrade (established in 1980). The Children’s Theatre Gyermek Szinhaz, under the leadership of Slobodan Marković (b.1943) has expanded the international impact of Serbian puppetry, since Marković also is the founding artistic director of the Subotica International Children’s Theatre Festival which has been important in gaining recognition of Serbian work and bringing in international artists. The National Theatre Toša Jovanović, Zrenjanin, with a Serbian and Hungarian language puppet stage (established in 1946) has also developed important work, including the influential Mitovi Balkana (The Myth of the Balkans) mentioned earlier.
Puppet plays are also performed by many amateur theatres, and Belgrade and Novi Sad frequently broadcast puppet shows. The first full-length puppet film, Mrav pešadinac (The Infantry Ant) directed by Slavko Tatić was produced in 1992, continuing a tradition of puppet film production in Belgrade dating back to 1949 (see Cinema).
Festivals and Scholarship
Each year the Conference of Serbian Puppet Theatres is held. In 1992, the event celebrated its 25th jubilee in Belgrade. In 1994, the previously mentioned International Children’s Theatre Festival was founded in Subotica, and today it continues to promote the high aesthetic achievements of puppetry in Serbia and Europe. The Festival gives the annual Little Prince Lifetime Achievement Award to artists and theatre luminaries from Serbia and all around the world. The professional, artistic, historical, theoretical, and pedagogical aspects of puppetry are reviewed in the special editions of the Scena (Stage) magazine. Extensive monographs of Serbian professional puppet theatres are important literature resources on puppetry as an art. Milenko Misailović (b.1923), Branislav Kravljanac (1928-2002), Marija Kolundžić (1916-1982), and Radoslav Lazić (b.1939) have made valuable contributions to the theory and history of puppetry in Serbia, publishing important works on puppets in Serbia, Yugoslavia, and worldwide.