Officially the Slovak Republic (Slovak: Slovenská republika), Slovakia (Slovak: Slovensko) is a country in Central Europe, with Bratislava its capital. It is bordered by the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Ukraine, and Hungary. After World War I and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had integrated Slovakia, Slovaks and Czechs formed Czechoslovakia. Slovakia again became an independent country in 1993.
Aside from the characters of the Nativity plays (in particular the džafkuline) that appeared in the Middle Ages, it is through the intervention of travelling puppeteers, mostly of German origin, that, in the 17th century, puppets appeared in Slovakia, a region then dominated by Hungary. In the 18th century evidence shows the passage of itinerant troupes of artists presenting a baroque repertoire using puppets. After 1750, German, Austrian and Italian companies presented marionettes along with optical illusions and shows from the theatrum mundi. In 1775, the Pressburger Zeitung, the Bratislava newspaper, announced the coming of puppeteer Albert Bienfait, who also presented shows in the city of Košice, Eastern Slovakia, in 1785. In the 19th century, numerous Czech puppeteers visited the country, as well as the most well known Hungarian puppeteer of the time, Adolf Hincz, in 1842. The first shadow theatre performance was presented in 1817 by a German puppeteer in Bratislava.
The Beginnings of Slovak Puppetry
The first known Slovak puppeteer is Ján Stražan (1856-1939; see Stražan (family). He used string puppets and rod marionettes and presented panoramas and gymnastic exercises. He was the founder of a family of artists whose descendants still perform in the actors’ theatres and puppet theatres of Slovakia in the 21st century. In addition to adapting the great European classics, such as Faust (Doctor Faust), Don Šajn (Don Juan), Jenovéfa z Brabantu (Geneviève de Brabant), the Stražans adapted the Slovak dramatists, particularly Matka (Mother) by Jozef Gregor Tajovský, Dobrodružstvo pri obžinkoch (What Happened at the Harvest Festival) by Ján Palárik, Statený syn (The Lost Son) by Jozef Hollý. They also adapted texts by Czech dramatists (Jozef Kajetán Tyl, the brothers Alois and Vilém Mrštík, Jiří Mahen), Austrian dramatists (Ludwig Anzengruber, Johann Nepomuk Nestroy), and German dramatists (Ernst Raupach).
Gradually, other Slovak families devoted themselves to puppetry, particularly the Dubský, Pavol Nosálek, and Karol Kuník families.
After World War I, Eva Kouřilová and Michal Václav Anderle began a new dynasty of itinerant puppeteers: their sons Bohuslav and Jaroslav Anderle also became puppeteers, as well as their grandson, Anton Anderle (1944-2008) who presented the traditional European puppetry classics with Gašparko, a popular comic hero inspired by the Austrian Kasperl (see Itinerant Troupes, Travelling Puppeteers).
From 1950 to 1970
In the 1950s, after the communist takeover, the first professional puppet theatres were founded by groups of amateur puppeteers, whilst the itinerant companies were banned by cultural commissions because they were private. State theatres were founded in Žilina (1950), Nitra (1951), Bratislava (1957), Košice (1959), and Banská Bystrica (1960). As in other democracies of the people, the Soviet puppet theatre held a preponderant influence (see Russia). Yet the theatres were able to pursue their own styles and experiment with new techniques.
In the mid 1950s, Martin Bálik (b.1929) and Eva Munková (b.1933), graduates from the newly established Department of Puppetry (Katedra loutkářství) of the Academy of Performing Arts (Divadelní akademie múzických umění, known as DAMU) in Prague, started a new Slovak tradition in Žilina by moving away from the traditional marionettes (string puppets). Bálik and Munková explored new techniques of space and light in order to emphasize symbolism. Thus, for the first time in the history of the Slovak puppet theatre, Eva Munková used the black theatre technique that combined light effects with the projection of a film in Na počiatku bola nuda (At First There Was Boredom, 1960) by Juraj Váh, inspired by Jean Effel’s cartoon, La Création du Monde (The Creation of the World).
In the 1960s, the Žilina theatre began experimenting with masks, bringing fame to the following directors: Ján Hižnay (1943-2004) for his presentations of Popolvár (Jack the Dunce, 1966) and Trojruža (The Three Roses, 1961); Pavol Rímský (1925-1989) for Statočný cínový vojačik (The Little Tin Soldier, 1961); and Jiří Jaroš (b.1931) with the staging of Túžba po troch pomarančoch (The Love of Three Oranges) by Carlo Gozzi.
Rod puppets were introduced in the 1960s at Nitra under the artistic leadership of Ján Romanovský, playwright, author and director of numerous adaptations of Slovak folk tales. Just like the majority of the puppet theatres in the then Czechoslovakia and in East European countries, Romanovský followed the model of puppet theatre aesthetics developed by Sergei Obraztsov. Romanovský was among the pioneers in Slovakia to have adopted a method of manipulating the puppet from below by means of a metal rod and was a proponent of a realistic puppetry style. He is the author of several puppet plays, which are largely adaptations of Slovak folk tales, and of a puppet comedy musical for children, Princezná Kukulienka (Cuckoo the Princess), which has also been staged outside Slovakia and translated into several languages. Ján Romanovský, together with his puppeteers, devised a unique training system of puppet manipulation. The technique became widely known in Czechoslovakia as the “Nitra Puppetry School”.
The 1970s and 1980s
The 1970s were a time of great innovation in the theatres of Slovakia, in the areas of dramaturgy, scenography (scene and puppet design and technology) and staging. The companies abandoned the realism of the old shows to become more expressive and metaphorical within a stylized space where live actors were included together with other scenic elements: pantomime, masks, and clowns. The clowns became very popular in the Slovak puppet theatre, as in Fery a Tony (Ferri and Toni, 1972) in Žilina, Concertino unisono (1973) in Bratislava, Najmenší circus na svete (The Smallest Circus in the World, 1974), Malé klauniády (Little Pranks, 1980) in Banská Bystrica, Strach má veľké oči (Fear has Big Eyes, 1977) in Nitra.
The Krajské bábkové divadlo, KBD (County Puppet Theatre) in Banská Bystrica became one of the most innovative theatres of Czechoslovakia under the artistic direction of the dramatist and poet Jozef Mokoš. In contrast, the Štátne bábkové divadlo (State Puppet Theatre) of Bratislava, founded in 1957, specialized more in the relatively classic music repertoire with lyric works such as Peter a vlk (Peter and the Wolf, 1977, 1979) by Sergei Prokofiev, Cisárove nové šaty (The Emperor’s New Clothes, 1977) by Juraj Beneš, Petruška (Petrushka) and Vták Ohnivák (The Firebird, 1979) by Igor Stravinsky. A traditional and folkloric repertoire also inspired the puppet theatre of Košice (created in 1959), which became one of the most important cultural institutions of Eastern Slovakia.
With the coming of a new generation of artists in the 1980s, the Slovak puppet theatre continued to evolve. The Bratislava theatre specialized in adult audiences, particularly with the presentation of Plášť (The Overcoat, 1988) by Nikolai Gogol that blended masks and puppets created by Hana Cigánová, and Epos o Gilgamešovi (Epic of Gilgamesh) by the Czech director Karel Brožek. Brožek also worked with Josef Mokoš and Cigánová in Žilina on a great historic epic entitled Obrazy z dejov ríše Veľkomoravskej (Images from the History of the Great Moravian Empire, 1985).
By contrast, the puppet theatre of Košice was aimed at children with Ján Uličiansky (b.1955), a famous Slovak writer who worked with them from 1979 to 1986. Among his adaptations of traditional Slovak fairy tales, he presented Janko Pipora (1983) and Radúz a Ľudmila (Raduz and Ludmila, 1984) with the set design, costumes and puppets of Eva Farkašová. Ján Uličiansky is also the author of the modern puppet plays Tik-Tak (1976) and Golego (1984). He has adapted several children’s fairy tales, including J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1984) and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” as Malá morská víla (1991) for the puppet theatre in Košice. He has authored twelve books for children, and has written dramatic works (e.g. Alergia Allergy, published in 1995) as well as a number of radio plays for youngsters and fairy tales for children. He received IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) awards in 1981, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1998 and 2004 and was nominated by the Slovak branch of IBBY as a candidate for the Hans Christian Andersen Prize. Mention must also be made of the shows he invented with the remarkable set and puppet designer, Peter Čisárik. In 1986, Karol Fisher (b.1956) followed in the footsteps of Ján Uličiansky and continued to work with young audiences, always in collaboration with Peter Čisárik.
The Contemporary Period
After the “Velvet” democratic revolution (1989) and the separation with the Czech Republic (1993) the state theatres returned to their activities, sometimes under a different name, such as the Krajské bábkové divadlo (KBD, County Puppet Theatre) of Banská Bystrica that became the Bábkové divadlo na Rázcestí (Puppet Theatre at the Crossroads) in 1990 with Marián Pecko and Iveta Škripková. Independent puppet companies were created, and currently there are approximately fifteen groups and showmen who perform mainly for children. In 1990, Katarina Aulitisová and Ľubomír Piktor founded the independent theatre Piki that revived the Slovak clowning tradition in stage shows as well as in television programmes. Among the most remarkable artists of recent years are the director Ondrej Spišák, a graduate of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU), who began his career in the 1990s, and the young puppeteer, actor and scenic designer Ivan Martinka, one of the first graduates from the newly established puppetry department of the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. His puppet play, Šalom Alejchem – pokoj s vami (Shalom Aleichem – Peace Be Upon You, 2000), has become one of the more remarkable post-modern productions due to its scenic inventiveness and its method of introducing a traditional theme of Jewish culture. It was awarded several prizes in numerous festivals.
In 1989, Vladimir Predmerský created the puppetry department at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. The students learn acting, directing, writing, set design, and puppet technology with a major emphasis on the manipulation of puppets and animated objects. They are taught by important personalities of the Slovak puppet theatre, including Ján Uličiansky, Hana Cigánová, Eva Farkašová, Peter Čisárik, Miroslav Duša, Ida Hledíková, Marica Mikulová, Jozef Mokoš, Andrej Pachinger, Katarína Aulitisová, Ľubomír Piktor, Ivan Martinka and others. Professor Ján Uličiansky is chair of directing and dramaturgy of the Department of Puppetry since 2011.
There are five international puppetry festivals in Slovakia today, in the towns of Banská Bystrica (since 1977), Nitra and Žilina, and two in Bratislava. Apart from these, each professional puppet theatre presents its artistic results in their own internal festival.
Since 1995, Slovakia also has a Museum of Puppetry and Toys located in a baroque chateau in the little town of Modrý Kameň. Its collection includes 3,000 puppets. The Museum’s founder and curator was Vladimír Siváček, UNIMA Member of Honour since 2004. The museum is part of the Slovak National Museum, and it receives assistance from the Slovak UNIMA Centre (Slovenské centrum UNIMA, founded in 1969).
A competition for the best puppet theatre production is organized biennially by the Slovak UNIMA Centre, the Civic Association by Bábkové divadlo na Rázcestí (Puppet Theatre at the Crossroads) in Banská Bystrica, and the Theatre Institute in Bratislava.
(See also Bohdan Slavík.)