Like any art form, the puppet theatre can be perceived as a manifestation, a sign and a reflection of the historical, cultural and political situation of a society at any given time. Beyond the elements that are specific to each culture, there are many analogies underlined by the comparison between the different uses of the puppet in religious and social rites. Some traditional characters are thus found outside of their geographical and cultural contexts, and the same functions and meanings are very often attributed to the use of certain techniques. The question of power is, from the start, a subtext of the relationship between the manipulating puppeteer and the manipulated puppet. One could therefore see in this the deep-rooted mechanics of an art that represents, metaphorically, the condition of man in society, and the fragility of the poor and the little in front of the powerful and the authority that manipulates its subjects.

A Remarkable Plasticity

In Europe, there are numerous texts and illustrations showing how puppetry once was very present in daily lives or at festive events, and how it adapted to social changes. Puppeteers and their puppet stages and booths thus appear in paintings and engravings of the 18th century, such as Venetian painters and printmakers Pietro Longhi (c.1701-1785) and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), in such contexts as a public square, a celebration, a princely marriage, a carnival, a fair, or even an aristocratic convent.

Throughout its history, the puppet theatre has successfully expressed the moods, fears, worries and desires of an audience that is vast, heterogeneous, and often gathered together by chance during a religious celebration or a public meeting. The puppet theatre used to have an informative role as it helped spread news, and it also played a part in transmitting values and behavioural norms – as it did for example in Sicily in the 19th century, with the paladin saga performed by the pupi (puppets). The bourgeoisie of the 19th century made puppet shows a drawing-room activity, aiming for entertainment but above all for the social and moral education of children. However, during the same period, the public squares and gardens remained the favourite spots of the travelling puppeteers and showmen, who performed for a socially disparate and ever-changing audience. In Europe, irrespective of the political context, the puppet theatre tradition included the classic comic archetypes and staged, under different forms, the fundamental struggle between the good and the bad, cleverness and foolishness, life and death. In the typical puppet plays, any problem could be solved by a few fights, curses or jokes.

This suggests a vision of life focused on conflicts, anxieties, pleasures, and primary functions such as food, sex, death and fears. French psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni (1899-1989) sees in the guignol the expression of the manifestations of the “it” (in French: “ça”) – the deep unconscious impulses – which allows some comic characters to create opportunities to get rid of pent-up energy. It might be the reason why traditional characters from very different countries and cultures have surprisingly common traits. In general, they are not only the heroes of well-known local stories, but they also incorporate all the values and preconceptions (positive or negative) that helped cement feelings of identity and belonging to a whole community.

Technological evolution has still left its mark on the puppet theatre for the last two centuries. On the one hand, the old puppet stages and booths and their animated figures are now perceived as the witnesses of a past reality. They are still enjoyed by a traditional audience, even though they face competition from new, radically different heroes. On the other hand, the use of digital technologies – which has multiplied the aesthetic and visual possibilities of the traditional puppet, sometimes with striking effects – has not fundamentally changed the implicit relationship between the manipulator and the manipulated figure. This relationship still remains a metaphor for one of the most complex problems in today’s society. In addition to this, the puppet theatre specifically has always been used as a means to share messages or more or less explicit teachings in politics, education or religion (see Education and Propaganda). As it targets children in particular, puppetry represents an opportunity for entertainment, but it is also a tool to educate and offer a moral example, as illustrated by the famous story of Pinocchio: rebellion is permitted but it must be channelled and socially controlled.

Outside Europe – in Asian and African cultures especially – the ritual and religious function has remained strong to this day (see Rites and Rituals). However, in those parts of the world as well, television and cinema have deeply transformed the role of the puppeteer, as well as his or her relation to the audience, and the composition and attitude of the child audience. In India for example, even though Indian culture has one of the oldest and most varied puppet arts tradition, the puppet is now mainly used for television shows and health and social welfare programmes.

Puppetry changed when it left the public squares for the bourgeois salons. The bold, loud, colourful, popular pantins (jumping jacks), fantoche, fantoccini and their like gave way to the “refined” puppet. The latter, addressing an audience of educated bourgeois adults, eventually integrated the constraints of other forms of performance. Moreover, the attention given to the puppet by artists from the avant-garde theatre, dance, opera or the fine arts deeply modified the perspective from which, eventually, this theatre form was to be seen by the public. The coarseness of the characters, such as Alfred Jarry’s Ubu, also contributed to a profound aesthetic change that reflects the changes undergone by contemporary society (see Aesthetics of the Puppet – European Romanticism to the Avant-Garde.)

The Tradition of Protest

Because of their strong symbolic traits, the characters of the world’s puppet theatres have always had the ability to embody the passions of the audience and, in some historical contexts, they could express support or hostility towards political or religious figures, risking to attract the anger of the authorities upon them. The puppeteer, always ready to pack up his show and to run away quickly, would often resort to bawdy references or allusions to the political situation of the day. The aim was to spice up the traditional repertoire, and to arouse the curiosity and keep the affection of the audience. Although very profane, those interludes would even be found in religious representations and performances (see Belén de Tirisiti, Nativity Scenes, Szopka, Vertep). This demonstrates that the satirical use of the puppet has always been, for this form of theatre, an opportunity to anchor itself to the current social and political affairs, which guaranteed success but was also potentially dangerous. Nowadays, the popularity of the French television show Les Guignols de l’info, in which politicians are mocked under their puppet forms, demonstrates that this satirical function is persistent, but also ambiguous: indeed, politicians see the show as an indicator of their popularity and gladly accept to be featured in it.

This vigorous satirical and political tradition could be seen in the early 20th century with agitprop groups and politically-committed troupes such as the “red Kasperl” in 1920s Germany, the “brown Kasperle” reappropriated by the Nazis, or the “red Petrushka” in Russia after the 1917 October Revolution. Political involvement continued in the 1960s with the Bread and Puppet Theater as the company joined the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. More recently, this American company renewed its protest roots with Insurrection Mass with Funeral March for A Rotten Idea (2003), a show against American intervention in Iraq.

Puppets in the Community: Giving a Voice to the Vulnerable

In Asia, Latin America and in Africa it is not unusual to find puppets outside theatres, in slums for example. An example is the Black Pinocchio (Italian title, Pinocchio nero, 2004), a collaborative project which involved the Italian puppet company, Teatro delle Briciole. The three-year project worked with Kenyan children who live on what they can scavenge off the streets of Dagoretti-Nairobi. “Instead of puppets longing to be real boys, theatre director Marco Baliani’s actors are Nairobi street kids in search of better lives who leave Nairobi for the first time in their lives to show their version of Pinocchio to the West.” The project aimed at restoring these young people’s sense of identity and giving them a voice. “It is devoted to the children and adolescents who are struggling to survive, facilitating their access to knowledge, experiences in new communities, reintegration into their families, professional opportunities, and microcredit.”

In India, puppets are used by a number of theatre groups and social welfare organizations, including Jan Madhyam, a community media-based, educational puppetry company and NGO based in Delhi and Haryana. The puppetry-based weekly “Chowkoo-Pili” series of shows (1984-1990) for Delhi’s intellectually disabled youth taught learning concepts and developed social skills and values. These interactive weekly shows were taken to schools, slums, and villages in the Greater Delhi and Haryana region. This work has continued to improve the lives of the disabled, with special attention to girls and women. Other Jan Madhyam development communication programmes using puppetry and performance media have focused on literacy, the needs of the disabled, ecology, endangered species, income generation, sanitation, health, and violence against women. The NGO’s founder and director, Ranjana Pandey, is one of the pioneers in the Indian subcontinent to explore puppetry as therapy.

Puppets and Therapy

As an art of synthesis, puppetry becomes an ideal way to create – or renew – contact with traumatized children or adults living on the margins of society. The puppet is often used for training, caring, or to help social or functional inclusion, especially in the United States, Germany, Hungary, Belgium, Great Britain, and Switzerland. Other countries, such as South Africa, favour prevention, especially when fighting against AIDS. In France, the interest in puppets for use in hospitals dates back to the early 1960s. The association Marionnette et Thérapie (Puppet and Therapy) was created in France in 1978. It has branches in Bulgaria, Japan, Brazil, Italy, Portugal and Quebec, Canada. The association provides training courses focusing on the use of puppets for therapy. This includes psychological and speech therapy, physiotherapy, socialization, social insertion (for drug users, prisoners, etc.), and all the domains in which the association can bring some comfort to people who need it. In France, the training developed to include elements of psychoanalysis, whereas in other countries, such as Japan, the main targets remained functional therapy and the social inclusion of the disabled. Japan is a leader in its efforts to integrate the disabled to daily life: Kamifusen-Fresh for physical disabilities, and Deaf Puppet Theatre Hitomi for hearing impairments are examples of using theatre forms and puppetry with therapeutic aims.

Nowadays, the puppet theatre plays two important roles in the fields of therapy and rehabilitation: for patients with various mental-health conditions on the one hand, and people with physiological or sensory conditions but no psychoneurological disorders on the other. Furthermore, group therapy workshops use puppets as a means for children and adults to communicate in psychiatric wards. The goal of the workshops is not the performance, but the healing.

It appears that the building of a puppet is especially useful to help a patient come out of his/her sense of isolation – no matter if this isolation is intended, is unconscious or repressed. The therapist must refrain from giving aesthetic guidelines in the making of a puppet and instead let the patients do as she/he wishes. This approach can help toward patients recovering their identities. In this instance, the fashioning of a head is an important step in the therapeutic process, and so is the naming of the puppet, which is given an identity. Through this process, patients can learn to be more friendly, helpful and polite to one another, to recognize one another even outside of the workshop environment, and to call one another by their names. The next process is for a story to be created around the puppet. The story is often very simple, but is intended to have a cathartic function. The therapist must be extremely patient and wait for words to be spoken; she/he must know how to deal with the phenomena of transference (the phenomenon whereby we unconsciously transfer feelings and attitudes from a person or situation in the past on to a person or situation in the present) and countertransference (the redirection of a psychotherapist’s feelings toward a client – or, more generally, as a therapist’s emotional entanglement with a client). It also takes time for the patients to get used to performing on a stage.

When treating children, the puppet can be used in one-to-one sessions. A psychologist offers to play with puppets and the patient chooses spontaneously his or her own puppet for each “game” played. Sometimes it takes several sessions before a child faces his or her fears and dares to play with the puppet. Patients must not be forced to take part and the therapist must be patient and wait until they decide to do so. Children who manage to play in spite of their fears have already taken a big step towards recovery. It is common to see children who are usually shy, who stammer or do not talk at all speak quite confidently when they are behind the curtain of the puppet stage, as the curtain itself plays a protective role. What could not be uttered prior can now be said through the puppet. “I did not say it, the puppet did!” becomes a truly liberating phenomenon. Sometimes the words still do not come, but via physical language the child can express his or her feelings. This is often the case for children who have been beaten or have been molested, and for war victims. Child victims often believe that they are being “rightly” punished for an imaginary crime. Their suffering and their fears are too deeply entrenched to be expressed by words. In such scenarios, speech therapists often use Muppet-type puppets (puppets with movable mouths) to help children with speech impairments or other difficulties with language. It is almost always observed that a child who usually stammers does not do so behind the puppet stage curtain.

Puppet theatre can also be used in educational programmes. Puppets can warn children about the dangers of daily life. These dangers might be in the home, at school, in the street, in a car …Or dangers resulting from natural disasters, such as what must be done or avoided during an earthquake and other such catastrophic likelihoods. It can also have a prophylactic purpose. For instance, helping children to understand and accept daily tasks linked to hygiene, such as washing hands, feet and cleaning teeth, or agreeing to go and see a dentist. In India, for example, puppets can inform about the risks of drinking water that is not potable, and the necessity to boil water before drinking it.

Puppets are also used in workshops for people with physical disabilities. The main problems encountered in this use of puppetry are linked to movement within the allocated space and the manipulation process itself. The puppets have to be specially made for people with physical disabilities so that manipulation is possible. In the United States, in particular, puppets are used in hospitals to educate young patients about long-term diseases (such as diabetes or asthma), or to prepare them for surgical operations. Thanks to puppetry programmes that are available in hospitals, children can express their frustrations, such as their feelings of injustice that they are ill, their fears of dying during surgery or their hopes of getting better. When used for one-to-one psychiatric care, the puppet allows the practitioner to listen to the patient in a different way: the workshop is sometimes the only place where the patient (adult or child) has the opportunity to express her/himself freely. The puppet often creates, between the therapist/doctor and the patient, links based on complicity and discovery of each other. It is also sometimes the cause of transference or countertransference that must often be addressed. In many cases, the puppet changes the way in which patients are perceived. Many puppeteers and psychologists are thus asked to help patients rediscover their interest in learning or reawaken their confidence and self worth through the use of puppetry and spontaneous play enacted behind the puppet screen. The games played are recorded. These recordings are useful in motivating the next stage in the process – the writing stage and memory work – a process that is also often used in homes for the elderly.

Professional puppeteers and educators also increasingly use puppet theatre in the prison environment. Experiments have been conducted in prisons in England, South Africa and Mexico. Puppet workshops also currently take place in various French prisons such as La Santé and Fleury-Mérogis.

From the experiences of dedicated theatre people, teachers, therapists, and doctors, it appears that the application of puppetry for educational, therapeutic and social development has been very useful in addressing, sometimes even resolving, certain stresses experienced by individuals or marginalized groups. For instance, puppetry permits individuals to “socialize” their impulses, to “act” out their fears, concerns and dreams for a group or before an audience. The inanimate figure of the puppet is a safe intermediary, whether it be used to express desires or frustrations that are often viewed as “transgressive behaviours” or pathologies. Puppetry creates a distance from reality and thus allows individuals to let go of their rage, to “kill” their aggressors, and thus settle their scores with society.


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