thematique

Storytellers

Country

Storytelling, closely linked to oral culture, can be approached from a historical or folklore perspective. Conceptually, “oral” transmission is the central principle and depends on the existence of an earlier narrator: storytelling is both “oral” and “traditional” culture but evolves and is part too of contemporary society. Myths, legends, heroic tales, chronicle tales and religious epics are alike in that the stories have developed over centuries largely through their repetition in different iterations by professional storytellers. In many world regions the puppeteer is the storyteller. While in others, the storytellers became a member of the troupe working alongside the puppeteers. Thus, the same narratives are found in puppet shows, theatre, opera, dance, and storytelling.

In Asia, where prior to the last century only the elite were literate, the job of the storyteller was very sophisticated and an artist might command an extraordinarily repertoire and sometimes cross genres (i.e. theatre, picture narration, puppetry). Storytelling was passed down from teacher to apprentice either by performance guilds or by family lineages. Across South and South East Asia, the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as well as Buddhist jataka tales have spread and were regularly communicated to both literate and illiterate audiences partly through these storytellers.  The Puranas (stories of the deities) were also a rich source in India, as well as semi-historical and historical heroes that might even over time become divinised as, for example, the figure of Pabuji in the storytelling with picture narratives of Rajasthan.

We find traditions of storytellers, sometimes linked to the courts, but in more recent centuries presenting materials in public markets as with the bhand singers, storytellers, jokesters and sometimes puppeteers of North India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and even Iran where the form might be called naqal. In Turkish areas under the Ottomans a related genre was the meddah whose stories – in north India through Iran they are the Hamzahnama (Story of the Uncle of the Prophet Mohammed), Shahnama (Iranian Book of Kings), and Xandernama (Story of Alexander the Great) – might be recited in coffee houses.  

In medieval Europe, the profession of storytelling was part of the repertory of court minstrels, but also practised by wandering artists who sang religious or epic tales. As the minstrel tradition began to disappear, we start to see commercial centres evolving and more slowly literacy overtaking the oral transmission of narratives.

Oral and puppet performance of great stories play a major role in the great fairs or jahrmarkt where performer storytellers/puppeteers might have relatively “long runs” for the duration of the event. Here performers may combine older religious, legendary, or heroic tales which alternate with antics by the clowns. Thus, the early appearances of the character who becomes “Punch” comes in stories/performances that tell of Cassandra, Solomon and Sheba, or Hero and Leander. Cervantes’ Don Quixote from the first years of the 16th century tells of a puppet master presenting tales of Charlemagne’s courtiers, reminding us that epic traditions of story and puppet performance are alive in Spain in that period. Goethe’s first encounter with the legendary story of Faust who sells his soul to the devil comes in the context of a puppet show in the mid 18th century when he was a child in Frankfurt. But with increasing literacy and urbanization in Europe, the stories move into written forms for communication and storytelling like the puppet which conveyed these great epics or tales became associated with and for child audiences in European minds.  

African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Native American cultures and groups also have major roles for storytellers. Some of them may have religious functions; others may be historians, and some simply entertaining verbal artists. However, while some African, Australian, or Indian storytellers use props to accompany their narratives, they often do not manipulate puppets themselves. They may use no props or object. They may use a painting or sculptural representation pointing out the scene(s) they narrate. They may sing their story while others manipulate the puppets that represent the historical or epic tale.

Asia  

Indian storytellers have refined storytelling to a high art, and religions of India have been spread and reinforced in the country through the major epics, tales of the gods, and even short tales of exemplary beings. Hindu religious teaching has many stories, but the Mahabharata and Ramayana may take pride of place, though tales of the Goddess Devi/Durga and additional avatars of Vishnu the preserver God are also important, while local areas may foster tales of more local representations of the divine. Buddhism likewise was taught via stories – especially by jataka (describing previous lives of Buddha Sakyamuni) – providing popular, well-known topics in images and stories. More secular animal tales such as the Panchatantra could also be part of the repertory that provided models for life. Islamic artists might tell of heroes, such as Amir Hamzah who prepared the way for the Prophet Mohammed. We are told the great Jain teacher Mankhali Gosala was the son of a picture narrator. Buddhist literature mentions charana chitta (mobile paintings) of the punishments of hell, commonly called yama pata (scrolls of the god Yama, ruler of the underworld, which may be displayed and narrated even today.

The Hindu and Buddhist religious texts were recited by teachers from books made of bound palm leaves that contained illustrated scenes, and some storytellers may have adopted this practice. Ancient Hindu texts such as the sutras of Panini (5th-6th centuries BCE) contain references to storytelling accompanied by a sequence of images painted on a scroll. Over the following centuries, such scrolls have been displayed to the crowds by itinerant preachers. In medieval India, this teaching was often given with scrolls vividly depicting the religious story or evoking hell’s dangers. Subsequently, a group of professional storytellers grew, using illustrated scrolls, such the kalamkari bards of south-east India and the bhopa in Rajasthan, or nat/bhat in Northern India. Picture paintings that constitute the basis of such tales and contain heroic scenes extracted from the Ramayana and many other tales can still be found today.

Indian puppetry is closely linked to this storytelling, as are other performance genres of dance or dance drama. To the present in Orissa state, string puppets accompany sung poems based on stories (dating from the 12th century and orally passed down) recounting the epic of Krishna. Another kind of puppet show (see Pavakathakali) in Kerala is derived from the kathakali of the 17th century, a dance drama where actors in costumes and elaborate make-up perform in plays based on the epics and Puranas that are sung by a pair of vocalists accompanied by drumming while the actor-dancers mime and use hand gestures (mudra) to interpret the story. Like the storytellers, the singer (bhagavathar) of each scene combines memorized kathakali texts with improvised songs. The pavakathakali was developed in the 18th century to mimic the dance of kathakali with similarly dressed and “masked” glove puppets.

Shadow puppetry has a similar synergy with the storyteller’s art in India. The ravanachhaya of Orissa tells Ramayana tales with music and dialogue. The tolpava koothu is traditionally performed by the Vellala Chetty, Nair and Ganka communities with the puppeteers called pulavar (scholar, poet). The story-singers have studied their palm leaf manuscripts of the Ramayana by the Tamil poet Kamban. While in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu we find other story-singers presenting the epics and Puranas. It could be that such traditions are linked to the rise of puppetry – storytelling that foregrounds Hindu epic stories in island and mainland South East Asia (see India, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia).

Storytelling and sometimes the specific stories travelled the Silk Road from India to China where it could flourish anew. From the 6th century, the Chinese pien-wen (transformation scrolls) and illustrated paintings were used by popular Buddhist storytellers. Indeed, between the 10th and 13th centuries in China, the art of storytelling spread in the new urban centres along with a profusion of popular dramas, acrobat shows, and puppetry. These artists, many of whom were organized into guilds, often worked in the “entertainment district”. Over the following centuries, the repertoire of these professional storytellers was enriched by a variety of quyi sung story genres, including the drum song and ballad singers, from Beijing dagu in the north, to the sweet romantic tanci of the south to the improvised kuaishu of Shandong area with fast beats and witty rhymes. These stories could be funny short poems or epics sung through every night for a month. Chinese story arts continue to the present in popular genres like cross talk xiangsheng comedy.  

Similarly, the art of puppetry in China embraces a wide variety of genres and techniques: glove, string puppets (including some of an impressive size), rods, and shadow theatre. Its repertoire usually consists of the same stories as tales shared by the storyteller and actors’ theatre traditions, including the heroic tales of San Guo Yanyi (Tale of Three Kingdoms), Shuihu Zhuan (Outlaws of the Marsh/Water Margin), and tragic love stories such as Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). Moreover, the Buddhist tales such as Maudgalyāyana (Pali)/Mulien (China), the story of a disciple of the Buddha who descends into hell to save his mother, and Xiyou ji (Journey to the West) in which a monk seeking Buddhist scriptures encounters and is assisted by the heroic Monkey King, were also told.

 Buddhism took root in Korea and Japan through trade with China and with it many common practices were introduced in the art of storytelling. Pansori became an art associated with singing performers (kwangdae) who, with drumming, told tales of rival siblings, from Tale of Three Kingdoms, or of Sim Chong – a daughter who sacrifices her life for her father – in Korea. Even older traditions, sung by shaman, tell of Princess Pari, abandoned by her parents as a child (actually they try to kill her) but who eventually travels to the kingdom of death to save her dying father and mother. In Japan female artists associated with Japanese Buddhist temples told stories with images while 12th century priests “recited paintings” while displaying them, and blind singers accompanied themselves on stringed instruments (first the biwa, a lute, but later the three-stringed shamisen). The latter might tell tales of the warring clans from Heike monogatari (Tales of Heike), relate Miracles of the beneficent Amida Buddha, or other stories. Storytelling, especially gidayu style singing, melded with doll puppet theatre, represented to the present by the Bunraku Company of Osaka. This Buddhist-themed puppet art had some Chinese influences and is thought to have entered Japan through Korea. Gradually, the Bunraku (ningyō jōruri) tradition, in which large rod puppets manipulated by up to three puppeteers are accompanied by professional gidayu singers called tayu, was established. The narrators recite their memorized texts with the book open before them but are passionate narrators who act out the emotion to the music of the shamisen. Fundamentally, the manuscripts of Bunraku’s joruri plays were based on secular human stories full of conflict, tension, and sometimes chilling violence. One of the greatest playwrights was the 17th century dramatist, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (see also Japan). 

Storytelling without figures flourished as well, and from the year 1910 yose storytellers performed with or without props or illustrations on a stage that they often shared with jugglers and magicians. Such storytellers still exist, the fan as the performers primary prop, in rakugo (literally “fallen words” – comic storytelling) and kodan (historical epics).

Parallel to its spread into northern India, Buddhism and some oral traditions extended south to Sri Lanka, which has preserved a rich Buddhist tradition (and from the 12th century) puppet shows recounting religious stories. Cambodia, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Malaysia in mainland South East Asia and Island South East Asia, today Indonesia, all have important storytelling traditions which parallel or intersect with puppetry, mask performance and actor-dancer theatre. There are many Indonesian sung performances that feature storytellers (sometimes blind). One example is Sundanese pantun which tells local legends and myths such as Sangkuriang, a son who like Oedipus tries to marry his mother, or Lutung Kasarung, a deity who falls in love with his high goddess mother and is sent to earth where he marries a princess.

One of the best-known oral traditions of Asia is the sophisticated wayang puppet theatre that includes many genres. The dalang is a professional narrator who sings the story and narrates the puppets’ or shadows’ or actors’ dialogue (but can also do the same stories without any of these supports). When he/she acts as a puppet master he/she manipulates the figures behind or in front of a screen or from behind a banana log for rod puppetry while a gamelan (bronze gong chime) orchestra accompanies. The dalang develops the story, improvising dialogue according to the prescribed wayang performance structure. It is often based on characters from the Indonesian versions of the Mahabharata or, more rarely, the Ramayana, but the “trunk” stories that more closely follow the Indian models are seldom performed – more often new episodes in the lives of these well-known and respected characters are invented. Other stories are told as well and range from stories of Prince Panji endlessly searching for and constantly missing his beloved; Damar Wulan, a prince who is rejected by his uncle and condemned to groom the horses until the Kingdom needs him and he marries the Queen; Amir Hamzah stories; and a plethora of local historical and legendary materials.

Similarly in Malaysia there are several types of wayang. The most popular is the wayang of Kelantan that draws heavily on the adventures of Rama while the Malaysian dalang has traditionally had certain functions of a bomoh (animist healer), a role that is threatened and has been formally banned by the Islamic party in the state of Kelantan.  While students still study the art in the nation’s capital, they are more likely to be learning a set script than the structured improvisation of the past. Other traditional Malaysian story arts, including penlipur lara, the Ramayana or chronicle tales (hikyat) and awang batil (storytelling where the performer plays on a brass bowl) were largely defunct by the late 20th century.

Large figure puppet shows in Thailand, called Nang Yai are usually based on the Ramayana (called the Ramakien) and correspond to the Nang Sbek Thom of the Khmer who call the same epic the Reamker. The storytellers (nang nai) sing the story while the puppeteers or mask dancers present the figures in their narratives. Smaller puppets throughout this northern part of South East Asia may tell Buddhist tales or local legends and have the name nang talung (Thailand) or ayang (Cambodia). Today, contemporary invented stories may be presented too.

Myanmar (Burma) seems to have borrowed the Ramayana from Thailand, but more of their stories are drawn from Buddhist sources. The Burmese, Thai, Khmer, and Lao also share narrative traditions without dolls in which the important Buddhist jataka tale of Vessantara, the last incarnation – called the “Great Birth” – tells of a king who gives away everything. Thus, this soon-to-be Buddha shows us how to achieve enlightenment. This story is associated with the recitation of monks and is presented all over South East Asia in a Buddhist festival which commemorates his sacrifice which resulted in enlightenment in the final birth as Sakyamuni. In Burma hawsa is this recitation of jataka by Buddhist monks.

In addition to these well-established classical genres, the ethnic minorities in the highlands of South East Asia have their own traditions of storytelling. Tai peoples living in a territory bordering China, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), have maintained an ancient tradition of oral epic song called khap that is partly adapted from Buddhist jataka. Laos Isan people continue to train singer-storytellers (molam) who perform monodramas to tell their story while an nungsu (“reading a book”) presents jataka tales in recitations by Buddhist monks. In such regions, storytellers and singers play an important community role in terms of entertainment, often communicating spiritual values as well. In Cambodia blind musicians and wandering singers played the cha pei, a long-necked lute, as they sang legends. In Vietnam similarly impaired performers called xâm xoan went village-to-village singing epic, historical and humorous story-songs.

Burmese string puppet shows were presented at court as well as for entertainment at temple festivals. Burmese texts dating from the 15th century also contain references to the puppets used in the consecration of a shrine and there is even one character that represents the “medium” (apodaw), perhaps referring to the older use of trance performance and representation of nats (spirits) to deliver messages via dance, story and impersonation to the living.  

Finally, the Hmong, an ethnic minority scattered among Laos, Thailand, China, and Vietnam, embroider painted scenes from everyday life on cloth. Artists from this ethnic group, recently immigrating to the United States, have also created embroidered stories recounting their journey. But such story cloths narrating history since the South-East Asian war are new creations developed first in refugee camps in Thailand under the influence of foreigners seeking to help women turn sewing skills into revenue generating artworks. The success of such endeavours means that to the present elaborate storycloths are sold to tourists in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia as part of a new tradition of storycloth production.

Meanwhile in the Philippines one finds major indigenous epics sung, including, for example, the Darangan of the Marano people or the tutol epic songs of the Magindanao which tells of Radya Indara Patra, a hero who flies to the clouds. Another important style of story singing is based on European models that have been adopted, most importantly, the Pasyon, based on the passion and death of Christ sung at the end of Lent.

Europe 

Europe has its own traditions in storytelling. Anglo-Saxon (Beowulf) and Norman legends are some early ones. Some of these heroic tales reappeared centuries later in puppet narratives. In Sicily, the epic legends told by itinerant storytellers of the Middle Ages reappear in the 19th century in the form of cantastorie (also cantasoria, “sung story” or cuntu) that share some themes with the Sicilian puppets, the pupi. The cantastorie follows a very special rhythm: the storyteller gives his narrative a form that he accompanies with staccato beats by stomping his feet on the floor to increase the emotional force of his narrative. Mimmo Cuticchio continues this tradition today in La Spada di Celano (Celano’s Sword), recounting his experience with Peppino Celano, his elderly cuntu master. 

Perhaps the best-remembered European storytellers are the minstrel story singers of the Middle Ages who were found mostly in Britain, France and Italy. These professional artists included musicians, poets, comedians and puppeteers. Further east, the wandering bards (skomorohk) of certain regions of Russia sang epics, with instrumental accompaniment. These artists, in turn, have links to Iran and Turkey and the Guslar (story singers/bards) of the Balkans and all of them may even have links back toward India. Among heroic tales of Central Asia and Tibet is the saga of King Kesar (also Gesar), believed to be from Ling in Tibet, and the story tells of war against the Turkic tribes of Central Asia. The artists, dressed in white gowns, might tell their stories with painted images. In medieval England, minstrels not supported by courts travelled to monasteries and houses of aristocrats; some of them performed with puppet shows. However, this art began to decline after the 14th century as comedy and drama established themselves as more important entertainment genres. Still, storytellers or story singers might appear, sometimes with painted panels, at fairs in environs where puppetry was also developing and the arts remained intertwined.  

Storytelling, in its religious version, also developed in Europe’s religious performances. Thus, during Easter time in the 11th and 12th centuries, priests sometimes used illustrated rolls (Exultet rolls) to explain the resurrection of Christ. In the Middle Ages, street performers showed religious dramas with “mobile sculptures”. In the 15th and 16th centuries in Spain, travelling showmen presented scenes from the Bible (such as the Nativity) inspired by the lives of saints with their mechanical figures, retablos or reredos, on their small stages or stands. We find these animated characters in England during the Elizabethan period (1558-1603) where they appeared in shows along with figures controlled by hydraulics or mechanical organs (see Mechanical Theatres). Similar representations were known with scenes called Himmelreich (Kingdom of Heaven) in Germany or, in Poland, with tabernacula (tabernacles). Also worthy of mention is the tradition of crèches set up in churches and accompanied by songs dating back to the 13th century. In the 18th century, animated crèches appeared and became real dramas (see Nativity Scenes, Belén de Tirisiti, Džafkuline, [lier]Szopka, Vertep). The religious altarpiece became secularized thereafter to become a true stage with secular works including Master Peter’s Puppet Show described by Cervantes in Don Quixote in the 17th century that later inspired many artists. In the oral traditions of European Jewish culture, some stories and legends were passed down as moral lessons. Schwank, a type of comedy, also had this moral feature, but perhaps due to the broad development of literacy and writing, professional oral storytellers do not seem that central and remained closely linked to religious customs. 

Africa  

The art of storytelling is certainly a well-established art in much of Africa. In Nigeria and Senegal, there were well-developed schools and associations to train storytellers. The most famous institution is the griot/jeli, found in Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, etc., where a singer/musician/storyteller (in some ways comparable to a European minstrel or an Indian bhat/nat/bhand) was retained by the royal family to sing its praises. In parts of Africa, some storytellers were supported to preserve and present the history of the royal house, while others were more specialized in the rites of divination. One of the important narratives of Mali griots was the Epic of King Sunjata where Balla Fasséké is the eponymous ruler’s griot and wise advisor. This character is said to be the founder of the current griots today who are believed to be his lineal descendants. In general, they performed with vivacity and plays on words and rich language. Griots told tales of birth, marriage, death, wars, and many other things. African traditions focus specifically on the characters to give them the greatest possible life through gestures, expressions, and sometimes through the storyteller’s costume. In some cases, objects – a sceptre, a fan, or a spear – could be used to reinforce the narrative. In the udje, a satirical tradition of the Urhobo of Nigeria, the storyteller could even hold up a grotesque effigy of the mocked person. Many contemporary artists in West Africa today come from griot families.

One finds to the present the use of local stories (not confined to a professional performer like the griot) to communicate moral points and lessons – Anasi the Spider and Bakame the Rabbit are significant trickster figures that appear in local stories. These figures migrated with the African diaspora to the Caribbean, South America, and the United States (the hare becoming B’rer Rabbit in the US Black story tradition). African traditions, like those of Asia, closely combine the story told and/or sung with the musical accompaniment that serves as the narrative’s rhythmic base. 

The Americas

While African traditions emphasize liveliness and wit, Native American oral culture highlights the special power vested in the spoken word itself. In fact, many indigenous peoples share a conception of speech as vital force. The Americas harbour a great diversity of ethnic groups, and before the colonization of North America at least five hundred different languages existed. As elsewhere, these groups had many different kinds of oral traditions, from epic stories to sacred and courtly poems. Generally, religious and political leaders – trained to pass down the oral tradition, sometime by women in the community – and historians alike appreciated eloquence. Native Americans sometimes accompany their stories with illustrative props. Complex wired figures used by tribes in the American North-West and elaborate masks that can transform (kwakwaka’wkw) from bird face to the human might be part of dance performances. Stories of important animals, like the Whale, Raven, Bear, “Crooked Beak of Heaven” (Galokwudzuwis), and other figures are part of the Northwest traditions. In the Southwest, kachina (mask figures which may be represented by dolls) represent important ideas that are taught among the Hopi people. The stories of these linguistically and ethnically diverse peoples are impossible to summarize in this short entry. In some areas objects are used to “encode” the tale itself – basketry, pottery, blankets, paintings on buffalo hide could all “tell stories”. However, puppetry per se was not traditionally a widespread art in pre-Columbian America.

Storytelling with links to puppetry became part of the American immigrant culture: Chinese storytelling and puppetry entertained the Chinese who built the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s; ballad singing and storytelling of the Scottish, English and Irish tradition of 17th century Europe existed until quite recently in Appalachian areas; French traditions were part of the heritage of Louisiana or French-speaking Canada; and African storytelling and praise singing developed from Afro-Caribbean roots.

Oceania

In Oceania, oral traditions are of paramount importance. Many languages were not written, so knowledge, ancestry, myths, stories and traditions were passed down verbally.  Myths can include creation stories, tales of heroes, fables, and miscellaneous stories. All can form the basis for any type of oral tradition, be it singing, chanting, dance (often masked), or music and any combination of these performing art forms.  

The diversity of Oceanic oral traditions and stories reflects the high cultural diversity of the region. Since Melanesia and Australia were settled over 40,000 years ago and populations dispersed over great distances, they have the greatest diversity of oral traditions. Austronesian-speaking peoples began to arrive in Melanesia and the islands that comprise Micronesia about 4,000 years ago, followed by the spread of people into the Polynesian islands beginning c.200 BCE, with the last groups reaching Hawaii by c.500 CE and then New Zealand c.1100 CE. The Polynesian groups therefore have traditions that are more apt to be shared than those of Melanesia and Micronesia.  

There is great diversity among different Indigenous communities and societies in Australia, each with its own unique mixture of cultures, customs and languages. On the Australian continent and certain nearby islands, private and secret oral traditions have been passed down among Indigenous Australians (mainland Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders). These traditions describe the journeys of the creator ancestors on Earth and are “mapped” in the form of “song lines”, tracks that may extend over long distances in the landscape. This formative epoch is known as “the Dreamtime”, when the ancestors created and named as they travelled across the land. “The Dreaming” refers to the ancient time of creation as well as present-day reality when people live according to law and live the lore – perpetuating initiations and Dreaming transmissions or lineages, singing the songs, dancing the dances, telling the stories, walking and painting the song lines. Major ancestral spirits include the Rainbow Serpent, Baiame, Dirawond and Bunjil. These traditions are passed down during private ceremonies that Indigenous peoples prefer to keep internal. None of these traditions are directly related to puppetry per se, even if some stories are accompanied by sand paintings and string figures.

Traditions of song and narrative are universally important to Polynesian peoples. Poetry and speech are revered arts and led to genres like dance and found in New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti and Hawaii. In most Polynesian genres the words take precedence over the song and mime which elaborate on what is locked into the lyrics. Songs and narratives supported the lineages of royalty in Hawaii as with the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant. Hula is full of chants (mele) led by the kumu hula (teacher) using a gourd or other percussion instrument. Myths of the god-like Maui who snares the sun or Pele the hot-blooded goddess of the volcano who pursues her lover Lohiaulo are part of the repertoire. Alternatively, narratives may praise aristocrats or commemorate the geography of the place. Hundreds of men and women performed lakalaka (sung speeches with choreographed movements) for the King of Tonga’s 80th birthday on July 4, 1998. These included historic texts by the king’s mother and most importantly, a new verbal and visual biography of the king. There is even hula ki’i (hula with puppet) from the reign of Kamahameha III (1813-1854), which chants of the braggart warrior Maka-ku and his opponent Puapua-kea and their respective spouses using small gourd puppet figures.  

In Melanesia, storytelling is frequently accompanied by masked performances, and sometimes by sculpted puppets. In the village of Bengir, on the island of Malakula in Vanuatu, young men’s initiation ceremonies are celebrated by puppet performances illustrating the tale of two legendary heroes who created the universe. The village chief recites these tales to the accompaniment of a procession of sculptures of people, animals, dogs, birds and fishes and two wooden puppets with raised outstretched arms and bulging eyes who represent the two heroes, all held over the heads of their carriers. Similarly, in the Elema area of the Papuan Gulf, eharo masks portraying mythological characters participated in the celebrations during the young men’s initiation ceremonies, in addition to the sacred hebehe masks that represented sea spirits. Sometimes the tales told during these performances are comical.

One also finds this tradition of mythological stories illustrated with objects in various peoples of the Pacific Islands, such as Nauru, which is known for impressive and complex string figures.

Storytelling and Puppetry in the 20th Century

From the Renaissance, the art of puppetry turned to drama and to a wide repertoire consisting of themes from the commedia dell’arte, biblical episodes, the Elizabethan drama, melodrama in French 19th century, folk tales, children’s fairy tales and other genres. In the second half of the 20th century, under the influence of Japanese theatre and with the rediscovery of Brecht’s epic theatre and other diverse influences, many puppet artists abandoned “Aristotelian” drama for illustrated storytelling with puppets, props, and other media – what might be considered to be a return to the original forms. For presumably economic reasons, we can observe the development of a theatrical form based on storytelling. For example, the Italian Marco Paolini combines civic engagement and the storytelling actor (Il Racconto di Vajont The Tale of Vajont). Through using puppets, the manipulator is often seen as the “storyteller” – as witnessed in Massimo Schuster’s shows from Ubu roi (King Ubu) to Mahabharata. 

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