technique

String Puppet

Country

Puppet operated from above. Suspended by strings grouped at the top of a [control] and manipulated from this “technical device” (except in Rajasthan), the string puppet (also called a marionette or string marionette in English) is noted for its segment-by-segment articulation. This anatomical construction gives it great flexibility but also makes it very difficult to escape naturalism. In the novel, Nachtwachen (Nightwatches, 1804), Bonaventura describes [Hanswurst] as such: “Nevertheless, the wooden joker looked at me in a familiar way and I took a liking to him as if a friend. – This guy was made by a Venetian sculptor, said the man in an engaging tone as he showed the puppets. – And I’ll bet that he is better at his craft than anyone else; see how he stands on his feet and walks as if he were alive; he puts his hand on his heart, he drinks and he eats, and when I pull on these strings, just by a simple mechanical pressure, he can laugh and cry just like any ordinary man!”

With a string puppet, it is tempting to create a true representation of reality, whether zoomorphic or anthropomorphic. It wasn’t until [Géza Blattner] (Benjo úr és a pelikánja [Mr Benjo and his Pelican], 1932), Robert Bruce Inverarity (Z-739), who also assembled various utensils in the 1930s, William Addison Dwiggins (Millennium 1, 1945), and others, that we see appear a more modern aesthetic formula of string puppetry.

A Complex Tangle

While the main string suspends the string puppet’s head, its shoulder strings can hold up the entire puppet. Pelvis strings prop up the back while the puppet bends forward or moves to the sides. The knee strings are indispensable for walking. Strings attached to the forehead, temples or the back of the neck make possible its nuanced head movements. Hand strings are often manipulated by the same control bar that moves the wrists and the elbows. The foot strings are attached in front to be able to stretch out the leg in combination with the knee strings. Other strings can sometimes be added to the heels for kneeling or executing splits.

Some people assert that the puppets of the [Salzburger Marionettentheater] ([Salzburg Marionettes]) have up to eighty strings, which seems excessive as most have ten or so. These figures are sixty to ninety centimetres high and are placed accordingly in three spots on the stage in order to respect the depth of field. A double proscenium arch focuses the public’s eye. The impeccable lighting and characters are hyper-realistic, both in their physical aspect and in their gestures. Their [repertoire] is that of the [opera] and, since they are located in Salzburg, Mozart in preference. This miniature opera presents highly skilled performances with great attention to detail.

Even though the number of strings can be added to infinity, the puppeteer only has two hands, one to maintain the control bar at the correct height and the other to pull on the strings; and even if there were a second or third puppeteer (which seems to be the maximum number to operate a puppet), one cannot manipulate everything. It is therefore essential to conceive and build a string puppet to execute very precise actions and gestures.

The large string puppets in the Chinese region of Fujian measure between 1 and 1.20 metres; they are sumptuously dressed in embroidered costumes and their number of strings can vary. In his Des poupées à l’ombre (The Dolls in the Shadow, 1977), Jacques Pimpaneau reminds us that, “elaborate gestures require a greater number of strings. The minimum is five: one for each shoulder, one for each hand and one from the top of the head. If there are eight strings, there is one for each hand, one for each shoulder and one for each temple. With fourteen strings, there are one for the back, one for each shoulder, one for each temple, one for each elbow, one for each wrist, one for each group of four mobile fingers, one for each calf and one last string, placed in front, goes from the fingers in the right hand to those in the left, making it possible to join both hands when pulled on. A puppet that has between sixteen and twenty-two strings is capable of doing almost all the movements of an actor; but it would need up to twenty-eight strings if it were to ride a horse.”

Technically, the string puppet can be brought back to an applied physics problem based on centre of gravity research. In fact, the puppet plays with gravity and defeats it. The effectiveness of movements is relative to the mass of manipulated elements and to the forces moved by more or less long levers to their support points and their direction.

Historical Benchmarks

A legend from India tells us that string puppets were born from a whim of [Shiva] and his spouse Parvati. As they passed in front of a sculptor’s display of articulated puppets, they breathed life into these puppets that started to move and dance. As Shiva and Parvati left the shop, the puppets became lifeless again. The sculptor then asked the gods to bring the puppets back to life but Parvati answered: “Since you are the creator of these small beings, it is up to you to make them live.” From this, the craftsman got the idea to attach strings to the puppets and make them move.

Several texts mention the existence of [neurospasta] in Ancient Greece, and if many Antiquity texts cite puppets it is often under the form of parables and metaphors to denounce the failings of human beings. In the second century CE, Apuleius wrote in De Mundo: “Those, he said, who control movements and gestures of small figures of men made in wood, only have to pull on the string designed to move one or another part for us to immediately see their necks bend, their heads nod, their eyes take on the liveliness of a look, their hands to do all sorts of things that we want them to; and, finally, for their entire being to show itself to be graceful and alive.” However, neither Egyptians, nor Greeks nor Romans have left animated statues as witnesses, except in the lesser form of toys made from baked clay or sometimes wood or ivory. There are also no relics of painted or engraved representations of puppets.

Starting from 1443, angels that “flew around” during the Mitouries of Dieppe were probably string puppets (see [France]). From 1772, the Théâtre de [Séraphin] lasted close to a century and became famous for its [shadow theatre] as well as its string puppetry. An interesting 1773 engraving shows a scene of the Haymarket Theatre in London where actors and life-size shadow string puppets, cut out from painted cardboard, share the same stage. After having been fashionable during the 18th century, string puppets disappeared during the Revolution, probably due to the competition from [hand puppets] by Anatole, but reemerged around 1875, the year the Englishman [Thomas Holden] arrived in Paris. Holden is allegedly the inventor of the archal string (French: fil d’archal, the main brass strings attached from the head of the puppet to its ears; see [Head Rod]), the scene backdrop with vertical stripes to reveal less of the puppet strings, and the break-away skeleton. An offspring of [fairground] show people, Holden was the director of [Bullock’s Royal Marionettes] (1870). This theatre employed ten puppeteers perched on a walkway or [bridge] above a stage 4.20 metres wide and 2.40 metres high and deep, in order to manipulate three hundred puppets.

At the end of that century, the French brothers Alfred and Charles de Saint-Genois also became famous puppeteers. The first took the stage name of Dicksonn and performed in the Robert-Houdin theatre. He was also the inventor of a particularly ingenious device called “appareil de Dicksonn” (the Dicksonn apparatus) which consisted of a single horizontal control bar where all the puppet’s strings were attached. This control hung by a hook to a kind of iron bracket sturdily attached to the back of the puppeteer by a brace with suspenders. This vertical bracket started from the back and hung over the puppeteer’s head by about forty centimetres. Since the control was suspended to this bracket at the right level in front of him, the puppeteer didn’t have to hold it and both of his hands were free to manipulate. A clever technique allowed a free [manipulation] of the puppet’s head which was attached at ear level by two strings at the end of a small board hung by elastics underneath the main control bar. The elasticity of the fixture allowed the inclination, rotation, lowering and lifting of the head which resumed its initial position by itself. Maindrar described Dicksonn’s puppets in this way: “They are built from bits and pieces. The head, with its moveable jaw, is attached to the torso by a double bolt; the torso and the pelvis, made from a simple small board, are connected to one another by a thick leather strip; the legs, tied to the pelvis by two leather strips, are constructed of hinged wood to make the knees and feet; finally, the arms bent by interlaced bolts are connected in the same way to the shoulder blades.” (J. M. Petite, Guignols et Marionnettes, 1911).

The other de Saint-Genois brother, Charles, took the pseudonym of John Helwelt and became famous by representing celebrities of his times like the singers Fragson, Polin, Yvette Guilbert, and the dancers Fatma and La Belle Otero. He performed his characters in a theatre on the scale of his puppets: an orchestra of [automata] directed by a conductor would accompany them, and on each side of the stage, puppet spectators would move about in their theatre boxes.

Among the many 19th century big families of French fairground puppeteers were the [Pajot-Waltons], formed in 1800 by Béranger, and the Borgniet, Howard, [Levergeois], Roussel, Garat and Dulaar-Roussel dynasties that performed their puppet shows in the Petit Poucet Theatre or the Lilliputian Theatre from 1800 to 1935 (see [Fairs and Fairground Performers]).

Construction

If we look at the “anatomy” of a string puppet, we can see that it is comprised of segments articulated to one another. The head, of which the neck can be connected or separate, is attached to the torso which can consist of a single piece with shoulders, chest and pelvis. However, a character may need to bend over, rotate or swing its hips. The arms are then articulated to the shoulders, the forearms to the arms and the hands to the forearms. The necessity of the performance may dictate a need for the fingers to be autonomous, however the wrists do not always need to be articulated. The thighs are attached to the pelvis, the legs to the knees and the feet to the legs. Here, as well, articulation of the ankles is not always necessary. Articulations can consist of a strip of flexible material, a leather belt, or a strip made of fabric or plastic. One must be careful that the joints do not let the articulated segment wander, and to limit the movement of certain articulations, like the knee or the elbow for example. It is also possible to integrate mechanisms in the head to allow lower jaw movements – the lever must be ballasted to compensate for the weight so that the mouth stays closed – or eye and lash movements. One must stabilize these motions by springs and elastics and weight them down with lead pellets to maintain the eyes in position.

We often notice that string puppets have a particular walk with their backsides sticking out and their knees bent. To remedy this, the waist-to-thigh attachment can be fastened with a sliding system which will shift the articulation when walking, compensating for this semi-seated position. The movement of the fingers – the five separate or the four together and the thumb for grabbing – can be achieved by the use of mortise and tenon joints. The artist must dress the puppets with clothes that are loose and flexible so as not to impede their movements. There are small items that can be found in fishing store accessories that can be very useful such as swivels, lead weights for ballast, plastic strings (nylon, polypropylene) preferably multi-stranded, which are more flexible and also call less attention to themselves. To more easily adjust the length of the strings, one can mount them on clasps that can be attached to nails or staples on the side of the puppet, just like the control.

The most comfortable position to manipulate string puppets consists of holding the control with the forearm in a horizontal position. When building this type of puppet it is necessary to anticipate the theatrical space in which it will perform, as this will determine its dimension and the length of the strings. The text and the role that it will play will define its appearance, articulations, gestures, acting and costume. From sketches and drawings to models, computer generated or not, the puppet must be graphically designed before being manufactured; but the steps to creation can vary from one puppeteer to the next. For example, Dutch puppeteer [Henk Boerwinkel] from the Figurentheater Triangel, starts with a drawing, never from a story: “the image engenders the theatrical act”. A puppet can also be conceived from a hodgepodge of materials directly assembled, the story will then be created from improvisations, mimodramas, manipulations punctuated by words and music.

The manufacturing itself is done flat on a table or a workbench. The different segments are articulated together before proceeding to the stringing of the puppet. The use of a bracket or a handle, which serves to hang the clothes, is very useful in this procedure. We start by attaching suspension strings from the shoulders to the control. The rest of the manufacturing has to do with tradition, invention and patience. If an animal is being built, a horizontal control is preferable; a trick is to cross the strings tied to the paws in order to limit their movement so as to render their walk more realistic.

Similar to the “secret machinists” who, during the Middle Ages, were in charge of special effects, machinery and tricks (in 1459, theatre builders met in Ratisbon [Regensburg, in Bavaria, Germany] and imposed on themselves the “law of secrecy”); string puppeteers talk of “secrets” (French: ensecret), thus the action of hanging the puppet to its control was part of this vow of [secrecy] ([ensecrètement] in French).

The next steps are the painting, wig-making, costume designing and improvements (the ballast of elements, the positioning and breadth of manipulation bars, etc.). Finally, the puppet is put to the test. To avoid the tangling of strings when putting away the puppet, a [chesnais] (a small device invented by French puppeteer [Jacques Chesnais]) can be used. If not, a ribbon can be tied around all the strings every 20 to 40 centimetres, and the puppet is then slipped into a long and narrow pouch tied at the top, with the control bar on the outside. Special trunks with compartments can also be used in which to separately hang the puppets.

A Great Cultural Wealth

Classifying string puppets in terms of their control function, we can then distinguish several groups: puppets without controls from Northern India (Rajasthan, Punjab); puppets with only one or two horizontal sticks as controls (Sri Lanka), or with controls in the form of H or T that allow to hang the puppet and on which the buckle manipulation strings are simply placed on top (Burma); horizontally controlled puppets; and vertically controlled puppets. One must also mention [trick puppets] (French: marionnettes à subterfuge) that have very complicated controls as the puppets execute complex tasks (music-hall acts) or transformations (see [Metamorphoses], [Trick and Transformation Puppets], [Variety and Music Hall]). Aside from these, there are also combined manipulated puppets. In the Figurentheater Triangel, certain characters are manipulated from below by Ans Boerwinkel using [glove puppets] and taken up from above by Henk using string puppets. There are a number of [rod marionettes] that use a rod to suspend the puppet and strings to move the arms and legs, like that of [Lafleur], the main character of the Amiens tradition for whom it is imperative that he be able to lift up his leg horizontally in order to bestow his famous kicks …

A rare traditional string puppet can be found in Southern India: the [salaki gombeyata] of Karnataka, or the bommalatam in the Tanjore region (Tamil Nadu). Their manipulation is rod and string combined: the strings are attached to a control in the shape of a crown ring made of fabric that encircles the puppeteer’s head. A nod transmits pulsations to the shoulders and head of the puppet. The manipulator, whose hands are free, can move the puppet’s arms using rods. In North-west India, the nishka puppet presents on its chest a kind of miniature theatre with two doors that open, revealing a drawing, which is the image of its soul. India has a wealth of this genre whether in Karnataka ([yakshagana gombeyata]), in Rajasthan ([kathputli ka khel]), in Orissa ([gopalila kundhei]), or in Kerala ([nool pavakoothu]).

North-west Pacific Coast Native Americans used articulated puppet masks during their shamanistic celebrations. Robert Bruce Inverarity, who was not only a puppeteer but also an anthropologist, describes the sisiutl: “the use of puppets controlled by strings was very common. The string sometimes ran over the great beams of the house (the clan residence) and were pulled by hidden manipulators who received their cues from the songs. The sisiutl, a mythical snake, would be conjured up, the dancer concealing it in his palm and releasing it during the dance. The sisiutl would then fly about, pursued by the dancer until he suddenly caught it. Then the dancer, by sleight of hand, would put the sisiutl in his mouth and begin to vomit and spit blood, as if trying to rid himself of the spirit. In this performance there were two sisiutils: one made of tubes that could be collapsed in the dancer’s hands and the other controlled by strings that held it in the air.” (Bil Baird, The Art of the Puppet, p. 31).

A Few Contemporary Creations

Among the large string puppet performances are Marionnettes Flippers, by Philippe Debuischer and the Compagnie de l’Isle (1972), with its figures hanging from mobile gallows-type cranes on wheels, and the [Royal de Luxe] troupe’s [giant] string puppets – conceived by François Delarozière, for Le Géant tombé du ciel (The Giant Who Fell from the Sky, 1993). The giant in the latter production is nine metres high, suspended from an automobile scaffold, which was manipulated by a crowd dressed in red servant costumes that would pull on ropes. On the other end of the size spectrum, William Addison Dwiggins (1880-1956) distinguished himself with his Experimental Theatre in Miniature, whose puppets measured approximately only 25 centimetres. With great talent, he created an engrossing, realistic dancer, Lilith, for Prelude to Eden, as well as surprisingly abstract mechanical puppets for Millennium 1.

Other puppetry artists include: [Paul Brann] in Munich from 1907 to 1934; the [Teatro dei Piccoli] of Vittorio Podrecca (five-hundred puppets and twenty-three puppeteers); Margaret Hoyland with her paper rolled and shaped puppets (Little Paper People, 1938); [Jacques Chesnais] and his Comédiens de Bois (Wooden Actors: L’Escarpolette [The Swing] and L’Acrobatie main-à-main [Hand-to Hand Acrobatics], 1941); [Albert Roser] and his clown Gustav on the piano; [Bil Baird] with his admirably proportioned string characters (Shango, a voodoo thunder god); Géza Blattner (Le Mariage de la flûte [The Marriage of the Flute] with puppets in the shape of humanized music instruments); [Tony Sarg] and his marionettes; [Harro Siegel] (Faust and Mephisto); [Josef Skupa] ([Spejbl and Hurvínek]); [Ţăndărică] (the conductor with the egg-shaped head by Gellu Naum); the sophisticated puppets by [Takeda Sennosuke] (for a string puppet adaptation of the nō drama, Hashi Benkei); [Danaye Kanlanfei] from Togo with his charming puppets made from calabash in La Légende de la tortue (The Legend of the Turtle), in which one of the characters, the snake, is made out of beer bottle caps strung together over at least 2 metres…