The Kingdom of Sweden (Swedish: Konungariket Sverige), a Scandinavian country in Northern Europe with Stockholm as its capital, borders Norway and Finland and is connected to Denmark by a bridge-tunnel. Historically, the Swedish Empire was one of the great European powers during the 17th and early 18th centuries.
The origins of puppetry in Sweden have not yet been the subject of scientific research. There is no comprehensive analysis of its history nor much work relating puppetry to theatre and other stage disciplines. However, as in other Scandinavian countries, there are good reasons to believe animated religious or ceremonial objects were employed in pre-Christian times, and their use survived into Sweden’s early Christian period.
Once within the structure of the Roman Catholic Church, theatrical manifestations in or close to churches followed patterns similar to those of religious events throughout Europe. While written documentation has not yet been found for the medieval period, the beautiful collection of triptychs in the National Historic Museum in Stockholm proves the rich presence of German or Dutch carved wooden Biblical scenes and figures, similar to the retablo tradition in Central Europe. The subsequent Lutheran reform of the Swedish church swept away many of the more elaborate art forms found in churches, and from the early 16th century any form of theatre was obliged to assume a secular context.
Sweden as a powerful, dominant nation in the Baltic and north European region also developed a richer and more elegant life reflected in the royal Court and the aristocracy. The visits of travelling theatre companies to Stockholm and its Court became more and more frequent during the 17th century, and puppeteers were received together with comedians/actors, musicians or acrobats. During the reign of Queen Christina, who later converted to Catholicism and was exiled in Rome, Stockholm modernized its theatrical life. A proper auditorium was installed in the royal castle, where operas, ballets and other artists, often from abroad, would entertain the Swedish royal Court.
Once granted permission to perform in the Court, entertainers were normally able to travel and work elsewhere in the country. One of the earliest descriptions is found in the diary of a 15-year-old student from Sweden’s western countryside. He notes what he witnessed in the small town of Kristinehaam on March 7, 1637. He describes an entertainer who had “an instrument carried on his back, and within it, artfully and skilfully carved, were some little wooden people, who moved and walked about to demonstrate the Final Judgement, the Prodigal Son and the Fate of John the Baptist; this, my dear mother and my brother Torbiörn, all of us who had come to the Lent Fair saw with our own eyes and greatly admired”. It seems probable that the performer was the German solo puppeteer Hans Jacobi Wijgant.
Most of the touring actors and puppeteers in Sweden were Germans, but other nationalities also visited. Some were Dutch, such as Franciscus Bossier, or Italian, such as Stefano Landolfi, who came in the 1670s. These visiting artists might stay in the country for a single season and sometimes for longer periods. Some of them, such as the German optician and artist Johann Hilverding, visited Sweden repeatedly and on one occasion at the end of the 17th century performed with his “huge marionettes” for the young Charles XII. Interestingly, the great wave of English itinerant performers that toured throughout Europe in the early 17th century did not reach Sweden (see Itinerant Troupes, Travelling Puppeteers).
The German Influence
Further research is needed in the field of early Swedish puppet history, but the structure and features it shares with European puppetry are obvious, even if theatre as a whole was less common in the continent’s northern periphery. During the 18th century, interest in founding a national theatre which would perform using the Swedish language prompted the presentation of short comedies with puppets in a private theatre in Stockholm, where it was seen as a complement to the actors’ drama.
Public theatrical life gained ground during the 19th century, but puppeteers were still imported from Germany which at that time represented mainstream European puppetry. The German “fireworks artist” Georg Hornung even succeeded in establishing a theatre of his own. This was open from 1849-1851 and presented “mechanical ballets”, “metamorphoses” (transformations) and comedies. Meanwhile, an itinerant Swedish artist, Johan Erik Svanvinge, a former chimneysweep, presented “gymnastic exercises” accompanied by a “barrel organ and puppets”. From the 1840s to the 1870s, a native Swede and former soldier, Johan Emil Meurk, toured the country with a “mechanical theatre of figures” which presented transformations and short comedies.
String puppets (string marionettes) were frequently in use, and this was the preferred technique of the artist widely acknowledged as the father of Swedish puppetry, Johan Christoffer Heuserman when he initially toured through Sweden presenting his Kasper theatre. Born in Hamburg in 1810, Heuserman received Swedish citizenship in 1877. He first performed in Sweden in 1857, when he visited Gothenburg calling himself “marionette player and harpist”. He worked with his young wife, Maria Wisbar, and, in due course, with their five children. It is certain that he visited several Swedish towns, and that he settled in Stockholm in the 1860s, when a weekly paper noted the performance of “a polichinelle-theatre”. In time, Haeuserman began using glove puppets, and in the 1870s he told the authorities that he is a “Kasper performer”, sometimes adding that he produces “music from a barrel organ and a violin”. During the last year of his life he was called a “panorama showman”. When in the capital, Heuserman usually performed in Djurgården, the largest and most popular public park of Stockholm. He died in 1880, but by the following year his theatre was operating again under his German son-in-law, Christoffer Kegel. The Kasper Theatre in Djurgården continued performing under changing managements, and was finally preserved by the open-air museum in the park of Skansen. Puppets from the 1910s are still used in performances during the summer in this open-air museum.
Puppet theatre, shadow theatre and toy theatre (also known as paper theatre) became part of bourgeois family society in the 19th century, and generations of writers grew up with puppetry. One example is Selma Lagerlöf, who wrote a couple of plays for the small home-made puppet theatre she shared with a younger sister. One of her plays was inspired by The Arabian Nights and is entitled “The Treachery of Koruska”. August Strindberg was a passionate puppetry observer; he ran a “Kasper club” together with his first wife and a circle of friends. In his late, modernist writing for the drama he used some puppetry-inspired forms, such as the introduction to Ett drömspel (A Dream Play), which was clearly influenced by shadow theatre. His play Kaspers Fet-Tisdag (Kasper’s Mardi-Gras) was written for actors playing as traditional puppets from the Kasper tradition. Strindberg’s fascination with puppets was also found in the book Old Stockholm (1882), where the chapter, “Street Music and Popular Entertainment”, includes a long text on puppet theatre, Heuserman, and the Faust tradition within puppetry, with some excerpts from texts.
The Revival of Swedish Puppetry in the 20th Century
The Kasper tradition dominated Swedish puppetry through the first half of the 20th century. It became primarily a form of entertainment for children, and local Kasper puppeteers worked in nurseries and public libraries. The work of Michael Meschke in the early 1950s, however, opened a new chapter in Swedish puppet theatre. When he finally opened his Marionetteatern (Puppet Theatre) in 1958, it marked a second revival of the art of puppetry in Sweden. For the first time artistically and skilfully articulated puppets were to be seen in Stockholm performing both for children and adults. From the outset, Marionetteatern also maintained rich and fruitful relationships with members of the international puppetry community.
For almost two decades Marionetteatern was the only puppet company in Sweden with a theatre of its own. Under its dynamic director, Michael Meschke, this little theatre served as a national institution introducing and training professional puppeteers. Over time a number of Meschke’s former collaborators carried forward a tradition of artistically qualified puppetry. A split of the Marionetteatern in the late 1970s created at least two new companies, Dockteatern Tittut (Peek-a-boo Theatre), from 1977, and Dockteatern Långa Näsan (Long Nose Puppet Theatre), from 1986 to 2006.
Michael Meschke retired as director of Marionetteatern in 1998, and Helena Nilsson (1998-2005) took over. Shortly after, the theatre moved into the City Theatre of Stockholm. Meanwhile, the rich collection of Marionettmuseet, the Puppet Museum within the Marionetteatern, had to wait for a permanent home until 2010 when the collection was donated to the Theatre Museum of Sweden. Parts of the collection are exhibited at the Theatre and Music Museum in Stockholm.
Helena Nilsson has continued to direct Marionetteatern, which is still the largest puppet company in Sweden. It features a repertory for both children and adults, with productions such as Ett drömspel (A Dream Play, 2006) by August Strindberg, directed by Roman Paska. A number of productions of the Swedish children’s book writer, Ulf Stark, have characterized a provocative yet poetic profile of the theatre.
The number of Swedish puppet companies increased during the 1970s. These companies came to hold a strong position within the field of children’s quality theatre. Most companies are small, but a few have a permanent stage, such as Dockteatern Tittut (Peek-a-boo Puppet Theatre) and Pygméteatern (Pygmy Theatre), both in Stockholm, Teater Spektaklet (Theatre Spectacle) in Uppsala, Dockteater Sesam (Open Sesame Puppet Theatre) in Gothenburg, and Dockteaterverkstan (Puppet Workshop) in Osby, a small town in southern Sweden. The immigrant puppeteer from Macedonia (then southern Yugoslavia), Vojo Stankowski, founded Totem in 1975 in Uppsala. Until Stankowski’s death in 1989, the theatre produced shows using mixed techniques.
Abellis Magiska Teater, inspired by medieval juggler’s theatre, was founded in Stockholm in 1979 by Bissa Abelli. While one “bouffon” production remains in the repertory, most shows are based on puppetry combined with music with subject material drawn from tales from international folklore. A large, brightly coloured bus serves as a stage, theatre hall and modest sleeping quarters for the staff during the theatre’s many international tours.
Byteatern, located in Kalmar on the Swedish south-east coast, was created by a group of art students, mainly painters and sculptors, who toured the coastline in an old cargo boat in the early 1970s. Kalmar, a regional harbour city, became their base and they were offered a warehouse in the harbour area as a theatre centre in 1982. The company’s productions for children combined puppets and objects and were striking for their stage imagery and visual poetry. By the 1990s, the company was no longer performing puppetry exclusively, and Byteatern became a theatre of performing arts in general, including dance.
In the far south is situated the Staffan Björklunds Teater run by Staffan and Enid Björklund since its founding in the 1970s. This award-winning theatre, directed toward child and family audiences, has travelled throughout Sweden and toured internationally. In 1991, it established the Pegasus Garden adjacent to the theatre to serve as a Forum for Culture and Ecology. Workshops and school visits are held amongst the wooden puppets in this interactive site of puppet theatre which showcases ecological installations and technologies.
The puppet artistry of Svarta Katten (Black Cat), a company run by Thomas Lundquist and the sculptor and puppet maker, Arne Högsander, have challenged and inspired Swedish puppetry with their highly skilled works seen in many different theatres. The graphic artist and puppet maker Eva Grytt has designed several sets of genuinely original and artistic puppets for their shows.
The collection of Marionettmuseet (Puppet Museum), since 2010 part of the National Museum of Theatre of Sweden, has an international selection of puppets and other documents, mostly from Marionetteatern productions. The collection contains a remarkable set of Japanese Bunraku puppets, Chinese glove puppets, Indian puppets of different techniques and traditions, and other figures from around the world. The museum’s rich videotheque houses an impressive coverage of Marionetteatern’s own productions. The museum’s library is also a repository of materials related to the productions of the theatre.
The Dance Museum in Stockholm, based on the collection of Rolf de Maré, has a fully equipped Chinese rod puppet theatre with puppets, costumes and props from the early 20th century. The Ethnological Museum, thanks to the explorer Sven Hedin, houses a fine collection of Chinese shadow theatre puppets from the same period.
The original glove puppets of Heuserman are in the collection of the Stockholm City Museum. The private collection of the artist Harald Gripe, collector of toy theatres, is located in Nyköping (80 kilometres south of Stockholm) at the Harald Gripes Modellteatermuseum.
For many years Michael Meschke encouraged the establishment of a training programme for puppeteers at university level. His efforts succeeded in the late 1990s, when a department of puppetry opened at Dramatiska Institutet (the National University of Drama, Film and Theatre) in Stockholm. However, due to economic problems, the department was closed in 2004 after six years in operation, and the future of tertiary level puppetry training remains uncertain.
The Swedish section of UNIMA has been active since the 1970s and attracts around twenty professional puppet theatre companies and 150 members. The magazine Dockteatern (Puppet Theatre) is published three times a year online (www.unima.se, email@example.com), and a yearbook is printed in hard copy.
- Meschke, Michael, and Margareta Sörenson. In Search of Aesthetics for the Puppet Theatre. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts, Sterling Publishers, 1992.
- Meschke, Michael, and Margareta Sörenson: En Estetik för Dockteatern [An Aesthetics for the Puppet Theatre]. Stockholm: Carlssons, 1989. (Swedish edition) Sörenson, Margareta, ed. … are but tugs on strings, The Marionette Theatre over 40 years/… är bara ryck på trådar, Marionetteatern under 40 år. Stockholmia Förlag, 1998. (Bilingual edition English-Swedish)
- Sörenson, Margareta. A Great Little Theatre, 30 years with Tittut Puppet Theatre/En stor liten teater, 30 år med Dockteatern Tittut. Stockholm: Carlssons, 2008. (In English and Swedish)
- Sörenson, Margareta. “The Shadow of August Strindberg”. Critical Stages. No. 7, 2012. IATC (International Association of Theatre Critics) web magazine. www.criticalstages.org