The modern concept of the public covers only one part of spectators for the puppet theatre and cannot be applied to communities that unite around sacred figures, funeral effigies or masks during religious ceremonies or shamanistic rites. In fact, in such cases, which were in existence in certain regions of Europe up to the beginning of the 20th century, the viewers did not “watch”: they participated in the ceremony in a community context foreign to modern Western theatre.
If in its original forms, puppetry was performed by itinerant artists for the public in town squares, in streets and also inside churches; starting from the 17th century, the upper classes appropriated the genre in its most refined style: the public thus widened to include members of the aristocracy and high clergy. Puppet shows were performed for the large families and courtiers of Europe’s princely courts. Such works were given in Rome (see Teatro Fiano), Venice (see Opera) or by Prince Eszterházy who presented Joseph Haydn’s puppet operas (see Eszterháza Palace Marionette Theatre). In the 18th and 19th centuries, puppet theatre therefore contained the same distinctions as live theatre, with a street (popular) public, a paying theatre public (more bourgeois but also comprising of some nobility), and lastly an aristocratic public in their palaces and courts. Starting from the end of the 18th century, a fourth type of public emerged, that of children, especially in Germany where the pedagogical value of puppetry was recognized (see Count Franz von Pocci) and where the miniature theatres appeared (including under the guise of toys) in bourgeois families.
Also during the 19th century, an “artistic” public developed like that of Maurice Sand and Louis Lemercier de Neuville and later with the painter Paul Ranson, with Alfred Jarry in France, Richard Teschner in Austria, Edward Gordon Craig in Italy and among all the avant-garde artists in general. This public was obviously limited in terms of numbers, but being an integral part of the artistic movement and seeing in puppetry a means of subverting traditional bourgeois theatre, it exerted a considerable influence. This is the public that can be found both in the audience and on stage in many artistic cabarets (see Cabaret, Music Hall, Variety Theatre and Vaudeville).
When looking at the contemporary scene, it is more difficult to distinguish the types of public. However, the question of the public is inextricably linked to that of the performance’s reception in so far as the puppet, the artificial figure, determines by itself a modification of the spatial relationship where a reduced size imposes a limited number of spectators. Petr Bogatyrev, in a fundamental study, distinguishes the semiotic systems of puppet and live theatre by underlining the fact that the two genres assume a different perception by the spectator.
Puppet theatre, contrary to the illusionistic setting of the “Italian theatre” with its proscenium stage (prevalent in the West), uses a highly codified and conventional language in a non-naturalistic and non-psychological aspect, as is reflected from the outset by its non-human “actor”. This language exploits “anti-narrative” processes like oxymorons, metaphors, ellipses, double entendres and ambiguity, which have no meaning in the logical relations of cause and effect that govern daily life. The structure can be fragmented and the development of the plot interrupted instead of being unified and organic. In puppet plays – glove puppet shows in particular – the story that is told is often part of the collective heritage (fables, for example) that the public already knows but which is presented with improvised and unexpected variables. The show is not something foreign but is as such because it is the process that is emphasized, not the story. All the scenic elements are extremely stylized in a puppet show: a single object is enough to create an ambiance that engages the spectator’s imagination. The object reveals its meaning in the context in which it is shown, and the most subtle of signs allow identification of the character.
The smaller size theatre and the proportional relationship between objects and puppets also reinforce this non-realistic effect. Traditional puppet theatre, as it existed up until the 19th century, differentiated itself from contemporary puppet theatre in that it kept its “natural” proportions intact – on a smaller scale – whereas the latter, on the contrary, played on the space between the natural dimensions of the human body and those artificial ones of the figures. The shock that the 19th century spectator would have experienced by having seen the accidental intrusion of a part of the body on stage is today purposely exploited by puppeteers. Puppet theatre often uses the “metatheatrical” element: the “characters” are thus “aware” that they are artificial puppets and, especially in the case of glove puppets, can directly address a public who has become complicit or they can even fly outside the frame of their theatrical space.
This imperfect spatial configuration, in which the actor and the public tend to blur, can also be found in cabaret, which frequently welcomes puppet shows. The space between the puppet and its double has often been compared to the Brechtian distancing concept. However, a fundamental difference must be pointed out: the puppet makes the actor disappear, letting the character emerge without mediation; the puppet does not “show” the story (as the Brechtian actor does when emphasizing the role in the third person), but rather eliminates it. There is therefore no “schizophrenia” on the part of the “double” actor who, paradoxically, sanctions the authenticity of his presence by putting aside the notion of “representation”. The “integration” of the figure and the “distance” in relation to its role depend on the power of the puppeteer to master these two elements. The puppeteer must also use his powers of persuasion to keep the spectator bewitched – a spectator whom is not called upon, as in epic-type Brechtian theatre, to respect a critical detachment.
Among theatres in Asia, audiences of Javanese wayang kulit (shadow theatre) would experience the performance in one of two quite significantly different ways, depending on which side of the screen a viewer sits: the shadow side or the side of the dalang (puppeteer) and musicians. As for Japanese Bunraku (which Roland Barthes took as a model for his reflection on the standards of linguistic code), this is a theatre where the spectator sees the puppeteers in full view.