Puppetry has always been predominantly an itinerant profession. Even today, when there are many puppet theatres in existence, there are vastly more puppet companies without a permanent theatre in which to perform.
In Japan, before the Bunraku (ningyō jōruri) developed, monks used to travel with puppets to raise some money, and it is thought that the early Franciscan friars in Europe also travelled with puppets.
The Skomorokhi who ranged right across Russia may not have thought of themselves as specifically puppeteers, but puppets were one of the means they used to entertain. Itinerant players in the 16th century, and even much later, might also be conjurors, jugglers, acrobats, and actors. It is thought that the actors of the commedia dell’arte troupes were multi-skilled. As European theatre began to develop, groups presenting dramatic fare began to separate out from acrobats and others. Between the 17th century and the end of the 18th, especially in Germany, there are examples of showmen who used live actors and puppets indifferently to perform virtually the same repertoire. This may reflect the economic situation of the company at a given moment, but in some cases live actors (and especially actresses) were disapproved of and puppets provided a useful alternative to the human performer. In the early 19th century the Scottish showman Billy Purvis had difficulties paying his actors at one point, so dismissed his troupe and continued with puppets. In the 19th century strolling players and travelling marionette (string puppet) companies performed virtually the same repertoire, which was often a little out of date in relation to the repertoires of major urban theatres. In Germany the dramatic repertoire of the marionette theatres became frozen by the mid-19th century and did not really evolve further. In France and Britain the major successes of the big urban theatres, especially the melodramas, remained in the repertoires long after they had fallen out of date in the cities. There were a few exceptions, as the Pitou company in France in the 1880s and 1890s which attempted to stage, with all the effects, the great spectacular successes of the Chatelet theatre in Paris. Equally, some of the major Italian travelling companies, such as the Zane, who tended to perform in larger centres, presented their versions or adaptations of more current stage productions, including opera (much adapted) and operetta.
Puppeteers themselves often came from a milieu of show people. Such is the case of the Niemen family of Piedmont where circus skills are much in evidence. Today Bruno Niemen performs exclusively with puppets, but still lives in a caravan encampment that provided a home to earlier members of the family with their acrobatic circus.
Puppeteers were often (and sometimes still are) people with more than one metier. In parts of Africa puppetry is a seasonal activity and linked to the agricultural year. Thus the players are often farmers who perform with puppets only when their time is not required for agricultural purposes. In the Po valley in Italy in the 19th century many puppeteers’ also worked as labourers involved in the growing and processing of cane sugar. In Rajasthan, India the kathputli performers generally belong to the Bhat and Nat communities, which are traditionally nomadic. One of their main traditional occupations was that of tinsmiths, an activity they found totally compatible with operating the puppets.
Today there is often an assumption that there is a distinction between “professional” and “amateur” and the rise of puppet schools has produced a notion of a “qualified” full-time puppeteer. In fact the only criterion is the quality of the work and whether puppets are or are not a main source of income is immaterial. Most travelling puppetry derives from economic necessity or the need to find audiences. In the past in Europe it was not at all uncommon for a puppeteer to have a second metier which could be resorted to if times were difficult. The French showman, Emile-Auguste Pitou was also able to earn money as a painter in the 1880s. On official documents it was very common for a puppeteer to list himself by another profession, whether for respectability or to improve his status in the eyes of the authorities, which might be important when seeking a permit to perform. Some described themselves as musicians, but even “actor” was felt to have more status than “puppeteer”.
In the 19th century clearer lines of demarcation began to emerge between puppeteers and other actors. Marionette showmen were regarded by many actors as having a less worthy profession and the close links between stage actors and puppeteers began to grow weaker. At the same time marionette performers began to detach themselves from glove-puppet ones. With their larger stages, scenery and marionettes they were the “aristocracy” of the profession and generally their transport requirements were becoming more important, whilst the majority of glove-puppet players were solo performers with a few dolls and a portable stage and were therefore seen as more akin to buskers.
In Europe travelling entertainers were associated with vagabonds and many communities were unwilling to receive them. They were often controlled by the authorities and had to obtain a permit to perform. Much of our historical information from the past comes from requests for permits. This situation continued into the 20th century when, in France, the statut des saltimbanques was a sort of passport that a performer required and which generally was officially signed by the mayor of the previous town visited and indicated good moral behaviour (the quality of the show was less important). In post World War II in Eastern Europe ideological matters were the deciding factor, and an extreme case was the situation of the Anderle brothers (see Anton Anderle), traditional travelling performers in Slovakia, who were forced to cease performing altogether in the 1950s because they could not obtain a permit.
There has always been a distinction between sedentary and nomadic performers. Before the 19th century many puppeteers in Europe emerged from a nomadic culture, but equally many came from the fixed community. If they remained in roughly the same geographical area they might have a fixed abode which provided them with a base. Many itinerant puppeteers had specific circuits and might return to the same places once every two years or so. A circuit might be defined by the fairs, since these provided a good opportunity to find audiences. In England Owen’s Book of Fairs (first edition, 1824) provided a vademecum for many companies. This provided dates and duration of fairs, many of which lasted no more than a day or two, and allowed a showman to plan his route from one fair to the next. There were fairs in the 18th century, such as Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent in Paris that ran for some weeks, or even months, but most fairs lasted from one to three days. By the late 19th century many of the older fairs had ceased to exist or had been moved out of the centre of towns. In addition, what had been a distinctly rural event with the sale of animals and produce now became a noisy place full of rides and machines anticipating the modern lunar park and less suited to the traditional sideshows.
Consequently many showmen preferred to set up their own portable theatres on pitches when there was no fair. They might choose a town square or other site that they could negotiate (rather like the circus) and remain there for anything from a week to a month, or even several months. During this period they would make their way through as much of their repertories as possible, changing programme almost every day. In many cases in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, these offered the only possibility more rural communities might have of seeing theatrical performance.
A company with a portable theatre would often use fixed indoor venues in the winter when the weather was bad and storms a serious risk. Some companies also depended exclusively on pre-existing show booths, halls, inns or theatres. In Sicily a different pattern emerged by the later 19th century. A company that did not have a permanent base in a major city would often obtain a space (sometimes a barn or stable) in a village or town, install some fixed seating and their stage, and remain there for the entire winter season as they made their way through the numerous episodes of the Paladins of France.
Some nomadic companies ranged very widely, crossing national frontiers and, if necessary, adapting their show to different linguistic contexts. Such was the case of Pietro Aggiomonti (later known as Signor Bologna), who is first heard of in Italy in 1655, but then travelled up through the German-speaking states, eventually reaching London with his Pulcinella in 1662. He seems to have settled in London for a few years before moving on to Paris, where he appeared in 1678. In the early 19th century the Pratte family from Prague toured up and down Europe, ranging from the Balkans to Scandinavia and Russia. By the later decades of the century a well-organized travelling company might employ a manager who might have some additional linguistic skills and could arrange the tour and make bookings, but the honesty of these managers could not be relied upon. A striking example of this was when William Bullock’s Royal Marionettes visited the United States in 1873. The American managers took over the show and there was extensive legislation.
How puppeteers travel depends much on the country and the period. Many have always travelled with only a small bag of puppets which has allowed them to set up wherever they might find an audience. A stage as such is not an absolute necessity. In Africa a string stretched between two trees with a blanket thrown over it was often all that was needed, whilst in India it is not uncommon for the “stage” to consist of a couple of charpai (wood and rope beds) set on their sides with the cut-out cloth (called taj mahal) stretched between them. Iberian performers required only their own cloak to form a stage, and in this case the puppets were operated by a boy inside, whilst the showman held up the cloak and played a musical instrument.
Before the 18th century (and sometimes right up through the 19th) many puppeteers in Europe would travel with only a small handcart piled with their equipment: stage, puppets and scenery. Punch and Judy men in Britain, once they started to move around the country, had their booths mounted on a pair of wheels and this allowed them to treat it as a cart and lug their equipment on it. Some showmen had the luxury of a donkey or pony to pull their cart, but often, when a performer moved from one pitch to another a horse was hired to drag the cart, and sometime a local carrier was employed to transport everything.
Fairground booths were initially simple tents and were in use at least from the start of the 17th century, although many showmen would simply rent a suitable room and set up their show, or else use an available more permanent booth, such as already existed on certain market places and fairgrounds. The Russian balagans were sometimes very large indeed, and a puppet show might be only one of the many activities they contained.
The spread of tenting circuses in the mid 19th century, coupled with improvements in communication – canals, roads, railways and eventually steamships – meant that more equipment could be transported. Travelling shows of every sort began to multiply as transport became easier. With general growth of travelling shows, a new industry of caravans developed. Today’s circus artistes still often live in caravans. With puppeteers the showman and his family usually had a living wagon, which saved a need to find lodgings. Assistants had to fend for themselves, often sleeping in a barn. A second caravan carried all the equipment and was sometimes designed to become a part of the structure of the stage once unloaded. In the 1950s the Anderles in Slovakia used caravans for transport and these were pulled from one village to another by tractors. Right up until the 1990s Kurt and Rotswitha Dombrowski in Saxony used two caravans in this way. In the latter part of the 19th century the railways came to play a major role. John Holden, whose booth had a 30-metre façade, travelled through much of Western Europe using the railways, but the transport of his material required virtually a whole train. The Schichtl family had a house in Magdeburg with a special railway siding so that they could load their equipment directly onto a number of wagons. Thomas Holden travelled with a stage and puppets, but not an entire portable theatre. For him the railways, sometimes combined with canals and rivers, allowed him to tour right through Europe to Turkey and on through Russia. Steamships also had their role in opening up transport between continents with many companies crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the second half of the 19th century, and some reaching the Far East and Australia.
Foreign touring, as some English companies found, could be highly profitable, but most of this came to an end with World War I and a decline in interest in marionette theatres which by now had lost most of their adult audiences. The Teatro dei Piccoli of Vittorio Podrecca was one of the last companies to embark on such tours, but then had the misfortune to get stuck on the wrong side of the Atlantic for fourteen years because of World War II.
In the second half of the 20th century companies rarely set out on prolonged foreign tours. Today a company is more likely to have a more permanent base and to travel abroad to fulfil a specific engagement. In this way they have a guaranteed income, and are not directly dependent on finding audiences or on box-office receipts.
(See also Itinerant Troupes.)
- Bernstengel, Olaf. Sächisches Wandermarionettentheater [Saxon Travelling Puppet Theatre]. Dresden: Verlag de Kunst.
- Jairazbhoy, Nazir Ali. Kathputli. The World of Rajasthani Puppeteers. Ahmedabad: Rainbow Publishers, 2007.
- Marionnettes en territoire africain [Puppets in African Territory]. Charleville-Mézières: Éditions de l’Institut international des la marionnette, 1991.
- McCormick, John, and Bennie Pratasik. Popular Puppet Theatre in Europe 1800-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998.
- McPharlin, Paul. The Puppet Theatre in America: A History, with a List of Puppeteers 1524-1948. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1949.
- McPharlin, Paul. The Puppet Theatre in America: A History 1524-1948. With a supplement, “Puppets in America Since 1948”, by Marjorie Batchelder McPharlin. Boston: Plays, Inc., 1969.
- Law, Jane Marie. Puppets of Nostalgia. Princeton (NJ): Princeton Univ. Press, 1997.
- Pani, Jiwan. Living Dolls. Story of Indian Puppets. New Delhi: Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, 1986.