Traditional puppets in most cultures have two main functions. One is to tell a story, either in dramatic form or by illustrating a narrative, and the other is to amaze and entertain with special numbers. In the case of the kathputli ka khel of Rajasthan, India, the narrative element has virtually disappeared and we are left with special numbers such as dancers who can pick up their skirts, horsemen who spin round the body of the horse, magicians that juggle their heads and reversible figures that can be upended turning a male figure into a female one. Chinese glove puppets can juggle plates on sticks, smoke and perform other tricks. Vietnamese water puppets are all designed for special numbers, from dragons spouting fire to fishermen and farmers going about their daily activities.
The terms “trick” and “transformation” are used rather loosely, but generally indicate a puppet whose primary function is not the dramatic one, and which therefore has some specialist element of construction or stringing (if a marionette) to allow it either to perform a particular trick (juggling, playing a violin, etc.) or to change its form in some way or other.
One of the earliest documented cases of a trick marionette in England is the disintegrating skeleton, which dates from at least the 1750s. A number of showmen in 18th-century Italy developed trick acts. When Italian marionettes (or “fantoccini”, as they were known at the time) visited London in the 1770s, acts included Arlecchino (Harlequin) eating a dish of macaroni, a dwarf-giant (or extending puppet), a ropedancer and a pair of shepherds playing a mandolin and violin. Another company of the period had a shepherdess who could be transformed into a flowerpot and then into a fountain and another figure whose arms, legs, head and body converted themselves into six figures and danced a cotillion. This last would, in England, become one of the most celebrated acts, the Grand Turk. The collection of marionettes of the Borromeo family of northern Italy in the first half of the 19th century included such things as a sedan chair which opens out to become a lady in a very elegant dress, whilst a Pulcinella figure produces a horde of little figures out of pockets, the hat and the body. This last type of puppet is known as a “producer” puppet, and the classic example is Mère Gigogne who produces a collection of offspring from her skirts.
The most common term for transformation puppets was “Metamorphoses”, but this was rapidly extended to cover all the variety acts that generally form a separate section of the programme, and which around 1800 were known as the “ballet”. “Mechanikus” Schűtz from Potsdam on his bills in the 1820s advertised a production of Doctor Faust with “apparitions” (see Faust). The show ended with a “great ballet”. The term “ballet” derives from the use of the verb “ballare” in Italian, which literally means to dance, but was extended to mean “perform” with puppets. In this section of the programme there was no dialogue and the figures moved or did their act to music. The “ballet” began with a collection of characters executing dances in national costume and was followed by an acrobat performing on the rope and then by a hen which laid an egg out of which emerged a large serpent “with very natural movements”. In addition there was a series of “new flying machines” and transformations.
Different sorts of trick and transformation figures found their way into the dramatic action when necessary. The Bonecos de Santo Aleixo in Portugal had a John the Baptist puppet that could be decapitated, and the same idea continues in Sicily today where some of the Saracen soldiers have a mechanism that allows the head to be chopped off. In Sicily in the pupi theatres the enchantress Alcina has three heads – a beautiful woman, an old hag and death. This triple head is contained within a hood and turning the control rod allows the appropriate face to be seen. In ferocious battle scenes with the pupi, giant champions often have their heads split open, whilst a Saracen warrior may be literally cleft from stem to stern (and the two halves even dance around the stage separately). A similar mechanism was very popular in English marionette pantomimes of the later 19th century, when the policeman was the usual victim to be pulled in half by Clown and Pantaloon.
In Europe transformation figures were often flat cut-outs in painted metal or card. The transformation depended on releasing a flap which revealed a different figure underneath and also covered the lower half of the original one. An especially popular one, which also appeared as a three-dimensional marionette, was Madame Blanchard, the balloonist who met a spectacular death in 1819. As a marionette Mme Blanchard appeared as herself, then her two arms dropped off to become small figures, her skirts lifted over her head to become the balloon, revealing the basket hanging from what had been her waist, and the two little figures jumped into the basket and flew away. As a flat figure it was usually enough for the skirt flap to be raised to become the balloon. A variant of a metamorphosis with a flat figure can be found in the Turkish karagöz show where magic is an important component and a human can easily be transformed into an animal by rotating the head so that a new head that has been hidden between the shoulders takes the place of the human one.
In Great Britain the Italian fantoccini trick acts were taken up by British showmen and often performed in the streets in small booths similar to those for Punch and Judy. These showmen developed considerable virtuosity with these variety numbers which were taken up by larger companies and by the mid-century, when most had abandoned the head rod control in favour of strings, further technical development became possible.
Particularly popular acts in Great Britain that were subsequently widely imitated after the famous Holden tours of the 1880s included a pair of tightrope walkers, the Blondins (after the performer who crossed the Niagara Falls on a rope), a number of circus acts including the “Spanish” tranka who juggled a pole with his feet, a drunken stilt-walking clown and even a collection of trapeze artistes (see Thomas Holden). Two of the most popular acts remained the disintegrating or “magnetic” skeleton and the Grand Turk.
Fairgrounds had long been a place where puppet showmen set up, and in the context of the fair the important thing was to pass as many spectators as possible through the theatre in the course of the day (see Fairs and Fairground Performers). The result was often short performances consisting entirely of variety numbers. After 1860 the expansion of the music hall provided an important venue for puppeteers, many of whom now, instead of setting up their theatres and doing a complete show, could now accept an engagement for a part of the programme, and in such cases the variety numbers were performed and the longer dramatic pieces began to fall into disuse (see Music Hall, Variety Theatre and Vaudeville).
The great foreign tours of Holden’s, Barnard’s, Webb’s and others led to shows being prepared for audiences that spoke no English and therefore placed even more emphasis on presenting the visually amazing and astonishing. Although some showmen were extremely inventive and showed great virtuosity, many of the trick and transformation acts had become clichés and there was a remarkable sameness in repertoire from one company to another. As marionettes lost to the cinema the popular adult audiences they had once had for their dramas, the variety acts proved insufficient to maintain the shows.
Of more recent years a number of gifted and original marionette performers have been able to revive the trick and transformation acts in a new context. Albrecht Roser virtually reinvented the variety number and today performers such as Stephen Mottram, Karin Schäfer, Frank Söhnle, Phillip Huber and Viktor Antonov have brought extreme technical virtuosity and performance skill to it.