Romanian puppet character. The first documented mention of a popular puppet theatre in Romania, initially called paiața (jumping jack or pantin) and later called Vasilache (from the name of the show’s principal character), dates from 1715. The origin of this popular Romanian puppet theatre and its eponymous hero has been the subject of lively controversy. According to Moses Gaster, it was the result of puppets imported into Transylvania by Saxons in the 13th century. Nicolae Iorga, on the other hand, attributes the origin to the Turkish Karagöz show introduced into the region in the 18th century.
It is notable too, both in dialogue and gesture, that the character of Vasilache has elements of the English Punch, Russian Petrushka, and Hungarian Vitéz Lászlo. Altogether, Vasilache seems to be a synthesis of diverse influences overlaying a traditional Romanian base. Vasilache’s purpose and goal in his dramas is to defeat the representatives of any kind of authority: the police, the church (the priest), the devil, and death itself.
The play is known as Vasilache și Marioara (Vasilache and Marioara). The dramaturgical structure is composed of a series of short independent scenes. Each scene is accompanied by a specific melody: the Shepherd’s song, the dance tune of “the gypsy and the bear”, the burial song of the Turk, and the march of Napoleon. In Moldavia, in the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the favourite puppets among the cast of characters. The principal characters were: Marioara (Vasilache’s wife), a gravedigger, a Turk, a Cossack, a church cantor, a Jew (Don Leiba Badragan), a poor man, a mouse, and a cat. The puppets were caricatures sculpted in wood with the faces painted in bright colours. The costumes made out of scraps of fabric indicated the social origin and function of each character.
The puppeteer performed in a painted booth called chivot or hârzob. Sometimes at fairs he would improvise: a screen, a length of stretched fabric, and a box for the puppets. The type of puppets mostly used were glove puppets; but sometimes they were string puppets that were attached around the neck of the puppeteer or, even, simply heads of the characters attached to the puppeteer’s fingers.
The text of the play is sharp social satire with dynamic dialogues and straightforward, blunt language, which made fun of unscrupulous prelates, dishonest merchants, cynical soldiers, and bent policemen, all of which delighted the audience. Sometimes these shows aroused the wrath of the authorities, and certain personalities of influence from the world of culture had to intervene to smooth things over. The police were often ordered to issue regulations limiting or forbidding puppet performances. Indeed, the most detailed information about the puppet theatre in Romania in the second half of the 19th century is found in police reports.
The number of itinerant folk puppeteers diminished until they finally disappeared towards the end of the 20th century. If Vasilache, his play, Vasilache și Marioara, and the cast of characters are alive today, it is due to professional puppeteers who occasionally bring them back, thus continuing this old Romanian puppetry tradition.