In most theatrical traditions, the actors speak. For the simple reason that they cannot speak, puppets present a unique quality. Traditional puppetry usually utilizes one or two people to produce all of the narration and voices for the characters, rather than one person for each puppet. The principal reason for this is the reduced size of troupes, often itinerant and impoverished. The number of puppets necessarily exceeds the number of artists. Consequently, to give each character a distinct and specific voice and style of speaking is a complicated task. Actors combine their natural voices and manner of expression with the stereotypical speech and language closely associated with the characters they represent. But the puppeteer has only one natural voice to make several puppets speak, so he/she must either rely on speech stereotypes, radically alter his/her natural voice, or utilize both solutions.

Traditional puppeteers around the world have come to a common solution: they make use of instruments which modify the voice. In introducing these techniques to make the puppets speak, they have developed artistic conventions that demonstrate their profound understanding of language and speech. They must have keen ears and observational skills to discern the speaking styles and use of language surrounding them. Yet their knowledge is not based solely on observation and analysis: they are also engaged constantly in experimentation and innovation. Through their successes and failures and the benefit of the knowledge accumulated by their predecessors, they learn the power of language and speech and how to distort it. They test the limits of alteration and discover the remarkable resilience of language.

Vocal Accessories

The puppeteer’s task is to give life to inanimate objects through movement and sound. Nothing is more essentially human than speech. To give objects speech means to make them live. To understand the world of puppets, one must listen to what the puppets say through their squeaking. The use of voice modifiers is recorded in historical and ethnographic documents. In European traditions, these testimonies date from the 17th century. Francisco de Úbeda describes puppets in Seville in 1608 using a cerbatana (pea-shooter or blow-gun), and Sebastian de Covarrubias in 1611 remarks the use of a pito (whistle) by Sevillan puppeteers with an interpreter in front of the stage to repeat the lines. This practice endured into the 20th century in Cataluña. In Italy, Severio Quadrio states that in the 17th century Pulcinella puppeteers used a pivetta (diminutive of pivo, whistle) to recite their stories; one puppeteer or several providing most or all of the voices with, for each of them, a pivetta of different size which gave the necessary nuances for each character. The earliest evidence from England is ambiguous: in Bartholomew Fair (1614), Ben Jonson mounted a play-within-the-play, where the puppets produced noises “similar to neighing and creaking”. But, the “creaking” of the puppets was interpreted to the audience by the character Lanthorn Leatherhead, who repeated line by line what the puppets were saying, just like the interpreter Covarrubias described for the puppets of Seville. By the 1660s, Punch made his appearance in England, and the use of the swazzle or swotchel (from German schwassl, conversation or chatter) was established. By the end of the 18th century, Baretti noted that the name Pulcinella means “little hen”, an animal with characteristic cries.

This instrument was used by the puppeteers of 18th century France. L’abbé Chérier reports, Polichinelle was permitted by the censor to play his comedies only if they were performed with the “sifflet pratique”. In Germany, Boehn notes the voice modifier was employed to provide the voice of the Devil. In Russia, Petrushka also expressed himself through a sort of sifflet called a pishtchik. According to certain testimonies recalling these performances in vogue before World War I (as that of Roman Jakobson), when the puppeteer, usually accompanied by an organ grinder, approached the suburbs of Moscow, the whistle announced their arrival. During the performance, the “whistled” and natural speech alternated: Petrushka expressed himself through the voice modifier, and the puppeteer or musician repeated the words in their own voice.

In the Orient, the Iranian and Afghani puppeteers use a safir or wizwizak or pustak, a reed instrument held in the puppeteer’s mouth. Metin And, in 1977, mentions the Turkish karagöz puppeteers’ use of a similar device, a nareke. In Pakistan and India, the kathputli puppeteers of Rajasthan use a boli (“speech”) and are also accompanied by an interpreter/musician. An instrument similar to the kazoo, the bowra, is used in Tamil shadow theatre plays to mark entrances and exits, and may also be used in the dialogues. With the Aragoz glove puppets of Egypt, it is a voice modifier called amana which the puppeteer uses, sometimes for all of the characters and sometimes only for the hero Aragoz. A musician outside the puppet booth engages the puppets in dialogue. Sergei Obraztsov and Jacques Pimpaneau reported that Chinese glove puppeteers use a voice modifier. On Kon Cho and Michael Malkin wrote that Korean puppeteers formerly spoke through a bamboo pipe or reed in a squeaky voice. Voice modifiers can be found in several of the great traditions of Africa. Olenka Darkowska-Nidzgorski and Francine N’Diaye note that the Bamana puppets of Mali speak “with husky and breathy voice, the distortion obtained thanks to a small kazoo, one end of which is obstructed by a spider web or by a membrane taken from the wing of a bat”. The same instrument is used in the Ekon Society puppetry by the Ibibio of Nigeria. Among the Bornu of northern Nigeria, the instrument takes the form of two plates bound together; which has the effect of producing a “shrill whistle, far shriller than that of the Punch and Judy performer …The words of the puppets, being almost indistinguishable, are repeated by one of the assistants”.

There are certain common features in these accounts. First, voice modifiers are used exclusively for three-dimensional puppetry and are not reported for shadow puppets, with the possible exception of the Turkish karagöz and the Tamil shadow play, tolu bommalatam. These voice modifiers fall into three groups: those held in the back of the mouth (usually two hard plates bound together with a vibrating ribbon between them); those held at the front of the mouth (also containing a vibrating reed); and those held outside the mouth (kazoos in the form of tubes). In many of the cases cited, the voice modifiers are found in use along with an interpreter or interlocutor. The interlocutor may employ a peculiar form of dialogue which involves his or her repetition, often in the form of questions, of the puppet’s distorted statements. In the absence of an interlocutor, it is often the puppeteer who provides this questioning repetition, either with lines spoken by other puppet characters in normal voices, or in responses by the unseen, anonymous narrator to his own questions.
In using the voice modifier, the puppeteer can pursue diverse and opposite objectives: intelligibility, absolute inscrutability, or some middle way. The goal varies from one tradition to another and from one moment to another within a performance. For example, in the kathputli (puppet) tradition of Rajasthan, as Nazir Jairazbhoy reports, the distorted voice is sometimes used to transmit cues from the puppeteer to the musician, who cannot see what is happening onstage or backstage. Here secrecy is desired, and the voice modifier serves to encrypt messages that the audience ought not to understand. The very name of the Egyptian instrument amana reflects a similar wish for secrecy, according to Aragoz puppeteer Achmad Sharawi. The word amana (literally a surety or collateral) is used in conversation when two people wish to refer to something (money, a debt, a business matter) in the presence of other listeners, without the listeners’ understanding. Thus, if the puppeteer loses his voice modifier, he can ask an assistant, “Give me my amana”, that is, “Give me my business-between-us”, without revealing the real name of the whistle or the secret of the puppet voices. On the other hand, perfect intelligibility can be found in mood signs, vocalizations, laughter, sobbing, sighs, which are difficult to interpret, yet easy to recognize. Between secrecy and transparency, a place is left for creativity.

To Facilitate Communication

As a general rule, the use of the voice modifier impedes comprehension. That is why the puppeteer must find ways to increase the intelligibility of his performance, by the dialogue, the visual event and by speech itself. He helps himself in the first place by repetition: as in this dialogue between Punch and Judy by Percy Press II:

– Judy: What do you want?
– Punch: A kiss!
– Judy: A kiss! Girls and boys, shall I give Punch a kiss?

This direct repetition in a clear voice by Judy of what Punch said in a deformed voice is the simplest way to make the communication intelligible. It is also found in circus clowning. Percy Press II used it for all the characters conversing with Punch.
Another means is more visual: in effect, puppets are engaged face-to-face but also in a larger communication, calling on all gestures be they in force by the culture involved or specific to the puppets. In both cases they must be sufficiently well known to audiences to lift all ambiguity. This is the case, for example, of Rajasthani string puppets and the dolls used by Yoruba ventriloquists, as well as Sicilian pupi (“puppets”).
Finally, there exists another means of understanding the sense of a representation so distorted: in many cases, the distorted speech functions as an abridging system, a signal, like the sound of the drum or a whistle. These speech surrogates and the voice modifiers of puppetry operate by a process of reduction: certain elements of the sign (speech) are selected for representation and others are eliminated. This phonological reduction results in ambiguity, which is defeated in the drum and whistle systems by repetition, circumlocution, or paraphrase. The fact that puppeteers, in the entire world, use voice modifiers shows they are aware that speech itself is redundant, and that its “reduction” is possible without sacrificing intelligibility, that dialogue can be structured, while actions and gestures can serve to clarify speech.

To make their creatures speak, puppeteers can rely on more natural means: a falsetto voice, growling, nasal speech or different accents could suffice. Why then call on voice modifiers? There are several variable explanations furnished by the function of different traditions. Besides alerting audiences to the arrival of the puppeteers and the beginning of the performance, the squeaky voice is inherently funny and enjoys great success with children. On the other hand, a tradition like the kathputli of India and Pakistan gives us other indications: the boli can be used for secret communication between the puppeteer and the musician as well as between puppets. It can imitate the cry of animals (partridges, cocks, horses), of laughs or cries; it can serve as a musical instrument, when complimenting and augmenting the musician’s voice and the drum in the interludes: during the action of the play, the chirping of the voice modifier can support the attention and excitement of the public. The sound of the boli serves as a trademark for the kathputli puppeteers, announcing their arrival in high-pitched sounds particularly to the more sensitive ears of children.

Furthermore, the art of puppetry borders on other traditions using objects such as scroll paintings, peep shows, masks and narrative sculptures. These traditions include various forms (pure narrative to pure dialogue) which employ numerous modes of communication and transformation of messages and words.

Distortion Without Voice Modifiers

Nevertheless, numerous traditions do not use voice modifiers. In this case, the puppeteers use other means of making their figures speak to differentiate one from the other. This system of communication, jostling normal language to stimulate the perception of the audience, can be reduced to using very simple techniques, for instance changing the register, switching dialects as from Italian to Sicilian and vice versa, or covering the mouth with the hand. The puppeteer can also use a mangled syntax, exaggerated parodies of typical manners of speaking …as well as the linguistic manipulations often employed, besides, by traditions utilizing voice modifiers.

The disparity between normal language and that of the puppet is no less real with only one system or both at the same time. The dialogue between two speakers can be manifest and impossible to ignore whether a character speaks “human” language and the other a “puppet” language or when there is a human interlocutor. However, the two languages do not necessarily clash in a dialogue held on stage, as is the case for example when none of the puppets speaks normally. Puppets are an extreme example of the performing object, a vast category which includes the doll, magic objects, and even costumes and other materials of theatrical creation which sometimes substitute for the person. Voices distorted by modifiers are one of the consequences of this substitution.The language of puppets shows how puppeteers around the world have found a solution to one of the problems posed by the use of material objects in supplanting humans. This art is not monolithic, but is comprised of various structures, a narration and balanced dialogues, movement and appearance, the sacred and profane …the art of the puppet does not have exclusivity of voice modifiers and other substitutes. Distortions are also found in live theatre, but they are more difficult to explain and their causes are more hidden. In this aspect and in many others, the art of traditional puppetry can shed light on popular dramatic art as a whole.

(See also Safir, Swazzle, Ventriloquism, Voice Modifier.)


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