Site navigation

The Ideas Store

All contents are Copyright © 2006-2012 John M Blundall and Stephen Foster or is part of The John M Blundall Collection unless stated otherwise.


The puppets in China can be traced to the Han dynasty 206BC and a vast range of puppet types and techniques are listed, water puppets, flesh puppets, iron branch puppets, some of which are still unknown to us. Shadow puppets still exist in many regions of China, and since the Chinese Revolution the skills in making them have been encouraged to develop. The Shadow puppets, generally made of animal skins, carefully carved and coloured and held against a back lit screen possess a magical quality with their dissolves and vanishing apparitions.

One of the earliest references to the shadow puppet in China tells of an emperor, mourning the death of his wife, summoned a shadow puppeteer to conjure up her spirit and bring it to him each evening. The Chinese shadow puppet theatre continued its influence in the 18th and 19th centuries in France under the name of The Ombres Chinoises, and in England as The Chinese Shades. In Paris, the artists cabaret The Chat Noir presented sophisticated shadow performances which ultimately led to the evolution of the film animation and the cinema.

Africa is particularly rich in puppet traditions mainly based on ritual and cult. The performances using a wide range of puppet techniques from the tiny Tulukutu, foot operated jigging figures, to elaborate giant figures incorporating animated masks.

Some of the earliest existing puppets came from classical Greece. They are small figures of terracotta, bronze and wood, and it is from this time that we find the word Neuropasta – pictures moved by strings. Xenophon and Athenaeus mention puppet players in their writings Athenaeus mentioning the first named puppeteer Potheinos who performed in the theatre of Dionysus in Athens.

From the Middle Ages onwards we have many important documents showing puppets. One wood block print from the Hortus Deliciarum, showing two jousting knights on strings operated on a table top by two performers. Later the Roman Du Bon Roi Alexandre 1344 shows a small hand puppet booth known as a castelet with two jousting figures as part of a fine illustrated manuscript, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.


Puppets are frequently linked to automata’s, and in the Middle Ages we find interesting references to automated set pieces built over church altars. There are rich resources from this period that clearly indicate the popularity of the puppet shows, and their increasing extensive travels through Europe and into England. In Italy the Commedia dell Arte troupes of live performers spawned the character Pulcinella whose popularity led to the existence of a hand puppet show. Pulcinella looked similar to the grotesque characters of the Greek and Roman theatre. His popularity, and the popularity Italian performers in England led to the evolution of our character Mr Punch, first as a string puppet, and later as a hand puppet. His earlier exploits can be seen in William Hogarth’s painting and engraving Southwark Fair, where he appeared in a series of biblical works such as Adam and Eve, and The Wooden Horse of Troy.

The London fairs of Bartholomew and Southwark provided amongst its entertainments a number of puppet shows, and on their decline, and the popularity of Mr Punch, he departed elsewhere in the streets of London, where the now familiar striped, chimney stack shaped booth was seen with a new wife and sequence of characters that constitute the show that continues to entertain audiences as it did in the past, despite predictions of decline, and being politically incorrect. It is interesting to note that Samuel Pepys first saw Mr Punch, as a string puppet, outside St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, and recorded his reactions in his diaries.

The 18th and 19th centuries are referred to as the Golden Ages of European puppet theatre, where large-scale artistic marionette theatres proliferated attracting many notable personalities from the arts contributing plays, and a substantial quantity of important literature on the art. Many performances followed important traditional ideas, notably productions of Faust, based on Goethe’s epic work of the same name. These centuries also saw the development of the popular comic folk heroes, with virtually every country represented by a character similar to Mr Punch. French Polichinelle, German Kasper, Hungarian Vitez Laszlo, Romania’s Vasilache. The Dutch Jan Klaasen, and Russia’s Petrushka to name a few.

Shadow puppets also presented themselves in Egypt, Greece and Turkey with the later countries Karagoz and Karagiozi – Black eye, the central character. The origin of these traditions are rooted in Indian sources. Java, Bali, Cambodia, Thailand had, and still does have, a strong tradition of shadow theatre, from the smaller wayang kulit's in Java and Bali, and the larger Nang screens in Cambodia and Thailand. Java is also known for its three-dimensional wayang golek’s, and semi-dimensional wayang kulit’s.

Sicily has a unique tradition of puppet play with its large-scale figures with their solid brass armour and iron rod controls to the head and sword hand to enable them to execute fierce battles where heads and whole bodies are cut in two parts, all part of the presentation of the epic legends of Charlemagne. This tradition can also be seen in Belgium, in Liege, Antwerp and Brussels. This tradition developed out of the need for the vast numbers of Sicilian miners to swell the ranks of Belgian miners. During quiet times, the Sicilians carved their large figures out of pit props. The performances were given in numerous inns and cellars around Liege and Antwerp.

history

Puppets cannot be fully understood or effective within the framework of a collection or in a museum, but in movement in a theatre. It is certain that puppets deserve their place as works of art that satisfy the highest critical artistic standards, sadly, the names of the craftspeople who create puppets generally remain anonymous.

The art of the puppet theatre cannot be isolated from other forms of creative expression to which they are inextricably linked, such as the fine, and performance arts, folk art, literature, storytelling and music.

Although conjecture, knowledge of storytelling techniques, and the work of the shaman in the use of their familiars in primitive culture it is more than likely that the cave dwellers in ancient times used hand shadows projected on cane walls, and simple puppets made of grasses, twigs and other materials were used to dramatise tales of hunts, battles and other domestic happenings.

What is certain is that the puppet and the puppet play in different forms has existed since the earliest times, and fundamental to the development of humankind.

Through the ages puppeteers have been seen as vagrants emerging from the lowest orders of society. During the middle-ages they were frequently considered to be witches, wizards and magicians, and there is evidence of them being burnt at the stake, seen to possess supernatural powers to give inanimate figures life.

Due to the perishable nature of puppets nothing exists from ancient times. There is evidence of the existence of puppets in China and India 2500 years ago. In India, The Natyasatra, the Sanskrit book mentions the sutradhara – holder of strings, and to this day the great epic poems, The Ramayana and The Mahabarata are still performed by shadow, hand and string puppets.