Puppet Theater

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Puppet Theater


a type of theatrical presentation using two-or three-dimensional puppets that are operated by actors called puppeteers, who are generally hidden from the viewers behind a screen.

Each of the many types of presentation is determined by the kind of puppet used and the system of control. Puppets include marionettes, which are manipulated by strings; hand (overhead) puppets; rod puppets; and mechanical puppets. An object such as a block, ball, or stick, metaphorically representing a living being, is sometimes used in place of a puppet. Puppets range in height from several centimeters to twice human size. The differences in types of puppet-theater presentations are generally conditioned by staging, dramatic aim, national traditions, and the influence of such other types of art as the graphic arts, folk toys, sculpture, masque, and the cinema.

The puppet theater may be traced back to pagan ceremonies and games with embodied symbols of gods that personified the unknown forces of nature. One of the oldest forms of theatrical art, the puppet theater generally made use of traditional plots and methods and of stock figures. Puppet-theater presentations in most countries developed from mystery plays. In ancient Egypt in the 16th century B.C., the puppet theater developed from a religious play about Osiris and Isis; in ancient India and China, it developed from religious rites. There are references to puppets in Herodotus, Xenophon, Aristotle, Horace, Marcus Aurelius, and Apuleius.

Beginning in the 11th century, churches and monasteries presented performances that used puppets to dramatize scenes from the Gospels in which the main character was the Virgin Mary. The name Marion or Marionette remained in the Romance and German languages as a general term for the theater puppet. In the Slavic languages, the name Marion designated the marionette (string puppet) theater. Puppet-theater presentations became increasingly topical and secular and were consequently attacked by the medieval church. Banished from church chapels to the parvis, puppet performances were later staged on public squares and at fairs. The performances were forbidden by the Inquisition, but their anticlerical and antifeudal content continued to increase.

By the late 16th century, a popular satirical puppet theater was established in Italy; its principal figure was Pulcinella. Following the traditions of the Atellan farces and close in spirit to the commedia dell’arte, the popular satirical puppet theater became prevalent throughout Europe. In the 17th century an analogous uncensored puppet theater became established in France (the principal figure was Polichinelle), England (Punch), Germany (Hanswurst, later Kasperle), Holland (Pickelherring), Belgium (Woltje), Poland (Kopleniak), Rumania (Vasilache), Czechoslovakia (Kašpárek), and Russia (Petrushka).

In Asia and the Near East, the puppet theater developed differently; its traditional national forms had existed there since remote antiquity. It is believed that the ancestor of Pulcinella, Petrushka, and other puppet stock characters was a comic hero of classical Indian theater, the large-headed, hunchbacked buffoon and mischief-maker Vidushaka, a figure similar to the Turkish Karagheuz. In the Indian puppet theater the puppet is operated by two puppeteers, one behind the screen and one in front. The puppet theater in China dates back to the first century B.C. In Japan, where it appeared in the 11th century, large puppets two-thirds life size are used, operated by four or five puppeteers in dark clothes and black stocking masks who are visible to the spectators. In both Japan and China, the puppet theater is related to the classical theater.

Until the 19th century, traditional and often satirical plays about the authorities, officialdom, and the church were performed in the European puppet theater. Migrant plots were used, including those about Doctor Faust (Goethe borrowed the subject from the puppet theater), Don Juan, and the king and his three daughters. In the 19th century, attempts were made to create a professional puppet theater. Those writing plays for it included H. von Kleist and E. T. A. Hoffmann (Germany), G. Sand and A. France (France), M. Maeterlinck (Belgium), and G. B. Shaw (Great Britain). In the 20th century many well-known theatrical figures have viewed the puppet theater as the ideal theatrical spectacle; the director G. Craig advocated the elimination of the actor in his article “The Actor and the Über-marionette” (1908). In the first 25 years of the 20th century, professional puppet theaters were founded for children and adults.

In Russia, a professional puppet theater began developing after the October Revolution of 1917. E. S. Demmeni and the artists N. Ia. Efimov and I. S. Efimov helped recruit the most prominent writers, artists, and composers to create a puppet theater for children that would have broad social and pedagogical goals and would popularize new, socialist relations among people. The Soviet puppet theater reflects the most typical characteristics and psychological manifestations of man and seeks to create archetypal characters.

The State Central Puppet Theater directed by S. V. Obraztsov is an exponent of these ideas; its presentations have included Ta-rakhovskaia’s By a Wave of the Wand (1936), Gernet’s Aladdin’s Lamp (1940), Speranskii’s The Stag King (1943; based on Gozzi’s play of the same name), and The Unusual Concert (1946). Such works have established a methodology for directing, for the creation of complex, psychologically believable characters, and for the truthful portrayal of the characters’ life and distinctive traits.

Puppet theaters sometimes use the language of pantomime, as in the Rumanian Tǎndǎricǎ Puppet Theater’s staging of The Hand With Five Fingers. Presentations of musical works have included the Central Puppet Theater of Bulgaria’s production of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, the Central Puppet Theater of Hungary’s productions of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Bartók’s The Wooden Prince, the Central Puppet Theater of Bulgaria’s and the Riga Puppet Theater’s productions of Stravinsky’s History of a Soldier, and the Minsk Puppet Theater’s productions of Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Verisimilitude is achieved by means of a wide variety of theatrical devices: the introduction of live actors, of objects used as unifying devices, of excerpts from radio broadcasts, and of lighting effects. Attempts to pose social, moral, and ethical problems and to create lively and colorful performances are resulting in a new type of puppet theater, as seen in Teofilov’s The Watchmaker and Krali Marko at the Central Puppet Theater of Bulgaria, Garciá Lorca’s Don Cristobal and Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince at the Tǎndǎricǎ Puppet Theater, and The Good Soldier Švejk (based on Hašek’s novel) at the Leningrad Bolshoi Puppet Theater.

International puppet festivals and competitions have been organized regularly since 1958 by the International Puppeteers Union (founded 1929). These events promote the exchange of experience and ideas in the puppet theater. In 1976 the union’s 12th congress was held in Moscow; S. V. Obraztsov was elected president.

There were more than 100 puppet theaters in the USSR in 1975 that staged performances in 25 national languages of the USSR. Puppet-theater specialists are trained at a special division of the Leningrad Institute of Theater, Music, and Cinematography, at the A. V. Lunacharskii State Institute of Theatrical Arts (directors and artists), at Gnesin’s Music Pedagogic Institute, and at puppet-theater studios. Materials on the history of the puppet theater are collected and classified by the State Central Puppet Theater’s Puppet-theater Museum (founded 1937).

The puppet theater is very popular among amateur performers, especially in schools and at palaces of Pioneers.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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