We’ve all seen a puppet of one kind or another. They come in all shapes and sizes, from plain to extravagantly decorated. Artists also make them from a broad range of different materials. From the simple finger puppet to the most complex marionette, each one is unique in its own way. Here are some interesting facts about ancient puppet styles.
In France, the word marionette means “little Mary” and one of the first puppets made was the Virgin Mary. Historians think that in the Middle Ages people used these puppets for shows representing biblical events, hence the name. Marionette puppet shows are still popular all over Europe.
Marionettes, or string puppets, have a central rod and many strings attached to a bar for the puppeteer to hold. Strings, attached on the head, back, hands, and knees, give the puppeteer the control he needs to bring the puppet to life. Usually, controlling the puppet takes place from above, out of sight of the audience. Marionettes can get quite large making them heavy and challenging to manage. In the Czech Republic, marionettes are generally carved from lime wood and are more complex than Sicilian versions. They have always occupied a special place with the Czech people. At one time in history, the Czech language became outlawed. They used puppet shows to preserve their native language and culture.
Miroslav Trejtnar is a well-known Czech puppeteer who is carrying on the marionette traditions. He also teaches the Czech traditional marionette making craft.
Shadowplay is an ancient form of storytelling. It was especially popular in ancient Southeast Asia. Merchant ships which were traveling to and from Asia brought the art form to Europe by the 1600s. It’s believed that shadow theatre was the start of modern cinema. In a shadow play, puppeteers tell stories with cut out shapes or human hands. The objects get placed between a light source and the screen. Creating special effects involves moving the light source and the figure.
Hand or glove puppets are traditional British puppets. They evolved from the marionette when puppeteers needed a more versatile and mobile way to produce puppet shows. The marionettes with their large size and many wires were cumbersome to haul around and use outside of a large-sized room.
Two famous hand puppets from Britain are Punch and Judy. Puppet artisans gave each puppet its own personality. When others from different areas used a likeness of a famous puppet, it was customary to keep the same original personality and mannerisms.
In the case of Pulcinella (Punch), he always plays the part of a trickster. With roots going back to the 1500s, he portrays the mythological trickster or the Lord of Misrule. Mr. Punch’s first recorded appearance was in 1662 in England. In the UK, the exact date (May 9, 1662) is memorialized as Punch’s birthday.
Punch continued to make his way around the world with many different puppeteers running the show over the centuries. He appeared in Paris, Dublin, and even in the British colonies in America. Today, Punch and his wife Judy still perform around the UK. Modern Punch plays are often said to resemble The Simpsons television show.
Have you ever heard the expression “pleased as Punch”? It originates from Punch the puppet and how pleased he always is of himself. It’s interesting to see how puppets evolved from one form to another and spread around the world. One thing underlies all forms of puppetry and cultures that you find them in, humans relate to stories and always have.