Every year on the 21st of March, we celebrate World Puppetry Day. It’s a chance for all puppet fans to celebrate the rich and diverse culture and history associated with various styles of puppetry from all over the world. In Britain, we tend to think that puppetry begins and ends with Punch and Judy, but, in actual fact, there are shows featuring many other characters going on almost all of the time somewhere in the world.
The very first puppetry show took place some 3,000 years ago. Some were even a part of religious rituals. Both of these facts, and much more, will be further delved into below.
Indonesia: Wayang Puppets
Wayang is Javanese for “Shadow”. Wayan puppets are shadow puppets used in Indonesian puppetry performances. The country’s very first recorded performance took place in 930 CE. Wayang puppets are typically used in religious stories or from the “Ramayana”, an old Hindu poem written 3,000 years ago in India.
Italy: Sicilian marionettes
This one has another name: the Opera Dei Pupi, which translates to The Opera of the Puppets. Puppets became an enormously popular Italian pastime in the Middle Ages. The wooden marionette would often depict historical events, albeit somewhat loosely. Medieval knights in battle were also a part of the more popular performances. A small number of skilled and affluent craftsmen, along with their families, dominated the puppet industry.
Bunraku is a very traditional Japanese style of puppetry that involves complex mechanical puppets and chanting. The puppets have been in existence since 1684. This style is known for its sophisticated mechanical head design- their eyes, eyebrows, noses, and mouths, and even faces at times can be changed and moved. Each puppet needs three puppeteers to operate it. A lone chanter will typically be sat on a platform on the stage and recite the entire text of the play.
Vietnam: Mua Roi Nuoc
Mua Roi Nunc is a style of puppetry that came from the common occurrence of flooded Vietnamese rice fields. The performances take place in waist deep water. The rod puppets are made from wood before being lacquered.
Puppeteers use a large rod that supports a puppet underwater and typically keep themselves hidden behind a set piece such as a screen. The result is the illusion of a puppet moving across the water all by itself. This tradition dates all the way back to the 11th century.
Great Britain: Punch and Judy
Punch and Judy made their debut in 1662. The married couple performs their antics in a number of short scenes with a typically violent “punch” line. The glove puppets are controlled by a lone puppeteer from a colourful booth.
The performances involve much improvisation, with the puppeteers adding their own style to the story, embellishing it as they go. While the tradition began in Great Britain, performances featuring Punch and Judy now take place throughout Europe and beyond.