Puppetry as an artform has existed for thousands of years across the globe, from Ancient Egypt to Ancient Greece across to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, America and beyond. It is still commonly used in the modern world as a form of entertainment and storytelling, as well as playing its part in important rituals. Creating small, moveable figures in order to tell stories seems like a natural progression from the ancient tradition of oral storytelling, but it has developed in a number of different ways amongst different communities. From the shadow puppets of India, to the water puppets of Vietnam, to the glove puppets of the famous Punch and Judy shows, the craft comes in all different shapes and sizes.
The oldest puppets ever recovered were found in Egypt and are thought to have been used to show the motions of performing daily tasks. They were also found in the tombs of Ancient Egyptians, suggesting that they held some significance in society even as far back as 2000 BC. Across the water and the Ancient Greeks are often thought of as being the master storytellers of the ancient world; they also used puppets, employing the familiar style of the marionette made from terracotta to act out plays for the masses for entertainment. These early examples show a striking similarity to the modern puppet that we often see being used to perform with today. The fact that the basic composition of the puppet has remained the same across millennia is testament to the success of the design as a vessel for effective storytelling.
The Development of Puppetry
There is some evidence to suggest that Ancient Rome had a significant influence on the development of Italian puppetry, commonly referred to as marionettes, that became popular in the Middle Ages. The plays enacted by these marionettes were usually humorous in tone and used to act out recognisable narratives, often religious tales with a message. Puppeteers tended to travel with their work, entertaining the inhabitants of cities far and wide, even travelling between different countries to perform their craft much like the troubadours of the period (travelling singers and poets).
During this time, the comedic figure of Pulchinella made his way over from Italy to Britain, where he took on the name of Punch. In France, he was called Guignol, in the Netherlands Jan Klaasen, and in Germany Kasperle, as well as acquiring many different names from whichever country he landed in next. This enduring figure is still with us today and retains his recognisable character of being a squeaky voiced, red-nosed drunk who fights with his wife and with the Devil himself. Audiences all over the world still love him.
20th Century Puppets
The 20th century saw family favourites like Muffin the Mule, Andy Pandy and Bill & Ben develop from the touring live puppet shows and make their way onto television screens. Trailblazing puppets like those used in Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet were more complex and realistic than anything seen before, whereas the creations that Jim Henson’s studio made for Sesame Street and The Muppets were outlandish, over-the-top caricatures that made puppetry seem even larger than life. Puppets quickly made their way onto the silver screen in a big way in movies like Star Wars and The Dark Crystal, which mixed live actors with carefully crafted puppets to create convincing fantasy worlds for a whole new audience. Back on stage and the likes of shows such as The Lion King and War Horse took puppetry to a whole new level, wowing audiences and winning countless awards.
Puppets in the Modern World
In the 21st century, many traditional forms of entertainment are now readily available online through the medium of smartphones, tablets and PCs or laptops. The best place to catch your favourite TV drama is now likely to be Netflix or Tubi rather than the television, just like you’re more likely to head to Pokerstarscasino for a game or two rather than your local land-based casino. Puppetry does not translate to the internet so easily, but there are a wide range of original puppet shows, how-to videos and even puppet ‘hauls’ available on YouTube. The internet gives enthusiasts a great opportunity to connect with one another, research their niche interests further, and share tricks and tips with the community. This, inevitably, has lead to a wider sharing of ideas and an increase in creativity within the fanbase.
So, this ancient artform is not quite done yet. Enthusiasm for puppetry lives on as part of tradition, modern storytelling and artistic expression. From Thunderbirds and Sooty to the wonderful beasts of War Horse, creators are still finding unique ways to show narratives to new audiences through the medium of puppetry. And the puppet masters show no sign of stopping any time soon.