Puppets, objects used as characters in theatrical performances. Audiences perceive life and spirit from their movement, their shape, and other aspects of their performance. Gifted puppeteers (puppet operators) can bring to life even apparently ordinary objects such as bricks, handkerchiefs, spoons, or tennis balls. There are many kinds of puppet performances. Some puppetry is technically very simple, while some is remarkably complicated. Technical complexity is only one element of a performance, however; other components of puppet performances include character, theme, plot, movement, and design.
Puppetry has been popular for thousands of years. In some regions it developed as a traditional and highly stylized form of entertainment for a wealthy or aristocratic audience. In other areas it was a form of folk theater presented to people of all classes. Traditional and folk performances typically involve stock characters, standard bits of stage business, lively plots and raucous, good humor. The traditional or folk puppeteers themselves are often anonymous, obscured by the theatrical traditions of which they are only a part. In the past, such performers were often known for where they performedwhich village, street corner, or marketplacerather than by name.
The puppets themselves are often superb examples of artistic craft, whether they are delicately fashioned to suit the tastes of the rich and powerful or boldly created for the rigors of popular performances. They include the exquisitely frail and intricately articulated shadow figures of China; the regal and subtle rod puppets of Japan's bunraku theater; the elemental crudeness of Turkey's Karagöz shadow puppets; the lovable, internationally known Muppets created by American puppeteer Jim Henson; and the vigor and grotesque humor of Punch and Judy and their many variations in Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Along with puppeteers, theaters, and techniques of performance, the puppets themselves are significant elements of the long puppeteering tradition.
The most common types of puppets are string puppets, rod puppets, hand or glove puppets, shadow puppets, and ventriloquists' figures. Puppets have been made out of nearly every imaginable material, including paper, cloth, wood, metal, and plastic.
String puppets, also known as marionettes, are manipulated by means of strings attached to a jointed puppet from a so-called controlusually a wooden device held above the stage by the puppeteer. Some marionette artists work their puppets in full or partial view of their audiences, while others conceal the mechanics of their performances. In consequence, some marionette stages are large structures that allow puppeteers to manipulate their figures from behind and above the playing area. In such situations, the puppeteers are partially or fully concealed from the audience.
Rod puppets are controlled by rods attached to their limbs, heads, and bodies. Although the traditional rod puppets of Belgium and Sicily are worked from above, like marionettes, most contemporary rod figures are operated from below. In theaters, rod puppeteers are frequently concealed from view by drapery or stage flats (fabric stretched across frames). On television and in films, rod and hand puppeteers usually hold their figures either above their heads or in front of their faces. In the latter instance, the stage is usually a relatively small area that the puppeteer can view through a piece of cloth that lets light through. Because of the way the light strikes the cloth, the puppeteer can see out even though the audience cannot see the puppeteer.
Hand or glove puppets are worn like a glove over a puppeteer's hand and arm. Much of a hand puppet's movement is controlled by the fingers and wrist of the operator. As with other types of puppets, some hand puppeteers prefer to appear in full view along with their puppets. Other hand puppeteers are hidden behind drapery or beneath the stage.
In shadow puppetry the shadows or translucent silhouettes of two- or three-dimensional figures are cast onto a white fabric screen. Usually the audience sits on one side of the screen while the puppeteer manipulates the puppets on the other side of the screen in front of a light source. Variations on this style of puppetry have been especially popular in Asia for hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years.
Ventriloquists' figures can be made of many kinds of material, and they usually share the stage with their animators (see Ventriloquism). Ventriloquists delight their audiences by mastering techniques of speech and of puppet manipulation that give the impression their figures are talking with them. Most ventriloquists' puppets are manipulated by hand. Shari Lewis and her hand puppet Lamb Chop are a good example. Another is Edgar Bergen's puppet Charlie McCarthy.
Puppets have been used in religion, as entertainment, as toys, as therapy, and to amuse or educate people around the world. The history of puppetry has been both plagued and enriched by deeply contrasting attitudes. Some people regard it as a trivial and childish amusement. Others see it as a powerfully symbolic and deeply evocative art. Hundreds of unique puppetry traditions and thousands of talented puppet artists exist throughout the world. The theory, history, and practice of puppetry have become fertile and complex fields for study and artistic endeavor.
Scholars believe that puppetry originated thousands of years ago, perhaps when prehistoric people placed their hands near a fire to cast shadows resembling animals, people, and imaginary creatures on cave walls. Most scholars agree that puppetry predates written language, and so we will never be certain how, why, or in what form the first puppets were created or used.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the origins of puppetry, there is no shortage of references to puppetry from ancient times. Greek philosopher Plato, in his Republic (4th century BC), referred to shadow puppetry, making the point that people should not look at shadows to understand truth. His use of shadow puppetry to illustrate this point indicates that the art form was well known in Greece more than 2000 years ago.
Elsewhere in the world, however, people have believed that shadow puppets represent spiritual essences rather than illusions. This view is held in many Asian cultures, including those of India, Thailand, and Malaysia. Partly because of the special value given to shadow puppets, two ancient epics of the Hindu religion, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, have been staged as shadow puppet plays for many centuries. Most Asian cultures have a rich history of puppetry and consider it a high art form.
The major puppet traditions of Indonesia resist easy classification. For instance, both wayang kulit (shadow puppets) and wayang golek (wooden rod puppets) are used for profoundly sacred as well as secular purposes. They provide satiric and sometimes even bawdy entertainment but also offer enlightenment on social, cultural, religious, and moral issues.
In Vietnam, water puppets provide the substance of and the justification for traditional village celebrations. Puppeteers control these unique figures while standing concealed behind a bamboo screen in a shallow pond. The figures are controlled from below by strings threaded through hollow bamboo poles that extend beneath the water. The surface of the pond serves as the stage.
Bunraku, which originated in the early 17th century, is Japan's best-known form of puppetry. Seventeenth-century writer Chikamatsu Monzaemon, widely regarded as Japan's greatest playwright, spent much of his professional life writing for bunraku. In this form of puppetry, three puppeteers manipulate each figure: The senior puppeteer controls the head and right arm, the second puppeteer is responsible for the left arm and some of the body and costume movement, and the third puppeteer manipulates the legs and feet. A highly trained chanter sitting to one side of the stage speaks all of the lines of the play.
Folk puppetry has been quite popular in Europe, and many European cultures have developed their own national characters. These include Punch and Judy in England, Guignol in France, and Kasperle in Germany. These lively characters typically appear in performances of low comedy, farce, and crude satire. In addition, church officials have employed puppets to tell Bible stories and instruct the public in Christian doctrine. From the 18th century on, performers have used puppets to perform operas and classic plays. Today, these performances typically use recordings of music or dialogue. In Eastern Europe during the 20th century, puppetry flourished as a state-supported enterprise under Communist governments.
In North America, Native American puppetry, especially in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest, was often ceremonial and sacred. But ever since Europeans began to settle in North America in the 17th century, most puppetry has followed European traditions. In recent years, the work of Jim Henson, popularized through the television shows "Sesame Street" (1969- ) and "The Muppet Show" (1976-1981), has sparked a new interest in puppets. The highly individualistic works of late 20th-century artists such as Julie Taymor of the United States (director of the stage version of The Lion King), Philippe Genty of France, and Albrecht Roser of Germany have enriched the craft and brought attention to puppetry as an art form.
Today puppeteers are redefining and challenging ideas about what a puppet or puppeteer is supposed to be. In recent years, artists have explored new and inventive ways to animate their creations, commonly combining traditional technologies with new ones. For instance, some people identify certain kinds of stop-motion animation as puppetry, because the director and various technicians act as puppeteers by posing figures in frame after frame of a motion picture, creating the illusion of uninterrupted movement. Examples of such animation include The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), directed by American filmmaker Tim Burton, and the Gumby and Pokey cartoon series. Special-effects artists working on motion pictures frequently create electrically or mechanically powered puppets, such as the terrifying insects in the movie Mimic (1997) and the speaking animals in the film Babe (1995). Several companies are developing systems in which sensors attached to a human performer are translated by computers into the movement of two- or three-dimensional figures. All of these technologies help artists expand their definitions of what puppetry is and can be.
Michael R. Malkin, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
Professor of Theatre, California Polytechnic State University. Author of The World of Puppetry and other books.
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"Puppets," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000
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