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History of Puppetry

puppet history

Puppetry is an ancient form of artistic expression that is a variation on storytelling or human theatrical productions. In puppetry, a drama unfolds that is entirely or primarily acted out by specialized representational objects, which are manipulated by a puppeteer. The human animator may or may not be visible to the audience. Cultural variations of puppetry developed independently in many parts of the world, with distinctive types still carried on today in Japan, China, Germany, Indonesia, and the United States, among other places. Some specific puppets became international icons in the age of television, including Howdy Doody, Lamp Chop, and Jim Henson’s Muppets.

History of Puppetry

Puppetry as an art form is believed to have its roots in ancient cultures, more than 3000 years old. It is sometimes claimed that puppets were used in the theater arts even before the advvent of human actors. The earliest puppets probably originated in Egypt, where ivory and clay articulated puppets have been discovered in tombs. Puppets are mentioned in writing as early as 422 B.C.E. In ancient Greece, Aristotle and Plato both made reference to puppetry.

marionette-puppetMany types of folk art puppetry developed in disparate regions of the world, and some of it is still practiced today. In Japan, the deeply sophisticated bunraku tradition evolved out of rites practiced in Shinto temples. The Vietnamese created the unique practice of water puppetry, in which wooden puppets appear to walk in waist-high water; this was originally developed hundreds of years ago as a response to the flooding of rice fields. Indonesian shadow puppets are another example of a long-held folk tradition. Ceremonial puppets were also used in several pre-Columbian Native American cultures.

In medieval Italy, marionettes were used in the production of morality plays by the Christian church. The famous comedic puppet tradition of commedia dell’arte evolved in the face of censorship by the church. Later, the plays of William Shakespeare were sometimes performed with puppets in place of actors. Britain’s tradition of Punch and Judy shows, as well as the German version featuring Kasperle and Grete, grew out of the commedia dell’arte.

Contemporary Puppetry

sock-puppets Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, a cultural mindset arose in Europe and the United States in which puppets began to be used in an experimental way, aimed solely at adult audiences. In productions spurred by this movement, a performance might combine actors and puppets or use actors as if they were puppets. Some productions also combined puppetry with mask theater, juxtaposing masked performers, puppets, and other objects inside a minimalist visual world onstage. Today, an event described as puppet theater may not include rod puppets, marionettes, or hand puppets, depending on the intended message and the audience.

Puppets also continue to be used in many instances to appeal to children and families, whether on television or in live performances. Puppetry is viewed as an ideal vehicle for presenting moral messages about childhood concepts such as bullying. Puppets are also used in play therapy as a safe way for traumatized children to explore their fears. Whether the focus is on adult or child enjoyment of puppets, there are regional puppet guilds and societies through the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world. Several national and international museums also exist to celebrate the history of puppets.

Types of Puppets

shadow-puppets There are several basic ways to construct a puppet. A marionette or string puppet is suspended by strings from a horizontal bar, which is used to control the puppet’s movements through a complicated system. The hand puppet, sometimes called a glove puppet, is controlled by the puppeteer’s hand fitting directly inside the puppet, such as in the examples of Punch and Judy. A human-arm puppet or two-man puppet is larger puppet controlled by two puppeteers (one for the head and mouth, another for the arms. A marotte is a simple puppet featuring only a head or body that is placed on a stick, with some examples featuring one moving arm or a mouth that can open. Body puppets, also known as carnival puppets, are very large puppets that are used for street spectacles or large-scale theater, such as the live production of “The Lion King.”

Two unusual types of puppetry use bunraku puppets and shadow puppets. Based in Japan, bunraku puppetry is performed with a nearly life-sized wooden puppet that is illuminated with focused light. The puppeteers dress in dark colors but can be indistinctly seen by the audience, lending a shadowy presence to the production. In shadow puppetry, the puppeteer is not seen. Instead, a silhouetted figure is illuminated with a light source, producing shadows that are viewed by the audience.

Puppetry Resources

  • The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry: This site, based at the University of Connecticut, is Connecticut’s state museum for puppetry. It is named after Frank Ballard, a Dramatic Arts professor.

  • National Puppetry Conference: This annual eight-day conference takes place at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut.

  • Hazelle History: A biography of Hazelle Harriet Hedges Rollins, founder of one of the largest manufacturers of toy puppets as well as a collector of folk and ethnic puppets.

  • International Puppetry Virtual Museum: Take a virtual tour through the collections of the International Puppetry Museum in Pasadena, California.

  • Henson Digital Puppetry Studio: An explanation of the workings of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, with information about soft puppets, animatronics, and more.

  • tawian-puppet
  • Glove Puppetry: This page offers photos and information about the folk art of glove puppetry as it is practiced in Taiwan.

  • Puppet Building Information: Puppet maker Nick Barone offers detailed advice on the materials and mechanics of puppet construction.

  • The Doll Theater: Online gallery of bunraku puppets from the collection of the Donald Sheehan Gallery at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

  • The Bauhaus, Puppets and Play: This feature article describes the relationship of puppetry to the Bauhaus art movement of the early 1920s.

  • The Art of Puppetry: A puppet artist’s description of puppetry, including its history and the different major types of puppets.

  • The National Puppetry Archive Database: View items from the collections of the UK’s National Puppetry Archive by using its digital database of images and information.

  • Paul McPharlin Puppetry Collection: A description of a significant collection of American theatrical puppets housed at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

  • Puppets of the World Museum: Virtual Visit: Explore the collections of antique puppets dating from the 17th century with this virtual tour of an international puppet museum in Lyon.

  • Items from the Douglas Hayward Puppet Archives: A photo gallery offering a look at puppets, photographs and memorabilia housed at this UK-based puppet archive.

  • Marionettes: This page by the Victoria and Albert Museum describes the history and function of marionettes, with images of examples in the museum’s collection.

  • Overview of Bunraku Puppet Theater: A history of Japanese bunraku puppetry for adult audiences.

  • A Brief Introduction of Chinese Puppetry: A description of the place of puppetry in Chinese history, dating to the 16th century B.C.E.

  • kermit-and-billo'riley
  • A Brief History of News Anchors Interviewing Puppets: This Media Bistro feature offers video links to examples television news anchors interviewing puppets, including characters from Sesame Street and Alf.

  • History of the Puppet House Theater: This page describes the historical background of this puppetry-based performing arts center in Stony Creek, Connecticut, which began life as a silent movie theater in 1903.


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