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.
Many 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.
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
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.