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History of Puppetry

By April 7th, 2022History, Theater

history of puppetry

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. Throughout the history of puppetry, some specific puppets became international icons in the age of television, including Howdy Doody, Lamp Chop, and Jim Henson’s Muppets.

Little school kid puppet wearing glasses
Yellow big bird puppet
the puppets next to eachother

Many types of puppets have been seen in theater throughout history, including:

Human-arm Puppets

Human-arm puppets or two-person puppets are large puppets controlled by two puppeteers – one for the head and mouth, another for the arms.

blue and fluffy arm puppet

Marotte

A marotte is a simple puppet featuring only a head or body placed on a stick, with some examples featuring one moving arm or a mouth that can open. This feature enables dialogue to be presented realistically as being spoken by the character. It also avoids the puppeteer having to make additional movements to highlight speech.

small brown horse puppet

Marionette

A marionette is a puppet controlled from above, using strings.

clown puppet

Body puppets

Body puppets, also known as carnival puppets, are gigantic puppets used for street spectacles or large-scale theater, such as the live production of “The Lion King.”

Man dressed as a clown holding two puppets in each hand

Bunraku puppetry

Bunraku puppetry is performed with a nearly life-sized wooden puppet 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.

Japanese puppet in a kimono

Shadow puppetry

In shadow puppetry, the puppeteer is not seen. Instead, a silhouetted figure is illuminated with a light source, producing shadows that the audience can see and from which they follow a performance and story.

shadow puppet show
Small orange doll with glasses

The first known use of puppetry came in
Ancient Greece, sometime around the 5th
century BC.

However, it is possible puppetry was also emerging in other civilizations at around the same time. Some historians believe puppets pre-date actors in a theatrical sense, although there is little direct evidence for this.

In much the same way that theatrical shows and plays developed, puppetry started life in rituals and carnivals before becoming an integral part of shows and performances provided explicitly for entertainment purposes.

puppet of a human boy
In many locations, puppetry played a crucial role in the social and psychological development of populations.

It also helped to establish theater as a critical cultural cornerstone of society and life overall.

One of the most notable aspects of the history of puppetry is how it developed across the world and how this development feeds into the role puppetry plays in contemporary theater and society.

The history of puppetry in Africa

While the earliest recorded use of puppetry was in Ancient Greece, the discovery of ivory and clay puppets in Ancient Egyptian tombs suggests that they may have originated here before being adopted by the developing Greek civilization.

hieroglyphs from egypt

Hieroglyphs have also been discovered describing the use of “walking statues” in early Ancient Egyptian dramas.

In terms of puppetry’s development across Africa as a whole, most early influences likely stemmed from Ancient Egypt, spreading across the Sahara before reaching the continent’s central and southern countries. Unfortunately, there is little documentation or knowledge of how puppetry developed throughout Africa throughout the last 2,000 years.

However, it’s clear that puppetry remains hugely influential today. As well as playing a prominent role in African theater shows, puppetry is used across African nations as a ceremonial tool, often in conjunction with people wearing masks.

In rural and less developed African regions, puppetry even remains a crucial element of societal development, playing a role that books and education do in urban and wealthier regions.

The history of puppetry in Asia

Such is the rich history and culture found across Asia that it’s unsurprising to learn that puppetry evolved differently across such a vast continent.

Puppetry in Southeast Asia & China

It is believed the traditions of Chinese shadow theater stretch back at least 3,000 years. In China, early puppetry was often exclusively performed for royalty.

song dynasty map in China

However, by the Song dynasty, which began in the year 960, puppetry shows were available to people from all walks of life.

Yet, like many who worked in what we know today as the arts, most people saw puppeteers as belonging to a lower social class. If you were a puppeteer, Chinese society’s view was that you did this job because you weren’t educated enough for a professional career or not sufficiently brave or physically capable enough for the military. As such, you were working as a puppeteer because that’s all you could do. This view remained for many years, and similar attitudes were present across the world, despite the design and operation of puppets requiring a great deal of skill.

While China was the dominant country in the region in terms of cultural influence, rich puppetry traditions have emerged through many other nations in Southeast Asia.

Taiwanese puppetry

In Taiwan, puppetry evolved in a similar style to bunraku, which, as we’ll see shortly, remains popular in Japan. One notable feature of Taiwanese puppetry was puppeteers’ skills that allowed them to manipulate the puppets into doing unusual moves or stunts, including somersaults.

china doll

Indonesian puppetry

Indonesian puppetry was heavily influenced by Indian theater, while today, the country is known for its rod puppetry and shadow puppets. Thailand also has a national tradition of rod puppetry.

puppateer

Vietnamese puppetry

Vietnam is one of the only countries that developed and continues to maintain a tradition of water puppetry. These unique shows see wooden puppets appearing to walk on water, with puppeteers controlling them with submerged rods. This tradition started around 700 years ago and was first adopted as entertainment when flooded rice fields meant people couldn’t farm or work.

china dolls

Philippines puppetry

The Philippines was very much a late adopter of puppetry, with puppetry not seen in the country until some years into Spanish colonization. By the time of the Philippine revolution in the late 1800s, the country had a rich puppetry culture. Throughout the last 150 years, the country has seen multiple puppetry forms evolve and become famous.

china dolls

Myanmar puppetry

Myanmar is another unique case when it comes to puppetry, as very little has changed since it was first introduced to the country in the late 1700s. In fact, the same characters introduced by U Thaw, the country’s Minister for Royal Entertainment at the time, remain in use today!

china dolls

Puppetry in Japan & Korea

Many forms of puppetry can be found in Japanese theater today, with influences from across Asia as well as the rest of the world. However, the best known and traditional form of Japanese puppetry is bunraku.

Japanese Bunraku performance

Bunraku first emerged from religious practices, specifically, temple rites carried out by followers of the Shinto religion.

While early forms of bunraku were relatively crude, bunraku productions would evolve to be highly sophisticated and thoughtful over the years, no matter their theme. Such was the popularity of bunraku that in the early 1700s, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who is basically the Japanese equivalent of Shakespeare, even quit writing kabuki dance dramas to write bunraku puppetry plays exclusively!

portrait of chikamatsu black and white
chikamatsu picture

Bunraku remains popular today. The practice has become even more diverse thanks to varying interpretations of the form and the sheer number of practitioners.

In Japan today, bunraku performers,
companies, and puppet makers are
designated “Living National Treasures,”
such is their importance to Japanese society
and culture.

Japan skyline and sunset

Korean puppetry takes much of its inspiration from China, with kkoktugakshi nori puppet plays emerging during the 18th century as a native Korean type of play. However, Korea’s theatrical puppetry traditions are believed to stretch back at least 1,000 years.

Puppetry in India

Puppetry has long been popular in India, with puppetry forms from across the world found in the country. However, it is common to find puppetry styles that have been adopted from elsewhere before being given an Indian makeover.

Puppetry in India is believed to be thousands of years old, with ancient writings, songs, and folk tales alluding to puppets.

Many puppetry forms have only been introduced to India during the last century. Still, they quickly became part of the national consciousness. Such is India’s vast size and scale that, as well as being a national tradition, puppetry traditions can differ from state to state across the country.

Indian puppet in a yellow dress

Let's look at some of the most popular types of puppetry and their significance across India.
String puppetry

String puppetry is the most common and popular type of puppetry across India. It is also a fantastic example of how different forms of puppetry exist across various regions.

five marionette puppets

Marionette puppetry is thought to have been one of the earliest forms of puppetry found in India. It remains popular today in Karnataka, Orissa, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu.

Within each state, string puppetry has its own local name and traditions.

Rajasthan

There is a tradition of puppets being brightly
dressed.

rajasthan puppets

Tamil Nadu

In Tamil Nadu, traditional marionette string
puppetry is combined with rod puppetry.

tmailnadu puppets yellow and red
Shadow puppetry

Shadow puppetry is another form of theater that is found across India in several distinct styles. While wooden puppets in the most traditional sense remain heavily and most commonly used, puppet makers in some states have produced leather puppets for much of the last century.

Indian shadow puppet scene

One notable feature of Indian shadow puppets is how easy it is to follow performance and know how important each puppet or character is.

The more important they are in a social context, the bigger they are. If you ever see an Indian shadow puppetry performance, and it isn’t clear who’s who, you can safely assume the giant puppet is the king!

Rod puppetry

Rod puppetry maintains a tradition of using wooden puppets and remains popular in the West Bengal and Orissa regions.

Indian puppet in a red dress
Glove puppetry

Glove puppetry remains hugely popular in India, mainly because it is accessible to anyone who wants to put on a show, thanks to the affordability of creating a glove puppet. Anyone can easily produce glove puppets from papier mache, wood, or pieces of cloth.

Indian glove puppet in a dress

While they’re easy to control, India’s best glove puppeteers have mastered manipulating their hands over many years to get puppets to perform a range of movements and positions.

In some locations across India, glove puppet shows consist of just one puppet, with a puppeteer playing an instrument with their spare hand to present simple stories.

Puppetry in the Middle East

Islamic culture was and remains a massive influence over Middle Eastern puppetry. However, as the famed “cradle of civilization,” Middle Eastern puppetry also has flavors taken from Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, as well as from China via Turkish peoples moving across the central Asian nations.

It is thought that shadow puppetry first emerged in what is today Asian Turkey in the early 1500s.

However, puppetry was popular in the regions that are today Iran and Iraq at least 500 years before this, with glove and string puppets widely found. However, it wasn’t until around the 18th century that a specific Middle Eastern style of puppetry would develop, as influences from all the regions nations reached and were accepted in the other.

Iranian puppet show

This eventually led to the development of traditional puppet shows in Iran that would be performed in coffee houses, usually by two people, a storyteller or musician and the puppeteer.

The history of puppetry in Europe

While theater as a whole in Europe evolved individually across nations, the evolution of puppetry in the continent occurred in a far more connected manner.

Ancient Greece and Rome were highly
influential, as were the commedia dell'arte
plays that emerged in Italy during the 16th
century and quickly spread across Europe.

However, it didn’t take long for individual nations and regions of Europe to start developing their own takes on puppetry across various genres.

Let’s learn more about how puppetry evolved across Europe.

Old wooden European puppet
Puppetry in Ancient Greece and Rome

While there are very few surviving examples of puppetry from Ancient Greece and Rome, we know from some legendary playwrights and philosophers’ writings that puppetry was likely a part of society from at least the 5th century BC, and in all probability, far earlier.

old wooden European puppet
Marble sculptures of aristotles face close up

Both Aristotle and Plato referred to puppetry in their writing.

At the same time, two of Homer’s most famous plays, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are known to have been performed using puppets.

The cover page of the book The Iliad

In Greece, it’s likely that puppets were first used as a storytelling device in the years before writers began performing their own productions and actors were eventually introduced.

Beyond this, little is known about puppetry in Ancient Rome and throughout the Roman Empire era.

old wooden puppet in a tomb

However, in both Rome and Greece, small puppets were found in children’s tombs.

However, historians believe these were probably toys and don’t necessarily mean puppetry flourished during this era to a considerable extent.

Puppetry in Italy

It is well established that religion played a significant part in the evolution of theater across Europe. The same is true of puppetry.

It’s even thought the term marionette was
derived from Virgin Mary figurines –
marionette translates literally as “Mary doll.”

virgin mary figurine

Initially, puppetry in Italy consisted of church groups making marionette puppets and using them to produce plays about morality or containing other religious messaging.

Eventually, these productions would develop as people sought to introduce other elements into plays, with comedy being particularly popular. However, this eventually led to the church banning puppetry altogether!

Thankfully, this didn’t discourage those who had started to pursue puppetry as a passion. Puppeteers would quickly begin to come up with ideas outside of the platform provided by churches.

Group of italian puppets, some dressed as knights, and kings

The ban led to puppet shows becoming even more comedic and slapstick. At the same time, risqué and sexually charged themes also quickly became familiar.

Many puppeteers and companies even went so far as to set up stages and perform these outside of churches. As you can imagine, this was hugely controversial, especially when they’d attract the attention of worshippers coming in and out of the church!

As puppetry and theater, in general, evolved in Italy throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, marionette puppetry would come to be regarded as “for the aristocracy.” At the same time, lower social classes would only be able to afford to attend rod puppetry productions.

Italy puppet
Italy puppet
Puppetry in France

In France, puppetry has always been seen as something targeted towards children. Still, adults have long appreciated it, too, primarily due to the comedic content of puppet shows.

Uniquely, puppetry in France
moved into the mainstream thanks
to Laurent Mourguet, a puppeteer
who created the iconic puppet
show character, Guignol.

french puppet wearing a brown coat
portrait of a french puppateer holding his puppet

During the French revolution, Mourguet became a dentist and used puppet shows to attract patients and distract them while he was pulling out their teeth. I guess if you couldn’t have pain relief, laughter is the next best thing!

In the early 19th century, Mourguet gave up dentistry and became a full-time puppeteer, both writing shows and putting in improvisational performances in Lyon, where he was based.

lyon castle

Initially inspired by Italian commedia dell’arte, Mourguet would quickly develop his own cast of characters based on the people of Lyon.

Puppetry shows inspired by the works of Mourguet continue to be popular in France today.

Puppetry in Great Britain

Punch and Judy is one of the most famous
puppet shows in the world.

While it’s still most commonly associated with British coastal locations, the foundations of these shows can be found everywhere puppetry remains a popular type of performance.

Italian characters for a play

These shows were themselves inspired by Italian commedia dell’arte.

In Great Britain, before becoming symbols of coastal vacations, traveling companies, typically consisting of two or three puppeteers, would typically perform Punch and Judy shows.

In the early 20th century, Great Britain would see a resurgence in puppetry as puppetry and theater guilds were set up to provide various shows from permanent venues.

Alongside the United States, which we’ll learn more about later, throughout the 20th-century, puppetry would become an integral part of several TV productions in the UK.

Thunderbirds poster as puppets

The iconic Thunderbirds, which combined traditional puppetry with pre-written dialogue and storytelling, is perhaps the best known, and remains hugely popular and retains a cult-like status.

While puppetry as a standalone theatrical discipline remains popular across Great Britain, predominantly in London, it is also used in many general theater shows, especially when productions are heavily reliant on visuals to support the participating actors’ performances.

Puppetry in Germany and Austria

Germany and Austria have their own version of Punch and Judy. Like puppetry in France and Great Britain, puppetry traditions in these nations were built heavily on Italian commedia dell’arte.

German puppet show picture

During the 18th century, some of the most
popular entertainment forms in these countries
were puppet shows set to opera.

During the 19th century, there were many theaters in Germany where patrons could exclusively enjoy hours-long puppet shows, with many of them providing cutting, borderline savage, social commentaries.

German marionette puppets in a kitchen

In both Germany and Austria, and other countries throughout Eastern Europe, there remains a strong tradition of puppetry, and particular marionette shows, being set to opera, with productions routinely selling out night after night.

As well as showing purpose-written puppetry operas, theaters in these countries are also famous for adopting popular existing plays and operas to be performed by puppeteers.

The history of puppetry in Mexico & the United States

Puppetry has a rich history across Mexico and the United States. It is known that puppetry was in use in Mexico at least as early as 1,500 years ago, with puppets predominantly used in funeral ceremonies before becoming popular in festivals and ceremonial days.

There is also evidence that puppets had a
significant role in Native American traditions for
various occasions and events.

Across the United States as a whole, puppetry was somewhat unique. Despite there being heavy influence from Europe, distinct American puppetry styles developed from around the 16th century onwards.

Mexico muppet in striped sweater
Mexico muppet in pink dress
However, puppetry wouldn't become mainstream in the United States until the years of the Great Depression. Puppeteers would travel around different towns, putting on shows and carnivals.

At the time, these were seen as a fantastic means of helping the population escape the country’s economic troubles, if only for a short time.

Following the Great Depression and the growth of television in the United States, puppetry would quickly become mainstream. What’s more, the United States would become a pioneering country for the use of puppetry in TV, with marionette puppets like Howdy Doody helping to revitalize the use of such puppets in theater, as well as puppetry in general.

blue puppet
black and white man with puppet
Clown with family and puppets

Howdy
Doody

howdy doody puppets

Throughout the 20th century, further advancements would be seen, with the 1960s bringing the first live-action shows featuring puppets.

At the same time, Jim Henson’s Muppets,
although created in the 1950s, would
become world-famous during the 60s.

Man with the muppets

Advancements in the use of puppetry would also be seen in cinema, with the character of Yoda in the Star Wars franchise one of the earliest uses of puppets in movie production.

star wars battle
yoda
jabba the hut
chewbacca
star wars figurines

The history of puppetry in Australia

It is known that puppets played a role in Aboriginal storytelling traditions. These traditions stretch back thousands of years and potentially even pre-date the earliest known recordings of puppetry from Ancient Greece and Egypt.

In Aboriginal traditions, wood-carved masks would usually be decorated with feathers and paint and used in performance or to depict lessons about societal morality and the natural world.

In a contemporary sense, puppetry didn’t really become part of Australian theater or other means of entertainment until around the 1960s, when marionette productions became popular in the country. Touring productions of puppet shows led to the establishment of theater companies specializing in puppetry across the next two decades.

Rod Hull's Emu became one of the
most famous puppets in the world
during the 1960s.

Rod Hull with puppet
Rod Hull with puppet

To this day, a puppetry festival is held in Melbourne during the winter months.

Australia is perhaps the most prominent country where puppetry remains a significant part of the theater landscape, rather than being available as a niche if it takes your interest.

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 experimentally, 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.

metal horse

Puppets also continue to be used in many instances to appeal to children and families, whether on television or in live performances. The use of puppetry has even evolved to the point where we now have actors dressed as puppets in movies and popular TV shows. Technology also continues to aid the use of puppetry, making them fit seamlessly into productions while looking more realistic and at one with their surroundings than ever before.

digi

Further playing into this, features like digital puppetry continue to evolve and bring ever more possibilities to producers of film and TV content.

In general, puppetry is still 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.

sock puppets with sunglasses
  • 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.
  • International Puppetry Virtual Museum
    Take a virtual tour through the collections of the International Puppetry Museum in Pasadena, California.
  • 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
    A brief description of the law passed in 1975 to regulate warranties on consumer products.
  • The Art of Puppetry
    A puppet artist’s description of puppetry, including its history and the different major types of puppets.
  • 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
    Explore the collections of antique puppets dating from the 17th century with this virtual tour of an international puppet museum in Lyon.
  • 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 BCE.
  • 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.
  • 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.