While the general definition of a puppet is that of an object manipulated by someone, the history of puppets is in fact a long and varied one. While today they are widely considered to be entertainments for children, more and more people are discovering that puppets have always held a place in entertainment for all ages. By taking a look at the history of puppets, you’ll be able to see that the contribution of puppets and puppeteers to the arts has been inestimable.
While it is impossible to be certain, puppetry had its birthplace in India, almost a thousand years B.C. From this era, you can find stick puppets that were used to play out the Indian epics like the Maha-Bharata and the Bala-Ramayana.
While these puppet shows described very sacred and beloved texts, there was still a very real element of entertainment in them. The performances, far from being solemn affairs, were loud and boisterous. This aspect of puppetry would be continued by Indonesians, with their use of the walang puppets. The Indonesian puppet shows would be opened with a speech from a holy person and treated with a certain degree of seriousness.
There are many reasons why the use of puppets might develop. Centuries later, bunraku puppets, large, extremely expressive Japanese puppets were handily replacing human actors on the stage. Legend has it that a famous playwright grew tired of actors demanding that their parts be enlarged and that his plays could be much better acted by wood puppets.
To accommodate the historical dramas and deeply emotional love stories that were current in this era, the puppets themselves were highly sophisticated. There could be as many as three men designated to each puppet; each man would be clothed and hooded in black and though they were in plain sight of the audience, were simply not acknowledged.
In Europe, puppets were no less popular. In many places, puppets were used to act out morality plays, acting in ways that would never have been acceptable for humans to behave. It was during the 18th century that puppetry flourished in Italy, and many serious plays, like Dr. Faust, were performed in this method. By the 19th century, under the direction Pietro Radillo, the Venetian puppeteer, puppets were upgraded from two strings and a rod to controls that included as many as eight strings. This enhanced control gave the puppets a wider range of movement as well as a great degree of believability.
In the 19th century, puppets were divided from actor theaters forever and puppeteers took their places as buskers and wanderers, sharing the same social class as jugglers, gypsies and other foreigners.
At this point, puppetry would start to compete with vaudeville and music hall theater, both venues that were considered low-brow entertainment compared to the classical acting tradition. Like other performers in these venues, puppeteers grew very adaptable and versatile, coming up with new routines overnight and often finding their talents of use at places like seaside resorts, which had only recently opened up. There was an interest in leisure during the 19th century and puppetry played strongly to that.
Even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were those who praised puppetry as being a finer art, and there were discussions of the advantages of puppets over real human actors. There was an essay written by one Heinrich von Kleist called “On the Marionette Theatre” where puppets were praised as being less self-conscious than humans, and therefore would always be the better choice. There was the argument made, one that is still recurrent in several forms of media today, that while the human actor imitates the emotion, the puppet, by virtue its unchanging nature, always expresses that key emotion.
Despite the history of puppets going back so far, it is interesting to note that puppetry is still a thriving medium in our world today. There has been a resurgence of interest in puppetry in the twentieth century, and it is possible to see puppets in many different places…
The Muppets, as created by the Jim Hensen company, are one immediately recognizable fixture of the puppetry scene and with even that one word, many people have a certain image called to mine.
The satirical movie Team America: World Police was produced entirely using puppets, for much the same reason that bunraku puppets were used in Japan; the producers simply did not want to deal with human actors.
While it is easy to see that puppets are holding their own when it comes to pure entertainment, it is also worth noting there have been some very important strides made in terms of fine art. Julie Taymor, for instance, who was responsible for the musical The Lion King and the move Titus Andronicus. Taymor was first inspired by a presentation of the Indonesian wayang kulit shadow puppets and went on to study pre-bunraku puppets in early Japan. Thanks to her studies, the puppets used in the Lion King and the musical Juan Darien have won countless awards as well as adding to the rich cultural history of puppetry