Tatyana Smolyakova. Brief Historical Overview of the Origin of Puppets

Issue #4 • 1245

Centuries-old traditions of puppet theatre of different nations produced tangible specimens in the form of the great variety of puppets kept as reliquiae in museums around the world. But it is interesting that these relics are still “alive”. Not only are they traces of bygone ages and types of puppet theatre, being a kind of a “vessel”, the material form of human types and characters of their time, but they also come alive in contemporary theatre and other entertainment arts. Being changed and renewed on the outside, they remain unaltered in their core. First of all, they are not just puppets, they are actors too; therefore, they must easily and deftly walk, sit, turn their heads, wear a costume, make gestures, and, most importantly, be able to become an aesthetic phenomenon in the hands of a puppet-master, to be an aphorism, capacious and metaphorical. In other words, to become a fact of theatrical art, “a miraculously revived matter”, they have to be functional. Puppets come alive in an action, in a rhythm and in the sentiments.

The diversity of puppet-shows comes from national traditions, specific objectives of the production, the performance environment, and the interaction with other art forms, such as drawing, folk toys, sculpture, mask theatre, and today also with drama and musical theatre, performance art, cinema and television.

There are six major traditional puppet types: hand or glove puppet, stick puppet, marionette, planche puppet, shadow puppet, and a chinface puppet.

The origin of a glove puppet goes far back into the past. There is a theory that the heyday of the glove puppet theatre in the Western Region (ancient name for Central and Middle Asia, including the territory of contemporary Uzbekistan) was in V-VII centuries. This was the area where almost all kinds of puppet theatre developed, subsequently producing great impact on its emergence in south-east Asia (particularly China, Japan, and India), getting there with groups of travelling performers, musicians and poets, and later on (in XV-XVII cc.), the new forms of puppet theatre were introduced to Europe where it was considered “Chinese”. The mentioning about glove puppet shows in Russia can be found the notes left be a German diplomat Adam Olearius (1636). This was the theatre of Petrushka, a “relative” of the Italian puppet Pulcinella, the French Punchinello and his “brother”, the glove puppet Guignol, and also of the British Punch. One thing that all these characters have in common is that for many centuries they have become the people’s voice, the embodiment of the nation’s endurance, its overpowering joviality and sharp satirical wit. In the times of persecution, glove puppet shows in Europe quickly replaced marionettes as the former had greater mobility, were easier in terms of performance technique and did not require big expenditures. A puppeteer alone, hidden behind the screen, could produce the entire show to broadcast the “latest news” to the crowd in the market place, and vanish right in time, dismantling his theatre and disappearing in the crowd.

As for the development of this type of theatre in Central and Middle Asia, it never disappeared, even during the Arab conquest (VII-VIII cc.) and later the Mongolian invasion (XIII c.). It changed shape to adapt to new social environment and confessional requirements of Islam.

One of the most interesting puppets in the world’s theatre is a stick puppet. It has ancient origin: the puppet is more than three thousand years old. The emergence of the first stick puppet is associated primarily with the island of Java (Indonesia). Then it spread across Southeast and Central Asia (Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan), and some of its varieties can be found in many Turkic nations. From the XVI century the puppet has become popular across Europe. In a professional theatre the stick puppet first “appeared” in 1918 in Russia, in the hands of the N. Y. and I. S. Yefimov in “Krylov’s Fables”. But it became really popular owing to the repertoire of the Central Puppet Theatre of Sergei Obraztsov. Technically, the advantage of this puppet is that its body language is more expressive and more plastic than in a glove puppet.

The origin of a marionette puppet is very ancient. The first mention of it dates back to Antiquity. There are descriptions left by Herodotus who evidences the existence of moving puppets in Egypt; these were likely intended for ritual purposes. Some of them were offered to guests as gifts during festivities. But in Greece, his own homeland, there was not a single household without a whole collection of marionettes – the family’s essential attribute – wrought by skilled craftsmen and artists and miraculously mechanized. These puppets could perform a pantomime or a dance. Puppet figurines found during excavations of children’s burial sites (belonging to the era of Ancient Rome) are very unique. They had joints with holes connected by rings; through these rings, apparently, a rope was passed to control the puppet. These wonderful performing puppets were also mentioned by Xenophon who described the court customs of the Syrian king Antiochus known to have passion for a puppet theatre that was luxurious and diverse. He also mentioned skilled craftsmen and jugglers from Sicily, who showed marionettes in ancient Hellas. Wonders of this art are described in Aristotle’s treatise “On the Universe”, where the author speaks of all-mighty God who controls man’s will, “like people who run puppet shows, the so-called ‘neuropast’ steering their puppets, making them move their head, arms, hands and eyes with the help of a wire”.

Play marionette was known to the people of Asia, Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome. Marionette theatre was introduced to Central Asian as early as in the Hellenistic period, probably arriving there with the troops of Alexander of Macedonia (IV c. BC). The art developed rapidly in the V-VII cc. and in the XI-XII cc. too; its evolution was particularly intense during the Temurid era (XIV-XVI cc.). Just as glove puppet shows, marionette theatre was very popular on the territory of contemporary Uzbekistan until early XX century. Here it was known as chodir khayol (ghost tent or imagination theatre; the word chodir means tent or stage, and khayol – a ghost or fantasy). It was an indoor theatre where shows ran in the evening, under special lighting. Chodir khayol, compared to chodir jamol, is much more complex and perfected in all its elements: the screen-stage design, puppet workmanship, and performance technique. It had a large stock of puppets (40-50), as evidenced by the collection of P. A. Komarov. It had its own traditions of making puppets on strings and its own masters. The chodir khayol puppets were significantly larger, more sophisticated and diverse than in chodir jamol theatre. Most puppets were carved from timber. They had arms and legs and their workmanship was more artful. Apart from fictional characters, there were also those representing actual historical figures. Marionettes were of different sizes: “Social hierarchy, inequality and injustice affected puppet theatre as well: for instance, farrash, the floor sweeper, had to be three times smaller than any khan”. Even today the design of a marionette puppet is the most complex.

In the infinite variety of puppets a special place belongs to a large floor-based puppet, also known as planche puppet (from the French word planche, meaning board, parquet, stage). As a glove puppet that developed into a stick one, the marionette later gave “birth” to the planche. These puppets are similar in appearance to their “parents”, only are larger and have no strings. Their height depends on the height of a puppeteer and can be from 1 to 1.7 m.

On the territory of Uzbekistan, in “Palvan” comedy shows performed by Khorezmian maskharaboz they used a very original way of “playing with a puppet”. The puppet was shaped as mask-head attached to a suit-body. When a performer-wrestler worked with a puppet-wrestler, he controlled it not only with his hands, but also with feet, thus creating the illusion of a real fight – the traditional kurash wrestling. Such shows we can still see today during holiday festivities.

Shadow theatre appeared several thousand years ago in the East – among people of China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Turkey… Is not clear yet, which place can claim to be its first origin. One mention of a puppet theatre in China dates to the first century B.C. Shadow theatre developed particularly well during the Tang period (VII-IX cc.). Traditional art of puppet theatre in Indonesia is also many centuries old, and in this country it exists in several varieties; one is wayang-kulit (shadow theatre of leather planar shapes).

In the XV-XVI cc. in Khorasan and Maverannahr (Central and Middle Asia) along with traditional theatres with marionette and glove puppets, shadow theatre was also common. Alisher Navoi too mentioned shadow theatre in his works, drawing a parallel between zikr, (zeal or ecstasy) and fonus khayol shadow theatre. Apparently, the shadow theatre in the times of Alisher Navoi bore some resemblance to zikr, just as pictures fixed around a lantern rotated counter-clockwise with comments supplied by the leading puppeteer.

It is believed that shadow theatre is the most ancient prototype of cinema, and cinema is the same shadow theatre improved in the XX century. Indeed, for many hundreds of years people, with the help of light, shadow and screen, have transformed legends into reality and the other way round.

Theatrical Encyclopedia reads that “a mask (from the Latin maskus, maska – guise) is a special cover piece with a picture or image on it (face, animal snout, head of a mythological creature, and the like) that is worn mostly over the face. Today it is impossible to accurately determine date and place of birth of the first mask or establish its psychological genealogy. “The only thing that can be stated with almost absolute certainty is that the mask has never, not in ancient times, nor in the Middle Ages or modern days, been a friend or companion to a puppet theatre”.

The mask, however, has been in use for millennia. Rock art depicts ancient rituals associated with labour, animal cults, burial rites, etc. Masks existed in many theatres around the world. In medieval Europe they were used by histrions or traveling actors, and in Russia – by skomorokh clowns. During early Renaissance mask was indispensable in creating character image in Italian comedy del arte; masks were used in Maskhara theatre that fully evolved in the Middle and Central Asia by the XII century. It is believed that the origin of the word maskharaboz has two roots: one is the Greek word maskhara (maschere, mask), and the other one from a later date is boz (from the Tajik word ‘play’). Here, the Hellenistic theatre met with very ancient local histrionic forms and assimilated with them, turning into a very distinct art of maskharaboz performers. This theatre in its folk forms existed until the XX century. Just as puppet theatre, it had its heroes. And among them we still find the same Palvan Kachal (the Bald Athlete) “born” in the Middle Ages. This was an improvisational theatre intended for marketplace, and the set was conventional, often created by the participants themselves. Costumes were ordinary, from daily life, and faces were made up and masked with soot and paints; masks were made of pumpkin, and later on of papier-mache.

Many traditional oriental theatres are actually mask theatres. Mask became widespread in the theatres of Asia and Indo-China. In India it was the Raslin and Ramliln shows; in Indonesia the Toleng theatre; theatre in Japan; and folk Nori theatre in Korea.

The world’s theatres use both mask and half mask. Makeup put over the face is also considered a mask: in China such makeup-mask is worn by actors of the Beijing musical drama; in Japan, the Kabuki theatre. A mask is often inseparable from the costume, and it is too a mask-costume. When two actors play one animal they use a paired mask, or there can be several actors under one mask (theatres in Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan). There are masks that are worn on one’s fingers or hand. Every nation has its own traditions. A mask always represents constancy, a major generalization, and in certain times was extensively used in drama and musical theatre genres.

Contemporary theatre with its aspiration for synthesis increasingly often turns to the mask, which has become an indispensable part of many productions, including dramatic performances and puppet shows.

Nowadays, a great stock of expressive means is available to a puppet theatre. I would not be easy to list all the diverse puppet types and systems, and puppetry techniques employed by show directors.

Literature
1. Голдовский Б.П. Детская энциклопедия // АиФ, №4, 1999.
2. Кадыров М. Узбекский традиционный театр кукол. Ташкент, 1979.
3. Рахманов М. Узбекский театр. Ташкент, 1981.
4. Смирнова Н. Искусство играющих кукол. М., 1983.
5. Театральная энциклопедия. Т. III. М., 1964.
6. Театральная энциклопедия. Т. V. М., 1967.

Tatyana Smolyakova

Pin It

Comments are closed.