You Should Go See a Puppet Show.

by Bruce E. R. Thompson.

You should go see a puppet show.

No, I don’t mean you should take your kids to see a puppet show, I mean you should see a puppet show. It has only been in the last hundred years or so that puppets were considered to be exclusively children’s entertainment. Through most of their history they were performed for adult audiences, and on one occasion, because they were considered adult entertainment, they helped to save a piece of our culture.

In 1640 the King of England unwittingly assembled a parliament dominated by intolerant religious conservatives. They were led by John Pym, a Puritan who advocated (and enacted) harsh policies aimed at religious minorities (especially Catholics) and immigrants (the Irish). In 1642 the Puritans fulfilled one of their long-standing promises: they shut down the theaters, including the famous Globe Theater, where the plays of Shakespeare had been performed. In their view the plays were indecent. For one thing, the women’s roles were played by men! The theaters remained closed for eighteen years, while a brutal civil war was fought in the deeply divided nation. When the theaters reopened, the rich traditions of the Elizabethan stage had largely been forgotten.

But the Elizabethan theater was not entirely forgotten. While the Puritans were able to shut down the legitimate stage, they were powerless to shut down the puppet theaters. In Ben Jonson’s play, Bartholomew Fair, a Puritan tries to interrupt a puppet play on the grounds of indecency. The accommodating puppet lifts its skirt to reveal that it is merely a hand inside a sock, neither male nor female, and therefore obviously not indecent. The delighted audience laughs the Puritan off the stage. With the legitimate theater shut down, puppets took over performing the plays that could not be enacted by human actors. King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and (most notably) Doctor Faustus, are all known to have been performed by puppets during this period.

In Elizabethan England a puppet show was called a “motion,” and puppeteers were called “motion men.” In the Elizabethan sense a “motion” was any type of display moved by artificial means. This included clockwork figures, figures moved by strings or wires, peep-shows operated by a hand crank, and, of course, ordinary hand puppets. The concept of a “motion” represents a mixing of two traditions that, up to that time, had been quite separate. One tradition was that of the hand or glove puppets, performing out of traditional puppet booths. This type of puppetry was regarded as a crude sort of entertainment. The other tradition was that of the marionettes.

The marionette tradition is ancient. In The Golden Bough Sir James George Frazer makes frequent reference to “puppets” made from sheaves of grain and used to represent the corn-spirit in pre-Christian harvest festivals. Apparently the Christian church inherited the practice of using articulating figures to represent religious personages. For example, on the Crucifix of Boxley the figure of Christ had articulating eyes and mouth. This figure was destroyed in 1538 since it was thought to be the work of the devil. Christmas crèches were first introduced in A. D. 354 by Pope Liberius, and have been in continuous existence ever since. In many crèches the figures could be moved to simulate the appearance of life, and in some cases the movement was achieved by means of strings or wires. Nativity plays were among the first stories acted out by medieval puppets. Puppets moved by strings or wires became so closely associated with nativity plays that these puppets came to be known as “little Marys,” or marionettes. In the 16th Century the marionettes were expelled from the cathedrals, where they had traditionally performed, because the shows had become too vulgar and theatrical. Every performance included a clown who ran around making fun of the serious characters and intruding his antics into every scene. The clown was typically named after the favorite food of the region. In Germany he might be known as Hans Wurst; in England a popular clown was named Pickleherring; another English clown was named Jack Snacker.

Once the marionettes were thrown out of the churches, the marionette masters were forced to join the ranks of wandering showmen. This produced the cross-fertilization of traditions that gave rise to the Elizabethan concept of a “motion.” It freed the marionettes to take on secular subjects, and it raised the level of artistry of the wandering showmen to the point that they could steal plays from the legitimate stage. During the Elizabethan period there was little difference between the men who performed puppet shows with hand puppets and men who used other sorts of animated figures. A motion man might display clockwork figures, traditional hand puppets, shadow puppets, pasteboard flats, or marionettes, depending on the needs of his story. Thus, when the English stage was shut down by the Puritans, the motion men were well able to pick up the slack.

Of the plays that were adapted to puppetry, the most significant by far was the story of Doctor Faustus, from the play by Christopher Marlowe. This story is exceptionally well-suited to the puppet stage. On the smaller stage the dramatic puffs of smoke appear bigger and more frightening, and the angels and devils do not need to walk onto the stage, they can be flown in by their strings. The story was also exceptionally well-suited to the times. In Puritan England, it must have seemed, at least to some people, that England itself had sold its soul to the devil!

Beginning in England, the play migrated to Germany, where it was so popular that it became the staple of marionette theaters for the next two centuries. Probably no character has been portrayed as a puppet more frequently than Doctor Faustus—not even Punch. The German poet, Goethe, first learned of the story of Faustus from a marionette play. His father annually hired a troupe of marionette performers to perform for his family. The novelist, Thomas Mann, probably also knew the story from marionette performances, as well as from Goethe’s poem. Both of these writers adapted the story to their own purposes. Mann’s novel, Doctor Faustus, for example, uses it allegorically. The novel tells the story of a composer who intentionally contracts syphilis in order to obtain the creative inspiration (and madness) that syphilis can cause. The composer’s life parallels, and is an allegory for, the rise and downfall of Nazism in Germany. In effect, Mann was saying that the German people had sold their soul for the (temporary) feeling of heady madness that comes from thinking that you are racially and culturally superior.

Puppets are currently undergoing a mixing of traditions similar to that which occurred during the Elizabethan period. The Muppets, for example, are an interesting blend of traditional hand puppets—controlling the mouth—with Balinese rod puppets to control the hands. Now Sesame Street is using bluescreen technology with Japanese bunraku techniques to give their puppets feet. A brief taste of marionettes at their best can be seen in the 1999 movie Being John Malkovich. Borrowing puppet traditions from around the world, modern puppeteers have raised puppetry to astonishing heights of artistry and versatility.

Go see a puppet show. Nothing fires the imagination and keeps ideas alive, even during intolerant times, so well as a puppet show.

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