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The Mesmerizing Origins and Evolution of Puppetry: Learn the history of the Puppets.

Updated: Jan 31


"In Brief: A Concise History of Puppetry"

A short history of radical puppetry - Kerry Mogg


The ‘carnivalesgue’ has often been a feature of popular rebellion. Recently we saw its self-conscious re-emergence in the US and the UK (notably on Reclaim the Streets actions). Masks, fancy dress and puppets perform a dual role, providing both a pleasurable escape from the routines of everyday life and means of disguise.


"Puppets are not cute, like muppets. Puppets are effigies and gods and meaningful creatures"- Peter Schumann, Bread and Puppet Theatre


To think that at one point in European history, puppetry was actually condemned as a harbinger of sedition from the lower-classes is a fantastic concept for anyone who sat through the HowdyDoody or Muppet shows..


The fact is, the real history of puppetry has been repressed in its long course of commercialisation, and a tradition that once catered to the poor has been devalued and discarded.


However, the last few years has brought renewed interest in puppetry. One of the most important reasons for this is the medium’s use of the public sphere. As we are dragged into the realm of the corporate ownership of everything, the public sphere is of tremendous concern for anarchists and anyone else who cares about freedom. Public space is now rented out to the highest bidder, which means that new forms of protest must be used in order to preserve one of our last recourses to real democracy. Puppetry is a tradition that is about politics within a public sphere; it is about expressing views which counter those of the corporate, religious, and governmental structures, not only by what it says, but how it says it.





Beginnings

Puppetry’s subversive political role effectively began in revolutionary 17th century England with the most famous puppet character of them all, Punch. Punch was a popular figure in a country reeling from tremendous social upheavals.


In 1643, the English authorities ordered the theatres closed due to their fear of the spread of revolutionary propaganda. England was about to be plunged into the middle of a civil war, and radical elements such as Winstanley’s Diggers and Albeizer Coppe’s Ranters were already active.



Subversion

In the tradition of subversive theatre, the 19th century’s most notorious figure was the incomparable eccentric, anarchist puppeteer, Alfred Jarry. Known for carrying a pistol around with him as he obsessively bicycled through the streets of Paris, Jarry amused friends with his intellect and outrageous behaviour.


Enamoured of puppetry since his teens, in 1888, Jarry put on shows in his mother’s attic for Henri and Charles Morin, his future teenage partners in crime at the Lycee they attended. It was here that the first versions of Ubu Roi were performed, Jarry’s infamous, brutal attack on bourgeois mediocrity. Ubu Roi achieved instant notoriety for many reasons, not the least of which being the first word King Ubu utters on stage is "Shit!"


Although in the eventual staging of the play Jarry used human actors, he designed Ubu’s costume and choreographed the stage directions to be as puppet-like as possible. The anti-colonial, anti-militaristic tone of Jarry’s writings are quite evident, as are their anti-establishment "primitivism" (by way of puppets), a popular strategy among dissidents, artists and anarchists at that time in France.


More acts of cultural subversion soon followed in the early 20th-century. In Germany, puppeteer Gerhart Hauptman performed angry plays criticising the Kaiser. In Portugal, Rosado performed anti-government plays as well.




Czechoslovakia, now an undisputed leader in puppetry, began its saga in the nineteenth century. The Czech language was banned by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but puppeteers performed in Czech as an act of defiance. During the Nazi invasions, puppeteers resisted, despite the forced closing and banning of literally hundreds of theatres. Anti-fascist plays by Karel Capek were staged in underground venues along with theatrical interpretations of modern poetry. During public performances, they used allegory in order to slip subversive (and with audiences’ expectations, anticipated) remarks past the censors.


Radical puppetry now

Radical puppetry today is reclaiming public space for the disenfranchised. Although this space has been co-opted since the turn of the century in order to serve capitalist/military/government masters, puppet shows conversely use the it for anti-authoritarian ends.


The philosopher, M. M. Bakhtin, has written on the concept of "dominant discourse," the way in which the beliefs of the ruling classes are framed as fact in the public sphere. Bakhtin is also credited with having coined the term "carnivalesque" to describe the way popular culture, like carnivals, parades and puppet shows can transgress authority.


Radical puppetry groups, such as The Bread and Puppet Theatre, and Art and Revolution, operate in this carnivalesque vein. Both reclaim the public sphere by involving their audience in the performance which demolishes the idea of passive entertainment.


Bread and Puppet Theatre was a child of the ‘sixties and the peace movement, and initially concentrated the bulk of its efforts protesting against the Vietnam war. The founder of Bread and Puppets, sculptor Peter Schumann, has maintained his fantastic ‘Domestic Resurrection Circus’ for over thirty years. Schumann and members of his theatre utilise almost every kind of puppet, from hand puppets to huge street sized puppets, in order to present their original social critiques. Bread and Puppet Theatre plays have incorporated such themes as the horror of the Vietnam war, the Kent State shootings, and other, more mythological topics.




Art and Revolution, as its name implies, explores the idea of art as a radical means of achieving an egalitarian, anarchist society. It grew out of demonstrations against the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1996 and played an important role at Toronto’s Active Resistance a gathering in 1998, as well as San Francisco’s Reclaim May Day celebrations.


There are now Art and Revolution groups all over North America. Their mandate states, the "Art and Revolution Collective aims to bring people together to create new ways to resist effectively and to build communities capable of making radical change and social revolution." They were heavily ‘involved in the mass protest against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and many of their inventive large puppets were easily seen on national media coverage. Their web site is at www.agitprop.org/artandrevolution.


To sum up, the anarchic strains within puppetry and its attraction for those on the margins, is, on the profoundest level, an act of reclaiming one’s freedom. By manipulating little dolls (or even giant ones) and saying what one wants, puppeteering comes to symbolize the ultimate act of creation, the creation of a new world free from the obscene ravages of authority.






Postscript

This article appeared in the Detroit-based Fifth Estate paper, Spring 2000, seemingly prompted by the use of giant puppets on recent demonstrations in Washington, Toronto and Seattle (and we might add London). As a quick overview of the subject it might simplify some of the history. For instance, Punch and Judy shows expressed some of the contradictory strains of popular culture, not just anti-authoritarian ideas but also, for instance, violence against women. The article also focuses primarily on more or less specialist puppeteers and so neglects more popular practices such as the making and burning of effigies. Still this is a good starting point for a subject about which much more could be said.

Practical History postscript: "Riot Police in Eugene, Oregon made 22 arrests after ordering people to disperse who were already dispersing after watching puppet shows and activities commemorating last year’s June 18 demos. Police fired bean bag rounds and used pepper spray" (Schnews, 30 June 2000)


By Kerry Mogg, Practical History


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