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The Rod and The String
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In the third of our intermittent series of articles on puppetry forms and modes of practice, Penny Francis reflects on the history of the marionette

For most people, the marionette and the hand/glove puppet are the most familiar puppetry forms. ‘Marionette’ for the English speaker has come to mean the figure operated from above, either by a rod to the middle of the head or the scalp, (‘rod marionette’), or by an indeterminate number of cords of varying thickness (‘string marionette’), attached to the head, shoulders, back, limbs, and so on, according to the actions the character is required to make. (For the French, ‘marionnette’ just means ‘puppet’.)

The rod marionette was known and practised throughout Europe well before the string marionette - even, from the evidence of certain excavated artefacts, since Antiquity. The main head rod is usually metal, attached by a small hook and screw eye to (or through) the head, and controlled by a large hook or other handle by the manipulator. Strings or wires to one or more of the limbs can supplement the head rod. The technique lends this type of figure a stronger, more positive movement than that of its string counterpart.

It is the only type used by the traditional players in Sicily, for the purposes of the monumental ‘opera dei pupi’. It lends these tall (up to a metre and a half), heavy wooden characters a dynamic force that well suits their melodramatic vehemence, their battles and the macabre comedy tricks of decapitations and dissections depicted with the liberal use of painted gore that distinguish the genre.

The stories most often performed today concern the enmity between the Saracens and the Crusaders of the Middle Ages. The puppeteers working the characters from above and behind the painted backcloths, stamp their feet to emphasise the puppets’ gait, declaim the speeches, shouting exclamations, operate the fights with scimitars and swords, and develop good muscular and vocal power. They tilt the figures forward from the hip and swing the legs (which have no control attached), utilising theories of pendular motion and gravity to effect the warriors’ strides.
This was the first form of puppetry to be recognised in 2001 as an example of the world’s cultural treasures and awarded the title of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.

In the Czech Republic the rod marionette, shorter and more delicate than the Sicilian, is everywhere in use. A traditional type it may be, but the most avant-garde director will happily make use of its positive simplicity of movement and manipulation. The DRAK company of Eastern Bohemia has employed them in adaptations of opera and plays by such as Shakespeare, Schwartz and Schultz since the 1970s alongside human actors and musicians.

The rod marionette is likewise employed in the Netherlands, especially in Belgian folk puppetry. The comic potential of the rod marionette figures still fills a few cellar theatres and, most famously, the ancient Brussels bar-theatre of Toone, where parodies of great plays and operas usually form the repertoire. The method of manipulation is similar to the big Sicilian figures, by the hook from the head to the handle at the end of the rod. Like the Sicilians the operator leans over a painted scenic backdrop, and in both Sicily and Belgium part of the enjoyment is derived from the unapologetic appearances of the human hands invading the fiction of the play.

Most if not all marionettes from the ancient world to the nineteenth century had – it seems sensible to deduce from the documentary evidence – a rod to the top of the head. In the surviving pictures and extant figures of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century puppet operas the rod marionette also prevails. Europe-wide, the operas’ puppet characters mimed the action as the music was played behind or alongside the stage by renowned musicians and singers. Composers were of the quality of Accaioli, Haydn and Mozart. The events of the libretti involving gods and goddesses, supernatural beings and other unrealistic happenings were deemed more watchable if played by beautiful puppets in motion in front of changing scenery, rather than static and often un-beautiful singers in front of no scenery at all.

The operas became fashionable court and aristocratic entertainment in many countries of Europe, notably Italy (which seems to have been the progenitor of many types of European puppetry) Spain, Portugal and Poland, but the operas did not catch on in Britain, although the rod marionette as the forerunner of the string marionette would have been in use at the same period and probably before.

For the operas of the 17th and 18th centuries it would seem that the job of operating the puppets enjoyed far lower status than that of the showman in itinerant and fairground shows. For the privately performed operas there are documents stating that the characters were moved by the servants of the establishment where the show was given. A travelling showman might employ local lads to ‘move’ the characters to enliven the storytelling of the boss. The profession of puppeteer was not yet born.

In 1662 when Pepys recorded a show in Covent Garden played by an Italian puppeteer, he almost certainly saw Punch (Pulcinella, Punchinello: the name was spelt in several ways before settling down as Punch) as a glove puppet, but he may have been a rod marionette, as he is depicted in contemporary illustrations of the many puppet plays of the following century in which Punch became the popular star.

The technique and the repertoire of the marionette on strings is widely documented in Germany, Italy and Britain where the puppeteers of the 19th century took to them readily and even profitably. String marionettes can of course be found worldwide and are manipulated with a surprising variety of different controls, ranging from the Rajasthan method of handling only one or two looped strings  with which they manage a surprising range of movements, to the Japanese multi-stringed wooden control.  The Burmese marionette is instantly recognised by its thick, numerous cords attached to a relatively simple wooden control, and by its feet which are turned outwards in the manner of the Burmese dancers. (There are many who maintain that the puppets taught the dancers, not the other way round.) An English or Chinese figure will have thinner strings, up to thirty or even more, controlled by a simple aeroplane (crossbar) mechanism or by the most wondrously complicated wooden or metal controls needing dexterity equal to that of a highly trained harpist.

Early 21st century performances of Asian marionettes still consist almost entirely of the traditional string version. In Europe too the string marionette is still widely and proudly employed, often for modern re-workings of magic tales and classic legends. The marionette can be a moving sculpture of beauty and grace, able to fly and waft pleasingly, suited to underwater ballets or musical and mythical encounters. It relies on the puppeteer’s capability of sensing and judging the placement, the tension, the weight of the puppet through its strings of which s/he needs complete familiarity and therefore control. The marionettist needs hours of rehearsal until all of this becomes second nature. It is easy for the figure to flop, to buckle at the knees, to lose focus and thus credibility.

String marionettes may, in the words of Miles Lee ‘possess a remote and super-human quality [which] makes it difficult for them to portray humour’ …but these are by no means all of its dramatic qualities. They can be fast and funny too – examples are the brilliantly executed, action-packed stories of the Chinese marionette troupes, the comic characters of the stories of the Canadian Ronnie Burkett, the puppet variety ‘artistes’, the circus clowns and animals, survivals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the world-travelled comic character of the German Albrecht Roser, Clown Gustaf. 

The strings that reach from the character to the operator’s hands will be long or short, as the production demands. Control of the figure is more or less positive according to the length of string – the longer the weaker and therefore the softer the movement. A string puppet version of Sleeping Beauty from Moscow featured puppets with strings less than a metre long, operated in a booth stage that framed the head and hands of the puppeteer as well as the characters. There are also productions with figures on strings three metres long.

All puppets are difficult to operate well but (arguably) the string puppet is the most difficult to operate convincingly. The level of technical skill to which a puppeteer aspires is generally a personal matter: few attempt to equal the Chinese marionettist severely trained from youth, whose dexterity, born of many hours’ exercises in stretching and flexing, is simply phenomenal. There are some excellent western marionettists too, usually self-taught and self-motivated, schooled in apprenticeships and by long practice.

The marionette, string or rod, will surely remain the puppet of choice for large numbers of puppeteers all over the world.

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Penny Francis is writing a book for theatre-makers and theatregoers wishing to get a handle on puppetry, now that they are coming across it so often. This is an edited extract.

Top image: DRAK rod marionettes (from Zlatovlaska 1981)

Middle image: The Rod and The String – Nevsky Prospekt

Bottom image: 18th century Punch as a rod marionette (from G.V. Speaight's History of the English Puppet Theatre)

 

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