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A New Age for Puppets
In another of our series of articles investigating the history of puppetry practice, Penny Francis tackles the Modernists 

In the last decade of the nineteenth century an artistic current sprang up which introduced revolutionary ideas to all the arts. The current was christened ‘Modernism’ and was in essence a rejection of the naturalism and realism which had taken over the European theatre and fine arts. The rebels believed that Art is not about the imitation of the real and the natural but a transformed vision, a personal interpretation, of nature and the world.

Modernism gave birth to a large number of artistic movements with differing manifestos but a similar driving force: the individual’s search for an original poetic or transgressive form of expression. Symbolism, Surrealism, Futurism, Expressionism, Dadaism and several other ‘isms’ laid the foundations for an era in which puppetry was embraced and endowed with a newly conceived alternative language and an aesthetics based in the visual arts, in the symbolic and the metaphoric, the surreal and the spiritual, the grotesque, the sub- and the super-human. The language has lasted until the present and seems likely to endure.

We know that since the early nineteenth century some notable artists, most of them writers such as Heinrich von Kleist and George Sand, had been captured by the idea of a theatre with puppets, but in the Modernist river with its many tributaries, a far greater number of them, now including painters and theatre-makers, rated the essential artificiality of puppets as the perfect repository of the kinetic in art and of an other-worldly expressiveness in performance. The first tributary of the movement to embrace puppetry – and vice versa - was Symbolism, whose principal luminaries included Federico García Lorca, as much a devotee of puppetry as Maurice Sand half a century before him. Other writers like the Irish W. B. Yeats, the Pole Stanislas Wyspianski, the Russian Aleksander Blok, the French Paul Margueritte, the Spanish Jacinto Grau, the Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck were all committed adherents of the puppet. It was for all of them, (as Edward Gordon Craig most forcefully expressed it) the ideal of a de-personalised actor, not simply an artefact in motion.  Pierre-Albert Birot (1877-1967) dreamed of a cardboard actor who though not a person, was still ‘magnificently’ human; one who would not act but be the character. He too wrote several pieces for puppets, as did the Austrian painter and playwright Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980).

The fact remains that for all their fascination with the idea of puppets as protagonists not many of the theatre producers actually used them in performance, even if the writer had stated that the work was conceived for them. The plays of Maeterlinck and Lorca, many explicitly dedicated to puppets, for instance La Mort de Tintagiles (The Death of Tintagiles,1894), and The Curse of the Butterfly (El Maleficio de la Mariposa,1920), were rarely interpreted by manufactured figures, although there is no doubt that, like Edward Gordon Craig, (one of the movement’s mainsprings, but impossible to label a ‘symbolist’) they wished the human performers to look and behave as much like puppets as possible, shedding the self-consciousness and intrusive emotion and gesticulation of the live actor.

Jarry’s eternal Ubu, the quintessential tyrant, was conceived as a puppet, but was first presented to a paying public in Paris in 1896 by human players, when it was met with derision. Shortly afterwards Ubu was re-staged as a puppet. Since Jarry’s schoolboy creation of him and the play’s first electrifying production Ubu has become one of the classic characters of puppet and mask theatre, alongside Faust and Don Juan.

Performed by humans, the plays typical of the Symbolist movement were never popular successes. They were apt to be static, filled with brooding atmosphere but little action, for example Maeterlinck’s L’Intruse (The Intruder, 1890). Lorca’s Curse of the Butterfly (his first to be staged, presented in Madrid in 1910) would arguably have been more successful if actually played by puppets, as the poet and even the producer of the latter originally intended. Played by actors the piece was booed, like Ubu Roi, and taken off after only one performance.

The Modernist theatre-makers were united in their impatience with contemporary actors and their inability to shed their own personality in the service of a character or a mise en scène. They declared themselves enchanted with the scenographic potential of the de-personalised performer – i.e. the puppet – which could symbolise humanity and the human condition. From the end of the ’90s to the 1920s the actors were considered to be mired in a style unsuited to the interpretation of the hieratic and metaphorical themes of the modernist playwrights. Maurice Bouchor, a French writer of the Symbolist school, who wroteseveral neo-mystery plays for marionettes, (actually performed by puppets in Henri Signoret’s ‘Petit-Théâtre’ in Paris, in the 1890s) said the personality of the actor, too real and too familiar, destroys all impression of the supernatural.

Many of the modernist artists envisioned theatre as a work of visual art in motion. Almost none was a puppet performer or designer, with a few honourable exceptions such as Lorca (a performer) and Otto Morach (an artist/designer). A few shows were indeed played by puppets, like Falla’s musical setting of an episode from Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote de La Mancha, known as Master Peter’s Puppet Show (El Retablo de Maese Pedro). The production waspresented in Paris in 1927 with puppets and scenery designed by Morach, famous for this and another piece of music and puppet theatre, Debussy’s Box of Toys (La Boîte à Joujoux). A remarkable number of the artists of the period were either German-Swiss or had many productions given in Switzerland, where the cultural climate was freer than in many other European countries, the Swiss being neutral in World War I. Jurkowski in Volume Two of his magnificent History of the European Puppet Theatre writes of his discovery of diagrams for an ingenious circular puppet stage designed by a member of the Bauhaus, Ilse Fehling, patented and described in detail. It consists of a sectioned portion which held and hid the puppeteers in the centre of a revolving stage. It sounds superbly impractical and has never been tried, as far as history tells. There is even a small number of puppets by Picasso himself in the Fribourg Museum – does anyone know whether they ever appeared in a performance? Picasso was closely involved with the shadow puppetry of the Barcelona cabaret the Quatre Gats, and his designs for the early productions of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo were nothing if not puppetesque.

An important and lively introduction to the new age dawning for the arts at the end of the 19th century were the cabarets. They existed all through Europe, as a late-night watering hole for artists and their friends, many of the former amateur producers giving short dramatic and musical interludes to an audience of their peers in the intimacy of their dark spaces. The conditions for performances of shadow and silhouette theatre were perfect in these intimate surroundings, and they became the breeding grounds for the genre which very soon became fashionable, as Harold Segel writes in Pinocchio’s Progeny:

‘The spectacular popularity of the shadow show at the turn of the century, above all among serious artists, cannot be explained merely by longstanding European interest in the form… The impact of this “rediscovered” or newly discovered world of Oriental art on an emerging European modernism was formidable. Symbolist metaphysicality also responded felicitously to the incorporeality, suggestiveness, and mysteriousness of projected shadow figures… Arguably the greatest single stimulus to the popularity of shadow shows in turn-of-the-century Europe was the extraordinary level of production achieved at the Chat Noir cabaret in Paris. Although virtually every form of cabaret entertainment was offered at the Chat Noir in its long history, chansons by popular singers and shadow shows soon became the greatest draw. The idea of introducing ombres chinoises at the cabaret originated with the artist Henri Rivière, to whom the founder and proprietor, Rodolphe Salis, had entrusted the production of the first puppet show.’

From the initial simple use of silhouettes made of cardboard to illustrate songs and stories the shadows became ever more ingenious in their construction and capability of expression, and the repertory more ambitious. Its success – for an artistic élite usually – initiated a mushrooming of similar cabarets Europe-wide, from Catalonia to Russia, and soon spreading across the Atlantic.

The recently published book  American Puppet Modernism by John Bell has revealed much that is new (at least to me) about puppetry’s development in the United States. The book – which is highly recommended – recounts in some detail the surge of ‘art theatres’, non-commercial ventures, including the cabarets, in the United States from the end of the nineteenth century. Europe provided the inspiration for their ‘Little Theatre’ movement’, which… provided an openness to the possibilities of alternative forms of performance in the name of artistic innovation [that] allowed America’s little theatres to explore masks, puppets, dance and other aspects of nonrealistic theatre traditions with relative ease. American theatre was ripe for a reaction against the sterile domination of the naturalist aesthetic and in particular the pursuit of commercial success. The movement took inspiration from a few imported productions from Europe and courage from the bearers of ideas. Among them were Lorca in New York and Argentina, E.G. Craig, also in New York where he organised a distribution of his writings himself. W.B. Yeats arrived with productions of the Abbey Theatre from Dublin, rapturously received. From Germany came the Englishman Maurice Browne who had been galvanised by the puppet productions of Paul Brann in Munich. He returned to the States to found the Chicago Little Theatre in 1911, the first of a number of theatres of the ‘Little Theatre movement’, all dedicated to revitalising theatre, mirroring the modernist objectives in Europe. Bell sums it up very well:

‘…[They] pursued aesthetics antithetical to realism: the rediscovery, invention or appropriation of symbolic theatre languages that three centuries of mainstream European traditions had shunned as primitive. These languages included poetic text and gesture, but also puppet, mask and object traditions that typically characterized contemporary low-culture European performance as well as such historic traditions as commedia dell’arte, medieval theatre, and Greek drama.’
(Bell p55 et seq.)

It occurs to me that the theatre-going public of the 21st century, now well accustomed to productions of a visual, musical, object-centred theatre for all ages, some of which have become huge popular successes (Lion King, War Horse, Avenue Q), would be far more appreciative of the plays written in the Modernist era, roughly the first thirty years of the 1900s, and would embrace imaginatively staged interpretations performed with puppets. Perhaps stronger collaborations with writers sympathetic to the particular demands of the medium are now due. Gren and Juliet Middleton of the Movingstage Marionette company have had much success with productions by Howard Barker and Wendy Cope, for example, as has John Roberts of Puppetcraft with Adrian Mitchell, and I am sure that a quantity of poets and playwrights would enjoy the challenge of creation in collaboration with producing companies using animated figures and objects – especially original work for an adult audience.

Perhaps readers of Animations who are also producers of visual theatre might be inspired to read some of these little-known works which are listed and well described in two excellent books: Pinocchio’s Progeny by Harold Segel (Johns Hopkins University Press, USA and London,1995) and (in French) Ecrivains et Marionnettes: Quatre Siecles de Litterature Dramatique (Writers and Puppets: Four Centuries of Dramatic Literature (Editions Institut International de la Marionnette, France 1991). Segel outlines a number of the stories and even the productions, and his descriptions make me want to see them staged, given the growth of producing talent involved in puppetry in the last twenty years.

Images at top, left to right:

Image 1: Jarry’s illustration for Pere Ubu in Ubu Roi

Images 2 & 3: Picasso’s designs for La Parade

Image 4: Poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca


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