“No performer can be quite as versatile as a Puppet – for a Puppet can even change his head; can have three separate selves, and all these can, if needs be, appear on the scene at once. . . And I want the Actor to realise that in the Puppet he has the dearest of old comrades, and not a hated enemy, or a competitor.” – Edward Gordon Craig

Small, large, shadow, and metaphorical puppets appear throughout our production. Different forms of puppetry from around the world has inspired our variety of puppet shows. A brief history has been compiled on British Puppetry, Bunraku (Japan), and Shadow Puppets.


Puppetry in Britain

A sketch of Punch and Judy before photography

In Europe, troupes traveled and performed in streets and other places where people passing by could become spectators. Admission fees and specified performance locations developed during the 1850s. Puppet plays expanded alongside industries and cities and were a popular form of entertainment from 1860 through the first World War. Many forms of puppetry probably had origins in Carnival. Generally, “puppeteers perceived themselves as bringers of culture as well as entertainers, and their cultural values were those of the bourgeoisie” (McCormick and Pratasik 23). However, most puppeteers went into the field for extra money and were not financially well off.[i] They would attempt to speak the same dialects and pronunciations as the “cultured” classes as well as withhold vulgarity from main shows. Most European shows were religious, folkloric, satirical (comedic), heroic, and sometimes historical.

Two popular forms of puppetry in Britain developed: Marionettes and glove puppets, specifically Punch and Judy. The differences between these two forms are that “the marionette, operated by strings from above, is graceful and amusing, whereas the glove puppet on the hand moves only from the waist upwards and is aggressive and ungainly. The glove puppet is most successful in fights and chases” (Leach 18). Marionette puppets were stock characters with specific costume and recognizable facial features. Supernatural puppets such as the devil, fairies, and witches were common in shows, and one to two animals were almost necessary to have for every company. Companies publicized the high artistic quality of marionettes, however “a puppet is a figure t

Marionettes from The Little Pirate Mermaid

hrough which a showman can communicate with an audience” (McCormick and Pratasik127). Realism in theatre was hotly debated during the early 1800s, and Marionette theatre played realism in the 1860s by imitating scenes from real life and amaze audiences through accuracy and the realistic appearance of puppetry through illusion. This suspension of disbelief and acceptance of puppetry as a form of reality had faded by 1900. Marionette puppets were promoted and perceived as actors and were advertised as ‘life-sized’ which was not literal but metaphoric for being lifelike.[ii]  The puppet became “the ideal theatrical figure” with the avant-garde movement which embraced (and returned to) the idea that theatre should show theatrical elements, not hide them behind a deceptive idea of “reality.” Marionettes were especially popular during the Victorian era and appeared at fairgrounds. Though fairs only lasted one to three days in a location, many locations would have a fair on different days and so theatres could travel from fair to fair to profit.

The Victorians also embraced hand puppets as a form of theatre, especially the Punch and Judy show. The earliest known glove puppet in Britain appears in the fourteenth century. Literature through the seventeenth century references puppetry often enough to believe that it was a popular form of entertainment. Punch and Judy became a popular show during the eighteenth century as the upper and lower class were growing further apart economically. Punch had existed beforehand, but was a minor character provided for comic relief in shows. Punch became known for his puns and fights with the devil, which was often the play’s climatic moment. The show was played for

Punch and Crocodile

“the lower class experience in life” (Leach 29). Shows also included ropes and hangings as public executions were introduced as form of practice and even entertainment. Punch was egotistic and defiant of authority. He reflected a growing concept of individualism amongst the poor, especially throughout the industrial age. Judy was Punch’s constrictive wife, as marriage was viewed as a means of social control. Punch would often kill Judy with a stick (he beat everything with a stick) to free himself from her and society’s clutches, however she sometimes returned as a ghost to haunt him. Other characters were regularly included in the show, such as a crocodile. Punch and Judy was later embraced by the middle class as early as 1850. The show shifted, becoming less crude to appeal more toward better classes and eventually suitable for children. The first script for children to perform puppet shows was published in 1853, which included some Punch and Judy scenes. By 1950, Punch and Judy was booked for children’s parties, Punch and Judy had shifted from being for adults to being for children over a 200 year period.

Throughout Britain, educators began to believe that puppets in general provided opportunities for children to create art, express themselves, and stimulate their overall learning and understanding of the world. By the 1930s, puppet-making was a popular activity in schools in England (Harrap 266). There has been, and continues to be, a struggle for professional puppeteers to have permanent residence and respect as valuable artists. While children’s expression and enjoyment of puppets is valued, puppeteers wish adults to appreciate puppetry as more than just child’s play. Below are a few links that demonstrate British puppet shows:

Punch and Judy short clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyLsO6LpLSI

Punch and Judy show that even includes a crocodile:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6LmZ0A1s9U

Marionette Theatre presenting Faust: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjBOvFuNGGM

Punch and Judy performing


Bunraku Theatre

A Bunraku show

Bunraku is a specific genre of Japanese puppet theatre most commonly known around the world. General puppet theatre in Japan began around the 9th century and are known as either ningyo shibai (doll theatre) and ayatsuri shibai (manipulation theatre). Puppeteer handlers were historically foreigners and hinin (outcasts) in Japanese culture. They used a puppet with one hand not unlike the Punch and Judy style. Satsuma Jo-un, a Joruri chanter (one who tells a story through song while the action of the story occurs onstage) “recognized in the puppets their capability of performing the humanly impossible and fantastic actions” (Bowers 32).  Satsuma founded Kimpiri joruri, a specific joruri that chants for puppet shows. In 1685 three men, a joruri, playwright, and puppeteer, joined together to create what is essentially Bunraku today. Bunraku puppet handling became more sophisticated through time. By 1730 puppet eyes and eyebrows moved, and within four years fingers moved, stomachs swelled, and another puppeteer was assigned to move the left foot (Bowers 33-34). Bunraku puppets became about one-third the size of a human, and are operated by three handlers. They were so popular mid-eighteenth century that Kabuki actors modeled their movements and actions from the puppets. In 1909, the Shochiku Company owned Bunraku productions and controlled the major puppet performances in Japan as other forms faded away. The company transitioned into motion pictures, and in 1963 management of Bunraku was taken away from them. The Japanese government, Osaka prefectural government, and the Japan Broadcasting Corporation worked together to form the Bunraku Association to manage this theatrical style.

Bunraku playwrights are able to focus on poetry in the language as there is only one narrator for the story, and stories are typically modeled well known literary works. The three puppet handlers are broken down by operating the legs, the left arm, and the chief puppeteer who operates the head and right arm. Puppeteers traditionally all dressed in black and wore hoods, however as certain puppet masters became well known, audiences demanded that skillful individual performers be seen. The chief puppeteer therefore lefts his face be exposed for recognition. Apprentice Bunraku puppeteers train under their master, first by studying performances for one to two years. They then can take part in a performance operating a tsume (a puppet without legs whose character has a minor role). Apprentices then move up to operate the legs of a puppet, and anywhere from three to ten years later may progress to controlling the left-arm. A single tayu (narrator) and musician perform at the right side of the stage, though some scenes use multiple musicians. People will work backstage in Bunraku theatre as well, such as a as wig master, head repairer, costume director, and other specialized positions. Barbara C. Adachi explains the inner workings of Bunraku as:

“Bunraku might be described as the ‘art of threes’: the spellbinding ordination of the three puppeteers manipulating one doll, the unity achieved by the three independent elements–puppet, narrator, and musician–and the intersection lines of communication established between puppeteer and narrator, narrator and musician, musician and puppet, as well as between and among the trios of puppeteers. This interlocking and continual shifting of artistic triangles formed by words, music, and movement continues to fascinate, puzzle, and intrigue theatregoers” (11). Here are two videos that give a sense of Bunraku style and complexity:



Shadow Puppets

Shadow Puppets appear throughout the world but are most often associated with India and Indonesia. Stories are performed with intricately designed puppets behind a screen. The puppets are usually flat and made by leather, but might be made of wood or paper. The stage is backlit with oil lamps to create a shadow. Indonesian shadow puppet theater is called Wayang Kulit. In the Java region, Wayang translates to shadow, imagination, and can be associated with “spirit.” Kulit means skin and refers to the buffalo leather used. Shows have musical accompaniment, known as a gamelan orchestra.

Wayang Kulit

Thailand’s Nang Talung emerged around the 17th or 18th century and recreates folk tales and the Hindu epic story Ramayana. Shadow puppets are considered living creatures, taken seriously, and treated with respect. Chinese shadow puppetry, pi ying (shadow of hides), was popular circa mid 1st century and early 2nd century. Politics were a popular show theme during this time. A Chinese shadow puppet group only consists of five members: a puppet controller, fiddle player, percussion player,  one who plays three instruments, and a singer who assumes all characters in the puppet show and plays several other instruments. The puppets’ joints are connected by threads for intricate movement, and each puppet has three threads. The puppeteer may play up to five puppets at once. Shadow Puppets are visible from only one side and always designed from a profile perspective. Their characteristics are exaggerated and overdramatized to make up for their physical limitations.

A Karaghiozis shadow play

Shadow theatre is prevalent in Europe as well. In France, Théâtre d’Ombres, or shadow theater, emerged after missionaries visited China and became fascinated with their shadow puppet plays. Chat Noir, the original cabaret, held many Théâtre d’Ombres productions between 1887-1896. Greece created their own shadow puppet, Karagiozis, from the Turkish form of shadow theatre. Karagiozis is a fictional character from folklore who is a hunchback with a long right arm. He tries to make money through mischievous means because of his poverty, and is usually seen to represent the lower class and rural areas of Greece, though the bourgeois classes appreciate his performances and helped maintain his existence in performance and history. Much of the Middle East as well as Greece performed Karagiozis in cafes as performers and cafe owners had agreements. Musicians and a singer were incorporated into these cafe shows as well. Karagiozis were traditionally pure black and white shadow plays, but certain cloths and materials were added in so that the shows displayed some colors.

Below are a examples of shadow plays in action:

Wayang Kulit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMRHi2WVoZQ

Wayang Kulit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paxXt7iSvkc

Théâtre d’Ombre Peter and the Wolf: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XoxDOC9VHI

Théâtre d’Ombres The Circus Has Arrived: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPTnLM3vs3w

Karagiozis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEdUTyTwvX8

Karagiozis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wydcyXHHebE

Works Cited

McCormick, John and Bennie Pratasik. Popular Puppet Theatre in Europe, 1800-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

For a complete bibliography, click here or visit the Further Readings, Activities, and Bibliography page.

[i] This finding  aligns well with the Darling family: one of the reasons that a dog is the Darling children’s nurse and why Mr. Darling continually fusses about children and money is that the Darlings try and live a middle-class life without quite having enough financial support needed for the lifestyle.

[ii] Think about Pinocchio, an 1883 novel for children about a puppet who wants to become a real boy. The novel is by an Italian author, and though Italy’s puppet theatre is not covered on this page, Italian puppet shows contain a rich history and have inspired European forms of puppets such as marionettes.


One thought on “Puppetry

  1. […] Puppets are one of the many visually stunning elements in the show. I have compiled a brief history of Britain’s puppet theatre as well as puppet styles from around the world that may have influenced the puppets in our show. Links to YouTube videos that demonstrate the charm, complexity, and variety of puppet shows are included, an an interactive game may soon appear. Click here to check the page out! […]

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