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The Decanter: Puppets

A global history

From the wife-beating antics of Britain’s Punch and Judy to North America’s Robaxacet ads to the glasslike shadow figures of southern India, puppets have a global presence. Unlike the theatre, puppets can be simple and their rewards instantaneous: slide an arm into a sock, and suddenly you are endowed with a second voice, a persona at once you and not you at all. This issue’s Decanter examines how this underestimated art form has brought entertainment and subversive power to adults and children alike.


Japanese puppetry, or bunraku, is considered a sophisticated theatre for adults, held in the same esteem as No- or kabuki drama. Traditional bunraku performances feature half-life-size puppets, emotional tales of love and honour chanted by a narrator and the music of a three-stringed lute known as a samisen. Three expert puppeteers (traditionally men of the same family) control a single figure to create subtle nuances: hand and leg gestures, even rolls of the eyes. Bunraku began in Osaka in the seventeenth century; unlike the spare, aristocratic No- theatre, it appealed primarily to the merchant class due to its focus on contemporary life. Perhaps because of this trait, Japanese puppet theatre has been able to evolve and adapt to modern realities. Since the 1970s, puppeteers from outside bunraku artist families, including women, have been welcomed into troupes. A large puppet theatre built in Osaka in 1984 combines the ancient Japanese notions of art with the latest technology. And the form continues to evolve: an updated version of the 1703 classic The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, for instance, features standard puppets with a rock ’n’ roll score provided by Ryudo Uzaki, the former frontman of the Down Town Fighting Boogie Woogie Band.


Chinese puppet theatre, known as mu’ouxi (“play of wooden dolls”), is at least two thousand years old, and the use of puppets in funerary rites and religious rituals goes back even further. Shadow, rod and hand puppets (techniques vary by region) were used to tell classic stories from Chinese literature and, later on, the sophisticated plots of novels and operas. In Taiwan at the end of the nineteenth century, the puppet theatre of China’s Fujian province began to evolve into a distinct form of glove puppetry. Budaixi, as it is called, soon included Taiwanese stories in local dialects, ornate new costumes and innovative puppets that could jump, turn somersaults and fight. Audiences for traditional puppet theatre may be on the decline, but so-called flashy budaixi (with special effects) has found a new home on the small screen. The Huang puppeteering family has led the way in this new medium: thirty years ago, they created the first puppet television series, an immensely popular show that at one point enjoyed a 90 percent audience share. Today the Huangs own a cable channel and continue to produce original content. In 2000, their all-puppet feature film Legend of the Sacred Stone topped the box office in Taiwan, beating out American imports like Toy Story 2.


The rice fields and streams of the Red River delta produced the “water puppetry” of northern Vietnam, one of the most secluded theatrical traditions in the world. Over its thousand-year history, mua roi nuoc (as it is known in Vietnamese) developed a unique style: a pond or pool is used as the stage and dolls are rigged to an underwater apparatus of poles, rudders and strings, all controlled by puppeteers waist-deep in the pond. The movement of the water accentuates the action of typically mythical tales, splashing during fight scenes and lightly rippling during reflective ones (firecrackers and decapitations have also become standard fare). Puppeteers now wear waders to protect against the rheumatism and leeches that plagued their predecessors.


Marionettes have been popular in Sicily since the fifteenth century, but it was only in the eighteenth century that Sicilians made the opera dei pupi (puppet theatre) their own. Pupi—with their heavy, detailed armour—bring to life the chivalric romances of bygone years, dramatizing dilemmas of faith, love and honour. When Italy was unified in 1861, performing opera dei pupi was discouraged in favour of national arts. By the mid-twentieth century, television, increased literacy and an economic boom had driven the puppet theatre to the verge of extinction. It survived, though, as a form of regional expression, and in 2001 it was designated a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.


The real history of Gallic puppetry began in the mid- seventeenth century when the French adapted the commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella into the humpbacked, hooknosed puppet Polichinelle. Unsurprisingly, the French version was far shrewder than its Italian originator, losing the latter’s blundering doltishness and emphasizing instead his scathing wit. Perhaps the most famous French puppet, though, is a completely homegrown creation. In the early nineteenth century, a travelling peddler and tooth-puller in Lyon invented the puppet character Guignol, an outspoken social critic who gave a voice to the canuts, or silk workers, of the Lyon region. Guignol faced some dark days: censorship was rampant, and by 1852 the French government had banned improvisation and demanded that all theatrical scripts be committed to paper. But Guignol lived on and his name is now commonly used to describe any puppet that offers insubordinate observations. Les Guignols de l’info, a ten-minute segment on Canal+’s nightly news, pokes fun at current events using puppets that resemble famous people (like George W. Bush and Johnny Hallyday).


The magic of the subversive puppet—at once innocent and full of unexpected power—can be summed up in one word: Punch. With his red, hooked nose and boorish contempt for everyone and everything, Punch has survived centuries of social and cultural change and still provides entertainment to crowds on sidewalks, at Covent Garden and on seaside piers. Like France’s Polichinelle, Punch is a descendant of commedia dell’arte’s Pulcinella, a character that became popular in England during the Restoration period, when Italian marionette troupes followed Charles II across the Channel. Punch voiced the concerns of the common people and broke every conceivable rule, both social and official. He was, as George Speiaght reports in his book Punch and Judy: A History, “the simpleton who could answer back to Bishop and King, the fool with the license to poke fun at anyone.” Punch survived competition from other forms of puppetry by keeping his vitriol up-to-date and by lending his name to the irreverent Punch magazine. Following in Punch’s footsteps, the TV show Spitting Image (1984-96) lambasted politicians using latex caricatures of, among others, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the Queen Mother. The show inspired countless headlines as well as international spinoffs like DC Follies.


The earliest evidence of American puppets is the Hopi tribe’s Palu lakonti—“the Great Serpent drama”—in which corn maids and giant snakes were sometimes manipulated with strings. Centuries later, puppetry reached its largest audience ever when Jim Henson combined modern broadcasting techniques with traditional puppet forms to create revolutionary new acts like The Muppet Show and Sesame Street.

In recent years, subversive puppetry has flourished in North America. San Francisco’s House O’Chicks sells vulva puppets, Comedy Central’s series Crank Yankers marries foul-mouthed, Muppetesque figures with the voices of famous comedians, and the film Being John Malkovich examines the psychology of control innate to puppetry. Companies like Montreal’s Théâtre de l’Œil are committed to advancements in the form, and Ronnie Burkett’s provocative marionette shows Happy and Provenance are consistently popular (the latter recently broke the record for advance sales at Toronto’s CanStage theatre, a record previously held by Angels in America). Radical groups such as Bread & Puppet and Art & Revolution Convergence use giant dummies to give street protests more impact (in an open acknowledgement of these puppets’ power, colossal dolls and other such props were banned during the inauguration of President George W. Bush). The newest range of Canadian puppets has a harder edge: lo-fi Ed the Sock, courtesy of MuchMusic, displays a grouchy losing attitude and the Comedy Network’s Puppets Who Kill features felonious puppets trapped in a halfway house.

However, the crudest and wittiest puppet today is Triumph the Comic Insult Dog (who appears on Late Night with Conan O’Brien). With its jaws firmly locked on the American Zeitgeist, this cheap plastic hand puppet savages showbiz celebrities, a cigar and irreverent catchphrase always on the tip of its muzzle. As even a lifeless hand puppet knows, contemporary America offers no end of issues and policies to poop on.