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History of Marionettes

From Puppet Production in the Middle Ages to Baroque Marionettes
The majority of historians divide the history of the Czech puppet theatre into three main phases of development:


the phase of the traditional folk marionettes or, more precisely itinerant puppet players, beginning in the last quarter of the 18th century and finishing at the end of the 19th century

the phase of amateur puppeteers in the 1st half of the 20th century

the phase of the modern professional puppet theatre, meaning, in this country, the period after 1948


This division into periods isn`t completely straightforward and is to a certain degree even unsystematic. After all, itinerant marionette players were active in this country until the 50s of this century, the activities of the amateur puppeteers covers all three of these phases and the same is true of professional forms of puppet theatre.

The basic principle behind this schema of periods however can be justified as in each given phase of development precisely these ways of performing Czech puppet theatre undeniably determined its form and above all provided the decisive impetus for its further development. If we return to the second half of the 18th century, where the majority of historians locate the beginning of Czech puppetry, we must stress that it is in essence the beginning of the continuous and related development of Czech theatre, corresponding in its basic features, form, organizations and function to our modern understanding of theatrical system. This doesn`t mean of course that puppets and puppet theatre (or occasionally only elements of it) were not presented in this part of Europe before that time. A simple lack of historical material however prevents us from answering the question when puppets and puppet theatre first appeared in this country. They very probably date back to the oldest times.

We can however only make guesses about the development in these early ages and by analogy with the signs of development in other European countries we can assume that puppets or moving figures were already appearing at cultural rites, religious ceremonies, and folk customs, where they originally had a magical and symbolical role. We may suppose that the process of development, as reconstructed by researchers from comparisons of iconography, linguistic, ethnographic and other materials, evidently moved from puppet statues conceived as material artefacts appertaining to these rites, to theatrical puppets which, enlivened by movement or sound, started to present active subjects and which thereby led to the creation of the puppet theatre as a specific type of stage art.

The increasing availability of evidence on the development of puppet plays, the variety of forms in medieval Europe and their gradual expansions the through south, west and central Europe on to the east, gives us a concrete conception of how puppet theatre was presented in the Czech land. Puppets, or to be more precise puppets manipulated from below, mainly appeared in improvised entertainment by traveling comedians at markets, but were also seen at the houses of the nobility and the court. The oldest Czech picture featuring a puppet dates from 1590. It shows Lutheran preacher Maxmilian Biber of Halle, arrested in 1558 in the surroundings of Vienna for unauthorized religious agitation, disguising his secret ostensory in the form of a puppet. In the Czech translation the puppet is called a "buffoon" and "fool`s hand-puppet", which cannot however understand to be a description of the puppet type. Some researchers have supposed that it is a marionette, although this type of puppet had not at that time appeared on Czech territory. We may conjecture that it is probably a type of puppet "á la planchette" (figures moved by pulling and releasing two horizontally held strings), widespread in Europe as early as the 12th century. The preacher Biber used this type of puppet as a hiding place for his ostensory precisely because the puppet in question was at that time sufficiently widespread in the catholic countries of the Austrian monarchy. The other branch of medieval puppet production was originally related to the presentation of religious scenes - bible plays and mysteries. During the 14th to 16th centuries several forms of mechanical puppet theatre developed, in which these scenes, originally shown in church spaces, were presented.

The first marionettes - puppets manipulated from above by strings - began to appear here half way through the 17th century, not long after they had spread through Italy, and via Italian puppeteers to England. At this time, after the end of the thirty year`s war, an enormous flood of foreign theatre companies of the most various persuasions came to central Europe. They were mainly professional acting troupes (one branch coming from England, Holland and later especially from Germany, the other branch from Italy and Austria), who also introduced marionettes here as an entirely new type of puppet. It was the leaders of these groups who realized that, of all the forms of puppet known to them, it was precisely marionettes which, with their shape and style of animation most closely approximated the performance of a human actor and could to a certain degree replace him. With the spread of marionette theatre and its growing popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries came a corresponding decline and demise of a range of the earlier forms, although we must realize that the various productions of this period covered a wide variety indeed of different forms, in which the manipulation of material objects was predominant.

At the one end of this spectrum were spectacles which were distinctively creative in characters - panoramas, peep-shows, magic lanterns - and which, by virtue of their emphasis on visual impression constitute a borderline type of theatrical activity. Marionette theatre relatively quickly gained a leading position among the other puppet forms of the time, not only due to its greater relation to non-puppet styles of theatre, but especially because of the previously unwitnessed degree to which the puppet itself became the dramatic subject of theatrical events.

Author: Alice Dubská, Czech Puppet Theatre Over the Centuries

 


Czech Puppets Over the Centuries
Czech puppeteering has achieved this significant status for a number of reasons. First and foremost there is still a widespread, although by no means completely historically accurate, conception of the role played by Czech puppeteers in the period of the national revival, that exceptional process, at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, whereby the modern Czech nation was formed, and the leading forces of the nation combined to fight against the gradual decline of the Czech language and to give rise to a new national self-confidence within Czech society.

The amateur puppet movement, widespread in the first half of the 20th century, also evokes feelings of considerable respect and, after the period of the folk puppeteers in the 19th century, forms the second critical phase in the history of the development of Czech puppetry. At that time there wasn`t a city, town or even village in the Czech lands where amateur puppet players didn`t play puppet theatre for fun, and the entertainment and aesthetic education of their children. With their enthusiasm and self-sacrifice they only constituted a unique phenomenon in the puppet world of the time, the range of their activities having no match in Europe, but they also created a fertile enviroment for the creative development of such eminent artistic personalities as Josef Skupa and Jiøí Trnka.

To these historical associations in the general consciousness we can also add the fact that, after a complicated development in the 20th century, contemporary Czech puppet theatre has now reached a momentous stage in its development. The dream and the goal which generations of Czech puppeteers fought for has at last become a reality: On the basis of its artistic achievements, puppet theatre has fought its way up to take an equal standing alongside the other theatrical arts. Not only is its relevance to society completely accepted, but so are the unique possibilities of achieving artistic affects which arise from the expressive qualities of the marionettes themselves.

We can say without fear of exaggeration that contemporary Czech puppet theatre plays a significant role in Czech theatre culture as well as in the context of world puppeteering, and that the work of its leading protagonists is playing a leading role in determining how puppet theatre will progress and develop. At the same time it is contributing to the development of modern theatre culture as a whole.

Author: Alice Dubská, Czech Puppets Over the Centuries
The International Institute of Puppet Arts in Prague

 


Czech Country Folk Puppeteers
In the second half of the 18th century theatre practitioners of the most varying types were still touring the Czech lands, and a still plentiful number of puppeteers among them. Their paths took two main routes: One led from Saxony through Teplice to Prague on to Moravia and from there to Hungary or Transylvania, the other went from Italy and Austria to Bratislava or straight through Moravia to Bohemia or Poland. Czech names are however beginning to appear in the official applications for permits to perform puppet productions, and despite an insufficiency or historical evidence we can assume that from the 70s of that century the first Czech performing puppeteers appeared in this country. We may consider the oldest known Czech puppeteers to be he predecessors of Jan Václav Bitter from Melník and Matej Vavrouš from Habry na Cáslavsku, whose fathers, according to the statement in their permit application, made a living from puppet theatre. The oldest recorded Czech puppeteer is Jan Brát (or Brath, Prath, Bráda) from Náchod. The news of them comes from Memoirs of The Holy Parish of Studnicná. According to him the son of the local carpenter carved puppets, built himself a stage, practiced playing with the puppets in the local pub and then went his puppets into the world. We have documents from Litomerice, Teplice, Bílina, Tábor, Jind?ich?v Hradec and Brno, which record his puppeteering activities in the years 1775-1802.

In the 80s of the 18th century the first puppeteers of the later famous puppeteer dynasties appeared: The Miessners (also Maizner) Kockas, Finks, Maleceks, Dubskýs, Kludskýs, Vída etc. We first encounter the name of Jan Kopecký in 1779. He was the founder of one of the most famous of the puppeteering lines, whose direct descendants are engaged in puppet theatre even today.

The puppeteer`s most prized possessions were his puppets. Most of them were carved from lime wood, were constructed simply (head and knees attached by joints, arms loosely fastened), they were on average 70cm tall (later even more), suspended on wires and controlled by a simple beam. They were created in the majority of cases by professional wood-carvers - often the authors of sacral church statues and this is where the majority of the older puppets acquired the expressive features of baroque carving. The greatest attention was paid to the head and the face of the puppet. The carvers tried to achieve a convincing characterization and delineation of separate types. At the same time they took pains for the expression to be neutral: the majority of the puppets had a serious concentrated expression - it was the puppeteer´s job as an actor to make them express emotional states. In the 19th century a number of wood achieved a remarkable level of creativity and quality. Two of the most significant from the beginning of the 19th century were Mikuláš Sychrovský (1802-81) from the southern Czech town of Mirotice and Antonín Sucharda (1812-86) from Nová Paka. Outstanding personalities from the second half of the 19th century were particularly the carvers Antonín Sucharda Jr., Josef Alessi, Vojtech Šedivý, Johann Flachs, Jindrich Adámek, and Josef Chochol.

Author: Alice Dubská, Czech Puppet Theatre Over the Centuries

 


In the Second Quarter of the 19th Century
There were more then 200 puppeteers working in the territory of the Czech lands. For more some it was just a means of making a living, while others formed a deeper relation to the profession and the lifestyle which went with it. For the most part they were members of larger dispersed families, in which the father successively handed his successors not only equipment and experience but also a strong passion for puppets. The important puppeteering family of the Maizners, who were all dedicated to puppet theatre in a direct line until the 60s of this century, worked mostly in the east of Bohemia. They were puppeteers with a high level of self-confidence, link to tradition and patriotic sympathies. It is thanks to them that some of the very oldest puppet scripts have survived along with a collection of very valuable puppets from the workshop woodcarving family of the Suchardas. The most important member of another puppet family, mostly operating in central Bohemia was František Vinický (1797-1854). His activities earned him esteem from all side, and in 1836 he was the only puppeteer to be officially invited to perform at the folk celebrations during the coronation of Ferdinand V. Clearly the most noteworthy personality of the first half of the 19th century was Matej Kopecký (1775-1847). He grew up in Mirotice in southern Bohemia from where he se out with his father Jan on a puppet tour of southern Bohemia Although only receiving a slight education, he had a unique opportunity to absorb the years of experience acquired by the puppeteers of that day. He received his first licence in 1797, but soon after was conscripted to the Austrian army and made to fight in the Napoleonic wars. After leaving the army, he tried to make a living as a shopkeeper, road-mender, and watch-maker before returning to puppetry for good in 1820. He was 45 years old, he had no property, and of the 14 children born to him 8 had died at a young age. He was however a mature personality, who was not broken by the extremely tough conditions of his life, as is shown by the degree to which he established himself. His sons played puppet theatre firstly by his side and later by themselves: Jan (1804-52), Josef (1807-56), Václav (1815-71) and Antonín (1821-85). Although a thousand of spectators saw Matej Kopecký´s puppet shows, although his activity fell into the period of the national revival, in which theatre played such a significant role, despite the way that he played and the way his playing was accepted by the public, only a handful of second-hand reminiscences remain of him. For the executive section of the Czech patriotic intelligencia, who dreamed of theatre as a cathedral of art representing national advancement, puppet theatre played by poor wandering puppeteers wasn´t of great interest. Interest in Matej Kopecký only started to grow after his death. In 1851 Karel Roth in Lumír wrote: "Especially old Kopecký, recently deceased, stood out above all of his colleagues with his great sense of justice and immense high-spirit". Indeed only from later acclaim can we presume that he was among the leading figures of Czech puppetry, as he himself signified, and although we doubt his claim that he was on familiar terms with leading revivalists J. Dobrovský and V. Thám, it follows from the claim, that he at least associated himself with the basic currents of thought of his age. The enduring popularity of "old Kopecký" across a wide section of society was later reinforced by a two volume edition of Comedies and Plays of Matej Kopecký composed by his son Václav in 1862 (unfortunately the documentary value of this first edition of a broad selection of Czech plays was impeached by the work of the editors in Vilímek publishing house.) The growing cult of Matej Kopecký was also supported by the drawings of artist Mikoláš Aleš, a native of Mirotice, who also apparently created a fictitious portrait of Kopecký in the likeness of his son Václav. The legend of Matej grew, and invention and myth soon outweighed the concrete facts. By the end of the century the picture of Matej had been transformed into the image of an heroic puppeteer - a builder of the nation, as suited the uncritical, fervently nationalistic conceptions of the day. Current historians of puppetry think of Kopecký as foremostly a representative of a whole range of Czech puppeteers of the national revival, and his image in the national subconscious as having a mostly symbolic significance. Take away the crutch of the various legends and he encapsulates the significance of the puppeteers of that period who, while working in the Czech countryside which was distinctively influenced by the tradition of baroque culture (artistic, musical, and theatrical), supplied a theatrical form which was harmonious with that tradition. This is true of not only the creation of the puppets and the sets, but the production style, which used the puppets to emphasise the symbolic nature of the theatre. While in the main run of productions Czech puppeteers basically remained faithful to the baroque style, with the rest of their repertoire they managed to gradually make their audience familiar with the theatre of the day, which was promoting the ideas of the enlightenment and the national revival. This significance is not even reduced by the fact that their productions were often inartistic and naive. The death of Matej Kopecký in 1847 effectively brings the most significant phase of Czech folk puppetry of the 19th century to a symbolic close.

By the end of the 19th century the development of Czech folk puppetry gradually came to an end. Its stagnation was distinctly influenced by an overall stylistic change taking place in art and in the theatre. The death of romanticism and the onset of realism, whose main postulates could hardly be satisfied by the puppet theatre, resulted in a decided loss of contact with developments the other theatrical arts.

Author: Alice Dubská, Czech Puppet Theatre over the Centuries


The Amateur Puppeteers
The picture of Czech puppetry at the end of the 19th century would not be complete if we didn´t mention the increasing activity of amateur puppeteers. They tried to take advantage especially of the personally unassuming nature of the puppet theatre for their own theatrical activities as early as the middle of the 19th century. This tendency grew more in the last decades and by the beginning of the 20th century we can talk about movement, which basically launched the phase of modern puppetry, despite the fact that initially the amateurs were totally under the influence of the traditional folk puppeteers. Public amateur activity was precursored by a marked expansion of domestic, so-called family puppet theatres. These were mostly stages of small dimensions, designed for entertainment and theatrical experiment in the circle of family and close friends. If we look at a few cases from nobility who could afford an expensive, professionally prepared puppet theatre, we can confirm that these stages were at first prepared by hand by a range of designers or design oriented dilettantes, who wanted a puppet theatre mostly for the sake of their children. For example in the 30s of the 19th century the puppet of the famous Manes design family originated in this way. Gradually with the help of printed paper decorations, which were brought in from abroad, their popularity started to increase considerably. By the end of the century a family puppet theatre was already a typical feature in the salons of the town houses.

The turn of the century brought a new incentive for development, and was partly the puppeteers themselves who attempted to raise the standard and social prestige of their efforts. In 1902 the Puppet Theatre Club of Patriotic Friends of Dr Pa?ík and the area of T?ebenicko, was born, the soul of which was the puppet enthusiast Alois Rada (1868-1951). In the years 1902-1909 the theatre played not only in Prague, but organised tours around Bohemia of shows which ended with instructional demonstrations for learner puppeteers. A early as 1903, the members of this theatre organised the 1st meeting of friends of puppet theatre (on this occasion they prepared Smetana´s opera The Bartered Bride, in order to demonstrate possibilities of puppet theatre). The following year the second meeting was held in Pilsen. In 1905 puppeteers from Kladno staged the first public competition for puppet plays: its winner was the writer Vojt?ška Baldessari Plumlovská. In 1911 a great puppet exhibition was organised in Prague which proved exceptionally popular with the public. It was one of the first events in Jind?ich Veselý´s (1887-1939) attempts to support the development of puppet theatricals. In the same year, the Czech Association of Friends of Puppet Theatre was founded. One of the many significant things that the association did to support the puppet movement was to publish the magazine ?eský loutká? (Czech puppeteer) (1912-13), which was the first specialized puppet magazine in the world. Jind?ich Veselý became its editor.

Besides Prague, Pilsen became another significant center for puppet activity. There was a puppet theatre in operation here from 1902. The new era of puppetry in Pilsen started in 1913 when the former puppet companies united under the management of a charity association which organised holidays stays for poor children, and embarked on regular activities. The development of "The Summer Camp Puppet Theatre" was significantly influenced by the acceptance of the folk puppeteer Karel Novák (1862-1940), who became an honorary member of the theatre. Together with the members of his family, he mastered the art of manipulating puppets and made use of his positive experience with folk theatre in his excellent professional performances. It was through his co-operation with the amateur members of the group, who exercised their influence through dramaturgy, that the individual profile of the "Campers" started to develop. Designer Josef Skupa (1892-1957) joined this process in 1917, started to realise his ideas on modern puppetry and soon became the group´s leading personality. Skupa believed that puppet theatre could successfully address spectators too. During the final years of the war, when the censor was limiting any form of free expression, Skupa took advantage of the censor´s disinterest in puppet theatre and organised evening performances for adults. The cabaret shows which were shown every evening on the Campers´ stage became a sensation of the highest order for the Czech population due to their political relevance. The theatre´s activity climaxed in the last months of the war when the "revolutionary " Kašpárek, symbolically buried Austrio-Hungary on stage, to the enthusiastic approval of the spectators.

(Author: Alice Dubská, Czech Puppet Theatre over the Centuries)

 





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