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THE HODGEPODGE HISTORY OF THE PUPPET
"The Puppets are coming! The Puppets are coming!" might turn out to be the "cue and cry" of the century. So pervasive are the puppets of today, it seems unlikely that anyone could pass through life without running into them at least once. People are meeting puppets in the most unexpected places, because the puppet explosion is a phenomenon of our own time. Even Snoopy was inspired to do a one-beagle hand (or paw?) puppet version of War and Peace in Schulz's Sunday strip.
The forward march of the marionette began in the 1920's, after World War I. The pace quickened during the 1930's and 1940's, and the family name was shortened to "puppet" instead of "marionette." Puppets entertained the troops on USO tours during World War II. The Giant Leap for puppets came in the 1950's when network television blasted them into the electronic age. Puppets took to television as if it were the new Shangri La. Who cared if these hardy survivors of ancient times were really thousands of years old? They certainly did not look their age. On camera, they were fresh and bright and full of fun. Puppets reveled in a visibility such as they had never known before. Their audience could be counted in the millions. From among the ranks came puppet celebrities and superstars the equal of any human entertainers. Puppets were sitting on top of the world at last.
Even before their conquest of television, puppets had spilled into the fields of education, recreation, advertising, public relations, psychology, therapy, and international diplomacy, as well as sex, politics, and religion. The more puppets diversified, the more they were asked to do, for there seemed to be no limit to their enterprise. Looking ahead, there is the new laser-based process of 3-D motion-picture holography for the puppets to explore. Who can predict what new careers are yet to come?
How have these audacious woodenheads managed to survive the good times and the bad through centuries to find success in the space age? It does seem an unlikely time. Our era is one of tension and upheaval brought about by the rapid pace of change. Tremors have shaken the foundations of the railroads, the cities, and even family life, while the puppets have grown stronger every day. Obviously they have developed a cosmetic facility for keeping up with the times. Invent a new material, and puppets snatch it up. Plastics, foam rubber, stretch-knits, fake furs, and stereo are all a part of the puppet scene. What is their secret? Is there some bond to humans that runs deeper than the outward appearance of things? A flashback may turn up the clues we need.
Puppets have dashed in and out of theatre history with all the zeal of the Marx Brothers going through a revolving door. "In, Out, Off and Away" seems to have been their motto. Hurl that insult! Throw that jibe! Get that laugh and begone!—never bothering to leave a name, date, or forwarding address. At times the puppet has been very close to the theatre of the day; at other times it has been very far afield. Some theatre historians are so annoyed by the hide-and-seek history of the puppet that they ignore it entirely when they write. True, the puppet lacks a straight, line-drive record of accomplishment down through the ages that would compare with theatre, music, or dance; but the puppet has always been there—on stage, in the streets, and sometimes only in the showman's heart.
The origins of the puppet would take us back to antiquity. Born into the myth-making societies, half brothers to the Mask, these creatures served as messengers to mouth the words of men and gods.
By the time writers took note of such things, the puppets had embarked on a second career, as comic figures, to divert the mortals they once had held in awe. So popular were the puppets that a showman named Potheinos was allowed to perform with his marionettes in the great theatre of Dionysus in the 5th century B.C. On stage the actor and the marionette would have looked much alike. The masked actor was a magnifying mirror for the puppet, as the puppet was a miniature reflection of the man. Puppets borrowed farce themes from the actors, and the actors in turn borrowed movements and gestures from the puppets. Such exchanges between the actor and the puppeteer recur at scattered moments throughout history. These are moments only, of meeting, passing like an eclipse, and moving on. These performers are destined to orbit around similar, but separate, stars.
Following the Roman period, the puppets fade away, only to turn up later in the company of jugglers, acrobats, and dancing bears to entertain the simple folk. The puppet never had a place of permanence where audiences would flock to see the show. No matter. Perhaps it was the restless urge to see the world that kept the puppets on the move, or better still, the urge to have the World see Puppets!
During the Middle Ages puppets assisted in bringing religious teachings alive within the Church, until their sense of humor got so out of hand that they were booted into the street. Puppets had been there before, so it did not upset them to return. They were among friends, and they survived. Shakespeare mentions puppets in his plays. During an austere period following the Elizabethan age, actors were banned from performing on the stage, but the puppets were allowed to continue on their merry way—free from attack from everyone but the actors.
Puppeteers recognized a kindred spirit in the masked actors of the commedia dell'arte. Character types were strong and bold, the style was loose and free, and the same roles were repeated in many plots. One commedia character was held over to star upon the puppet stage: Punchinello, or Punch for short, who developed into the unbeatable half of Punch and Judy. In May, 1962, a ceremony was held to celebrate the 300-year run of his durable deviltry. A commemorative plaque on the portico of St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden (the Actors' Church), reads, "Near this spot Punch's Puppet show was first performed in England and witnessed by Samuel Pepys, 1662." Long live Mr. Punch!
The rough-and-tumble life of the European puppets made them resilient enough to survive without theatres to house them or playwrights to write for them. They entertained emperors and kings without losing their earthy antics for the street crowd. There is no doubt of the puppets' appeal to an earlier age, but that does not explain their power in today's world.
I have my own "creation myth" of how the puppet came to be. Imagine a primitive tribe reacting to thunder, lightning, fire, and flood as if these were caused by sinister forces roaming the world. To appease the furies that could bring death and destruction, there was a need to communicate with them—to speak and be spoken to. A name and a shape would be given to each god. These images, idols, and fetishes brought the furies into the visible world. To speak to the spirits required a wise man or shaman of the tribe. The shaman was an "instrument" through which the thoughts of the gods could be translated into words the tribe could understand. If the spirit spoke in the shaman's voice, it was because he had been selected to speak for the spirit world. If the fetish wished to move, it was the shaman's duty to assist in unobtrusive ways. This was not trickery, but a necessary "magic" to cope with the overwhelming fear of the unseen and the unknown. The shaman created the first puppets as dwelling places for the gods, and he was both servant and master of these creations. Imagine the therapeutic value of the shaman role, to be on both sides of the struggle, playing the aggressor and the aggrieved.
Primitive puppets were a link between the human and the spirit worlds. When the gods fell out of favor, the puppets remained, for they were experienced tour guides who could lead the living to whatever imagined world they wished to travel. I believe this is the secret of the puppets' enduring service to humanity. Puppets help us to see the unseen and to know the unknown in ways that are comic or comforting, according to our needs. Peter D. Arnott's marionettes evoke the essence of great theatre periods of the past. Bil Baird's marionettes simulate the moon walk for us to cover what the television cameras cannot show. Jim Henson's lovable monsters invite the young to venture into the unknown world of letters and numbers. Puppets today are doing what they have always done, providing a simulation device for exploring whatever inner or outer worlds the human mind can create.
Puppetry in the United States grew out of the European tradition of entertainment, rather than the American Indians' use of puppets and masks for ritual. Until the 20th century the puppet show was an occasional novelty reaching a limited audience. Today it has pushed beyond live performance to publication, organization, shift of media, shift of message, mass marketing, and psychology. These are a few highlights of the action.
In the beginning there was Tony Sarg, an artist-illustrator of the 1920's and 1930's who produced marionette shows. He used one career to promote the other, and for years his name was a synonym for the marionette. The Sarg studios begat the new professionals, who were Rufus and Margo Rose, Bil Baird, and Sue Hastings. And there was ferment. Helen Haiman Joseph directed marionette productions at The Cleveland Playhouse. Forman Brown and Harry Burnett teamed up as The Yale Puppeteers to pioneer a style of witty, adult puppetry. William Ireland Duncan and Edward Mabley (The Tatterman Marionettes) mounted a superspectacular touring production of Peer Gynt. On the West Coast Ralph Chessé won acclaim for staging classic plays from the human theatre. And there was more ferment. Martin and Olga Stevens' repertoire included The Passion Play, The Nativity, and St. Joan. There was so much ferment that The Federal Theatre Project took puppeteers under its protective wing during the Great Depression of the 1930's.
After vaudeville died, puppet "acts" traveled with the big band shows that toured the same circuits. Walton & O'Rourke, Bob Bromley, and Frank Paris moved into the international nightclub field. Sid Krofft learned to skate in order to be the first to present his marionettes on ice in a New York revue. The situation was reversed during the 1975—76 season, when skaters in Shipstads & Johnson's Ice Follies donned costumes and learned to move and act like Henson's Muppets on Sesame Street.
World's Fairs have thrown a spotlight on puppets. At the Century of Progress in Chicago, Tony Sarg's company was the star; at the Great Lakes Exposition, the Tattermans topped the bill; and for the second New York World's Fair Bil Baird's show for Chrysler was No. 1. The Seattle World's Fair catapulted Sid and Marty Krofft's "Les Poupées de Paree" to Los Angeles and on to Hemis-Fair in San Antonio. The theme amusement parks that dot the country are mini-world's fairs. Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Six Flags in several locales, and King's Island in Cincinnati have all used puppets to entertain the crowds. Even the Greatest Show on Earth, Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, featured the inventive puppets of a talented clown during the walk-around.
In spite of all the places the puppet had appeared in person, it was the publishers who helped the puppet to "go public." The first "how-to" book by Tony Sarg cracked the code of silence that had existed for centuries. Old puppet showmen handed down their secrets from generation to generation. Security was so essential that family troupes would mask the backstage area so that stagehands and other performers could not see the figures or the devices by which they were controlled.
There is a story told about how Tony Sarg discovered the secrets. While he was a young artist in London, he attended a puppet performance and took a seat in the front row. After the house lights went out, he got down on his back to peek up through the proscenium to study the hidden part. From that view he was able to get enough information to launch his own career. His book appeared after he had established his reputation in the United States. About the same time, Helen Haiman Joseph wrote A Book of Marionettes, the first history to be published in English. Thus puppet information passed from a few professionals to a host of eager amateurs. The early trickle of publication has turned into a torrent. Plays, Inc. of Boston today makes a specialty of books on puppetry and has brought out U.S. editions of valuable books from abroad (see Bibliography).
Gordon Craig introduced his ubermarionette to the theatre world by publishing The Mask and The Marionette. In the U.S., Paul McPharlin's Yearbooks (1930—47) served as a unifying influence with their annual reports and pictures of the national and international scene. McPharlin's masterwork, The Puppet Theatre in America: 1524 to Now, was published posthumously in 1949. Marjorie Batchelder McPharlin added a supplement, Puppets in America since 1948, when the work was reissued by Plays, Inc., in 1969. Batchelder's Puppet Theatre Handbook, written originally as a manual for the armed services, is still a definitive resource on all phases of construction and production. Cyril Beaumont's pictorial surveys of international puppetry brought the world view to the reader's lap. The Art of the Puppet by Bil Baird is the most lavishly produced and handsomely illustrated book on puppetry to come from this country to date.
The libraries' role in acquiring and circulating new books has stimulated community interest, and a few institutions have added puppet shows to their story hours for children. Tom Tichenor's program for the Nashville Public Library is a notable example. In Tampa, Florida, Virginia Rivers and her staff produce and perform puppet shows based on books. After opening at the Main Library, the plays are toured to branches throughout the city and county system. The Missouri State Library system honored the folk art of puppetry through a conference on "Puppetry and the Oral Tradition" in February, 1976.
As books had built bridges to information, organizations built bridges between people. The Union Internationale de la Marionette (UNIMA) was formed in 1929 to unite puppeteers of the world in a common concern for their art. The Puppeteers of America was organized a few years later. Now numbering more than 2,000 members in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, the organization provides a bimonthly magazine, The Puppetry Journal, edited by Don Avery; consulting services for members; and an annual national festival on a college or university campus each summer. William Ireland Duncan created the liaison with educational theatre. Archie Elliott, a businessman who is a fan of puppetry, served as President and Festival Chairman more than once and continues to act as adviser to the program chairpersons in setting up the annual meetings.
The animated film cartoons posed the first real threat to the puppet domain of fantasy. Live puppets were outclassed in every way by cartoon characters who blinked their eyes, cried tears, shaped their mouths to suit the words, wiggled fingers, squashed themselves flat as pancakes only to rise up and fill out again. Cartoons could dance any step, sing any song, and even invite live actors to perform in their two-dimensional world. Puppets tried to adapt to the animation technique by being photographed one frame at a time while the action was advanced slightly between shots. It was a painstaking and time-consuming process pioneered by George Pal's Puppetoons, and continued by Sutherland and Moore for a short time. Lou Bunin and a crew of American technicians were invited to France to train puppet filmmakers on a version of Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately the release collided with Disney's cartoon Alice and the two films played movie houses within months of each other. Michael Myerberg produced Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth with live actors, then turned his attention to a puppet film of Hansel and Gretel with a script by Padraic Colum. The feature-length stop-action puppet film seems to have faded out of the picture in the United States due to its high cost and tedious pace. However the international stars in this field were Lotte Reininger, for her exquisite shadow films, and Jiri Trnka, whose productions of The Emperor's Nightingale and Midsummer Night's Dream found worldwide release.
Excerpted from The Complete Book of Puppetry by George Latshaw. Copyright © 1978 George Latshaw. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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