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Puppets: The Evolution of the Species

Puppets: The Evolution of the Species – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – December 2005

Excerpted from the book “[amazon_link id=”0810955873″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Puppetry: A World History[/amazon_link]”

by Eileen Blumenthal

They can be Gods, idiots or worms. They are able to nurture children or terrify adults. They survive indefinitely without normal bioloical aging but also can die and come back to life again. Whenever someone endows an inanimate object with life force and casts it in a scenario, a puppet is born.


Europe and Africa

In nearly every civilization, the beginning of puppetry can be seen. Cro-Magnon men or women carved tiny, voluptuous figures out of soft stone or the bones or tusks of animals. The ancient civilizations of the Middle East were crafting statues and figurines with movable parts 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, and in the 5th century B.C.E., historian Herodotus wrote about Egyptian processions in which women carried puppets to honor the god Osiris, a dying-and-rising god associated with fertility.

According to Greek writers of the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E., the legendary inventor Daedalus made wooden dolls with movable parts for the pleasure of King Minos and his family.

Ancient texts show that puppets performed for ceremonies in Hellenic times and dolls with movable limbs were everywhere. Puppets played for common folk at public gathering spots and for the wealthy at banquets. Performances by “constructed actors,” or puppets, apparently emigrated to Greek colonies in Italy and on into the Roman Empire. To the Christian religious authorities whose civil power grew after the fall of Rome, puppetry smacked of idolatry and fun, two well-known devices of the devil.

Despite this hostile climate, folk puppetry weathered the Middle Ages. Medieval puppets found a niche within religion when the churches switched from banning to advocating religious images and encouraged illustrated narrations and enhancements of the bible. By the dawn of the Renaissance where live-actor religious plays were banned due to luridness and Catholic-Protestant tensions, the audiences for biblical puppet shows only increased. Farces by puppets also remained popular, offering such edifying matter as the theft of a pork roast or the romance of Mrs. Rump, and invariably featuring knock-down, drag-out beatings.

At the eastern end of the Mediterranean, puppetry thrived despite Islam’s ban on human and animal images. Hand-puppet comics entertained the masses as well as rulers throughout the Near East.

For the next several hundred years in Europe, until the verge of the 20th century, puppetry and live actor theater ran along parallel tracks, trading influences. As commedia dell’arte and opera developed in Italy and spread through much of continental Europe, so did puppet versions of both. Late 17th-18th century masteros wrote puppet music-dramas that played in Italian palaces, including the Pope’s.

Starting in Elizabethan time, puppetry in Spain and Portugal largely served religion. Eastern Europe produced puppet nativity pageants.

In the 18th century, shadow puppets became popular with bourgeois and upper class audiences in Western Europe. In the 19th century, with the romantic movements exaltation of pre-civilized innocence, children were increasingly seen as a special group with unique imaginations and needs. Puppets took a prominent place in the new field of theater geared specifically for kids.

Toward the end of that century, the advent of realism changed the rules for all theater. Before that time, few people had suggested that theater, or any art, should present reality exactly as it was observed. But the 19th century’s romance with science seduced European artists in many genres to try to present “objective data.”

Realism is one theoretical ground where puppets cannot compete on equal footing with live actors. But the alternative seemed to be accepting society’s verdict that a non-realistic form was fit only for children. Since children had usually been a part of the target audience anyway, many puppet artists settled into this truncated role.

Toward the turn of the 20th century, vaudeville variety shows, spectator sports and then film grabbed up much of the audience. For a time, puppeteers found a niche in vaudeville working as miniature stand-up comics, jugglers, blackface minstrels, and ventriloquist’s dummies. But that venue also dried up a few decades into the new century.

As Europe’s colonial expansion sparked interest in the exotic, international expositions and returning travelers introduced the West to a new array of constructed-actor theater.


In China, puppets figure in several early legends. Around 1,000 B.C.E., a performer condemned to death for flirting with a royal concubine was spared when he was shown to be a puppet. During China’s Song-dynasty (960-1279) puppets played for all social classes – in designated entertainment districts and along roadsides, as well as in wealthy homes and even at court. Overseers of morality condemned puppetry as fostering bad behavior. Portraying ordinary people, the domestic tribulations of the great and swash-buckling melodramas, these puppets became Japan’s most popular entertainment.

Shadow puppets in India may descend from 2,500 year old leather cutouts from Central Asia. By the 13th century C.E., India clearly had performances that used shadows to enact a story. India’s 3D puppet repertory ranges from sacred, heroic and elegant to satiric, raunchy and slapstick. The hub of Southeast Asian shadow puppetry is the Island of Java, where the art has thrived for at least 1,000 years. The puppets, over time became gorgeously unrealistic, possibly because of Java’s conversion to Islam which forbade the use of human images.


Across the Atlantic as well, constructed-actor theater was coming of age. America’s 18th and 19th century puppetry had largely paralleled Europe’s lower-class shows, with hand-puppet farces and trick puppets dominating an increasingly marginal field. Then in the early 20th century, Tony Sarg brought puppet art into the mainstream, performing at major venues such as the 1933 World’s Fair and nurturing the next generations of artists. Sarg is widely known for starting the mechanically animated window displays for Macy’s in 1928, which run from Thanksgiving to Christmas and also designing the helium filled balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1935 that are still part of the tradition.

Finally, television brought constructed-actor theater to a vast audience. In 1946 in Britain, the long career of Muffin the Mule, possibly the first celebrity puppet created entirely by television, was launched. American puppets entered children’s TV the following year, and soon included such stars as Snarky Parker, Howdy Doody, Lamb Chop, and Kukla and Ollie. As television became widespread in Europe and Asia, so did TV puppet shows aimed at children. In addition, television’s variety shows for adults included vaudeville-like puppet entertainment. Most important, Jim Henson and his Muppets, a growing presence beginning in 1954, endowed generations worldwide with vivid theatrical imagination.

Puppetry also developed an organizational support structure. By 1929, an international puppet union, UNIMA, was holding international festivals for traditional and experimental work. In 1966, puppeteer Frank Ballard created a degree-granting program in puppetry at the University of Connecticut, the first in America. In 1981, Jacques Felix established an international school and institute for puppetry, l’Institut International de la Marionette in France. It trains performers, holds festivals, and produces puppet-related books and journals. In 1998, The Lion King, teeming with puppets, garnered Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Musical and the puppet production Avenue Q received the Best Musical Tony Award in 2004.

Sex and Fertility

Through much of history, puppets have performed as agents to invoke fertility. This makes perfect sense in a way. Given that puppets cross from inertness to a sort of vitality themselves, why not call upon them to help humans generate new life? Fertility puppets sometimes shift between rituals and secular performances. Puppets roles in fertility may go back to the Paleolithic Venuses with their swelled breasts and bellies. In pre-dynastic Egypt, 6,000 years ago, it was figures of the male god Min that apparently officiated at fertility rituals. Many societies have used puppet couples rather than individual figures to summon procreative forces. In India, “King” and “Queen” effigies that dance at weddings are associated with sex. Fertility rituals in western Africa include anatomically explicit figures being joined in coitus. Puppets have long modeled fertility for flora as well as fauna. Five thousand years ago, Egyptian effigies of Min not only imparted sexual prowess to humans, but took part in annual festivals to open harvest season.


Puppets have been the performers of choice for snuff roles. In medieval Christian religious pageants, Herod’s henchmen slaughtered dolls filled with red liquid rather than the local children.

One reason puppetry so often waxes violence is that it can. Still, puppets’ ability to withstand violence cannot in itself explain their extraodinary propensity for it. In nearly every part of the world, constructed actors treat audiences of all ages and classes to scenes of corporeal atrocity. Hand puppets in southern China have been whacking and stabbing one another with spears since the 1500s. The first puppet images in medieval Europe show characters armed with swords and truncheons going at one another.

A great deal of puppet violence is more playful than serious. Comedy based on clobbering people has always been puppets’ speciality. It invites audiences to share not so much in vicarious sadism as in a prankster’s fun at breaking things. The barbarity is irreverent rather than conscious, and often so over-the-top that it bounds clear over the edge of horror into farce. Even good natured puppetry often includes ludicrously violent humor. In Jim Henson’s pre-Sesame Street television commercials, puppets were blown up or bonked with mallets after choosing the wrong brand of bread or, in one case, protesting the violence in the commercials.

The English-American character Punch, a devil-may-care serial killer, is perhaps the most blithely sociopathic version of an unrepentant ruffian puppet whose chief modus operandi is bludgeoning his victims, typically in unprovoked attacks. But he had many foreign cousins with a familial resemblance: a huge, usually hooked nose, often a hump-back, a satirical preference for red, and a propensity for whacking people to death. And while they attack authorities with special gusto, they also are wont to assault friends and family. Perhaps the villian’s most curious feature is that no matter how monstrous he may be, the audience generally roots for him. While this behavior is not exactly heroic in the traditional sense, it’s monumental in its own way. Beyond merely violent, it violates every law, every boundary of civilized behavior. These brutes are bold enough to overstep all the limits, break every rule, exceed what humans are meant to be and do.


Puppets are inveterate political animals. And like many politicians, they can play on both sides of the fence. Governments and religious authorities have sometimes kept constructed actors among their retainers to adorn festive occasions. In the 18th century, Franz Joseph Haydn wrote a puppet opera to flatter the visiting Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa. Oversize puppets adorned many of the Soviet Union’s parades on May Day and anniversaries of the Revolution.

Governments have also commandeered puppets to serve specific agendas. From the start of Russia’s Bolshevik regime, constructed actors disseminated the official line and puppeteers were required to fight against bourgeois decadence of “formalist” art by toeing the aesthetic line of simple realism.

Puppets performed partisan work for the Allies in World War II as well. In England, Punch raised his bludgeon to fight for the Union Jack. The puppeteer Percy Press made Punch an English soldier, and the hangman he hanged was Hitler.

After WWII, many puppets either returned to their old government jobs or got new government jobs. In the Soviet Union, they again promoted the Bolshevik program, including socialist realism. Leaders in the newly independent Indonesia used shadow puppets to promote a national confederation and teach citizens how to participate in this new kind of government.

For puppeteers in post-war Communist China, government service was de rigeur. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, puppets not directly performing as indoctrination tools were destroyed.

Puppets have generally been less likely to serve the mighty than to skewer them. Political satire has long been a specialty of the small stage. In 9th-century China, anti-government sentiment was as much a part of popular puppetry that one insurgent reportedly traveled around arranging puppet shows to gauge unrest and recruit local malcontents. One of constructed actors’ assets as protest performers is that authorities frequently cut them some slack. Even performing out in the open, dissident puppet theaters often have something like a court jester’s license to criticize. All this said, throughout history authorities have tried to censor and squelch puppet shows either because they considered the performers nogoodniks or because the shows were challenging those in power. And so, puppeteers have resorted to various sorts of stealth. Puppets living under foreign occupation often use local dialects and slang to shoot defiance at the unsuspecting butts of their opposition.

Dissident puppets have also camouflaged their messages within plays that authorities would not likely flag and monitor as potentially subversive. Polish players began to include patriotic material in their nativity stages in the mid-19th century in defiance of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian occupation regimes.

Other Public Service

Almost universally, puppets have participated in child rearing. Puppets have a unique rapport with very young people. The border between fantasy and reality is porous and can blur the distinction between what is sentient and what is inert. As performers, puppets offer children guided excursions into imagination. As toys, they let youngsters try out different identities and behaviors without real-life consequences.

But child care is just one dimension of puppets’ social service work. They have routinely participated in education, health care, commerce and even law enforcement. Plus, they have helped to transmit and conserve culture. Language instruction is one of their specialities. For at least a half century, puppetry has been included as a tool in teacher-training courses for adult literacy and immigrant language instruction around the world.

Teaching history is another puppet forte, partly because puppets can be made to look like the historical figures they impersonate.

Puppets have responded to changing technology, moving into film, television and computer animation. The Muppets of Sesame Street, which began broadcast in 1969, gave children such a leg-up in reading and arithmetic that many early grade school curricula were adjusted upward.

Puppets often speak to immediate moral crises. For example, after the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, UNICEF-sponsored puppet shows in refugee camps urged non-violence. To help counteract prejudice against AIDS victims, the South African Sesame Street added an HIV positive Muppet to its regular cast in 2002.

Since at least the mid-20th century, puppets have also aided in psychological and physical therapy. As psychiatric diagnostic aids, puppets can help therapists to get information. Improvising with puppets, patients may reveal angers, fears, longings, and attitudes they normally hide. In physical therapy, puppets can help to improve coordination and have proven to be particularly helpful in speech therapy.

Coming Attractions

Sometimes, instead of puppets pretending to be alive, live actors pretend to be puppets. This peculiar role reversal has come in various guises.

Live performers may cash in on certain puppet stars’ popularity by playing live versions of them. Or artists may take well known puppet personae as raw material for their own live-actor works. Sometimes live performers do not merely play characters originated by puppets, but actually pretend to be puppets.

This may be the ultimate, ironic genius of puppets. Time and again, inert actors have breathed new life into the live actor theater. So great is the power of puppets to show ourselves to ourselves that even flesh-and-blood actors, who would seem to have the advantage in imitating real people, have taken cues from constructed beings.

Finally, all art – in fact, everything human beings design – both reflects and helps to shape our sense of who we are. Puppets, with their peculiar ability to make us believe they are us, are surely among the canniest, and uncanniest, of human creation.

[amazon_link id=”0810955873″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Puppetry: A World History[/amazon_link] by Eileen Blumenthal is published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Price $65.

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