A Brief History of Puppetry

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GrampawNo one knows where puppetry first began 
though most scholars seem to agree puppetry as an art form
started in China with the introduction of the shadow puppet.
However, that is only one particular kind of puppet
and one kind of puppetry.
Puppetry to me, seems to have existed in many other countries,
in many other art forms,
long before the formal introduction
of the shadow puppet and shadow theater in China.

It seems to me, man has always been interested in creating
and controlling other worlds,
 as well as in trying to define his own.
Puppetry, to me, is an extension of one's self. 
It may be motivated by the need to explain,
explore, embrace or critique the human condition.
It is still, one of the safest ways to act out, act up,
entertain, educate, commiserate, wonder out loud,
unburden yourself or release your feelings.
I have used it, along with my story telling to fulfill my need
to see the good guys win and justice done.
It has always been both a sword and a shield to me.
It is my armor in a world of frustrations
and disappointments, when indeed,
the bad hats seem to be ahead in this game,
we call Life.
In short, I have found Puppet Theater to be
a wonderful place to find peace of mind and spirit.

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What Is A Puppet?

Sunnie BeeWhat is a puppet? A figure whose movements are controlled by someone through, strings, rods, or hand movements.

Some of the earliest kinds of Tribal Masked Warrior puppets were tribal ritual masks with hinged jaws or jointed skulls used in religious ceremonies. Puppets seemed to have evolved from these masks to doll like figures with moving limbs. Native American Indians used puppets in their corn festivals and ceremonial dances.
Egyptians made jointed puppets from terra cotta.

Puppet theater is mentioned in both Plato Aristotle 
and  Plato's writings however, no specific details are given regarding the art.
It suffices to say puppets have been a part of man's history.

GrampawChina made shadow puppets from stretched donkey skins, dried sheep skin, water buffaloes, pigs, or fish. Shadow puppets are translucent figures colored in with paints. These figures are placed in front of a screen with light passing through it. The shadow of the figures appear clearly to the audience on the other side. They usually have three rods or strings attached to them. The puppeteer uses one hand to control the rod attached to the neck and the other hand to control the rods attached to its wrists.  
The Turkish
puppeteers added waist movement to their shadow puppets and began controlling rod arm movements from the side, rather than the bottom, as the Chinese had done. Three dimensional rod puppets evolved from shadow puppets. So, you can see, many countries were introducing operational control changes to existing known forms of puppets and yet, developing different kinds of puppets, at relatively the same time.

Puppetry has survived due to the efforts of all the world's puppeteers through the ages. When Rome was overrun by barbarians and puppet theater vanished, it was the traveling puppeteers who kept the art and the craft alive. Troupes of puppeteers, jesters, jugglers and entertainers breathed new life into the world's tales and histories,
as they moved from place to place and puppets found a home in folk art.

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In The Middle Ages the Christian Church used puppets to spread church doctrine.
Monks and priests were the puppeteers.
The Nativity puppet scene
The Nativity, the story of the birth of Jesus, was a favorite play.

Generally, marionettes, Scarecrow Puppetsmall jointed figures operated with strings, were used to enact the story. The name Marionette , meaning "Little Mary" may have come from the figure of The Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, in the telling of the Nativity story. It may also have come from the word marotte
meaning fool's scepter.

In the fourteenth or fifteenth century puppeteers began to explore themes other than religious ones. A comedic influence began to emerge. The Church decided puppets were no longer suitable for their teaching. However, puppet theater found a new home in the streets and fairs of the working class. By the sixteenth century, puppet theaters existed all over Europe. Marionette operas were popular.

In the seventeenth century, Punch and Judy at an Outdoor Theatre hand puppets,  figures with heads and a body of cloth which fit over the puppeteers hand, became popular. They were easier to operate, cheaper to make and more mobile. Shows could be given from the back of wagons and from small portable stages. Puppet characters like Punch and Judy became popular and shows centering around local politics became common. These puppets could comment on things the masses could not.

hand puppetPuppets have been used by storytellers to illuminate and entertain for centuries.
In the United States, we have seen Howdy Doody, (marionette), Kukla, Fran and Ollie, (hand puppets), Mr. Rogers, Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney, (ventriloquist dummy, doll like figures with movable mouths and other options like movable heads, eyes, eye lids and arms), Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, (ventriloquist dummy), Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, (hand puppet), and Jim Hensen's Muppets, (rod puppets), brought to life. These puppeteers and their creations continue to educate and entertain.

Ventriloquist and DummyThe puppeteer breathes life into his creations and we believe in them, all bound together with the magic that is puppet theater.

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Puppetry Home Page



Puppets to Make

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Puppetry: Books, Films, Music, Links

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If you like Puppetry
 you will enjoy these Poems about Puppets and Puppetry: 

The Theater  

  The Revolt Of The Puppets

The Circus  

Wooden Blocks


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