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The Spirit of the Marionette

by John Phillips



What is the spirit of the marionette? In what way is it distinct from other forms of

puppetry? Is it still a vital and effective form of creative puppetry or should it be

regarded an anachronism from the Victorian era?


It is a paradox that this most physical of puppet forms-is also capable of being the

most metaphysical. Although the flickering insubstantiality of the shadow puppet

might be thought to give it the greater claim in this respect it is just because of its

ethereal nature that the shadow puppet cannot transcend it’s actuality


The physical means of manipulationg rod and glove puppets is usually unobtrusive.

We know there is a hand within the glove but rarely see it. The rods which control

the movements of rod puppets are usually hidden by flowing drapery.

The fascination of the marionette is in its ambiguity.


The very strings that control the movements of the marionette are often quite

substantial-though increasingly invisible threads have been introduced since the

19th century until they’ve been dispensed with altogether and we’re in the age

of animatronics. When iron rods are employed the dependence of the puppet

upon human agency and reinforcement of its material nature is given even greater

emphasis. The choice of threads or cords dramatically alters our perception of the

marionette and yet the distinction has gone almost unnoticed.


In order to try to analyse the quality of the marionette it is necessary to look at

writings which consider puppetry from a wider base - but have a particular

reference to the marionette.


‘Small Art-Great Artefacts’, an article published by Otakar Zich in 1923, has been

the subject of much debate by theorists intent upon analysing the nature of puppetry.

Henryk Jurkowski has paraphrased Zich’s argument as follows: “Zich noted that

the puppet theatre contained two ways of involving its audience: first by accentuating

the material (crafted) nature of the puppet, thus compromising its ambition to imitate

the human. In this way the puppet becomes a caricature, a grotesque figure.

Second, by accentuating the life-like properties of the puppet, thus underlining its

magical origin, in this way the puppet evokes wonder and mystery.”


Antonio Pasqualino puts it slightly differently. “Zich describes the comic and the strange

or magical as two poles in the way puppets can be perceived, the effects they can produce.

If the audience perceives them as inanimate objects, then the potential for puppets to be

mistaken for living beings produces a comic or grotesque effect. If on the other hand the

audience perceives them as living beings, then their fixed faces and the rigidity and

anatomical peculiarities of their movements produce the sensation of something wonderful,

unexplainable, and enigmatic, i.e. strange and magical.”


The emphasis has shifted from the highly stylised in opposition to the naturalistic, to the

inanimate in opposition to the living.


Zich wrote about seeing puppets as either comic or serious-“as dolls, that is we stress

their inanimate character…the result is not, of course, crude comedy but subtle humour

which these small figures produce by appearing to act like real people. We perceive

them as figurines, but the demand that we take them as people, and this invariably

amuses us” and for the serious mode-“our awareness that the puppets are not alive

recedes, and we get the feeling of something inexplicable, enigmatic, and astounding…

I think that if our puppets were as large as people, we too, would feel uneasy, and only

their reduced size forestalls this feeling, imparting to them instead a quality of serious

mysteriousness”. There are a number of oppositions emphasised within these

descriptions-stylised/naturalistic, inanimate/living, comic/serious, though these

categories are not mutually exclusive.


The study of Semiotics, which began in Russia with the analysis of literature, was

continued in Prague in the 1930’s with studies of theatre performance. Petr Bogatyrev,

a leading member of the ‘Prague Circle’ was especially fascinated by puppetry and

believed that it should be regarded as a separate though related semiotic system.

Bogatyrev was particularly interested in the inter-relationship between the audience

and the performance, and the fact that different social groups respond to puppets in

quite different ways. Jurkowski distinguishes two kinds of public from Zich’s description:

the folk audience who regard puppets as mysterious and the erudite audince who

regard puppets as puppets. Perhaps this is a false dichotomy. Certainly Jukowski thinks

that it is over simplistic. Can the folk audience ever have really believed that puppets

were living creatures? Were marionette performances with largely naturalistic puppets

ever intended to be simply versions of the living theatre in miniature?


Pasqualino has cited several incidents where the intervention of members of the audience

would appear to suggest that they really believed in the independent life of the puppets

before them and tried to shoot the villain or offered ransom money for the hero’s freedom.

However he writes “The interventions of the spectators were actually elements of the

performance, anticipated by the rules, actualised in an aleatory way and at will by some

spectators. Alongside behaviour that demonstrates passionate participation, others, that

have been reported in many different places and times, are ironic and polemic exchanges

with the puppeteer, thus reducing the epic hyperoles  characteristic of the opera dei pupi.”

Only the simple minded can ever have really believed that marionettes were real creatures.

In fact the presentation of traditional marionettes is directed towards denying this rather

than trying to present them as beings with an independent existence. The collection

of writings edited by Dina and Joel Sherzer is particularly important in this respect and for

the emphasis it places on the use of language.


To describe the marionette performance as being a vestige of baroque theatre consisting

of “limited theatrical skill and limited understanding that we perceive today as being the folk style”

seems to me to be quite wrong. The attraction of the puppets of the baroque age must have

been that however lifelike they appeared the spectators knew that they were puppets all the time.


Even the use of the grill of cords or wires that was stretched across the proscenium opening

cannot be attributed to the wish to hide the manipulative agency of the strings or rods.


In actuality the spectator looks through the grill and focuses on the puppets as though looking

into another world. We know the figures are solid (and the means of operating them) but the

veil of the grill gives them a sense of unreality. In fact the sign systems of traditional folk puppetry

are surprisingly complex as Pasqualino has described.

I hope I have shown sufficient supporting evidence to justify the claim that although distinct from

live theatre, and in many ways more primitive, a traditional marionette performance can be

extremely complex within.