History of Radical Puppetry
a lecture and slide show in progress
The history of radical puppetry is the history of puppetry in service
the people, the tradition of puppetry as the voice of the everyman, the
of dissent, protest, the real and human concerns of daily life.
history of puppetry and the vitality of puppetry itself has been
down and buried in commercialization in this country. In recent
however there has been a renewed interest in puppetry, as the
of corporate mainstream media becomes more and more apparent.
are immediate and authentic. Hewn from scraps of cloth, paper and duct
they are the quintessential tricksters--court jesters without the
able to cross boundaries of both opinion and propriety, enabling us to
society and government with handmade beauty and wit.
So here I give you a brief history of this poor person's art. Puppets
seen in every nook, cranny and culture of this world but for brevity's
against my deepest desire to expound upon the wonder's of puppetry for
hours, I will focus here on traditions in Europe and the US and
on puppetry existing outside the sanction of the status quo.
Starting sometime after 600 AD and continuing through 16th century,
shows were mostly seen in service to the church, enactments of Bible
A turning point came in the 15th century, with the advent of the
plays--dramas in verse, which featured personifications of the 7 Seven
Sins. "Old Vice" in particular became a popular rogue and comic,
spoke to common experience with debauchery and vulgar humor and thus,
stage was set for puppetry to be delivered into the hands of the
The puppets were expelled from the church.
The English puppet shows of this time were called motions and were
the banished moralities, emphasizing slapstick and bawdy humor. The
called "motion men" traveled around England along with the tinkers and
Puppet bawdies were in fact popular in many places in Europe at this
There was Hanswurst in Germany, who had been kicked out of the early
versions of Faust for his rabble rousing and negotiations with the
And in Turkey, the shadow puppet rogue, Karagioz, acted as a live news
for the people, satirizing local events, taking pot shots at the
and spreading the retail gossip of the day.
The 17th Century saw the violent transition from a pastoral economy to
capitalism, the destruction of the commons and the rise of popular
movements such as the diggers and the ranters. In England in 1642
and his puritans locked the theaters due to fear of spreading
propaganda, but the puppets somehow slipped through the cracks.
For 18 years the only theater in England was roving outdoor puppet
The Lord Mayor of London tried to ban puppet shows during this time, as
but then he died and the shows returned, irreverent as ever with the
Mayor, himself, appearing the Devil.
Interestingly, the first mention of Punch is seen shortly after this
in the late 17th century. With government closure of legitimate
Punch took to the streets as a vehicle of dissent. A derivative of the
character Puncinella, Punch reigned as king of the puppets in England
most of the 18th century. He was the commoners hero,
through slapstick and satire, breaking all the rules in a time when
was imposed upon every sphere of life. Punch mocked god, the law,
landlord, king, judge, policeman and even tricked death by avoiding
In France a similar trend was happening, starting with the French
of Punch, Polcinelle, but then quickly being superseded by the French
another people's champion, a goodhearted fellow with the simple costume
a silkworker. Saxony banned puppetry in 1793 and by 1852 French
was demanding that texts be committed to paper--no improvisation
Puppetry was particularly controversial in Lyon, a hotspot of
Apparently Napoleon III's police state was nervous about people
in groups and so Guignol shows came under surveillance. Petitions to
puppet shows in Lyon were refused.
So in both England and France puppetry was treated as a criminal act,
were refused licenses offered to other professions. Thus
puppeteers were regarded with suspicion and accused of promoting crime,
they drew crowds of poor people into respectable business areas. Sound
And yet this limitation was also strength. Roving puppeteers set up
stages and used improv as an immediate response to local and state
Unlicensed, illegal and thus unhindered by the censor.
In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a surge in the
aspect of the form within the bourgeois theater in both Europe and the
Puppetry sought to amaze with trick marionettes and hidden levers and
of the first giant puppets were seen in the Opera of this time. A
movement of radical and experimental puppetry was taking place within
In 1888 Alfred Jarry, the eccentric anarchist puppeteer performed an
version of Ubu Roi, a brutal and irreverent slap at bourgeois morality
stupidity. The play received instant notoriety, not the least of which
that the first word the king utters on stage is "shit!" The play
as a marionette piece and was later played by masked actors, retaining
of it's original puppet quality.
Though the artists that experimented with puppet forms are too numerous
name here, notable are the Dadas George Grotz, Oskar Kokoska and John
whose satirical marionette performances were shut down at the end of
for disrespect of the political authorities. From 1919 until Hitler's
to power in 1933 Bauhaus artists experimented with puppetry and
bringing their paintings and sculptures to life in a sort of precursor
later performance art. Among the best known of those artists are
Kandinsky and Oskar Schlemmer. Hitler of course, quickly suppressed the
art of the Bauhaus.
Undisputed leaders of puppetry in Europe, the Czech puppeteers also had
tradition of radical puppetry. When the Czech language was banned by
Austrian Hungarian empire in the 19th c., puppeteers continued to
in Czech as an act of defiance. Later, during Nazi occupation
puppeteers organized illegal underground performances with anti-fascist
tours of adult puppet plays with subtle allegorical points
to the censor. In the concentration camps, Czech women made
shows from scraps of nothing to keep up their morale. Eventually
Nazi's suppressed all Czech puppetry and over 100 skilled puppeteers
under torture in the camps.
While puppetry came to the US along with Europeans, we don't hear about
puppetry in the radical sense until the 1960's, when we also hear of
puppets in connection to radical or protest puppetry for the first
In 1961 the German artist, Peter Schumann came to this country and
after founded the seminal Bread and Puppet Theater with the motto that
should be as basic as bread." Their work in protest of the
War put Bread and Puppet on the cultural map of this country. Later
to a farm in Vermont, Bread and Puppet hosted their annual Domestic
Circus a fantastic blend of spirituality, politics and pageantry which
a generation of puppeteers and which continues to influence the world
political puppetry today.
European notables from this time period are The Welfare State and Dario
The Welfare State, founded in 1968 blends political street theatre,
spectacle and celebration and is a precursor to community art as we
it today, as well as to popular art events such as Burning Man.
to re-establish popular theatre traditions of the working class Welfare
drew from Carnival, the Feast of Fools, the fairground, the mummers and
tradition of subversion as entertainment. Welfare State brought
theatre, food, fire, puppets, stilts, arts education and
One of my favorite of their actions was their burning of a 60 foot
parliament on Guy Fawkes Day.
Nobel prize winner, Dario Fo, broke with mainstream theater in
late 1960s, giving up a substantial income to follow his politics. Fo
found a theatrical organization dedicated to the proletarian
bringing theater to the people in factories, stadiums, villages and
dorms. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Fo used clowning, puppetry, masks
humanettes in his satires of government and government intelligence.
play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist was so successful in exposing
repression that his group were subjected to provocation and persecution
In the lineage of people's puppetry in this country is the longstanding
the Heart of the Beast Mask and Puppet Theater. Founder and
Sandy Spieler worked with Peter Schumann in the late 60s and returned
Minneapolis where HOBT made their first piece in 1973. Their
parade which continues to this day, involves over 500 people from their
community who help call in the sun and raise the tree of life each
On the West Coast, Wise Fool got started at the Nevada Test Site
in 1989, while the protests against the Gulf War in 90-91 firmly
us as part of the west coast radical scene.
In 1996 members of wise fool worked with other activists at the
national convention in Chicago and from this union Art and Revolution
born. As well as the beloved SF contingent art and revolution
have sprung up in urban centers all around the country.
And then there was Seattle N30, 1999. Despite vast media coverage
police violence only, Seattle was truly a carnival of resistance,
with puppets, masks, dancers, creative roadblocks, banners and
This lovely chaos continued into Washington DC the following Spring and
the democratic and republican national conventions that summer.
Police repression of Puppetry began to escalate in DC, when they closed
convergence center and rose to a frenzy in Philadelphia that summer
police held puppeteers and puppets locked in a warehouse and later
over 100 skeleton puppets in a trash compactor. Later that summer
LA the convergence center sought a received a writ of protection,
the police access to the convergence center.....
So the last years we have seen another surge of political puppetry and
events--The Insurrection Landscapers, Spiral Q, Shoddy Puppet, Puppet
and the Black Sheep Festival on the east coast, Puppetropolis and Red
Theater and the Combustible Puppet Cabaret in Chicago, Cry of the
Risk of Change and the Illuminated Fools on the west coast to name just
very few names.
And here we are today! We continue forward in history as the unnamed
hidden behind the mask of the puppet, giving voice to the people.
Educate. Agitate. Animate!!