We continue our account of the events, lectures and discussions of the PuppetPlays International Conference on Literary Writing for Puppets and Marionettes in Western Europe (17th to 21st centuries). The conference was held in France at the Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, the organising institution, from Thursday 14 to Saturday 16 October 2021.
Led by Didier Plassard, director of PuppetPlays, the Conference brought together thirty speakers, the majority of them academics, from various European countries to talk about authors who have written for, and been directly involved with the world of puppetry. After considering lectures on authors from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in Part I (see here), we continue in Part II with an account of the lectures that continue up to our own day. Part III will deal with some of the complementary meetings that occurred during the Conference, such as that held between authors and critics, and the workshop run by A Tarumba together with Paulo Duarte.
Texts for puppets and marionettes by significant authors from late 19th-century Italy
In this fascinating trip across 19th-century Europe, we return to Italy, as one of the regions on our continent with the highest density of puppets, to listen to Sara Maddalena, temporary assistant for teaching and research (ATER) in drama and performance studies at the Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3, and doctoral candidate in joint supervision with the University of Padua. The title of her talk is: ‘The marionette as a protagonist of Italian playwrights’ works at the end of the 19th century: grounds and specificities.’
Maddalena focuses above all on the intimate personal and literary relationship between two important authors of the period: Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), poet, composer and librettist, author of the opera Mefistofele and of opera libretti such as Otello and Falstaff by Verdi; and Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906), poet, playwright and librettist, author of the libretti for Giacomo Puccini’s operas, La Bohème, Tosca and Madame Butterfly.
Boito and Giacosa were close friends and shared a genuine interest in puppet theatre, as is witnessed not only by their correspondence, of which Maddalena gave several examples, but also by their written works.
She spoke about Boito’s piece for marionettes, Basi e bote (1881), written in Venetian verse. The title means ‘kiss and blow’. It is a musical comedy, likely to have been accompanied by music now lost, and its characters are drawn from the commedia dell’arte. Johannes Streicher says: the originality of Basi e bote does lies not in the plot, which unashamedly follows the conventions of the time, but in the rebirth of the commedia dell’arte, which –considering Giaconda and Otelo, Wagner’s affirmation and the processes of Alfredi Catalani– was not exactly a genre at the forefront of contemporary composers’ minds. (…) But, in the use of the masks, Boito saw a possibility for combining his delight in play and linguistic finesse, with a taste for satire and the return to irony and humour (…)’.
As Sara Maddalena explained, it is important to bear in mind that ‘the masks of the commedia dell’arte, after being included in Goldoni’s comedies, had by now taken refuge in puppet theatres and puppet booths, where they were much appreciated throughout the 19th century’.
She spoke, too, about Giuseppe Giacosa’s play Il filo, dedicated precisely to his friend Boito and defined as a ‘moral-philosophical piece for marionettes’. It also contains characters from the world of the commedia dell’arte masks (the Doctor, Florindo, Rosaura, Pantalone, Harlequin and Colombine). The work was premiered in Turin by Eleonora Duse’s company, being a play for flesh-and-blood actors in which the characters pretend to be marionettes. It is interesting to note that Pantalone, Harlequin and Colombine speak in the Venetian tongue (with the help of their friend Boito, who corrects the dialogues), as a means of highlighting their spirit of liberty and closeness to the people.
The play was published in 1883 with illustrations by Edoardo Calandra, which reveal much about the work. Here, the string attached to the marionettes serves as a metaphor for the causal determinism that directs our steps and to which we are all subject.
Sara Maddalena talked about other important writers, such as Visconti Venosta, Roberto Bracco and Luigi Capuana. We are in the period of the Resorgimento and the Unification of Italy, which saw the birth of ‘a modern dramaturgy that is profoundly and fiercely Italian, in which local features and the urge for unification coexist (…). The puppet seems to be a land of freedom, but it is obviously affected and conditioned by all of this.’
Actors, string and glove puppets in Siepe a nordovest, by Massimo Bontempelli
Although we should never lose sight of the 19th century when wandering through the various worlds of Puppetry, the moment has come to step into our dear and tragic 20th century, whose complexity would overwhelm the attempt of a single pair of eyes or arms to capture it and provide an overview. So, let us listen to the talk by Cristina Grazioli, professor in history of drama and performance at the University of Padua. The title of her talk is: States of presence: actors, marionettes, puppets on the stages of Massimo Bontempelli’s Siepe a nordovest.
Her study centres on the figure of Massimo Bontempelli (1878-1960), considered as the writer who, together with his friends Alberto Savinio (pseudonym of Andrea De Chirico) and Giorgio De Chirico introduced Surrealism (or ‘magical realism’ as he called it) to Italy, specifically through the farce in prose with music, Siepe a nordovest, published in 1919.
This work anticipates the complexity of future puppet theatre, being ‘a highly successful example of alternating and simultaneous perspectives: characters of flesh and blood played by actors, and string marionettes that want to protect their town from the north-west winds.’ The complexity is increased by the presence of the puppeteer, a gypsy woman, and a puppet theatre booth with its two glove puppets; these characters are blessed with a singular “clairvoyance” and are able to understand the whole plot’.
It combines different theatrical genres: a marionette show in which the characters act to build their city, guided by the Princess and the Hero; a play with actors, in which the plot centres on the typical love triangle of bourgeois theatre; glove puppet theatre; and, in addition, criticism and parody of the dramaturgical resource of double action, where different character types are unaware of each other.
This work should be placed in the context of the Italian avant-garde -for example, the Metaphysics of De Chirico, or the Futurist’s idea of simultaneity- allowing us to consider the puppet as paradigm, metaphor and literary image, while always respecting its theatrical dimension.
Grazioli emphasises the importance of the fact that Bontempelli decided to write his play after seeing a show at the Teatro Gerolamo, Milan’s principal marionette theatre. As the author himself said, ‘I imagined I was seeing flesh-and-blood actors performing alongside them (the puppets), all moving together on the same stage’.
Grazioli says: ‘It is surely significant that the text was published in 1922 with illustrations by Giorgio De Chirico, the painter of “Metaphysics”. My interpretation rests on the echoes transmitted by De Chirico’s thinking – his “doubles” in shadows, mannequins, objects, etc. – and the poetry and dramaturgy of Bontempelli, with their own imaginary world of figures – statues, mannequins, etc. – so widespread in the artistic culture of the period’.
Here is a whole world of interesting resonances that, ever since the early 20th century avant-garde, have interwoven with Hoffmann’s still darker ideas about the double, discussed earlier. This subject matter would never abandon the more aware and refined practices in puppetry, up to our own day.
The effervescence of Zurich’s puppetry scene between 1920 and 1930: the Schweizerisches Marionettentheater
Early expressions of the 20th century’s avant-garde have begun to appear during our European journey through texts for the puppet theatre, so we must now stop off in Zurich, a capital city that became an important focus of radiating artistic influence in the 20s and 30s. The speaker on this occasion is Hana Ribi, writer, theatre director, commissioner of exhibitions and puppeteer, co-founder of the Zürcher Puppen Theater (now, Theater Stadelhofen).
Hana Ribi introduced us to the history of Swiss marionette theatre through the important and decisive exhibition Theaterkunst-Ausstellung held in Zurich in 1914, organised by the director of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Alfred Altherr senior (1875– 1945). The exhibition was based on the two great theatre reformers of 20th century theatre: Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) and Adolph Appia (1862-1928).
The First World War brought together many artists and writers in neutral Switzerland, who began to create a professional theatre. Key figures were, for example, Alfred Altherr, the Reinharte family in Winterthur, and the dramaturg and poet René Moraz, who was the librettist for composer Arthur Honegger.
In 1918, after the end of the war, the Schweizerisches Marionettentheater was founded in Zurich. Students from the Kunstgewerbeschule participated, together with various playwrights, professional actors, singers and musicians. The theatre was lucky enough to find a patron in Werner Reinhard (1884-1951), closely linked to contemporary music and with good friendships in Parisian circles, which allowed the Schweizerisches Marionettentheater to obtain the performance rights for the first production of La boîte à joujoux by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The premiere was to be given in 1918, with marionettes by Otto Morach (1887-1973). Sadly, however, the Spanish flu epidemic intervened and it was not until 1987 that the work was presented in Zurich, on the occasion of the centenary of Otto Morach’s birth. The venue was the Kunstmuseum Solothurn and reproductions of the original puppets were used; the director was Lothar Drack.
In 1923, Reinhart’s interest in contemporary music led to the presentation, in the Schweizerisches Marionettentheater, of El Retablo de Maese Pedro, by Manuel de Falla, an opera that had recently received its first performance in Paris. Texts were translated into German by Hans Jelmoli and the marionettes were by Otto Morachs; the stage direction was by the actors Ottilie Hoch-Altherr and Hans von Spallart (1900–1985) and music was provided by the Kammerorchester Zürich under the Russian conductor Alexander Schaichet (1887–1964).
Another contemporary music premier by the theatre was Die Rache des verhöhnten Liebhabers, by Ernst Toller (1893–1939), an adaptation of The Decameron with music by Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) composed in 1926. Equally, Reinhart supported the marionette production of Singspiele by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and other works by Jacques Offenbach, Gaetano Donizetti, and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.
Besides operas and musical adaptations, perhaps the most popular work produced by the Schweizerisches Marionettentheater was Das Puppenspiel vom Doktor Faust.
Another of the most important initiatives of the Schweizerisches Marionettentheater was the production of the work by Carlo Gozzi König Hirsch (King Stag), directed by Werner Wolff and René Morax. The text had a marked Dadáist spirit, with allusions to the psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and played with characters from the commedia dell’arte. The marionettes were the work of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, employing her well known abstract style featuring conical and cubic elements; a work that has entered the history of art. A reconstruction of König Hirsch was performed at the Zürcher Puppen Theater (today, Theater Stadelhofen) in 1993 with reproductions of the original marionettes and sets, directed by Claudine Rajchman and Jean-Pierre Bitterli.
Almada Negreiros. The Portuguese avant-garde
It is now time to visit Portugal, the lands-end of Europe, in order to relish various examples of an avant-garde that, while faithfully reflecting developments in the continent’s foremost capitals, created its own style marked by that characteristic Portuguese detachment and irony. Catarina Firmo, researcher and teacher at the Centre for Theatre Studies of the University of Lisbon in a project dedicated to contemporary puppet theatre, delivered a lecture entitled ‘Metamorphosis and Utopia. The marionette body in Almada Negreiros’.
Her talk focused on the work Antes de Começar, (Before You Begin) by José Sobral Almada Negreiros (1893-1970), in which ‘two marionettes question the limits between the human and the inanimate, far from the gaze of their puppeteer’.
First of all she presented the unusual figure of Almada Negreiros, futurist author, pioneer in the Portuguese Modernist movement, poet, novelist, playwright, painter, dancer and set designer. As his great friend Ramón Gómez de la Serna said, he was an ‘unparalleled being in the midst of Portuguese painting and literature, leaping, as it were, from one trapeze to another’.
Antes de Começar was written in París between 1919 and 1921, inspired by the Futurist style of the Ballets Ruses, and demonstrates the naïf and ingenuous aesthetic elements of the artist’s work during this period. Finding themselves alone just before the show, two marionettes from a fairground theatre discover that they can move; the two puppets debate the opposing natures of humans and marionettes. They discover their physical freedom and autonomy, they speak about the world of adults in contrast to that of childhood, which values emotions, dreams and play.
The work received its first performance on 17 June 1949 at the Teatro Estúdio do Salitre, directed by Fernando Amado. According to Catarina Firmo: ‘In his theatre, privileging stylised figures and allegory, the body exists as a disquieting utopian presence,’.
This talk gives us a fascinating insight into José Sobral Almada Negreiros, not, perhaps, very well known in Europe and yet such a luminous and attractive figure, particularly when considered from the perspective of our own day. Catarina Firmo introduces us to the author’s complex world. Better known as a painter and designer than as a playwright, he was a member of the group Orpheu and was friends with Mário de Sá Carneiro, Santa-Rita Pintor and Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, as well as with Fernando Pessoa himself, whose most famous portrait he painted. The researcher delves into the meanings and multiple readings offered by Antes de Começar, situating the play at the heart of contemporary thinking about puppetry and many other artistic fields.
Almada had a strong relationship with Madrid, too, where he resided until 1932, having arrived in the city in 1927. A great friend of Ramón Gómez de la Serna, he was a regular at the well known Pombo tertulia (or weekly talks), and the no less famous Café La Granja El Henar, frequented by Unamuno, Valle-Inclán, Lorca and Alberti, and the comics Enrique Jardiel Poncela, Edgar Neville and Miguel Mihura.
Catarina Firmo describes the features and vicissitudes of various productions of the play, such as the second time Fernando Amado staged it in 1956, at the Teatro Nacional Doña Maria II. In 1964 he staged it again, in collaboration with Almada Negreiros, at the Centro Nacional de Cultura and the Casa da Comédia. Since then, it has been performed on various occasions, in 1984, 1992, 2015, …, always employing distinct and innovative approaches.
Plays for puppets by the playwright and poet Regina Guimarães
Without leaving Portugal, we turn to the talk by Christine Zurbach, professor in drama and performance studies at the University of Evora, in which she speaks about the poet Regina Guimarães and her own work for puppet theatre; specifically, two of various plays she has written, together with the company Teatro de Ferro, since 2004: Dura Ditadura (2009) and La Ópera de cinco euros (2010). There is a third text, El Exhibidor de Marionetas (published in 2014), as yet unperformed, that was written in homage to João Paulo Cardoso (1956-2010), who founded Marionetas do Porto.
Regina Guimarães’s plays, according to Zurbach, are all available on the website of the publishers Ediciones Hélastre (see here).
Regina Guimarães belongs to a generation that is open to experimentation. Born in 1957, she lives in Porto, where, as well as teaching at the FLUP and ESMAE, she has not stopped writing since the 70s. Poet, playwright and video maker, she is also a songwriter. Already in her work for the group Très Tristes Tigres, formed with the singer Ana Deus, a basic characteristic is evident: a taste for writings from the margins of literature, so-called minor genres, and language games such as the tongue twister chosen as the name of the group.
Su escritura para marionetas ha ido de la mano de los dos Her writing for puppets has developed hand-in-hand with the members of the permanent artistic team of the company Teatro de Ferro: Igor Gandra and Carla Veloso (both trained in dance and movement theatre), founded in 1999 and self defined as a contemporary project in puppet and object theatre (see here). Teatro de Ferro creates work in which the actor-puppeteer interacts with the objects and the puppet.
A creative complicity between Regina Guimarães and Teatro de Ferro has produced some twenty shows since 2004. Their collaboration is based on a shared dramaturgy that expresses ‘a concept of performance strictly linked to the very writing of the text intended for the stage, in the form of a framework or of very detailed, long stage directions, and of words organised into speeches that take very different forms depending on the characters/actors,’ as Zurbach explains.
As the lecturer points out, in spite of of her apparent distance from literary tradition, her writing ‘exists thanks to literature, in all its forms, not only thanks to the idea of a poem or poetic text, but also to working through exchanges or contamination between literary writing and that of so-called popular tradition, especially that which has the simpler forms of widely shared literature.’
‘With simple and direct language and playing with emotions as well as irony, with the help of wordplay and double meaning, the text ‘poeticises’ the uses of the word in all its guises, without borders or prejudices.’
Cristina Zurbach then continues to detail the worlds within the three works chosen.
Dura Dita Dura (2009) responds to the shared desire of author and puppeteers to keep alive the memory of the historical period preceding 26 April 1974, that of the dictatorship of Salazar and Caetano.
The Ópera de los Cinco Euros (2010) subtitled Trans-Ghetto-Express, has as its subject the European migration crisis of 2010. Intended to be performed outdoors, the show is described as ‘a low-cost street musical’ and also as ‘Rehearsal of an experimental garage-rock group and total art opera’.
The Exhibidor de Marionetas (2014), dedicated as previously mentioned to the memory of João Paulo Cardoso, is designed as ‘a kind of mediaeval mystery play for our times, a parodic and satirical return to our origins, to different kinds of repertoires, such as that founded on the Gospels and inscribed in the folk tradition of puppetry (still alive in Portugal in the company Os Bonecos de Santo Aleixo), the world of playwright Gil Vicente, and satirical cabarets.
Zurbach concludes by emphasising the transformative role of poetry in new forms of writing. Regina Guimarães’s collaboration with puppets is ‘a demonstration of this transforming power of spoken poetry when it is extended into the domain of artistic creation’.
The influence of puppet theatre on the plays of Tankred Dorst
Fully steeped now in the agitated panorama of culture and puppetry of 20th century Europe, we move from Portugal to Germany, to listen to Mascha Esbelding, director of the Department of Puppet Theatre and Fairground attractions at the Munich Stadtmuseum, and artistic director of the International Puppet Theatre Festival in Munich. Mascha Esbelding spoke about the great German playwright Tankred Dorst (1925-2017) and the influence on his work of the 13 years he spent with the amateur puppet company Kleines Spiel in Munich. He himself describes his reflections in two books, published in 1950.
The lecturer focuses on the first work written for Kleines Spiel, Aucassin and Nicolette (1953), which was performed again in 1964 in a new version by the company; this was the author’s last work with Kleines Spiel. Later, in 1964, Dorst would write a version of the same play for actors, with the title Die Mohrin. And in 1969 he turned it into an opera libretto. It is therefore a work in which it is possible to follow the evolution of the above mentioned influences.
Says Mascha Esbelding, citing Dorst himself: ‘I was full of disdain for the “imitation of life” on stage, of its psychology and realism. I thought that our problems, our catastrophes, our ridiculous life could not be expressed through psychology, which is to say with people, with an independent life onstage’. By opting for marionettes, which allowed him to embody his fantastical creativity, he says: ‘through the significance of the marionette, poetic images appear immediately, with objective reality’. Dorst reached the essential conclusion that ‘marionettes are not small people and that puppet theatre is not a miniature version of actors theatre’.
One of his first decisions was to introduce the figure of the Narrator, something he had already done in his first play Aucassin and Nicolette. It suited him well that the play was based on the anonymous mediaeval French chantefable of the same name, written in verse and prose, which combines elements of cantares de gesta, lyrical poems and courtly love. This allowed him to play with the strictly codified formalism of the medieval work, which helped achieve detachment, and the presence of the narrator, who intensified the imagination and clarified the action.
Forst continues: ‘The narrator returns part of its freedom to the puppet, whose movements are blocked by dialogue’. As Mascha Esbelding points out, there are also references to the puppet traditions of Japan, Java and India, when Forst says: ‘between language and the puppet there should be a certain distance, as between the points of an elipsis; thus each one can exist in freedom, in their freedom together’.
After the Narrator, the second condition for a successful puppet play is fragmentation. Dorst says ‘A good puppet play should have a degree of fragmentation: it is only necessary to fix what is important to the poetics of the subjects developed. (…) The sketch enables actors and designers to come together in the creation of the work.’
A third aspect of Dorst’s reflections on marionettes is the desirable combination of parody and the comic, as well as juxtaposing a certain naive innocence with subtle irony. He recommends working with cliches. ‘The advantages of using a particular cliché when creating a new play are obvious: its moral and meaning of life will be no more true than for the characters of an Italian comedy or the plot of a pulp fiction novel with aristocratic protagonists. They are the product of pure fantasy.’
Mascha Esbelding said that in the version for actors of Aucassin and Nicolette, Dorst’s loss of interest in puppets is evident, although certain constants remain, such as the figure of the narrator who is now the mediator between different epochs, an ironic commentator on history. Dolls and a huge marionette also appear in different scenes. However, as Georg Hensel ironically points out in the quotation with which Esbelding ends her talk, on the occasion of Dorst’s receiving the Georg-Büchner-Prize 1990 (the most important literary prize in Germany): ‘Tankred Dorst shifted from marionette fairytales to the antithesis of a psychological realism and, in the end, in a kind of synthesis, towards the fairytales and myths that he wrote in the 1980s. He himself exclaimed: “fairytales must be realistic”. And added with greater precision: “as realistic as dreams”.’
Traditional characters in contemporary writing
Undoubtedly, in this cascade of experimentation in the arts of the 20th century, where puppets, objects and so-called visual theatre occupy a central place, the relationship between tradition and the avant-garde plays an important role. This is the subject of the talk by Francesca Di Fazio, doctoral candidate in drama and performance at the Universidad Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, currently writing a thesis on Contemporary playwriting for puppets and marionettes in France and Italy (of the first decade of the present century).
Di Fazio takes as her point of departure the question: ‘What happens when a typical character of puppet theatre takes possession of a modern author’s pen? This question, which may appear somewhat provocative, attempts to highlight the fact that when a puppet moves into the foreground of a theatrical text, it imposes itself as the centre of the entire dramatic action.’
When this occurs, one of two things may happen: ‘the puppet can remain within its own context (typical routines, interaction with other habitual accompanying characters) or, conversely, it can be inserted into unusual contexts, modern situations or those rarely seen from a dramaturgical point of view.
Di Fazio chooses three works, being texts that stage various elements from traditional plays: Polichinelle in La Chpocalypse, by Gérard Lépinois; Arlecchino in Macbeth all’improvviso, by Gigio Brunello and Gyula Molnár; and a traditional story from the puppet ‘retablos’ of northern Italy, creating a new tragic hero, in the iena di San Giorgio, by Guido Ceronetti.
Three works that display different aspects of modernity: the metatheatre of Brunello and Molnár, the anti-hero tragedy of Ceronetti, scenes organised in a series of sequences in Lépinois’s work.
Gérard Lépinois, a French author who has collaborated frequently with puppeteers (among others, Dominique Houdart, Jeanne Heuclin and Alain Recoing) is the author of La Chpocalypse, commissioned by Alain Recoing, in which Polichinelle shows his most sinister and violent face. In this play he eats, fornicates and kills. Others in his proximity are also induced to kill. Everyone ends up dead except for Mère Cigogne (Mother Stork). She it is who has given birth to all mortal characters, except Polichinelle; and in the end it is she who kills Polichinelle. A symbol of fertility converted into a monstrous murderer. At the end of the play, she lifts her skirt: her belly is a rotten, corrupt hole. Everything is horror. There is no escape from this ineluctable curse. This work by Lépinois advances inexorably to its impecable dénouement, in a succession of closely interlinked words and images
Another, very different approach is that of the Italian author, Gigio Brunello, and his collaborator, the stage director Gyula Molnár, originally from Hungary. Here, the traditional character Arlequino (Harlequin) -the mask from Veneto where Brunello lives-, comes into conflict with how he is expected to behave according to theatrical conventions; here, he has his own criteria, a libertarian individuality which transmits the idea of the character’s autonomy. The freewill displayed by the character leads him to rebel against the puppeteer who decides to suspend the programmed show -Macbeth-, since neither the set nor characters are finished. The puppeteer wants to substitute the play with an unpublished work by Goldoni, but when Arlequino sees that here, too, a prop is missing, he becomes irritated and decides to stick to the original plan and perform Macbeth. He convinces the rest of the puppets and obliges the puppeteer to accept their decision. He inverts the traditional relationship of the puppet theatre: instead of the puppet embodying the projected will of the puppeteer, it is the puppet who is the active subject and master of the action and who projects his will on the puppeteer. This all occurs with each traditional character well placed in their roles and typical language, which is to say, faithful to the dictates of tradition. However, in the case of Arlequino’s rebellion, he rejects the classic gags as forced in the context; a rebellion that Brunello relates to the tragedy of Macbeth and which ends up affecting everyone: Arlequino dies and the puppeteer loses an arm.
The mark of tradition is very different in the iena di San Giorgio, by Guido Ceronetti, written with Erica Tedeschi. Together, the pair created the string marionette theatre, the Teatro dei Sensibili, which was patronised by highly prestigious figures from the Italian cultural scene, from Eugenio Montale to Federico Fellini. Ceronetti offers us a hero named Barnaba Caccú, inspired by La iena di San Giorgio, in which a murderous butcher makes sausages from the flesh of his victims, all young women; a recurring subject in the theatres of northern Italy at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The play was performed, for example, by the famous puppeteer Guaberto Niemen, seen by Ceronetti. The difference between the two versions is that while in Niemen the butcher is a secondary character, an incarnation of evil who must be eliminated –evil that is condemned to be vanquished–, in Ceronetti’s version, Barnaba Caccù is an antihero facing an absurd, tragic destiny: that of not being recognised as a criminal in spite of confessing the pleasure he feels when killing young women. Why does nobody recognise him? Killer and victim at one and the same time are performed by string marionettes, metaphor of a life lived without freedom.
A liberated dramaturgy: Kossi Efoui’s writing for marionettes
Let us now attend the lecture by Pénélope Dechaufour, assistant professor in drama and performance studies at the Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, entitled ‘Kossi Efoui: writing “in” the marionette theatre and with the puppeteers, an emancipated dramaturgy’. The subject of her talk is the collaboration, established in 2005, between Kossi Efoui, originally from Togo and in exile in France, and the company Théâtre Inutile based in Amiens, directed by Nicolas Saelens.
Kossi Efoui, playwright and novelist, was born in Togo in 1962 and has been resident in France since 1990; his is one of the most important voices of francophone literature from sub-Saharan Africa. Given that he has been in France for more than 20 years and that all his work has been published in this country, Kossi Efoui is now considered a French and European author. As Pénélope Dechaufour recounts, his imaginary world is profoundly impregnated by elements of marionette theatre: dolls, masks, images, puppeteers… According to the lecturer, they reveal a philosophical paradigm of the marionette. A component that would gradually increase since 2005, when he began a process of ‘compagnonnage’ (creative accompaniment) with the company Théâtre Inutile and its director, Nicolas Saelens, currently the president of THEMAA, the organisation of French puppeteers.
His objective was to go beyond the dramatic canons and establish a new dramaturgy, plastic in nature, seeking the emergence of a symbolic figure on the threshold between the visible and the invisible. Such an aim was inevitably in part political; being a pursuit of freedom from the yoke of colonial oppression and alienation, through the use of fable, theatre and marionettes..
If we look at the titles of his various plays, we see that plastic and poetic elements are indeed at the heart of Kossi Efoui’s thought and work, and of how the marionette and the object are treated as metaphors, as signs of mystery and liberation. He is not interested in classifications that fix genres, theatrical conventions and forms; the pursuit of an emancipated dramaturgy means, for him, to enter a terrain without frontiers, in which the theatrical and poetic have an intimate relationship with the political: codes and conventions are similar to the oppressive laws of tyranny. In order to emancipate the word, it must be placed at a certain distance, mistrusted.
Efoui also gives great importance to the presence of the body on stage: gesture and physicality are both part of his theatrical world.
We will end with Efoui’s own words, as quoted by Pénélope Dechaufour: ‘At a time when a certain televisual realism, allied to the cult of live broadcast, simulates reality and is offered as the transparent truth, puppetry has something to tell us about the need for playing, by which a twist is wrought that sends the self-proclaimed evidence back to its opaqueness, to the repressed questions that produced it in the first place.’
Francisco Nieva’s world of puppetry
It is time to return to the Iberian Peninsula for the lecture by Adolfo Ayuso Roy, writer, dramaturg and literary critic, specialised in the art of puppetry in Spain. He founded the company Títeres de la Tía Elena (1995) and directed the festivals Títeres y Juglares at the Monastery of Veruela (2000-2004) and the Parque de las Marionetas in Saragossa (2004-2011). Ayuso talked about: ‘The marionettisation of 20th-century Spanish playwrights. The case of Francisco Nieva’.
He opened his talk with a reference to how, from the early 20th century, the new generations of Spanish playwrights were familiar with the great European theatrical revolutions brought about by Gordon Craig, Appia and others; and puppetry began to make inroads in the arts of the avant-garde. Russiñol with his Titella Pròdig (1911), Picasso with Parade for the Ballets Russes (1917) and Lorca with his play El maleficio de la mariposa (1920), in which the actors were disguised as animals, among others.
Ayuso focused on the figure of the Catalan playwright Jacinto Grau (1877-1959) and his best known play, El señor de Pigmalión, published in 1923, and which was premiered in the Théâtre de l’Atelier in Paris in 1923, directed by Charles Dullin with a young Antonin Artaud. It was performed again in Prague in 1925. The first performance in Spain was given in 1928, with a remarkable set design by Salvador Bartolozzi.
The play shows Pygmalion, the famous director of a puppet-theatre company, who act as if his puppets were alive. He falls in love with Pomponina, the most beautiful of the creatures he has created. The puppets have a life of their own, about which Pygmalion knows nothing. Other puppets are also in love with Pomponina. In the end they decide to rebel against their creator.
After the Spanish Civil War, playwrights concentrated on naturalistic folkloric works, or on social realism. It was not until the 1970s that a key figure emerged, creator of a new type of theatre closely related to the world of puppetry and free from the corset and limitations of Franco’s society: Francisco Nieva (1927-2016). Today, he is considered one of the great Spanish playwrights of the 20th century, together with Ramón del Valle-Inclán (1866-1936), Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) and Antonio Buero Vallejo (1916-2000).
Ayuso presented the figure of Francisco Nieva as a provocative dramaturg, irreverent towards religion, a daring catalyst in writing about sex, merciless towards corruption among the powerful and the bourgeoisie. Following his early years in Paris, where he established a career as an avant-garde painter, he returned to Madrid en 1964, having decided to work in the theatre; first as a set designer and, little by little, as a playwright.
As his close friend and private secretary José Pedreira explained in the Puppetry Congress of Ciudad Real (October 2021), Nieva was a true ‘labourer of the theatre’, in the sense that, for him, every aspect of a production was important: not just the actors and the text, but also the slightest details of costume, make up, set design, props, gadgets and stage machinery, and any other object that might occur to him. If the technicians objected to one of his demands for the set, he would sort the problem out himself, sometimes staying all night to work in the closed theatre with an assistant or on his own; demonstrating to the technicians the following day that his petition was indeed viable..
Which is to say, his concept of the theatre was basically visual and sculptural, one in which both the word and the minor physical and visual details were important.
Adolfo Ayuso also spoke about the influence of ‘Postismo’ in Nieva (the name of the literary and artistic movement created by Carlos Edmundo de Ory (1923-2010) and Eduardo Chicharro Briones (1905-1964), which resembled ‘a controlled madness’ in contrast to Surrealism, and to which authors such as Fernando Arrabal (1932) and the poet Gloria Fuertes (1917-1998) were also drawn.
Finally, Ayuso focused on Nieva’s characters and on the drawings of his well-known Teatro Furioso. He says: ‘Nieva sees his characters as beings who are half alive, half dead, as mechanical constructions in which flesh and inanimate material are combined. Later, he would convert them into actors and actresses. But Paco Nieva’s imaginary model is evident in his drawings’.
Ayuso’s description of the theatrical world of Francisco Nieva was lively and attractive and surprised those attending the conference, as the figure of Nieva has been, to date, totally unknown in European, and Spanish, puppetry. His lecture aroused genuine interest among specialists and scholars of puppetry.
Literary works for puppets in Valencia, Spain
We remain in Spain for the lecture by Jaume Lloret i Esquerdo, emeritus professor in Catalan language and literature at the University of Alicante, and historian of puppetry in the Valencian Autonomous Community, in his book: ‘La creación literaria para marionetas de los escritores valencianos contemporáneos’ (Literary works for puppets by contemporary Valencian writers).
Lloret began by highlighting the specific history of Puppetry in Spain following the end of the Civil War, with the trauma of Franco’s dictatorship and the rupture as regards the previous period of the Spanish Republic. The implacable censorship and absolute control over public performances led to the silence of those playwrights who had been most vocal during the conflict. Commercial theatre, which did not present problems for the regime, predominated.
However, there were a number of isolated attempts at protest: for example, La filla del rei barbut (1943) by Manuel Segarra Ribes with music by Matilde Salvador, the first comic opera for puppets in the history of the Valencian theatre.
There was a move on the part of the authorities to introduce a Falangist puppet to indoctrinate children in the values of the new regime. Nevertheless, this theatre imposed from above never managed to arouse much interest among young audiences. Fortunately, puppet theatre has always had a curious spirit of survival and, gradually, puppeteers freed themselves from official oversight and began to offer more entertaining shows for children.
The death of Franco in 1975 and the arrival of new democratic institutions in Spain transformed the landscape and established the conditions for the emergence of new kinds of work. Professional companies established themselves in the 80s and 90s and began to experiment with interdisciplinary forms combining object theatre, shadows, images, video art, choreography, circus, music and poetry.
Illustrated presentation of book by Jaume Lloret
Lloret spoke about the new Valencian authors, focusing on two generations: those born in the 1940s, such as Eduardo Quiles, Rodolf Sirera, Manuel Molins and Antonio Amorós, and the generation from the 60s, such as Pasqual Alapont and Paco Zarzoso. From the younger generation born in the 70s, special mention was given to Xavier Puchades.
Valencian playwrights who have produced work for puppets have done so, in general, as the result of a commission rather than out of personal choice, whether for a puppet company, a publishing company creating a collection of children’s theatre, or for a tour or festival.
Lloret then talked about twelve original texts for puppet theatre, ten written in Catalan and two in Spanish. Half of them are for children, the other half for adults. They are:
Puppet plays for children:
– two plays by Empar Lanuza: Un arbre genial and L’ogre espantatotsitotes.
– L’encanteri del drac, by Antonio Amorós (premiered in 2018)
– Resegó, el rodamón, by Manuel Molins
– La princesa del desert (1991), by Rodolf Sirera
– Trotapesquis o El alquimista y los instrumentos musicales, by Eduardo Quiles
Puppet plays for adults:
– La navaja, by Eduardo Quiles
– La mirada del alquimista, by Rodol Sirera
– Estratègia per a una ciutat d’ombres, by Pasqual Mas
– El circ de la fosca, by Pasqual Alapont
– L’èxit és l’ombra, by Paco Zarzoso
– El cel dins una estança, by three authors: Pazo Zarzoso, Xavier Puchades and Jaume Policarpo (premiered in 2006).
Jaume Lloret analysed in depth the dramaturgy of all these works, defining their common characteristics and some of their most significant distinguishing features. This refined research is a worthy addition to Professor Lloret’s enormous task of listening to and mapping the past and present of Valencia’s puppetry landscape.
Revolutionary puppets during the Spanish Civil War
We continue in Spain but with a step back in time, for the talk by Hélène Beauchamp, assistant professor in comparative literature at the Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès. The title of her lecture was: ‘When writing “for” puppets is writing “against”. Some thoughts about the Spanish revolutionary repertoire in the 1930s’.
Hélène Beauchamp explains how the proclamation of the Second Republic in 1931 led to the emergence of a revolutionary repertoire that, associated with the influence of political theatre in the USSR or Germany, developed during the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939. Writers included, among others, Rafael Alberti, Max Aub and Rafael Dieste, together with figures such as the set designer and puppeteer Miguel Prieto, who directed a revolutionary puppet theatre company during the war.
The Spanish example allows us to pose general questions about the relationship between the literary repertoire for puppets and its historical-political context. Is puppet theatre in the field of political theatre really possible? By which we mean a kind of theatre that situates itself in the framework of the developing theatre for mass audiences, agitprop and epic theatre. Can puppet theatre be a theatre of propaganda?
Beauchamp indicates how work by the previously mentioned authors is the result of hybridisation between various influences, to the extent that they dialogue with the agitprop theatre of the USSR, the political theatre of Piscator and the vast corpus of the theatre of war during the Spanish Civil War.
Her talk was organised in three stages. First, she situates the Spanish revolutionary repertoire ‘for puppets’ in the context of the politicisation of theatre in Europe and in Spain. Second, she separated out the elements of theatrical and, therefore, political efficiency that can be attributed to what, in French, the speaker calls the ‘marionettisation’ of characters and action, comparing the corpus of puppet shows with other contemporary productions.
Third, she observed the tensions between literary and revolutionary dramaturgy. Focusing on the ‘guignol’ (in its revolutionary application) the question was raised: is it a support for theatrical and literary creativity or. on the contrary, do these plays represent a decisive break with the literary and poetic dimensions found in Lorca and Valle-Inclán?
These fascinating subjects and questions, though referring to a period from our past, remain –and will remain– relevant in this convulsive 21st-century, in which nostalgic currents seem to be emerging, eager to repeat certain historic episodes. Beauchamp’s approach to these old puppeteering adventures is refreshingly rational, while her sharp vision puts them in perspective.
In evaluating whether these examples of revolutionary theatre can be saved as works that are relevant to the literary repertoire of puppet plays, Beauchamp argues that the creative wellspring for these authors was provided by plays rooted in national literary traditions. She highlights, equally, the significance of the choice of ‘guiñol’ (popular puppet theatre), which, apart from its comic nature and capacity for burlesque, on the one hand offers possibilities for mirroring and wordplay while, on the other, guarantees an effective revolutionary function by limiting flights of poetic fancy, melodramatic exaggeration and exemplary and didactic dialogues.
Federico García Lorca and the puppet
A conference focused on literary plays for puppets was inevitably going to turn its attention at some point to Lorca. It did so guided by Bassuel Lobera, doctor in Iberian and Latin American studies, and teacher at the secondary (CPGE) school in Montpellier. She gave a brilliant and very well documented lecture that sought to explain how far puppetry impregnates the entire work of Granada’s most famous poet.
Cécile Bassuel Lobera began by contextualising the moment when Lorca stepped on to the Spanish literary scene, given that in the 1920s people had already been talking about a crisis in the theatre and the need for its reform. Together with playwrights such as Ramón del Valle-Inclán, Jacinto Benavente, Gregorio Martínez Sierra and Cipriano Rivas Cherif, Lorca also aspired to open new pathways for theatre along the lines proposed by Théâtre d’Art, by Paul Fort, Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, by Lugné-Poe, or fashionable new stage directors such as Gordon Craig, Meyerhold and Copeau.
The lecturer drew attention to the fact that, in spite of the widely recognised importance Lorca gave to words and the poetic voice, no less important was his desire for a renovation of the stage itself, ‘considered as the site of convergence between colour, sound and movement at the service of a play founded on association and emotion’. A theatre for which, as occurred in his poetry, ‘it was in the most deeply rooted sources of popular tradition of Spanish culture, such as the ballad or puppet theatre, that the playwright found the voice of his most innovative works’.
Cécile Bassuel Lobera described some of the most attractive moments of the poet Lorca as puppeteer, such as the performance he organised in his house in January 1923 with Manuel de Falla, with puppets decorated by Hermenegildo Lanz, as well as the teatro planista, or 2-dimensional theatre, that the latter made for the performance of the Auto de los Reyes Magos (The Auto of the Three Wise Men).
The taste for teatro planista, similar to the tradition of ‘Aleluyas’ and ‘Cromos’, which seeks a distancing effect and ‘a marked austerity and lack of emotional expression’, according to a quotation taken from Lorca himself, in reference to the The Love of Don Perlimplín and Belisa in the Garden. From the same extract cited, the poet says: ‘… There must be no human emotion, rather a very distant, petrified emotion. (…) The reader or audience member will always have a jug of cold water poured over their head. (…) But, nevertheless, the effect should be tremendously expressive and tragic. (…) The characters’ only fear is that the ‘Aleluya’ will end.’
‘When we situate ourselves in this rich, brimming context we understand that puppetry occupies a fundamental place in Lorca’s imaginary world and the origins of his theatrical vocation,’ says Cécile Bassuel Lobera.
But perhaps her most interesting reflection is on the puppet-like features she points to in the author’s last two plays, El Público and Así que pasen cinco años. She refers to Lorca’s use of mannequin characters or large masked figures, which served to bring back to the stage this emotional aspect of the plastic and poetic, which Lorca felt was sorely lacking in the theatre.
Cécile Bassuel Lobera describes how, in the second of these pieces: ‘Associated to the play of light, the rhythm and a different musicality in the dialogue between the Young Man and the Mannequin, a dream world is established that produces on the stage a strange, disturbing detachment that is, at one and the same time, familiar and supernatural’.
We will conclude with the speaker’s own words, in which she eloquently sums up her work: ‘What this conference organised by PuppetPlays has allowed me to perceive more clearly than ever is the coherence and persistence of a mental world of puppetry and, even more importantly, of a poetics based on the principles of puppet theatre, as the source of all the experiments in Lorca’s theatre, whether the plays were written for puppets or not.’
Dramaturgical marionettisation in Ghelderode and Valle-Inclán
Émilie Combes, doctor in French literature at the Université Paris 4, centred her contribution on the important figures, on the one hand, of Belgian writer Michel de Ghelderode (1898-1962) and, on the other, Spanish playwright Ramón del Valle-Inclán (1866-1936) in a lecture entitled: ‘Dramaturgical marionettisation in Ghelderode and Valle-Inclán, a mode of representing the human’.
The speaker based her work on the analysis and comparison of three plays: Farsa infantil de la cabeza del dragón by Valle-Inclán and, by Ghelderode, Images de la vie de Saint François and Femmes au tombeau. Émilie Combes poses the question: What is it in the poetic and dramaturgical modes of their writing that contributes to the production of a “puppet effect?” And, above all: How do puppets, grotesque figures par excellence, allow authors to explore new aesthetics?
Émilie Combes says: ‘Paradoxically, as a result of their hybrid, manipulated and caricatured aspects, marionettised characters serve as metaphors for the human condition, which they invest with a spectacular and comic force. Dramatists have recourse to the aesthetic of the puppet effect in order to establish a necessary detachment in response to our feelings of anguish, and to defend ourselves against them by means of the grotesque and laughter or through farce, which implies an exaggerated and deformed vision of reality.’
For Ghelderode, ‘puppets constitute the archetypes of a basic dramaturgy. He would have used them out of the need for opposition and theatrical renewal, fascinated by these creatures that occupy the frontier between the human and the inanimate, between life and death. (…) In the line of Jarry, Maeterlinck or even Meyerhold, Ghelderode turns to puppets, or to the actor transformed into a puppet, to create a new type of stage space in which the puppet becomes both sign and instrument.’
It is interesting to see that his 1934 play, La Balade du grand macabre served as the basis and inspiration for the opera by György Ligeti, Le Grand Macabre, with a libretto by the puppeteer Michael Meschke. A brilliant production of the opera, by the company La Fura dels Baus, placed a giant puppet at the centre of the stage.
Turning her attention to Tablado de marionetas para educación de príncipes, comprising three plays by Valle-Inclán, Farsa infantil de la Cabeza del Dragón (1910), Farsa italiana de la enamorada del rey (1920) and Farsa y licencia de la Reina Castiza (1920), Émilie Combes says: ‘While these three short pieces demonstrate a didactic intention and remind us of mediaeval treatises, buffoonery, commedia dell’arte and puppet theatre for children, above all they allowed Valle-Inclán to explore a new aesthetic that would lead him to develop his ‘esperpento’ (or grotesque) style of theatre.
She also mentions the influence of the puppets of Theatre Toon in Brussels, which Ghelderode knew as a child: ‘Ghelderode learnt from Toon to exaggerate effects, use stage action and accelerate rhythm. Indeed, puppets and marionettes need rhythmic vivacity. The multiplication of situations is accompanied by a proliferation of appearances, which led to the enormously long cast lists in Ghelderode, especially, for example, in Femmes au Tombeau.’
For his part, ‘Valle-Inclán makes use of doubles and games of mirrors. Prince Verdemar exchanges clothes with Buffon to escape Espandian and flees under Maritornes’ watchful eye. Disguise, playing with appearances, and the exaggeration of theatricality form the defining core of farce, to which Valle-Inclán aludes from the start, when Prince Pompón exclaims in relation to Lutin: Prince Sesame, you mustn’t trust appearances!’
Some characteristics of this dramaturgical marionettisation in the two authors are:
– ‘Stylisation, which in the written texts means expressing a minimum of feelings and a minimum of words,’ that is to say, ‘simplification of language, maximum economy in the use of words, rhythmic scansion, a mechanism of repetition, and even using onomatopoeia and blasphemy’.
– ‘The puppet states clearly and as briefly as possible what it thinks, what it feels and, where a gesture would not be understood, even what it does.’
– There is also ‘a visual or plastic economy, thanks to the stylisation of sets, or minimal stage directions that may veer into the realm of dreams, of fantasy.’
– ‘The playwrights favour crossroads, the symbol of an itinerant life, and meeting places or places of transit – inns or woods in the case of Valle-Inclán.’
These are mere notes, intended to give an idea of the depth of analysis provided by Émilie Combes; we recommend reading her talk in full for her revealing observations about these two fascinating authors.
Differing ways of writing for puppets
Already immersed in reflections about dramaturgy from within writing for puppetry itself, the Conference heard the fascinating talk by Tina Bicat, designer of costumes, puppets, props, installations in different performing arts; she is also the author of numerous books on costume and puppet theatre and has worked for the National Theatre and the New York City Ballet. She is an Associated Artist with Ockham’s Razor and she won the Critics Circle award for her work Punchdrunk. The title of her lecture was: ‘On the differing ways scripts are created for puppet performance’.
Tina Bicat spoke about two forms of dramaturgy for staging puppet performances: one is the traditional manner of writing a script or stage play; the second is to develop the text and action during the rehearsal process.
As Tina Bicat explained, ‘the two puppets I use to illustrate this presentation were developed in direct consultation with the writers of each piece and show very different approaches to the dramaturgy of puppet plays. One explores the journey of a traditional playwright […] he realises, having written the play, that the character he has created couldn’t be played onstage by a real child.’ The other, from the beginning, wishes to tell a story using narrative and puppets.
Tina Bicat spoke as a designer-inventor and not as an author or director of shows, but as someone whose job ‘is to bring the ideas of the writers, directors and performers to a visual reality for the audience.’
In the play, Buried Treasure (written in 1989) by Roy Kendal (1943-2020), the little girl, Lizzie, is a character in a traditional play, with its sets, costumes and theatrical effects. Tina Bicat talks of ‘a couple returning to the wife’s childhood home. The wife, Elizabeth, was sexually abused in that place as a very young child and never, then or later, spoke of that dreadful trauma. The memory of her years as a frightened little girl had been buried in her psyche until the child ghost of those forgotten early years appears to her husband and, eventually, to her adult self. […] Throughout the play her trauma’s revealed to the audience. […] The form is a naturalistic play in two acts, performed in a proscenium theatre, and the puppet needs to be of a size that can relate in scale to the human actors, and also can be seen in a large auditorium.’
It is worth listening to Tina Bicat for further details about the work: ‘The child is called Lizzie and she is, as she says, all years before 7. The humanity and physical complexity of her character present a challenge for a designer. She’s partially deaf, and it needs to be very clear to the audience that sometimes her ears are painful. She needs to be able to cover both her eyes and her mouth. She has blood on her nightgown. There are times when she can be thought of as a ghost and times when she has the reality of the real child. We, the audience, don’t know who or what she really is until quite late in the play, when her adult self accepts her puppet self as the buried memory from her childhood.’
I carved her, with the words she speaks in my head. She began to be real to me, and I began to love her. I knew if I loved her the audience would. And I hoped that when Kendall met her he’d love her too, and feel that my construction of wood and wire was the character he’d written. (…) He did like her. After that, we worked through the play, scene by scene, to imagine the practicalities of the animation, or the appearance; by which time, Lizzie, the puppet, had as much reality and truth in our minds as Lizzie on the page.
The play The Hapless Child, based on a short novel by Edward Gorey (1960) and staged by the company Brunskill and Grimes, follows the journey of a child through cruelty and despair to her eventual death. Gorey’s stories and distinct illustrations are overlaid with a grim and elusive humour. They are most often set in the past, in strict Edwardian respectability of upper class England and they address horrific and surreal situations with an ironic and darkly comic detachment. In this story a little girl, Charlotte Sophia, becomes an orphan, is tortured at school, is kidnapped and abused, goes blind and dies by being run over by her own father, who reappears but does not recognise her little corpse. It’s a tale of Victorian melodrama.
‘Brunskill works through a visual perspective and reaches his texts through collaborative invention in the rehearsal room. He then hones this into a form. He is puppet maker and puppeteer as well as writer and director. Our first production meeting was practical. Brunskill presented extensive research on Gorey’s work to show his creative and performing company his vision, and we were all in the same room. He knew the work he wanted to make, but wanted to develop the work as a creative collaboration through rehearsal.
Tina Bicat, in her talk, concludes: ‘The two productions were created more than 30 years apart. Kendall’s in the 1980s, in a British theatrical climate in which puppetry was for children, and Brunskill in 2020, when many adult plays included puppetry. It’s surprising that despite the differences in the approach of both these writers and the differences in style of the two plays, the reaction of the audience to both puppets was the same. The styles of writing and the story arc could hardly provide a greater contrast; but the audience for both engaged with the two girl-child puppets as real children.’
Writing for puppets in the GDR (German Democratic Republic)
Gerd Taube, honorary professor at the University Goethe in Frankfurt and director of the Kinder- und Jugendtheaterzentrum of the Federal Republic of Germany, talked about the situation of puppet theatres in the former GDR. As is well known, the GDR had a profusion of municipal theatres, organised as small city theatres in line with the Soviet model.
Gerd Taube pointed out that this meant that the principle of the division of work that was characteristic of actors theatre was transferred to puppet theatres. New plays were created in the GDR either as commissioned work for the theatres or by ensembles themselves. The aim of Taube’s lecture was to explore the peculiarities of writing for puppet theatre as an ensemble art, and he concentrated on the analysis of plays by a number of authors who defined puppetry in the GDR.
He spoke first about the playwright and puppeteer, Martin Morgner, an artist who was critical of the system, aware as he was that what counted as a writer was the literary quality of his plays. He cited Morgner: ‘I consider the quality of the playwriting to be the key to the artistic emancipation of GDR puppet theatre art, and by no means only in the appropriation of fairy tales’ (1985).
A tour by Sergei Obraztsov’s company between 1950-51 to eight cities of the GDR, enthusiastically received by audiences and the country’s puppeteers, was crucial in the development of a state financed puppet theatre. As a result of this visit, numerous public theatres were created with a similar structure to that of Moscow, although on a smaller scale. While the Moscow theatre had 200 employees with a team of 40 puppeteers, in Magdeburg -the first puppet theatre in the GDR to have its own building- had 20 employees in the middle of the 1960s with a team of 12 puppeteers. In the 1970s the largest theatre was the Berlin State marionette theatre, with 60 employees with a team of 15 puppeteers.
Aspirations for higher quality work and a greater degree of professionalism were at odds with the small size of the theatres and companies, but were also limited by a lack of specialists. The introduction of studies in puppetry at the official theatre schools was decisive. In 1972, a department of puppetry was established at the State School of Dramatic Arts in Berlin (today, Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts). Likewise, in the 70s and 80s, three competitive state awards were established to foster the development of new scripts and plays for puppet theatre.
Gerd Taube says: ‘In the GDR, the creation of new texts for puppet theatre was inseparably linked to the social mission of socialist art; which is to say, an ideological criterion. (…) Literature for the puppet theatre had to have an impact not primarily through its reputation as art, but through its relationship with social realism in the GDR.’
On the other hand, glove puppet traditions such as Kasperl, and those of itinerant marionette families from central Germany, had an important influence from the 1970s onwards on authors such as Dietmar Müller and Helmut Baierl, who recreated old plays from these local traditions.
Gerd Taube also emphasised how, in the 1980s, authors were very aware of the possibilities of puppets considered as a sign of the dramatic figure, thanks to a direct knowledge of the puppeteering profession:
‘The sign-like quality of the puppet and thus of puppet theatre was understood as the basis of a drama appropriate to puppet theatre, in which the puppets are not understood as substitutes for actors. The puppet is a sign of the dramatic character; it is not a dramatic character, it only signifies it and only through play does the character become real and experienceable. From this, the criterion for a dramatic puppet theatre text was derived, that the necessity for representation with puppets must be contained in the material and in the dramatic text.’
The use of stylisation was appreciated as a particularity of the language of puppet theatre. Gerd Taube cites Gisela Templin, director of the Neubrandenburg Theatre: “The texts simply have to have a certain degree of stylisation. […] We have now found this in Heiner Müller. His language corresponds to the demand for stylisation that puppet theatre requires.” (Material on Theatre 1984, 75).
In his conclusion, Gerd Taube said in reference to Dietmar Müller: ‘Even regarding Dietmar Müller as one of the most important and productive playwrights of puppet theatre in the GDR, reviews of his plays often attest to a clear fable. And in many of his adaptations of fairy tales and legends, he added a comical character or gave it special weight, thus drawing on the dramaturgical principles of traditional puppet theatre but also on Franz Pocci’s plays.’
The imaginary underwater world of Harro Siegel and Günter Eich
Without abandoning Germany, we move to the city of Brunswick in Lower Saxony, for the lecture by Markus Nölp, lector in German at ENSIP (Caen), and author of various books about Goethe, Brinkmann, Heine, Rilke, Eich, Sebald and other writers. He spoke about the meeting that took place in this city between the great German puppeteer, Harro Siegel, and the poet Günter Eich. The title of his talk was: ‘Staging an underwater imaginary. From Harro Siegel’s marionette play Dramolett unter Wasser to Günter Eich’s radio play Unter Wasser.’
Indeed, as Markus Nölp explained, the poet and author of radio plays Günter Eich (1907-1972) met the puppeteer Harro Siegel (1900-1985) in the winter of 1957 as the result of a lecture by Eich in Brunswick. Siegel asked Eich to write a play for marionettes about underwater beings who had been left without a text to embody. He did not want to do a play with music alone, and asked the poet to provide words for his characters.
Eich wrote Unter Wasser (Underwater) for him in 1959; however Siegel considered it impossible to stage. Later, in 1987, it was adapted as a radio play (listen to the recording here) but was never performed as a play for marionettes. Siegel created the above mentioned work Dramolett unter Wasser for television in 1961.
Dramolett unter Wasser was a 13-minute film in black-and-white; it had no dialogue but featured the music of Sacred and Profane Dances by Claude Debussy, for harp and orchestra, written in 1904. Siegel was attracted by the rhythm of the music and, of course, by the musical world of the harp. The characters act and fight among themselves in what Siegel called an underwater ballet, whose dramaturgy was based closely on the music.
The conversations between the two authors about Eich’s play are interesting. Siegel, for example, complained that there was too much dialogue which did not correspond to actions, making it difficult to stage. He pointed out to the poet that he should distinguish between the underwater scenes, those which contain veritable reality and those that belong to an imaginary reality.
In the end, Eich did not rewrite his text as the puppeteer had requested. At the 1960 International Puppet Theatre Festival in Brunswick, Siegel, the festival director, had intended to stage the play but eventually chose to give it a reading instead, remarking that the text inhabited an intermediate plane between radio drama and a play for puppets, and that he therefore preferred to give it a public reading with a demonstration on stage of the marionettes that had inspired it. From this point on, the text and the marionettes parted ways.
Günter Eich wrote two plays for marionettes, Unter Wasser and Böhmische Schneider, which have always been published together. He was very fond of them both and considered them his best works.
Animated and inanimate figures in writing; an exploration of the muteness of language
We will finish this journey – both mental and historico-geographical- in what we could call Europe’s western territories of writing for puppets, with a lecture by Sandrine Le Pors, assistant professor at the Université d’Artois. She plunges us into the dramaturgical depths resulting from the relationship between the animate and inanimate, with a lecture entitled: ‘The cohabitation of animated and inanimate figures in playwriting: a reply to the silent vocation of language?’
Sandrine Le Pors presents the mystery, intrigue and essence of puppets -beings who speak without uttering a word- as viewed from their intrinsic, constituent muteness. To situate the listener, the speaker affirms that in any theatre piece there exists a form of promiscuity when it comes to inanimate figures, whether puppets, mannequins or dolls. Three kinds of relationship are possible: they remain both inert and mute; the actors address them or do not; or, the inanimate figures are suddenly possessed of speech, which transforms them into autonomous subjects.
Such cohabitation manifests in a particular way when the living body is exhausted, when the word becomes impossible or is rejected; in sum, when ‘the expropriation of language becomes the subject of language’, to quote Giorgio Agamben when he calls infancy ‘the silent vocation of language’ (taking the Latin etymology of the word, which has its origins in ‘infans’, ‘one who does not speak’; and in Latin ‘infantia’ means ‘incapable of speaking’).
It is in this space of the ‘infans’ where Sandrine Le Pors situates herself, the place where contemporary dramatic writing voluntarily installs itself.
Having discarded certain types of cohabitation between the animate and the inanimate, since they would make her lecture too long, Sandrine Le Pors focuses on three cases or situations: cohabitation under the sign of disorder; the doll; and what she calls ‘clandestine puppetry’.
In the case of cohabitation marked by disorder or perturbation, we enter the dramaturgy of upheaval in which the inanimate figure, often situated as the mirror image of the animated figure, is presented under the sign of trauma or mourning, if not of renunciation or disappearance. Cracks become visible, ghosts and impulses are projected and the expression of the symbolic dimension of the ‘infans’ is made manifest. For example, in The Children by Edward Bond, the puppet that Joe murders in the first scene is thus his inanimate double, himself as a child. This brings to mind, also, authors such as Tadeusz Kantor or Didier-Georges Gabily.
In her comment on the doll, Sandrine Le Pors says: ‘In the drama, the mere figure of the doll -which just by its appearance can, at the very least, disguise an ambiguity, if not a trap (the doll echoes back to childhood, but childhood does not necessarily refer back to what is childish)- is from the start a quimera, a monster. The doll establishes a disorder on the intimate and/or political level, which places us face-to-face with the unbearable image of a loss, opening the gaze to an otherness, if not an anomaly or abandonment.’
The third mode of cohabitation between the animate and inanimate, which Sandrine Le Pors calls ‘clandestine puppetry’, would be when writers, whether invoking the figure of one who is clandestine or not, turn the puppet or doll into a feeble spectre, or even a double of animate or inanimate figures.
It is worth including the conclusion of the lecture, in which the speaker explains:
‘Cohabitation between animated and inanimate figures that, almost always take a parabolic form, remind us of multiple poetics and forms, of diverse legacies. It also moves into various spaces: diurnal, most often, nocturnal, or even mental spaces. But what I would like to highlight above all, is that if contemporary drama, rooted in the silent vocation of language, approaches the inanimate figure, whether or not dramatists are familiar with puppetry or not, it is because something in this figure both holds and deflects the voice and the gaze. In this place, therefore, it seems to me that it is the silent eye that is dramatised. The inanimate figure, as with that of the child or the animal, thus reminds us that writing is the locus of a fundamental experience, that of staring speechless at an image – an experience often commented on by Jean-Christophe Bailly for whom the image is always silent, even if it is informed by a discourse, and submerges us in a silence whose moment is fundamental (the essayist-playwright picks up the words of the painter Nicolas Poussin, “I who profess things that are silent”)’.
Translated from the Spanish by Rebecca Simpson