Puppet plays in Britain - John McCormick (Trinity College, Dublin, Irlande)

 Puppet plays in britain

URL : https://nakala.fr/10.34847/nkl.9d286wh0

DOI : 10.34847/nkl.9d286wh0

Given the comparative absence of surviving texts written for the puppet stage, it might appear difficult to look at the question of dramaturgy in Britain before the XXth century. George Speaight in his History of the English Puppet Theatre did a fine job in establishing lists of plays performed by puppet companies, but such lists are valuable more for telling us what the companies liked to present than what these shows were really like in performance. The nearest we can come to that is usually through plays supposedly written in a style that might be recognisable to audiences as that of the professional puppet stage. The earliest is Ben Jonson’s parody of the stories of Hero and Leander and Damon and Pythias in Bartholomew Fair (1614), which Speaight perceived as being for glove puppets, but which has all the hallmarks of a marionette show: the subject, the performance in an enclosed space with an admission charge, and the use of the showman as a commentator[1].



Jonson’s A Tale of a Tub (1623) includes a ‘motion’, which was a term in use at the time, commonly, but not necessarily, for a marionette show. In this case the final part of the fifth act is a dumbshow taking the form of five scenes with a presenter, using shadow figures rather than live actors. These, scenes accompanied by music and also referred to as a masque, evoke each act of the play and Jonson’s satirical intention was to mock Inigo Jones by reducing his elaborate court masques to a very simple portable entertainment. The context implies that Jonson is describing something familiar to his audiences, and this is also our earliest reference to a form of shadow theatre in England[2].


In the seventeenth century, and much of the eighteenth, the main repertoire listed by Speaight was a folk one, much of which consisted of biblical pieces (but not Saints’ plays in Protestant England). These included the very popular Creation of the World, Bel and the Dragon (from the Book of Daniel), Nineveh the Prodigal Son and Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (in one version of this Punch sat on the queen’s lap). In plays of the Elizabethan theatre references to a number of titles can be found, but there is little further information. In the early 1700s we obtain a valuable idea of a performance provided by an account of the Noah scene from the Creation:


The last scene does present Noah and his Family coming out of the Ark, with all the Beasts, two by two, and all the Fowls of the Air seen in a Prospect sitting upon the Trees. Likewise, over the Ark is seen the Sun rising in a most glorious manner, moreover a multitude of Angels will be seen in double rank, which presents a double prospect, one for the Sun, the other for a Palace, where will be seen six Angels ringing six Bells. Likewise, Machines descend from above, double and treble with Dives rising out of Hell, and Lazarus in Abraham’s Bosom besides several Figures dancing Jiggs, Sarabands and Country Dances to the admiration of the spectators; with the merry conceits of squire Punch and Sir John Spendall[3].


In an age when literacy was not widespread, story-telling was a significant part of popular culture. Many plays presented on the puppet stage derived from popular legend and history, orally transmitted and often deriving from chapbook material. These included Faustus, Patient Grissel, The seven Champions of Christendon, Mother Shipton, Dick Whittington and Julius Caesar.


As the eighteenth century proceeded there were more adaptations from the theatrical repertoire, including farces, the very popular ballad operas, parodies of operas, and pantomimes (usually centring on Harlequin). A certain number of plays were written for puppet performance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but under more specific circumstances and did not constitute a part of any mainstream repertoire. We think of Samuel Foote, Charlotte Charke or Kane O’Hara.


Samuel Foote in his theatre in the Haymarket mixed puppets with actors and his rather curious sketch Tragedy a la mode (1763) is not only a burlesque of heroic tragedy, but also had Foote himself playing opposite a cast of almost life-size puppet figures cut in pasteboard. Also known as ‘pantins’ such figures were new to the English stage. In another piece, the Handsome Housemaid; or, Piety in Pattens (1773), he used the same combination of a live actor and puppet figures to make fun of the sentimental writing of the time, especially Samuel Richardson’s Pamela[4].


Miniaturisation of the human opens the door to burlesque (as it does in book one of Gulliver’s Travels). In Britain Henry Fielding’s Tom Thumb (1731) was already a burlesque of the heroic tragedy fashionable at the time, and had been adapted for the marionettes of the showman Fawkes by 1734. The first available text as a puppet piece is that of Kane O’Hara who converted the work into a burletta in 1780 for the Patagonian marionette theatre. The puppet stage allowed for exaggerated giant and dwarf figures and also for such comic effects as the regurgitation of Tom Thumb by a cow that has swallowed him.


Henry Fielding’s The Pleasures of the Town (1730) is a satirical piece rather in the vein of the Parisian Théâtre de la Foire. It is a play about the problems of a writer and the third act is set on a puppet stage (with Punch and his wife Joan). Originally performed by live actors it easily entered the puppet repertoire, especially that of the well-known puppet showman Yeates.


The Shipwreck – based on the Dryden-Davenant adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – was further adapted by Thomas Shadwell and staged at the Patagonian (marionette) Theatre at Exeter Change, London 1780. Kane O’Hara’s Midas, a burletta originally interpreted by live actors, also appeared at the Patagonian theatre where it was described as ‘performed as originally intended by the author’.


Audiences will very readily project life onto a puppet the moment it displays some human behavioural trait. With its fully articulated body the marionette might also replace the live performer, and in certain circumstances showmen used it to offer a parallel form of performance, most notably when live actors were forbidden to perform or in places which were rarely touched by theatre.


The huge rise in minor theatres and new audiences in the nineteenth century involved a new repertoire of melodramas, and showmen seized on these, the title of a well-known play being publicity in itself. Some became almost household names and remained in repertoire long after their currency in the actors’ theatre had disappeared. Edward Fitzball’s nautical drama The Floating Beacon of 1824 was still on the marionette stage at the end of the century.[5] A text for this with cuts and emendations was in use by the Tiller marionettes and is now in the theatre collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum[6].


As far as texts for the puppet stage are concerned, virtually nothing has survived beyond the cheaply-produced editions of popular plays that were used by many nineteenth-century companies. Dicks’ plays ran to some hundreds of pieces from the theatrical repertoire ranging from the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth, and these were sold for one penny, thus being very accessible to showmen who then tailored them to the size and needs of the company. Long speeches were generally reduced and emphasis was on the story line with occasional pieces of linking dialogue written in. Showmen gradually built a repertoire, some boasting that they could perform fifty or so pieces without using the script.


Given the small format and size of print, Dick’s plays could not possibly have been read during performance. However, in an age with a greater emphasis on orality when most education was by rote learning, and memory training was an essential feature of education, one can assume that scripts were memorised quite rapidly[7].


Occasionally a showman might also cobble together a script from broadsides and newspaper reports of court cases over a sensational murder, as happened with Maria Marten; or Murder in the Red Barn. This had already reached the penny gaffs before the murderer had been hung, and subsequently found its way into the repertoires of many marionette companies.


There is also a strong probability that many of the pieces listed by Speaight never had a written script that might be used directly or adapted. There is some evidence of fragments of speeches which may have been used in key scenes, whilst the rest of the performance was a freer improvisation of the basic story line. The Irish actor John Molloy, travelling with fit-ups in the 1940s and 1950s, informed me that the company would sometimes be taken to Dublin to see the latest movie (the Ten Commandments was one of these), then return to a rural district the other side of the country and present their version of it a few days later. It is certain that this was common practice with many puppet showmen in the past.


In melodramas the clown as a rustic comic figure corresponded in many ways to the new contemporary figures being created elsewhere, such as Guignol, Gianduja, Lafleur and others. George Speaight tried, perhaps optimistically, to establish Tim Bobbin as the new English stock character, and individual companies had their own variants, a popular one being Yorkshire Bob. In Dion Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn (1860), based on a real-life murder of a seduced girl, the comic hero Myles-na-Coppaleen is far more important than the male lead. This reached the puppet stage by 1862 and by the 1870s was in the Holden repertoire. The Colleen Bawn illustrates the way in which on the puppet stage the comic figure took on much greater importance than in the original piece and drew it towards comedy. It is worth noting that at this time the young Thomas Holden, who had a gift for comedy (and may well have played Myles-na-Coppaleen) enjoyed a special reputation for his performance as the countryman Robin Roughead in John Till Allingham’s eighteenth-century farce, Fortune’s Frolic; or, The Ploughman turned Lord. John Holden’s original production of Bluebeard (1872) was clearly immensely funny and extremely verbal. It and included such scenes as one of nurses with Bluebeard’s twenty babies. Such scenes disappeared from the programme synopsis for performances in France and Belgium in subsequent years, which were left with a couple of vaguely comic servants. By this stage the real comedy was obviously to be found in the concluding harlequinade.


If we wish to look for the significant comic figures of the British puppet stage, attention has to be given to Punch and to the nineteenth century pantomime. After Signor Bologna’s visit to Britain in 1662, Pulcinella, as a marionette, had become naturalised as Punchinello. He was the central figure of Powell’s puppet theatre in Covent Garden in 1711 and also in that of Randal Stretch in Dublin a few years later. In 1730 Stretch had problems with Elrington, manager of the Theatre Royal, who, exerting his monopoly over performances, tried to levy an exorbitant charge on the puppet stage. This spat was recorded in a satirical broadside, Punchinell's embassy to the most mighty and puisant Ton, Ring, Le, Sam, Tho (i.e. Thomas Elrington), Emperor of the theatre and all the delightful territories in the province of Smock-Ally (Dublin’s Theatre Royal). In Hogarth’s famous picture of Southwark Fair (1733) a publicity cloth labelled Punch’s Opera, shows Punch pushing his wife in a barrow towards a gaping mouth of hell. In 1784 a bill for the former Stretch puppets described the show as ‘Mr Punch’s artificial comedians’.


About this time Giovanni (or possibly Giuseppe) Piccini from Piacenza brought his guaratella (glove-puppet) show to England and this became the familiar Punch and Judy show that continues until this day. In 1827 John Payne Collier interviewed the elderly Piccini who demonstrated some routines. Collier took notes on these and published them as a script. This is a good example of how a performance in the oral tradition can become fixed once it has been noted and written down by an outside observer, The Collier text, well known because of the George Cruikshank illustrations, is sometimes taken as the ‘official’ Punch and Judy show, whereas in fact it is no more than some of the basic scenarios noted down, and possibly improved on, by a man with a reputation for literary forgery. We can obtain a much better (and probably more authentic script) from the Punch showman interviewed for Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851): The Dominion of Fancy or Punch’s Opera[8].


In the nineteenth century Punch triumphed on the street glove-puppet stage, but almost vanished from the marionette one. To understand this, it is necessary to look again at the actors’ theatre, and more specially Covent Garden. Around 1800 the popular exponent of Punch at Covent Garden was Joey Grimaldi, who then developed a new character, Clown. The traditional clown of the English theatre was a countryman and often a comic figure (as with Shakespeare). Grimaldi’s Clown was quite different. A trickster, like Punch, and rather like Deburau, he rejoiced in rather cruel jokes. More importantly, Grimaldi created a special make-up and costume, which has sometimes continued with circus clowns until today. The immense popularity of Grimaldi’s Clown resulted in Punch fading on both the live and the marionette stage. On the glove-puppet stage  Punch flourished, often appearing together with Clown. One routine involved the stealing of a string of sausages, which we find in the Mayhew text. The sausages (if not always Clown) have remained a common element of the Punch and Judy show. In modern times they have been eaten by the crocodile, and even the policeman has been put through a mincer to re-emerge as blue sausages.


On the marionette stage Clown was the new figure, but was specially associated with the harlequinade which was used as the after-piece for the pantomime. On the actors’ stage the pantomime, a uniquely British phenomenon, could be very similar to the nineteenth-century extravaganza, essentially a pretext for an odd mixture of singing, dancing and spectacle together with a vague dramatic plot which, like the melodrama, involved the struggle between good and evil, often represented by a demon and a good fairy.


The pantomime was not restricted to the Christmas season as it is today and, in its origins, had not been specially linked to fairy stories. Thomas Holden travelled with two pantomimes Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella, but no other dramatic repertoire. This reflects the more general decline of the older theatrical repertoire which did, however, persist with more rural companies such as Clowes and Tillers. A very rare marionette script is that for William Bullock’s pantomime Little Red Riding Hood, which was printed in 1874 and sold as part of the programme for performances in London at the St James’s Hall.[9] It is written in the doggerel that pantomime audiences of the time would have been used to and is full of topical references and puns. Most successful was a scene between the grandmother and a talking jackdaw.


On the actors’ stage the main characters of the pantomime often wore very large head-masks. At the denouement the good fairy waved her wand. And all the characters tore off their masks and top costumes and became the characters for a harlequinade. Masks were not needed on the marionette stage, but every company had a separate set of harlequinade figures. The main ones were Harlequin, who had often become little more than a dancer in a well fitted costume, Columbine, as his partner, a policeman (added after the creation of the Peel’s Police force in 1829) and a pair of comic characters, Pantaloon and Clown. Initially there was a loosely-structured plot. Clown was central to all the jokes and tricks, whilst the policeman was often a victim of these. By the late 1870s, with Thomas Holden, the harlequinade had disintegrated into a series of hilarious comic sketches, most of which centred on Clown and Pantaloon, and it is Clown (capital C!) who emerges as the most significant comic figure of the nineteenth-century British marionette theatre.


Following the spectacular Victorian theatre, marionette companies in the latter part of the century made a ‘Grand Transformation Scene’ a finale to the performance. This was generally used to finish a pantomime and could last several minutes with a succession of scene changes, often employing gauzes, and ending, if possible, with a grand display of light and water. The latter was produced by the use of mirrors and sometimes limelight, but later, in the case of Holden’s, these were replaced by real water and electric light. Most marionette companies possessed one all-purpose transformation scene  which could be tacked on to any pantomime, and sometimes, as in the case of Holden’s, could stand alone as a spectacular way to finish the evening’s entertainment. 


The programme for a nineteenth-century marionette show was a full evening. There was usually a drama, a farce and some trick acts or variety numbers. In the second half of the century an almost ubiquitous component of the programme was the black minstrels, based on the very popular Christy Minstrels and others. This took the form of a short concert party with songs, dances and comic chat. In the 1890s, as the Pierrot show became popular at British seaside resorts, the black faces were replaced by white faced Pierrots. Today some puppets still survive with African features over-painted with white.


The all-string figure, which came gradually into wider use after the 1850s, allowed for a totally new style of marionette acting, but as dramatic repertoires began to fade it may never have been very useful in that context. The operation of the rod-marionette fitted in well with the strong expressive gestures of the melodrama, but the all-string figure opened the way for a more ‘naturalistic’ style of acting where the marionettes seemed to many to move like live human beings. Thomas Holden used the all-string figures to make his variety and trick acts appear more human. He was a brilliant performer and his handling of the figures gave a dramatic quality to the simplest trick numbers or sketches.


In urban areas companies were affected by the music hall which, as well as offering competition, became place where many received engagements. The slot on the music-hall stage was more akin to earlier fairground performances repeated a number of times during the day and now new companies came into existence with a show designed only as a music-hall number. Most showed a succession of trick and variety acts and were virtually identical to one another.


In the portable marionette theatres in the final decade of the century the bioscope was the latest attraction, often being added to the programme, but as film projections developed the adult audiences for marionettes fell away and the dramatic repertoire became even more vestigial. All these changes were happening more rapidly in Britain than elsewhere in Europe and by the 1920s the popular marionette theatre had all but died out, and puppetry had to be re-invented by artists and gifted amateurs such as Helen Binyon or W. H. Whanslaw and Waldo Lanchester with their London Marionette Theatre.



[1] This would have been the rod marionette (marionnette à tringle). Didier Plassard raised the question as to whether this might have been the rod or stick puppet (marionette à tiges). This possibility cannot be discounted. There is no evidence of the use of the rod puppet in England, but this may be partly because it was associated mainly with the crib. In Protestant England there is no crib tradition such as continued in much of the rest of Europe. The purely secular puppet stage mounted in the Pitti Palace in Florence in 1684 was for this type of puppet with the operators concealed beneath the stage and the figures moving in channels in a way remarkably similar to the Belem of Alcoy. Rossi in Northern Italy in the late eighteenth century appears to have been using some form of rod puppet. Gualberto Niemen in the early twentieth century acquired a complete set of rod puppets and today Bruno Niemen uses a mixture of glove puppets and rod puppets.

[2] A curtain is pulled back for each scene and the device is described as having oiled translucent paper. It is made to rotate by means of the heat generated by a candle. This device is probably similar to the one described by Jean Prevost in his Subtiles et plaisantes inventions (1584).

[3] Quoted from Harleian MSS., no. 5931, no. 274, in Joseph Strutt, The Sports and Pasetimes of the People of England… [1801], London, Methuen & Co., 1903, pp. 145-146. Also quoted by Sybil Rosenfeld, The Theatre of the London Fairs in the 18th Century, Cambridge, University Press, 1960, pp. 160-161.

[4] Speaight mentions a manuscript copy of this in the Larpent Collection of the Henry E. Huntingdon Library in California.

[5] Fitzball was also the author of The Flying Dutchman, a main source of the Wagnerian opera.

[6] In 2002, using some of the Tiller puppets, I was able to stage a production of The Floating Beacon in the then Theatre Museum. Particularly interesting was the recent discovery of stage music by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (nephew of John Wesley) which included music for another Fitzball melodrama which it was possible to adapt for our production.

[7] An actress from a travelling theatre troupe in Ireland in the 1950s informed me some years ago that after a performance of a play she would read a new piece before going to bed. This would be rehearsed the next day and straged the following one.

[8] The interview with the Punchman is to be found in selections from London Labour and the London Poor, published as Mayhew’s London, ed. Peter Quennell, London, Spring Books, 1969, pp. 445-470.

[9] In America the Bullock show was pirated by his managers McDonagh and Earnshaw and they also printed the text in a slightly modified version and attributed to Silas Steel.

Last updated : 12/04/2021