What is PuppetPlays?

PuppetPlays is a research programme about plays for puppets and marionettes, directed by Didier Plassard, professor of Theatre Studies, supported by the Université Paul-Valéry – Montpellier 3. Laureate of the “Advanced Grant” call for projects of the European Research Council (ERC) in 2018, it is funded by the European Union for five years (October 2019 – September 2024).

The main goals of PuppetPlays are:

– collecting a corpus of representative plays from Western Europe (Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain, France, Great Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland) between the 17th and the 21th Century;

– identifying the characteristics of puppet dramaturgy and their variations depending on eras, cultural spheres, producing conditions and the aimed public;

– re-evaluating the contribution of these repertoires to the construction of a European cultural identity.

PuppetPlays has the ambition to:

- contribute to the development of tools and methods for the Digital Humanities through the creation of an online platform with a database, an anthology of texts, as well as several documentary and pedagogical resources for researchers, artists, teachers, students...

- enhance research on the very little known topic of playwriting for puppetry with the production of a conclusive monography by Didier Plassard and the organisation of two international conferences;

- stimulate and support young researchers in this area awarding two doctoral and 5 years of postdoctoral scolarships.

Access to all published results and all resources of PuppetPlays will be open and free.

Have you ever seen a performance of the Opera dei pupi, the traditional rod marionettes of Naples and Sicily? If so, perhaps you were surprised to learn that most of the stories told by the pupari (the puppeteers) are based upon the adventures of Charlemagne and his paladins, although Sicily was never part of the Carolingian empire.

And did you ever wonder how the pupari could memorize all the episodes of these adventures, and then also transmit them to the next generation? Of course, the dialogues were often improvised during performances, and yet the pupari had to daily perform a new episode from very long epics, with their multiple intermingling plots, over the course of several months. To do so, pupari would make basic notes of the narrative structure of these cycles, the divisions into episodes, the scene changes, and sometimes also of the most important parts of each episode.

Like other Sicilian institutions today, the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette Antonio Pasqualino in Palermo keeps dozens of these manuscripts, most of them dating from the first decades of the 20th Century. These texts were written on the cheapest writing materials that could be found at the time: school notebooks made of poor quality paper with high acidity level, which became more and more fragile with the passing of time. When turning the pages of these precious notebooks, there is always the risk of tearing, just as if they were ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls. And do not expect to read the plays or these canvases in books because only a very small number of these texts have been published by historians. While some transcriptions of performances can be found in university dissertations, most of these academic works are only typed: just like the original manuscripts, they lie dormant on library bookshelves, untouched.

This situation is typical of the vast majority of marionette and puppet plays all over Europe. Because puppetry in the past was largely a popular art, appealing to the lower classes, and later to children, the plays were seldom published. They have therefore tended to remain outside of the history of drama, or have been considered, at best, a separate, even insignificant, branch of it.

Puppet theatre specialists themselves pay very little attention to dramaturgical issues. When you look at museum collections, exhibitions and publications, puppetry often seems to be just a collection of dolls: beautiful or moving objects, perhaps masterpieces of sculpture or handcraft, without any indication of the way they are animated, the scenes in which they appeared, nor especially of the plays in which they performed. If they were playing Hamlet, for example, was the puppet performance a parody, a summarized version, or a rewriting of the play? Was the performance text directly inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy or did it retain aspects of Fratricide Punished, or Prince Hamlet of Dannemark, the anonymous play often considered as a remnant of an “Ur-Hamlet”, which English travelling companies used to perform in German-speaking countries during the 16th Century? In several European countries, the legends of Saint Anthony or Geneviève de Brabant (Genovefa) were among the most important successes on the marionette stages; but no one has compared their different versions and we do not know where they were first performed.

This is not only due to the fact that large parts of these repertoires are anonymous or were composed by the puppeteers themselves, sometimes in the form of reductions of actors’ dramas or adaptations of novels, legends and tales, and sometimes as original stories. Plays written by renowned playwrights are also excluded from the history of theatre and current editions of their works. 

In France, Goethe’s Théâtre complet in the prestigious “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade” series does not include Jahrmarksfest zu Plundersweilern (Plundersweiler Fair), nor Ein Fastnachtspiel (A Carnival Play), nor the fragment Hanswursts Hochzeit (Hanswurst’s Wedding).

In Germany, the Suhrkamp edition of Thomas Bernhard’s plays, for example, did not include Der Berg (The Mountain), a play “for puppet-men or men-puppets”, which was only recently included in the complete edition of Bernhard’s works.

And who knows that the most important playwright in Portugal during the 18th Century, Antonio José da Silva, called “The Jew”, who was tortured, sentenced to death and burned by the Inquisition, wrote all his comedies for marionettes? Who today knows that David Garrick, Gerhart Hauptmann, Edmond Rostand, Paul Claudel, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Italo Calvino, Ernst Toller, Rafael Alberti, or Howard Barker wrote for the puppet stage? Who has read their plays or even some analyses of their works?

Thousands of plays are thus scattered: Henryk Jurkowski, in Écrivains et marionnettes – Quatre siècles de littérarure dramatique (Institut International de la Marionnette, 1991), has already listed 500 plays by literary authors, although his inquiry did not go beyond the 1930s. In some collections, such as that of the Municipal Museum of Munich, around 1,500 handwritten or typewritten plays are currently held.

Bringing into the light this fragmented and almost invisible repertoire is the principal objective of PuppetPlays.

The central hypothesis of PuppetPlays is that puppet theatre, which during the 17th and the 18th centuries was essentially a practice for circumventing the prohibitions on the actors’ theatre, gradually became a specific theatrical medium. It keeps alive fashions and genres that the actors’ theatre has abandoned; it gives life to specific characters deeply rooted in local and regional identities; and it explores experimental forms of playwriting.

Taking into account puppet repertoires in the history of dramatic literature can thus lead to certain revisions of the field: this will make it possible to introduce more diversity and complexity into the traditional linear succession of poetics (Romanticism after Classicism, Symbolism after Realism, Post-Modernism after Modernism, etc.), which does not reflect the variety of theatrical productions within the same era.

This question of a specific dramaturgy arises particularly when we examine contemporary playwriting. Why do some authors choose to compose plays for puppets, shadows, and all kinds of animated objects – sometimes as the only performers on the stage, sometimes mixed with live actors?

When puppeteers require texts for a new production, what specific imaginary of puppetry do these playwrights develop? It seems that the introduction of artificial performers on stage broadens the spectrum of dramaturgical possibilities: writing is freed from the “laws” of realism and plausibility; but it can also lead to speaking of (or to showing) the inexpressible: explosions of violence, cruelty (let’s remember the old Punch and Judy show!), or obscenity. Birth, illness, disability, old age, and suffering can be portrayed on stage, with empathy but without the risks of excessive or forced pathos.

Because they represent the human through the guise of an object, the arts of puppetry are undoubtedly the best adapted instrument to tell stories of dehumanization and rehumanization: it is, in any case, one of the main hypotheses that PuppetPlays proposes to test.

The open source and multinlingual Web plateform will gather the data collected and  digitized in PuppetPlays. Discover more on our page.
Last updated : 15/12/2020