The "Betlem de Tirisiti" and the traditional repertoire of puppet cribs, Jaume Lloret (University of Alicante)

DOI : 10.34847/nkl.1ad8s0c2


Licence : CC BY NC ND 4.0 International (Attribution - Non-commercial - No Derivatives).



            The Betlem de Tirisiti in Alcoy is a unique part of the Catalan theatrical patrimony, and an exceptional testimony to the traditional repertoire of European puppet cribs. It was also one of the most emblematic examples of puppet cribs at the end of the 19th century. 

            We will first give a brief introduction concerning the origins and the development of Nativity plays. We will also look at the history of the Alcoy crib and at the organization of the production up until the present day. Then we will analyze the text of the Betlem de Tirisiti, its themes, sources, characters, the technical and formal resources of the staging, and other noteworthy aspects of the show. At the same time, we will link aspects of the Valencian crib to other texts for puppet cribs from different times and places in Spain in order to find connections and specificities. The plays to which we will compare the Tirisiti are El retablo de la entrada del Rey pobre [The retable of the entrance of the poor king] (17th century), the mobile crib of Laguardia (Basque country, 13th century) and the Tía Norica crib of Cadiz (19th century).

            Our aim is to investigate the factors which influenced the development of the Nativity play and the way in which they were able to create a diverse repertoire, as well as integrating the Betlem de Tirisiti into this development. 



            The cribs, also called Nativities, are a specific puppet theatre genre because of their religious subject. Their origins are rooted in the Middle Ages, in the liturgical drama of Christmas, when articulated images were used to enhance the illusion of reality and to add intensity to the emotions. It was principally the Franciscans and the Poor Clares who, from the 13th century onwards, were responsible for the spread of cribs all over Europe using moving figures and artifices, thus inaugurating the tradition of the animated crib. The gradual introduction of profane elements into religious drama was frowned upon by the ecclesiastical hierarchy which banned them from taking place inside churches after the Council of Trent. Despite the ban, the baroque crib of Laguardia is an exceptional case of a crib which has remained inside a church, and is still an integral part of the liturgical festivities of Christmas. 

            The banishment of cribs from the church resulted in their emancipation from ecclesiastical protection, and led to them becoming progressively more secular. It transformed them into independent productions in the form of mechanical retables. Later, these mechanical retables developed using rod puppets, activated from below. This popular stage practice became firmly established during the 16th century under the influence of Italian Commedia dell'arte theatrical companies which journeyed throughout Europe performing comedies that enjoyed great success. The process of secularization led to the puppeteer travelling around the country to fairs, markets and inns on the lookout for an opportunity to perform. However, these artists also managed to gain access to official theatres at the baroque period, proposing a mostly religious programme in which cribs played an important part. El retablo de la entrada del Rey pobre was representative of this type of crib set up in the Corral de la Cruz in Madrid at the beginning of the 17th century. 

From the end of the 18th century, and throughout the 19th century, cribs developed in a range of different ways: there were mechanical cribs, cribs using actors, shadows, or involving optical boxes, and of course puppets. It was in this theatrical and dramatic tradition that the Betlem de Tirisiti was born.



            In Alcoy, as in other Valencian towns, cribs were also displayed at Christmas time in fairground booths, at least from the 1870s, at the time of the industrialization of the city. It should be pointed out that Alcoy was the first town to experience the triumph of the industrial revolution, and the place where there was an important workers’ movement that led to the so-called “Petrolium Revolution” in 1873. The Tirisiti was born during these great transformations of the city. 

            The first mention of cribs that I have discovered dates back to 1880, but we know that during the previous decade, there were three puppeteers’ booths belonging to different owners. The rivalry between these three encouraged each of them to invent new scenes, new characters and original details, most of which were inspired by local life. 

            However, during the first decades of the 20th century, these puppet shows underwent a severe crisis because of competition with the cinema, and with other installations offering vaudeville acts. As a result, two puppeteers had to give up their businesses. Luckily, the third, Pepe Esteve el Betlemero, decided to buy the cribs of his former rivals, and used what he believed to be the best in each of them to create a more ambitious one. 

            The crib was a family business: Pepe Esteve and his two children were charged with the manipulation of the puppets, while his wife made clothes for them. But it was not a flourishing affair, it barely enabled the family to make ends meet. However, Betlemero's puppet theatre had a very active life during the 1920s and 1930s, and its fame spread to other towns and neighbouring regions. We do not know anything about Betlemero's programme, and we do not know whether he performed works other than the Betlem of Tirisiti. It would be logical to think that his repertoire was broader than this, but we have no proof.

            After the Civil War (1936-1939), the crib experienced one if its greatest moments of glory as it was not only shown in public, it was also bought by some of the richest families in Alcoy for performances in their homes. 

            However, the Alcoy crib became less and less popular during the 20th century because, like all other traditional popular events, it failed to connect with the modern world. What is more, Betlemero was already over 90 years old, and his children did not feel strong enough to continue the business which they sold in 1953. Consequently, the crib went through several hands and underwent a period of instability until 1989, when the city council of Alcoy took control of the crib to retrieve and preserve it for future generations. A professional theatrical company in the locality, La Dependent, took over performances. They revised the scenario and gave a stronger dramatic structure and a careful stage rhythm to the production. A new booth was built; it was a sort of magic box conceived exclusively and made-to-measure for the Tirisiti. 

            Due to high demand, not only in Alcoy but also in other towns in the province of Valencia, the production was transferred to the Teatro Principal in Alcoy from 2006. Today, every year during the Christmas holidays, about 200 thirty-minute performances are organized, with about 30,000 spectators in total. Without doubt, this success owes much to the hard work and the vision of the La Dependent company which has managed to combine tradition and modern trends, and to make the Tirisiti into a real 21st century dramatic production. 

            The Tia Norica crib in Cadiz is older - the first documents attesting to its existence date back to 1815 - and from the end of the 19th century, it experienced the same problems as the Tirisiti. Today, under the patronage of competent municipal authorities, the two cribs are very active and enjoy great prestige in the realm of popular theatre, and as part of the cultural heritage of their respective towns.  

            As far as the baroque animated crib of Laguardia is concerned, it was first documented in 1749, but its origins are certainly older. It has been performed quite regularly for over 250 years, even if there have been short interruptions during the course of its existence. Nowadays, it is still performed during the Christmas period on a stage in front of the altar of the chapel of the Immaculate Conception in the Santa María de los Reyes church in the city. 

The oldest play is El retablo de la entrada del Rey pobre, transcribed in a poem entitled “Ensaladilla del retablo” which is part of the Romancero espiritual by José de Valdivielso, first published in 1612. 




The combining of the religious and the profane 

            The text of the Betlem de Tirisiti is a heterogeneous piece: the first part is religious, whereas the second is entirely popular. The crib in Alcoy is set in a secular environment, but the performance takes place during the religious celebration of Christmas. It is therefore clear that, thematically speaking, the crib is a wonderful example of a combination of the religious and the profane which is very common in the traditional puppet repertoire in Europe. 

            The text of the sacred part did not lend itself easily to improvisations, which is why it changed very little over time, apart from some changes to the first and last scenes. On the other hand, the profane part continued to develop and become more complex, incorporating the customs of everyday life in Alcoy, perhaps because of the necessity to modernize the cribs. Just as new situations and characters were added, others disappeared when they lost their relevance or their interest for audiences. 

At the same time as the combining of the sacred and profane was being implemented, there was also a fusing of past and present resulting in a series of anachronisms which was frequently the case in this kind of theatrical performance.

            Due to the fact that it was staged inside a church, the Laguardia crib contains no folklore elements. Religious themes predominate, although some profane material was included. 

On the other hand, the repertoire of the Tía Norica is much richer, containing very varied works, but with a clear predominance of profane plays, as performances were not limited to the Christmas season. Following on from the Tía Norcia, the oldest dramatic material consisted of the Christmas Autos and the short play La Tía Norica. These works were stable fixtures in the repertoire and were performed every year, although they may have been accompanied by other short sketches or minor pieces involving popular motifs. 

            These theatrical performances gradually became more secular, to a varying degree in each crib, resulting in different repertoires as far as content and length were concerned. Within the context of these developments, the Laguardia crib remained the most basic, and the Tía Norica crib the most elaborate, whereas the Tirisiti crib occupied an intermediate position. 


Formal resources

            The religious/profane dichotomy is reinforced by the bilingual nature of the work. Thus, whereas the more serious and didactic sacred part is recited in Castilian (the language of “culture”), the satirical dialogues of the second part are entirely in Catalan as spoken in Alcoy, with its accent and dialects. 

            It is in the second part of the production that the comic style characterizing the play is the most salient, using ironic and satirical language. Here, innocent jokes, puns, misunderstandings or even naïve or hidden allusions to sexuality abound. The music used also participates in the process of the secularization of cribs which have a specific musical accompaniment: Christmas songs, folk songs, dances, paso dobles, marches and hymns, many of which are purely local. The integration of sound and image, the rapid movements of the characters, the fights and the punches are essential comic elements in the cribs. A balloon bursting (audible from outside the booth) in the final surreal scene brings the performance to an end, and signals to the public in an unambiguous manner that the show is over. 

            All the scenes, in the first as well as in the second part, pass off rapidly without a break but also without connection. The narrative voice is the thread which binds the show together. The narrator is a kind of master of ceremonies, hidden from the public throughout the performance, with only his voice being heard. In other words, it is a kind of descriptive narrative, visually illustrated using puppets, with dramatic accessories and a musical accompaniment. This clearly recalls the rudimentary staging of the baroque puppet retables, like the El retablo de la entrada del Rey pobre

The narrator also dialogues with the characters, especially in the second part, and particularly with Tirisiti, while at the same time encouraging the participation of the audience. The use of the traditional practice for the Tirisiti characters and the sereno (guardian) are other important technical aspects of the crib. In the Laguardia crib, there is also an off-stage narrator, who introduces the drama following the texts of the Gospels. However, in the Tía Norcia, there is no narrator, the puppets converse and interact on stage in a theatrical manner. 

            Concerning the formal aspect of these productions, the crib repertoire can be classified in different categories: sung texts (El retablo de la entrada del Rey pobre), narrated texts (Laguardia) and dialogues (the Tía Norica). The Tirisiti a mixture of narration, dialogues and musical contributions. 


The technical features of the puppets and the stage

            Concerning the technical aspect, the four cribs under analysis all, or nearly all, use puppets which are manipulated from below with rods. It is possible that El retablo de la entrada del Rey pobre also had mechanical puppets of this kind. On the other hand, the Laguardia crib is mainly staged using rigid sculpted figures; others, called figures of adoration, can bend, and only some rams and four shepherds have greater mobility thanks to the installation of a complex flat wheel on the latter. In terms of technique, this is a crib at its most primitive stage. 

            The Tirisiti is a development from the two preceding cribs because it uses a type of puppet called “low and rod”. The puppets have articulated arms and are thus endowed with free pendulum-like movement, whereas one of the feet, or both, is fixed at the base. This particularity means that when a puppet sways or turns, the movements of the arms and in some cases of one leg are unexpected and provoke laughter in the public. To sum up, this is an ancient manipulation technique that has almost disappeared from the contemporary puppet theatre, and this explains why it is one of the values of the Tirisiti crib.

The most striking differences are to be found with the puppets of the Tía Norica which are of two kinds: those with a base and a rod, similar to those of the Tirisiti, and those with strings, manipulated by a system called the Cadiz hanger which opens up greater possibilities of movement. Thus, technically, the puppets of the Tía Norica are the most elaborate, whereas those of the Tirisiti are at an intermediate stage of development.

            The puppets in the Tirisiti crib move along guidelines or trails placed between the boards which make up the floor of the stage. This traditional technique, called “gliding” developed from the primitive mechanical retables. Another physical characteristic of the stage, also dating back to the retables, is the low level of the stage platform which obliged the puppeteers to work in a bent position, otherwise it was children who manipulated the puppets. This kind of stage has several traits in common with the Laguardia one, but the stage or “terrazo” of the Tía Norica is much more complex. 


The characters 

Tirisiti is the undisputed protagonist of the play, the only character who appears both in the religious and the profane sections of the production, and the one who has given his name to the crib. The greatest charms of Tirisiti are his vivacity, his grace and his sharp malice which is sometimes even a little irreverent. In the Tirisiti crib, the drama develops between groups of characters: Tirisiti and the bull, the choirboy and the grandfather; the triangular action between Tirisiti, Tereseta and the sexton, and above all the interaction of the narrator and the public with Tirisiti, the sereno and the grandfather. The other characters of the folklore section represent psychological qualities, social roles or specific groups: the “beatas”, the priest, the torero, the Moor and Christian “filaes”, etc. 

            The plot, the text and the characters are inspired by everyday life in Alcoy at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century when the content of the work was already entirely established. Although, in the short play of the Tía Norica, there is no great variety in character types, there are two figures worthy of note who were responsible for the creation of a specific repertoire of which they are the protagonists: the Tía Norica, the merry grandmother, and her grandchild, Batillo, the typical bad boy. 


The content

            The Betlem de Tirisiti is a unique work by an anonymous author. The text surely does not have one single author, but as in other popular works in the oral tradition, the play was shaped, modified and grew over time. One can assume that it was the Betlemero Josep Esteve who wrote most of the text or script, with some contributions taken from other contemporary cribs. The religious part is the raison d’etre of the crib, and the text is based on the story of the birth of Jesus, according to the canonical Gospels of Saint Luke (1:26-38; 2:1-21) and Saint Matthew (1:18-25; 2:1:10). The Evangelists limited themselves to the essential elements of Jesus' birth and childhood. The lack of information was made up for by the Apocrypha which collected, completed and developed these episodes, offering a vast body of new information and details which attracted thanks to imaginative, fantastic and magical elements. 

            All this explains why the episodes and the legends of Christmas recounted in the Apocrypha easily became a motif propagated by literature both in the cultural and popular domain. It is clear that the Christmas themes had a huge impact on the literary production in the oral tradition, like romances, colloquia, interludes, prayers of the blind and popular Christmas songs (villancicosaguilnadoscantos romanceados, etc.).

In the plays of the Christmas cycle, from the 8th December, the celebration of the Immaculate Conception, to the 2nd February, Candlemas, there are 15 dramatic scenes. Generally, on each feast day, the corresponding scene in the liturgical calendar was staged in the cribs. Of all those, only one, the Nativity and the adoration of the shepherds, appears in all four of the cribs analysed here. Another fundamental scene that could never be omitted in a puppet crib is the adoration of the Magi, but it is not part of El retablo de la entrada del Rey pobre which is the oldest one. The Tirisiti crib contains two other scenes: the inn (in common with the Rey pobre and the Tía Norica) and the flight to Egypt. In the latter scene, it incorporates the miracle of the wheat (like Laguardia) and the miracle of the palm tree (like Tía Norica). 

            Generally, in the puppet cribs, not all the scenes were staged, but only a selection of them, depending on the origin of the text or the tradition of the place, but mostly depending on financial considerations, as these performances were always meant to satisfy popular taste. According to which scenes of the liturgical cycle of Christmas were chosen by the authors and the way they were used, not only the number of scenes in each play varied, but also the themes and the motifs, as well as their dramatic development. 

            In all the cribs, there are traces of the secularization of the religious theme; for example, the additions made to the pastoral theme: the dances of the shepherds, or whole scenes with a pastoral atmosphere. 

            In the Tirisiti, the religious section is eclipsed by the profane one, as this is the part with which the public identifies the most. The text of the folk section has a basic scenario which invites improvisation, introducing commentaries, jokes, anachronisms and contemporary events. The result is an open show which is constantly renewed. 

            The political situation at certain historical periods also brought about changes in the details of the staging. Thus at the climax of the performance, after the brilliant parade of the “filaes” of the Moors and the Christians, when Saint George appears at the summit of the castle on his white horse with his sword drawn, it seems that traditionally the Royal March was played, but during the Second Republic, it was changed to the Hymn of Irrigation (today the Hymn of Celebration has been chosen). Likewise, the bell tower of the church was topped by the royal, or the republican flag, depending on the period. 


Literary sources

            The textual repertoire of the cribs is made up of adaptations of Christmas themes or of improvisations from oral literary genres which have been fixed and perpetuated. 

            In regions with a long musical and literary tradition, the sources are popular songs from the area, and Christmas songs. For example, El retablo de la entrada del Rey pobre is based on ten stanzas of the vilancicos or the cantos romanceados, some of which can be accompanied by dance. In other cases, the source is the romances and the prayers of the blind. This is the case of the Laguardia crib (at least partially) and of the Tirisiti which is based on romances in Castilian. The narration itself in the performance of the Tirisiti recalls the tone of the romances of the blind that circulated in all forms of printed texts during the greater part of the 19th century, in popular literature called cordel

            This is why, in order to study the repertories of the traditional puppet theatre, it would be interesting to analyse all the printed cordel which have come down to us, and the huge corpus of oral literature. In other cases, the repertoire of the cribs stems from the tradition of Spanish theatre involving actors, or is at least influenced by it. This is what clearly emerges from the text of the “Christmas Autos” in the Tía Norica, the source of which is two 18th century plays. It is therefore a clear example of an intertextual construction between the theatre of actors and the puppet theatre. 

Those cribs which have a clearly defined or independent profane section show characters and folk scenes that differ from one crib to another depending on the theatrical tradition and the specificities of the place where they are performed. The result is a great diversity of theme and register. Sung and narrated texts, dialogues and musical forms may also encroach upon one another to make up the structure of the play. 

            In the case of the Tirisiti, the narrative scheme has been preserved. The same cannot be said about certain scenes or dialogues involving innovations or reinterpretations introduced at specific times, however this has guaranteed their survival.



            The importance and the growing number of baroque cribs at the end of the 19th century has led to the existence of a specific but very diverse textual repertoire.

            The repertoire of the puppet cribs depends, amongst other things, on the following criteria: their function (para-liturgical, propagandist, didactic, recreational, social cohesion, etc.); the expressive forms (songs, narration, dialogues, etc.); the techniques used (unarticulated sculpted figures, mechanical puppets, rod puppets, string puppets, etc.); the literary sources which inspired them (the actors’ theatre, popular literature in the oral tradition, musical genres, etc.); the degree of secularization of the religious theme, and the theatrical tradition, the literary context and the specificities of the place where they were created and developed. 

            The textual repertoire of the oldest puppet theatre has not yet received the attention it deserves from researchers. One of the reasons for this is the rarity of extant texts before the 20th century, because this was above all a popular genre in the oral tradition, handed down from one puppeteer to another. This becomes even more evident in the case of traditional cribs, where the text, the dialogues, the style and the system of representation have been passed on from one generation to the next within the same family, and have thus rarely been written down. In fact, the text of the three cribs mentioned here has only very recently been published. The Betlem de Tirisiti belongs to the last quarter of the 20th century and could only be recorded thanks to certain professionals and audiences who participated in, or actually saw the performances in the past. The Tía Norica has also been published, but luckily from manuscripts preserved since 1927. The story serving as a basis for the current show of the Laguardia crib was published even more recently (in 2004). Only the text of El retablo de la entrada del Rey pobre was published in its time, even if it was a literary transcription. 

            There is another feature which weakens puppet cribs, and this is improvisation. However the great capacity of the puppet theatre to improvise, to act, to value texts, is also a huge advantage, as it is a constant motor of renewal and guarantees the efficiency of the repertoire. 

            In the case of the Tirisiti, members of the public in Alcoy know the plot perfectly well and participate in the improvisations and intervene in dialogues and comic situations. The interaction of the public with the characters, warning them, asking questions or conversing with them, is another important value of the Betlem de Tirisiti



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Last updated : 06/04/2022