These are full-length figures controlled from above. Normally they are moved by strings or more often threads, leading from the limbs to a control or crutch held by the manipulator. Movement is imparted to a large extent by tilting or rocking the control, but individual strings are plucked when a decided movement is required. A simple marionette may have nine strings—one to each leg, one to each hand, one to each shoulder, one to each ear (for head movements), and one to the base of the spine (for bowing); but special effects will require special strings that may double or treble this number. The manipulation of a many-stringed marionette is a highly skilled operation. Controls are of two main types—horizontal (or aeroplane) and vertical—and the choice is largely a matter of personal preference.

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Chinese children playing with marionettes
Chinese children playing with marionettes, detail from The Hundred Children, a hand scroll of the 17th century; in the British Museum.
Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum

The string marionette does not seem to have been fully developed until the mid-19th century, when the English marionettist Thomas Holden created a sensation with his ingenious figures and was followed by many imitators. Before that time, the control of marionettes seems to have been by a stout wire to the crown of the head, with subsidiary strings to the hands and feet; even more primitive methods of control may still be observed in certain traditional folk theatres. In Sicily there is an iron rod to the head, another rod to the sword arm, and a string to the other arm; the legs hang free and a distinctive walking gait is imparted to the figures by a twisting and swinging of the main rod; in Antwerp, Belgium, there are just rods to the head and to one arm; in Liège there are no hand rods at all, merely one rod to the head. Distinctive forms of marionette control are found in India: in Rajasthan a single string passes from the puppet’s head over the manipulator’s hand and down to the puppet’s waist (a second loop of string is sometimes used to control the arms); in southern India there are marionettes whose weight is supported by strings attached to a ring on the manipulator’s head, rods controlling the hands.

In European history the marionette represents the most advanced type of puppet; it is capable of imitating almost every human or animal gesture. By the early 20th century, however, there was a danger that it had achieved a sterile naturalism that allowed no further artistic development; some puppeteers found that the control of the marionette figure through strings was too indirect and uncertain to give the firm dramatic effects that they required, and they turned to the rod puppet to achieve this drama. But, in the hands of a sensitive performer, the marionette remains the most delicate, if the most difficult, medium for the puppeteer’s art.

Flat figures

Hitherto, all the types of puppets that have been considered have been three-dimensional rounded figures. But there is a whole family of two-dimensional flat figures. Flat figures, worked from above like marionettes, with hinged flaps that could be raised or lowered, were sometimes used for trick transformations; flat jointed figures, operated by piston-type arms attached to revolving wheels below, were used in displays that featured processions. But the greatest use of flat figures was in toy theatres. These seem to have originated in England by a printseller in about 1811 as a kind of theatrical souvenir; one bought engraved sheets of characters and scenery for popular plays of the time, mounted them and cut them out, and performed the play at home. The sheets were sold, in a phrase that has entered the language, for “a penny plain or twopence coloured,” the colouring by hand in rapid, vivid strokes of the brush. During a period of about 50 years some 300 plays—all originally performed in the London theatres—were adapted and published for toy-theatre performance in what came to be called the “Juvenile Drama,” and a hundred small printsellers were engaged in publishing the plays and the theatrical portraits for tinseling that often went with them. It was always a home activity, never a professional entertainment, and provided one of the most popular and creative fireside activities for Regency and Victorian families. Although few new plays adapted for the toy theatre were issued after the middle of the 19th century, a handful of publishers kept the old stock in print until the 20th century. After World War II this peculiarly English toy was revived. Toy theatres also flourished in other European countries during the 19th century: Germany published many plays; Austria published some extremely impressive model-theatre scenery; in France toy-theatre sheets were issued; in Denmark a line of plays for the toy theatre remains in print. The interest of these toy-theatre plays is largely social, as a form of domestic amusement, and theatrical, as a record of scenery, costume, and even dramatic gesture in a particular period of stage history.

Shadow figures

These are a special type of flat figure, in which the shadow is seen through a translucent screen. They may be cut from leather or some other opaque material, as in the traditional theatres of Java, Bali, and Thailand, in the so-called ombres chinoises (French: literally “Chinese shadows”) of 18th-century Europe, and in the art theatres of 19th-century Paris; or they may be cut from coloured fish skins or some other translucent material, as in the traditional theatres of China, India, Turkey, and Greece, and in the recent work of several European theatres. They may be operated by rods from below, as in the Javanese theatres; by rods held at right angles to the screen, as in the Chinese and Greek theatres; or by threads concealed behind the figures, as in the ombres chinoises and in its successor that came to be known as the English galanty show. Shadow figures need not be limited to two dimensions; rounded figures may also be used effectively. A particular type of shadow show that was conceived in terms of film is the silhouette films first made by the German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger in the 1920s; for these films, the screen was placed horizontally, like a tabletop, a light was placed beneath it, the camera was above it, looking downward, and the figures were moved by hand on the screen, being photographed by the stop-action technique. The shadow theatre is a medium of great delicacy, and the insubstantial character of shadow puppets exemplifies all the truest features of puppetry as an art form.

Other types

These five types by no means exhaust every kind of figure or every method of manipulation. There are, for instance, the puppets carried by their manipulators in full view of the audience. The most interesting of these are the Japanese bunraku puppets, which are named for a Japanese puppet master, Uemura Bunrakuken, of the 18th century. These figures, which are one-half to two-thirds life size, may be operated by as many as three manipulators: the chief manipulator controls head movements with one hand by means of strings inside the body, which may raise the eyebrows or swivel the eyes, while using the other hand to move the right arm of the puppet; the second manipulator moves the left arm of the puppet; and the third moves the legs; the coordination of movement between these three artists requires long and devoted training. The magnificent costumes and stylized carving of the bunraku puppets establish them as among the most striking figures of their kind in the world.

Somewhat similar figures, though artistically altogether inferior, are the dummies used by ventriloquists; ventriloquism, as such, has no relation to puppetry, but the ventriloquists’ figures, with their ingenious facial movements, are true puppets. The technique of the human actor carrying the puppet actor onto the stage and sometimes speaking for it is one that has been developed a great deal in some experimental puppet theatres in recent years. The human actor is sometimes invisible, through the lighting technique of “black theatre,” but is sometimes fully visible. This represents a total rejection of much of the traditional thinking about the nature of puppetry, but it has become increasingly accepted.

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Another minor form of puppet representation is provided by the jigging puppets, or marionnettes à la planchette, that were, during the 18th and 19th centuries, frequently performed at street corners throughout Europe. These small figures were made to dance, more or less accidentally, by the slight variations in the tension of a thread passing through their chests horizontally from the performer’s knee to an upright post. Similar were puppets held by short rods projecting from the figures’ backs, which were made to dance by bouncing them on a springy board on the end of which the performer sat. The unrehearsed movements of figures like these, when loosely jointed, have a spontaneous vitality that more sophisticated puppets often miss. Another interesting, if elemental, type of puppet, the “scarecrow puppets,” or lileki, of Slovenia, is constructed from two crossed sticks draped with old clothes; two of these figures are held up on either side of a bench draped with a cloth, under which the manipulator lies. The puppets talk with each other and with a human musician who always joins in the proceedings. The playlets usually end with a fight between the two puppets.