Using objects to represent human forms and action dates back to the earliest eras of civilization, often emerging prominently in rituals surrounding fertility and death. As theatre artists began to fashion these objects specifically for the purposes of dramatic performance, the relationship between the constructed actor and the human actor developed in disparate ways.
In the West, the development of puppets in theatre is equivalent to that of their flesh-and-blood counterparts. Thriving in ancient Greek and Roman traditions, puppets were considered vulgar by the medieval church, and the tradition was likely practised only by travelling players from marginalized social groups. However, the church also appropriated puppet technology in liturgical rituals and pageants, often using life-sized dummies to represent the torture of Christian martyrs. As the theatre defined itself as a prominent cultural force in the Renaissance, puppetry often borrowed theatrical forms such as commedia dell’arte, while numerous playwrights and composers wrote for puppet theatre.
Eastern theatrical traditions likewise included puppetry, dating back to the second millennium BCE. Asian traditions influenced one another as performers travelled between China, Japan, Korea, India, and south-east Asia. While many puppet traditions retained their ritualistic function, being employed in ceremonies to remember the dead, puppets also quickly adopted dramatic forms such as noh drama. Japanese bunraku emerged from Shinto oral traditions and traditional folk music, evolving into a complex form that required multiple players to perform a single puppet.
While constructed and living actors thus often fulfil the same dramatic functions, the space they share on the stage and the physical relationship between puppet and puppeteer vary widely. In some traditions, the puppeteer is a mechanic who merely manipulates the constructed object, as with a marionette, such as those employed by the French puppet company Comédiens de Bois. Other traditions mask the bodily presence of the performer, but employ the performer’s voice as the puppet’s, as with Jim Henson’s Muppets. Ventriloquism, as practised by twentieth-century popular performers Edgar Bergen and Senor Wences, requires a single performer to perform both ends of dialogue, while simultaneously manipulating the puppet physically. Theatre directors such as Lee Breuer and Julie Taymor and experimental performance groups such as Mummenschanz have integrated live performers with elaborate puppets. The presence of a puppet performer might be satirical, as in Avenue Q (2003), which parodies children’s television, with all characters acted by puppets; or musical, as in revivals of Into the Woods which feature human performers inside the costume of the cow character Milky White (previously ‘played’ by a dummy or cut-out); or dramatic, as in the ensemble's performance of the title character in the 2010 drama War Horse.
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