A puppet is an object, often resembling a human, animal or mythical figure, that is animated or manipulated by a person called a puppeteer. The puppeteer uses movements of their hands, arms, or control devices such as rods or strings to move the body, head, limbs, and in some cases the mouth and eyes of the puppet. The puppeteer often speaks in the voice of the character of the puppet, and then synchronizes the movements of the puppet's mouth with this spoken part. The actions, gestures and spoken parts acted out by the puppeteer with the puppet are typically used in storytelling. Puppetry is a very ancient form of theatre which dates back to the 5th century BC in Ancient Greece. There are many different varieties of puppets, and they are made from a wide range of materials, depending on their form and intended use. They range from very simple in construction and operation to very complex.
Two simple types of puppets are the finger puppet, which is a tiny puppet that fits onto a single finger, and the sock puppet, which is formed and operated by inserting one's hand inside a sock, with the opening and closing of the hand simulating the movement of the puppet's "mouth." The sock puppet is a type of hand puppet, which is controlled using one hand that occupies the interior of the puppet and moves the puppet around. A "live-hand puppet" is similar to a hand puppet but is larger and requires two puppeteers for each puppet. A Marionette is a much more complicated type of puppet that is suspended and controlled by a number of strings connected to the head, back and limbs, plus sometimes a central rod attached to a control bar held from above by the puppeteer.
A rod puppet is constructed around a central rod secured to the head. A shadow puppet is a cut-out figure held between a source of light and a translucent screen. Bunraku puppets are a type of Japanese wood-carved puppet. A ventriloquist's dummy is a puppet, often human-shaped, operated by a ventriloquist performer's hand; the performer produces the puppet's voice with little or no movement of her mouth, which creates the illusion that the puppet is alive. Carnival puppets are large puppets, typically bigger than a human, designed to be part of a large spectacle or parade.
OriginsPuppetry was practiced in Ancient Greece and the oldest written records of puppetry can be found in the works of Herodotus and Xenophon, dating from the 5th century BC. The Greek word translated as "puppet" is "νευρόσπαστος" (nevrospastos), which literally means "drawn by strings, string-pulling", from "νεῦρον" (nevron), meaning either "sinew, tendon, muscle, string", or "wire", and "σπάω" (spaō), meaning "draw, pull".
Aristotle (384–322 BC) discusses puppets in his work On the Motion of Animals.
The movements of animals may be compared with those of automatic puppets, which are set going on the occasion of a tiny movement; the levers are released, and strike the twisted strings against one another.
In India, puppetry was practiced from ancient times and is known by different names in different parts of the country. Excavation of clay dolls from Indus valley sites serve as an indication. The art of puppetry called Bommalattam is mentioned in Tamil literature Silappadikaram, which is written around 2nd century B.C.
Types of puppet and puppetryPuppetry by its nature is a flexible and inventive medium and many puppet companies work with combinations of puppet forms and incorporate real objects into their performances. They might, for example, incorporate performing objects such as torn paper for snow, or a sign board with words as narrative devices within a production. The following are, alphabetically, the basic and conventional forms of puppet:
Black light puppetThe black light puppet is a form of puppetry where the puppets are operated on a stage lit only with ultraviolet lighting, which hides the puppeteer and accentuates the colours of the puppets, which are normally designed using colours that respond to UV light by glowing brightly. The puppeteers perform dressed in black against a black background, with the background and puppeteer's costume normally made of black velvet. The puppeteers manipulate the puppets under the light, while they position themselves unseen against the black unlit background. Puppets of many sizes and types may be used. The original concept of this form of puppetry can be traced to Bunraku puppetry.
Bunraku puppetBunraku puppets are a type of wood-carved puppet originally made to stand out through torch illumination. Developed in Japan over a thousand years ago and formalised and combined with shamisen music at the end of the 16th century, the puppeteers dress to remain neutral against a black background, although their presence as a kind of 'shadow' figure adds a mysterious power to the puppet. Bunraku traditionally uses three puppeteers to operate a puppet that varies from 1/3 to 1/2 life size.
CantastoriaCantastoria is a form of visual storytelling in which a puppet, illustration, painting, or other visual medium is accompanied by rhythmical speech or song that describes or reenacts events to tell a story.
Carnival or body puppetCarnival puppets (also known as body puppets) are usually designed to be part of a large spectacle. These are often used in parades (such as the Mayday parade in Minneapolis, United States and The Cape Town Carnival in South Africa) and demonstrations, and are at least the size of a human and often much larger. One or more performers are required to move the body and limbs. In parades, the appearance and personality of the person inside is not relevant to the spectator. These puppets are particularly associated with large-scale entertainment, such as the nightly parades at various Disney complexes around the world. Similar puppets were designed by Julie Taymor for The Lion King.
The Jim Henson Company also has their version of these puppets called full-bodied puppets. The Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus, as well as the titular character from Bear in the Big Blue House, are popular examples of this type of puppet.
Finger puppetThe finger puppet is a simple puppet variant which fits onto a single finger. Finger puppets normally have no moving parts, and consist primarily of a hollow cylinder shape to cover the finger. Finger puppets are often decorated with eyes and mouths made out of fabric or other materials. This form of puppet has limited application, and is used mainly in pre-schools or kindergartens for storytelling with young children.
Hand puppet or glove puppetA hand puppet (or glove puppet) is a puppet controlled by one hand, which occupies the interior of the puppet. The Punch and Judy puppets are familiar examples of hand puppets. Larger varieties of hand puppets place the puppeteer's hand in just the puppet's head, controlling the mouth and head, and the puppet's body then hangs over the entire arm. Other parts of the puppet (mainly arms) are usually not much larger than the hand itself. Often the mouth can also open and close, and special variants exist with eyelids that can be manipulated. A sock puppet is a particularly simple type of hand puppet made from a sock.
Human-arm puppetAlso called a "two-man puppet" or a "live-hand puppet", the human-arm puppet is similar to a hand puppet but is larger and requires two puppeteers. One puppeteer places their dominant hand inside the puppet's head and operates the puppet's head and mouth, while putting their non-dominant arm into a glove and special sleeve attached to the puppet. The second puppeteer puts their arm into a glove and special sleeve attached to the puppet in order to operate the other arm. This way, the puppet can perform hand gestures. This is a form of glove or hand puppetry and rod puppetry.
Some of Jim Henson's Muppets, such as the Muppet character Fozzie Bear and the Sesame Street characters Ernie and Count von Count, are live-hand puppets. A variation of this puppet, called a "sack-body" puppet, is built with the puppet's arms directly connected to its base. Popular examples include the Sesame Street characters Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch, and the Muppet character Rowlf the Dog.
Light curtain puppetLight curtain puppet presentations use light to highlight small portions of a performance area, allowing the puppet to be seen while the manipulators remain invisible. The puppets stand on a stage divided into an unlit background and a well-lit foreground, meeting to form a "curtain" of light. The puppeteer dresses in black and remains hidden in the unlit background of the stage while the puppet is held across the light curtain in the lit foreground of the stage. "Light curtain puppet" is an umbrella term, and any puppet which is extended into a well-lit area where its handler remains separated from the puppet by a division of light may be called a light curtain puppet.
MarionetteMarionettes, or "string puppets", are suspended and controlled by a number of strings, plus sometimes a central rod attached to a control bar held from above by the puppeteer. The control bar can be either horizontal or vertical. Basic strings for operation are usually attached to the head, back, hands (to control the arms) and just above the knee (to control the legs). This form of puppetry is complex and sophisticated to operate, requiring greater manipulative control than a finger, glove or rod puppet. The puppet play performed by the Von Trapp children with Maria in The Sound of Music is a marionette show.
Prominent marionette theaters operating today include: Salzberg Marionette Theater, Bob Baker Marionette Theater, Center for Puppetry Arts, Melchior Marionette Theater, the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre in Central Park, New York, and Le Theatre de Marionette.
MarotteThe marotte is a simplified rod puppet that is just a head and/or body on a stick. It was used by jesters in renaissance times. In a marotte à main prenante, the puppeteer's other arm emerges from the body (which is just a cloth drape) to act as the puppet's arm. Some marottes have a small string running through the stick attached to a handle at the bottom. When the handle is squeezed, the mouth opens.
MotekarMotekar or wayang motekar is a kind of shadow puppet theater known in Sundanese, Javanese, and Indonesian as 'wayang (kulit)', that is, (leather) shadow puppet. While most shadow puppets cast black silhouettes from behind a screen, motekar shadow puppets can be in full color. They use plastic materials, transparent dyes, a special light system, and a special type of screen to make this happen. Motekar puppet shows can be performed by one or several puppeteers and usually feature music, singing, and a series of dances.
Not all forms of puppetry need specially created items to puppet. Object puppets can be created with found everyday objects either assembled in advance or during performance. Señor Wences was a Spanish ventriloquist who became popular through his appearances on the American program The Ed Sullivan Show. His characters included Johnny (a face drawn on his hand) and Pedro (a gruff head in a box) who would talk when Wences opened the box. Similarly, chinface puppetry involves puppet features drawn or attached onto an upside-down chin.
Pull string puppetA pull string puppet is a puppet consisting of a cloth body where in the puppeteer puts his/her arm into a slot in the back and pulls rings on strings to make certain movements such as waving the arms or moving the mouth.
Push puppetA push puppet consists of a segmented character on a base which is kept under tension until the button on the bottom is pressed. The puppet wiggles, slumps and then collapses. Push puppets are usually intended as novelty toys, rather than as part of professional puppet theatre.
Rod puppetA rod puppet is a puppet constructed around a central rod secured to the head. A large glove covers the rod and is attached to the neck of the puppet. A rod puppet is controlled by the puppeteer moving the metal rods attached to the hands of the puppet (or any other limbs) and by turning the central rod secured to the head. The best known examples of rod puppets are Jim Henson's Muppets, most notably the Muppet characters Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, and the Sesame Street characters Elmo, Bert, and Grover.
Shadow puppetA shadow puppet is a cut-out figure held between a source of light and a translucent screen. Shadow puppets can form solid silhouettes or be decorated with various amounts of cut-out details. Colour can be introduced into the cut-out shapes to provide a different dimension and different effects can be achieved by moving the puppet (or light source) out of focus. Javanese shadow puppets known as Wayang Kulit are the classic example of this. In China, it became popular from Song Dynasty.
Sock puppetA sock puppet is a puppet formed and operated by inserting a hand inside a sock. The hand is opened and closed to simulate the movement of the puppet's "mouth" and give the impression of speaking. Sometimes eyes and other facial features are added to the sock in order to make the puppet more realistic. Sock puppets are popular in many puppet performances, as they are simple to make and easy to use. They are mostly used in satirical or children's works.
SupermarionationSupermarionation is a method of puppetry invented by Gerry Anderson, which he used in his television shows Stingray and Thunderbirds. The puppets were marionettes with electronically moving mouths to allow for lip-synchronised speech. The marionettes were still controlled by human manipulators with darkened strings.
Table top puppetA table top puppet is a puppet usually operated by rod or direct contact from behind, on a surface similar to a table top (hence the name). Shares many characteristics with Bunraku.
TicklebugA Ticklebug is a type of hand puppet created from a human hand to have four legs, where the puppet features are drawn on the hand itself. The middle finger is lifted as a head, and the thumb and forefinger serve as a first set of two legs on one side, while the ring finger and little finger serve as a second set of two legs on the opposite side.
Toy theatreThe toy theatre is a puppet cut out of paper and stuck onto card. It is fixed at its base to a stick and operated by pushing it in from the side of the puppet theatre. Sheets of puppets and scenery were produced from the 19th century for children's use.
Ventriloquism dummyThe Ventriloquist's Dummy is a puppet shaped like a small human which is operated by a ventriloquist performer to focus the audience's attention away from the performer's activities and heighten the illusion that the dummy is speaking. They are called dummies because they do not speak on their own. The ventriloquist dummy is controlled by one hand of the ventriloquist. Ventriloquism acts are not always performed with a traditional dummy; occasionally other forms of puppetry are used.
A water puppet is a Vietnamese puppet form, the "Múa rối nước". Múa rối nước literally translates to "dance underwater" or "dancing underwater". This is an ancient tradition that dates back to the 10th century. The puppets are built out of wood and the shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers to control them. The appearance is of the puppets moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this puppet form.
The water also provides the setting for traditional stories depicting day-to-day village life. Water puppets bring wry humor to scenes of farming, fishing, festival events such as buffalo fights, and children's games of marbles and coin-toss. Fishing turns into a game of wits between the fisherman and his prey, with the fisherman getting the short end (often capturing his surprised neighbor by mistake). Besides village life, scenes include legends and national history. Lion dogs romp like puppies while dragons exhale fire and smoke and shoot sprays of water at the audience. Performances of up to 18 short scenes are usually introduced by a pig-tailed bumpkin known as Teu, and accompanied by a small folk orchestra.
Painted wooden heads, hands made just by stuffing clothes or cotton into the sleeve of the dress, with painted appearances, angled eyebrows, mustache for men and nose ring for ladies and huge expressive eyes all over, manikins are hung with dresses produced using sequined old textures.
Idioms and cultural expressions
The word puppet can mean a political leader installed, supported and controlled by powerful external forces, without legitimacy in the country itself. In modern times, this usually implies no democratic mandate from the country's electorate; in earlier times, it could have meant a monarch imposed from outside, who was not a member of a country's established ruling dynasty, or unrecognised by its nobility. "Puppet government", "puppet regime" and "puppet state" are derogatory terms for a government which is in charge of a region or country, but only through being installed, supported and controlled by a more powerful outside government. An example is Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian fascist leader during World War Two who collaborated with the Nazis and led a puppet government.
In a more general sense, a puppet is any person who is controlled by another by reasons of (for instance) undue influence, intellectual deficiency, or lack of character or charisma. Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein's novel The Puppet Masters depicts alien parasites who attach themselves to human beings and control their actions.
Poppet, a word that sounds similar, is sometimes a term of endearment, similar to "love", "pet", "doll" or "dear". It alludes to folk-magic and witchcraft, where a poppet is a special doll created to represent a person for the purpose of casting healing, fertility, or binding spells.
Sock puppet is used on social media as a term to describe fake accounts used to spread political disinformation.