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There are many different varieties of puppets, and they are made of a wide range of materials, depending on their form and intended use. They can be extremely complex or very simple in their construction.
Puppetry was practised 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".
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 practised 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.
Puppetry 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:
The black light puppet is a form of puppetry where the puppets are operated on a stage lit only with ultraviolet lighting, which both hides the puppeteer and accentuates the colours of the puppet. The puppeteers perform dressed in black against a black background, with the background and costume normally made of black velvet. The puppeteers manipulate the puppets under the light, while they position themselves unseen against the black unlit background. Controlling what the audience sees is a major responsibility of any puppeteer, and blacklight lighting provides a new way of accomplishing this. Puppets of many sizes and types may be used, and glow brightly. The original concept of this form of puppetry can be traced to Bunraku puppetry.
The bunraku puppets are a type of wood-carved puppet originally made to stand out through torch illumination.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 kind of 'shadow' figures 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.
Carnival puppets (AKA 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 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 finger puppet is an extremely 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. This form of puppet has limited application, and is used mainly in pre-schools or kindergartens for storytelling with young children.
The sock puppet is a puppet formed from a sock and operated by inserting one's hand inside the sock. One then moves his hand up and down to give the impression of speaking. Sometimes eyes and other factors are added to the sock in order to make the puppet more realistic. Sock puppets are also 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, as they are not very professional.
The hand puppet (AKA glove puppet) are puppets 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, but special variants exist with eyelids which can be manipulated; the mouth may also open and close) are usually not much larger than the hand itself. A sock puppet is a particularly simple type of hand puppet made from a sock.
British traditional hand or glove puppets, Punch and Judy
Simple sock puppets
Hand or glove puppet dog
Also called a "two-man Muppet" or a "live-hand puppet", the human-arm puppet it is similar to a hand puppet but is larger and requires two puppeteers. One puppeteer places a hand inside the puppet's head and operates its head and mouth while putting their other arm into a glove and special sleeve attached to the puppet (the right arm if they are left handed and left arm if they are right handed). The second puppeteer puts their arm into the glove and special sleeve attached to the puppet in order to operate the other puppet's arms. This way, the puppet can perform arbitrary hand gestures. This is a form of glove or hand puppetry and rod puppetry.
The light curtain puppet presentations use specifically focused light to highlight small areas of a performance, 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.
Marionettes, 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 a horizontal or vertical one. 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.
Marionettes from the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, New York, USA production of "Cinderella Samba"
Puppeteer performing in New Orleans, Louisiana
"The Giglet Sisters" posed on puppet theatre stage
"Uncle Rastus" an elderly man playing a banjo
"Mrs Garbage" and " Mrs Guppy", charwomen
The marotte is a simplified rod puppet that is just a head and/or body on a stick. 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.
A 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 that do certain tasks such as waving or moving the mouth.
A 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, and is usually used as a novelty toy.
The 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 were produced for puppets and scenery from the 19th century for children's use.
A 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, any other limbs and by turning the central rod secured to the head.
Rod puppets from the Horse and Bamboo Theatre production 'Harvest of Ghosts' 1997
A 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.
Shadow Puppets, Jakarta, Indonesia
Supermarionation is a method invented by Gerry Anderson which assisted in his television series Thunderbirds in electronically moving the mouths of marionettes to allow for lip-synchronised speech. The marionettes were still controlled by human manipulators with strings.
A 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.
A 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.
The Ventriloquist's Dummy is a puppet operated by a ventriloquist performer to focus the audience's attention from the performer's activities and heighten the illusions. They are called dummies because they do not speak on their own. The ventriloquist dummy is controlled by the one hand of the ventriloquist. Such acts aren't always performed with a traditional dummy, occasionally using other forms of puppetry.
Edgar Bergen, seen with Charlie McCarthy, is one of America's best known puppeteers.
Ventriloquist Ramdas Padhye has been performing in India for over 40 years.
Performers like Jeff Dunham, here with Achmed the Dead Terrorist, have revived interest in North America.
A water puppet is a Vietnamese puppet form, the "Múa rối nước". Múa rối nước literally means "puppets that dance on water", 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 best setting for the puppeteers' theme: 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 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.
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.
Motekar Puppet or Wayang Motekar is a kind of shadow puppet theater, or in Sundanese, Javanese, and Indonesia in general known as 'wayang (kulit),' (leather) puppet. However, the difference, if the shadow puppets or like all forms of shadow puppet in general show performances in the form of a shadow (silhouette) of the black color, while Motekar Puppet have discovered a new technique so that the shadow of puppets can be performed with full color. That is because the basic principle Motekar Puppet using plastic materials, dyes transparent and special light system and a special screen. The show of Motekar Puppet uses a form of puppet and light highlighted as wayang kulit. The play is performed by one or several puppeteers, features music, singer, and a series of dances.
The word puppet can mean a political leader installed, supported and controlled by more powerful 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, and/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 (see Quisling).
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.
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