Marionette performances or puppet plays are a living art in the Czech Republic, especially in the capital, Prague.
Mock dramas abound in Prague. Puppet masters are trained at a special school, DAMU, the School for Alternative and Puppet Theatre at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. And if you are lucky enough to be in Prague, a visit to the National Marionette Theatre is a definite must.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni has had more than 1,000 performances at the National Marionette Theatre, founded in 1991. Around 50 professional puppeteers work on this theatre’s plays which are performed at Zatecka l in Prague’s Old Town.
The Magical Theatre of the Baroque World also offers a glimpse into the world of puppetry, this time using stage design and technology that is entirely baroque. Their first performance was in 1993. Plays are staged in a unique baroque palace in downtown Prague.
The term “marionette” comes from the French “Mariolette,” a diminutive of Mariole, a name once given to little figures of the Virgin Mary in France. The word “puppet” also comes from a French word, the word for doll. When we say puppet in English, we mean a small image, usually in human form, moved by the fingers, cords or wires in a mock drama.
Czech puppets started out as simple stick forms which later evolved into hand puppets. The first recorded use of “mechanical figures” in Czech puppet theatre was in 1563. At that time most puppeteers had trained in other parts of Europe.
At the end of the 16th century Czechs were being entertained by British, Dutch, and German puppeteers who used string marionettes first developed in Italy. But these very string puppets, thousands of which are sold in gift shops and street markets in Prague to this day, are considered by most people to be of Czech origin. They are still made by hand in and around Prague.
As early as 1750, marionette theatre had become an independent profession in the Czech Lands. In 1782, the first Czech puppet play, a story about Don Juan, was written. By the middle of the 19th century, however, performances had become stilted. Czech puppeteering was in decline.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that puppet theatre was revived. In fact, there was such a strong trend to preserve folk culture that it was raised to the level of mainstream theatre. Puppeteers no longer had to travel with their shows. Permanent puppet theatres were opened and this contributed to the further development of the art form.
In the 1960s, so-called “Black Theatre” influenced Czech puppet plays and rod marionettes came into use. Marionette masters used darkness with light playing on the puppets to create unusual effects.
Rod marionettes, which are operated from the bottom with rods, led to a new movement called “The Theatre of the Third Kind” in which puppeteers became actors rather than hidden players on the stage. But even as professional puppeteering evolved, amateur puppet theatres survived. There are still approximately 200 amateur groups in the Czech Republic.
The Union Internationale de la Marionette (UNIMA), which originated in Prague in 1929 has become an international organization “for anyone who enjoys puppet theatre regardless of race, politics, and culture.” There are members in around 77 countries and besides puppetry itself, UNIMA is involved in puppet therapy and higher education.
Those wishing to see puppets in Canada may visit the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, just across the river from Ottawa. To build up a puppet collection, a visit to Prague will provide puppets in abundance. Beautiful hand-made creations include devils, noblemen, queens, witches, Don Giovanni, and Kasparek, the charming little fellow wearing the belled felt hat that many tourists buy while visiting Prague.
Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings and Doctor’s Review, among others. Email: email@example.com
Air Transat will fly non-stop to Prague from Montreal and Toronto starting in June 2014.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT: We always stay at the 20-room, family-owned and operated Hotel Meran. It is right on Wenceslas Square. The Hotel Pariz across from the beautifully restored Obecni Dum (an art nouveau concert hall with three restaurants) is a great place to stay if you like the elegance and ambiance of earlier times. The best goulash in town is at Hostinec U Provaznice, a pub-restaurant just off Wenceslas Square. No puppets here, just a carving of the voluptuous rope-maker’s wife who gave her name to the restaurant. Two meals with soup, main course, beer, wine or mineral water cost less than $18 Canadian.
Special stalls at Easter and Christmas have thousands of bewitching hand and string puppets for sale, some priced at less than $7 Canadian. You will probably find it as difficult as I did to choose from the many characters on offer.