The Evolution and Meaning of Puppets

Sep 16, 2013

Vacations by the sea, as I remember them from childhood, were always a bit of an ordeal.  There was nothing to do on the beach except get sunburn or hypothermia, depending on the weather, but one bright spot was the “Punch and Judy” puppet show: a beach entertainment that never failed to attract a crowd of kids, including me.  The show was always exactly the same, but we didn’t care.  Just like modern kids at the movies, we were there for the violence and the political incorrectness. 

Basically “Punch and Judy” is a domestic drama.  Mr. Punch is left to look after their baby, in which he fails completely; sometimes going so far as to accidently put it through a sausage machine.  When Judy returns, she beats Punch with a stick, and calls a policeman who beats Punch with a truncheon, and it’s all downhill from there.  A crocodile may appear, and hundreds of sausages, and a clown, and even the devil.  You can’t beat it for drama, and it’s all done by one man behind a screen using hand puppets and funny voices.

I’ve never thought much about “Punch and Judy” since then—it’s not the sort of thing you do think about—but we were in the big French city of Lyon last week, and this brought “Punch and Judy” vividly to mind.   Every big city is famous for something—New Orleans for jazz, Paris for rude waiters, and so on—Lyon is famous for its puppets.  Sometime in the late 1700s, a man from Lyon called Laurent Mourgeuet, invented a puppet show featuring a crazy character called “Guignol.”  The shows became enormously popular—you can still see them in Lyon—and Guignol became the model for the even crazier Mr. Punch. 

Puppetry is an art more than two thousand years old, and live puppet shows used to be a staple part of popular entertainment for adults and often appeared on the variety stage. But now, we see puppets mostly on television shows for children: like Sesame Street, or the old Muppet Show.  Puppets appealed to us, I think, for several reasons: they have that intriguing quality of being both real and unreal at the same time. Unlike movie or cartoon characters, we can touch them and manipulate them, and yet they take on a life of their own in performance.  Puppets and dolls that come alive often appear in our dreams and our artistic fantasies: the Magic Toy Shop, the Nutcracker, and so on.  Puppets are like us, and yet not like us, so we can be caught up in their dramas and walk away unscathed.  Also, perhaps, we feel sympathy for them, because we all sometimes feel like puppets on a string, dancing to the tune of an invisible manipulator behind the curtain.  That’s why puppet shows are so often satirical, and morally ambiguous: they are a devise for speaking uncomfortable truths.

Ironically the city of Lyon, that claims to be the home of the puppet tradition, also gave birth to the technology that killed it.  The Lumiere brothers invented the moving picture camera there in 1895.  Who needs puppets made out of cloth and papier-mâché, when Hollywood can provide the real thing?

Copyright: David Bouchier