History of Marionettes
Though today, marionettes are an entertainment to delight both young and old, this has not always been the case! From acting as go betweens from common people to emperors to heralding the arrival of gods, they have played an interesting part throughout human history.
Marionettes are distinguished from regular puppets by the fact that they are controlled by strings that are manipulated from above. This allows them a freedom of movement that is unmatched by other forms of puppetry, and this type of movement demands a great deal of skill from the person who is pulling the strings. Let’s take a look at the role that they have played in our history, both for entertainment purposes and for deadly serious ones!
In Myanmar, which was once known as Burma, troupes of marionettes were commissioned and maintained by royalty. Though the stories told by the marionette troupes were no doubt fascinating and entertaining, they served a very real occupation.
The Burmese court was concerned with preserving the dignity of its members and marionettes were often used to preserve the esteem of a person who had erred. For instance, the emperor could reprimand his children or his wife in this way by asking the puppeteers to put on a parable correcting errant children or careless wives about their reckless ways. While the reprimand would be obvious to anyone who was "in the know" it would largely pass unheeded by the people looking on, something that had a great deal of value in a court that could, and did contain hundreds of people.
The Burmese marionettes also served as a conduit between the ruler and his subjects… many times, people would ask the puppeteers to mention in a veiled fashion a current event or warning to the ruler. In this way, information could be transferred on without any disrespect. A marionette could say things that a human could never get away with.
In many ways, the Burmese marionette troupes replaced the actors of the time. It was considered a beheading offense to put your head above royalty, a fact which made standing on a stage difficult to say the least. Similarly, the laws of Burma were such that an actor could not wear full costumes if they were playing figures like royalty or holy men. While both of these facts would hamper the movement and stylings of a human actor, marionettes were not bound by such things and thrived in the vacuum.
In the Classical world of the ancient Greeks and Romans, articulated dolls were found in the graves of children, many of them bearing rods or strings by which they could be manipulated. These children's toys showed that the art of puppetry was quite popular, and the writings of Aristotle and Plato, both of whom mention puppetry, confirm this. The great and abiding classics of Western literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, may very well have been performed using marionettes.
In Europe, Italy was commonly considered to be the birthplace of the marionette. These early puppets were used to describe morality plays to a largely illiterate audience. Behaviors that would be considered lewd or inappropriate if undertaken by human actors was acceptable in marionettes.
Later on, the marionettes were used in epics like The Song of Roland, and during the eighteenth century, there was a trend of using marionettes to perform full-length operas, a tradition which is continued in some parts of Germany to this day.
The New World might even have an older version of the marionette. The Hopi had a Great Serpent drama known as Palu Lakonti that was performed every year in March. Large snakes are depicted as rising from the ground and sweeping across the fields. These serpents are marionettes as they are manipulated by strings from above, as there the two Corn Maids who accompany them. This is a tradition that existed long before Europeans showed up on American shores and points to a history with marionettes and puppetry that is extremely ancient.
As can be seen, marionettes have a long and varied history. With the continuing growth of the art and the innovations discovered by puppeteers themselves, it'll certainly be interesting to see where this art form goes in the future!
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