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A puppet is any controlled character, whether formed by a shadow, strings, by the use of a glove, by direct mechanical contrivance (for example a cable-controlled figure for film or TV) or electronic guidance (such as a radio or infrared remote controller). The last method is also called animatronics. Digital animated figures, with this description, may also be described as puppets, particularly since they are often supplanted by physical puppets for closeups. However, drawn cartoons are not puppets.

Puppets are also known as marionettes from the French medieval passion-play figure attributed to Marion or the young Mary, mother of Jesus.

A general distinction between a puppet and an automaton is the former is mostly operated live and the latter is mostly programmed (for example a coin-operated automata-show or piano-roll sideshow figure). The puppet can interact with other puppets, live performers, and the audience; automatons are animated props.

History of Puppetry

The use of puppets dates back thousands of years. The first may have been shadow-puppets, which are mentioned in Greek philosophy.

The ancients, especially the Greeks, were very fond of theatrical representations; but, as Magnin has remarked in his Origines du Th��tre Moderne, public representations were very expensive, and for that very reason very rare. Moreover, those who were not in a condition of freedom were excluded from them; and, finally, all cities could not have a large theater, and provide for the expenses that it carried with it. It became necessary, then, for every day needs, for all conditions and for all places, that there should be comedians of an inferior order, charged with the duty of offering continuously and inexpensively the emotions of the drama to all classes of inhabitants.

At the time menageries, puppet shows, fortune tellers, jugglers, and performers of tricks of all kinds wandered from village to village. These prestidigitators even obtained at times such celebrity that history has preserved their names for us -- at least of two of them, Euclides and Theodosius, to whom statues were erected by their contemporaries. One of these was put up at Athens in the Theater of Bacchus, alongside of that of the great writer of tragedy, �schylus, and the other at the Theater of the Istiaians, holding in the hand a small ball. The grammarian Athen�us, who reports these facts in his "Banquet of the Sages," profits by the occasion to deplore the taste of the Athenians, who preferred the inventions of mechanics to the culture of mind and histrions to philosophers. He adds with vexation that Diophites of Locris passed down to posterity simply because he came one day to Thebes wearing around his body bladders filled with wine and milk, and so arranged that he could spurt at will one of these liquids in apparently drawing it from his mouth.

Philo of Byzantium, and Heron of Alexandria both composed treatises on puppet shows. That of Philo is lost, but Heron's treatise has been preserved to us.

According to Heron, a Greek engineer, there were several kinds of puppet shows. The oldest and simplest consisted of a small stationary case, isolated on every side, in which the stage was closed by doors that opened automatically several times to exhibit the different tableaux.

The programme of the representation was generally as follows: The first tableau showed a head, painted on the back of the stage, which moved its eyes, and lowered and raised them alternately. The door having been closed, and then opened again, there was seen, instead of the head, a group of persons. Finally, the stage opened a third time to show a new group, and this finished the representation. There were, then, only three movements to be made, that of the doors, that of the eyes, and that of the change of background.

As such representations were often given on the stages of large theaters, a method was devised later on of causing the case to start from the scenes behind which it was bidden from the spectators, and of moving automatically to the front of the stage, where it exhibited in succession the different tableaux; after which it returned automatically behind the scenes. Here is one of the scenes indicated by Heron, entitled the "Triumph of Bacchus":

The movable case shows, at its upper part, a platform from which arises a cylindrical temple, the roof of which, supported by six columns, is conical and surmounted by a figure of Victory with spread wings and holding a crown in her right hand. In the center of the temple Bacchus is seen standing, holding a thyrsus in his left hand, and a cup in his right. At his feet lies a panther. In front of and behind the god, on the platform of the stage, are two altars provided with combustible material. Very near the columns, but external to them, there are bacchantes placed in any posture that may be desired. All being thus prepared, says Heron, the automatic apparatus is set in motion. The theater then moves of itself to the spot selected, and there stops. Then the altar in front of Jupiter becomes lighted, and, at the same time, milk and water spurt from his thyrsus, while his cup pours wine over the panther. The four faces of the base become encircled with crowns, and, to the noise of drums and cymbals, the bacchantes dance round about the temple. Soon, the noise having ceased, Victory on the top of the temple, and Bacchus within it, face about. The altar that was behind the god is now in front of him, and becomes lighted in its turn. Then occurs another outflow from the thyrsus and cup, and another round of the bacchantes to the sound of drums and cymbals. The dance being finished, the theater returns to its former station. Thus ends the apotheosis.

Kinds of puppets

  • Marionette – a puppet suspended and controlled by a number of strings held from above by a puppeteer. See Being John Malkovich
    • Supermarionation – an electronic variant with control wires substituted that connected internal mechanisms in the puppet.
  • Hand puppet – a puppet controlled by one hand that occupies the interior of the puppet. 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 manipulable eyelids and other parts), may be controlled elsewise, e.g., by rods operated by the puppeteer's free hand, or strings or levers pulled from inside the head or body. Smaller hand puppets often have no significant manipulable parts at all (in particular, the mouth may not open and close); these are usually not much larger than the hand itself. A sock puppet is a particularly simple type of hand puppet made from a sock.
  • Ticklebug – a four-legged puppet, similar to a hand puppet but created by drawing features on the hand itself. The puppeteer uses the thumb and forefinger as two legs on one side, lifts the middle finger as a head, and uses the ring and little fingers as the opposing legs.
  • Muppet – A term referring to some of the puppets constructed by the Jim Henson Company. Often erroneously used to refer to puppets that resemble those of the Muppet Show or built by the Henson Company.
  • Black light puppet – a kind of puppet that is operated on a stage lit only with black lighting with both hides the puppeteer and accentuates the colours of the puppet. For origin of black light look at Bunraku Puppetry.
  • Light Curtain puppet – Puppetry is performed by puppeteers dressed all in black performing on a stage with a black background. (Most commonly the background and the clothes are made of black velvet). The lighting is specially done so that there is essentially a line on the stage, where on one side there is light and on the other is darkness. The puppeteers push the puppets over the line into the light, while they blend into the black unlit background. Puppets of all sizes and types may be categorized under this umbrella term since this form allows a wide range of puppets, controlled by one or many puppeteers. From a small bee controlled by one puppeteer to a majestic dragon controlled by ten. The original concept of this puppet form is traced to Bunraku Puppetry where the light technique was first used.
  • Bunraku – Originally developed in Japan over a thousand years ago, a form of puppetry where puppets are controled by individuals dressed all in black. Originally, the puppeteers dressed all in clad would become invisible when standing against a black background, while the torches illuminated only the wood carved puppets. While the traditional Bunraku theater is found mostly in Japan, the modern use of the Bunraku would be in black light or light curtain puppet theater.
  • Ventriloquist dummy – 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.
  • Rod puppet – A puppet with articulated joints, similar to a marionette, but operated from below by stiff rods, rather than from above by strings.
    • Marotte – 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.
  • Shadow puppet – A (usually) 2-dimensional rod puppet that is operated behind a screen. A light source projected from the rear creates a shadow of the puppet on the screen that can be seen by the audience.
  • Water Puppetry – A puppet form almost exclusively done in Vietnam. The puppets are built out of wood and the shows are performed in a waist high pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers to control them. The appearance is of various puppets moving over water. The origin of this form dates back seven hundred years when the rice field would flood and the villagers would entertain each other. Eventually villages would compete against each other with their puppet shows. This lead puppet societies to be secretive and exclusive, including an initiation ceremony involving drinking rooster blood. Only recently were women allowed to join the puppet troups.
  • Wayang – Indonesian puppet. The Indonesian archipelego has many rich puppetry traditions.
  • Human-Arm Puppet, also called a Two-Man Puppet, 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; the other puppeteer wears gloves and special sleeves attached to the puppet in order to become the puppet's arms, so that the puppet can perform arbitrary hand gestures.

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