Sunday, October 4, 2015

The History of Puppets

The History of Puppets

This page is developed in conjunction with a number of other teachers including Ross Wilson and Amy Wolner. I thank them for their knowledge and contributions.

A puppet can generally be seen as an object manipulated by a person. Normally we think of a puppet as being manipulated by a persons hand but the long history of puppetry shows that puppets can be manipulated by fingers, hands, arms, torsos, feet and even faces. 

Remnants of puppets have been found in many cultures and places but the best evidence we have is that puppetry started in India around 1100 BC with acting out of segments of the Indian epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The epic and sacred nature of these texts obviously loaned themselves to acting out of characters as well as the use of puppetry and one interpretation of events states that puppets were used to act out the stories because dancing and acting out of Gods was banned or it was envisioned that humans could not possibly embody or act out the characters of Gods. These puppets were probably two dimensional and hand painted, although three dimensional puppets probably existed at this time. 

The three dimensional puppets were probably operated by a stick in the middle of the puppet attached to the head and two sticks attached to the hands.

Puppets also appeared in Ancient Egypt and both Herodotus and Xenophon mention puppets in Ancient Greece. These puppets were probably marionette or string controlled puppets since the Ancient Greek word for puppet (nevrospastos) means string pulling or drawn by strings. Both Aristotle and Archimedes mention automatic or marionette style puppets. The Ancient Romans also mention puppets on strings.

Shadow Puppetry probably has existed in many countries since ancient times. We, know, however, of the existence of Shadow Puppetry in China from about 100 BC when allegedly the Emperor Wu during the Han Dynasty asked for his court officers to bring back to life his favorite concubine who had died and they created a shadow puppet and put on a performance. They allegedly used an oil lamp and brought her back to life in a play. By 1000 AD, puppetry had become widespread through the world and it is around this time that we see the development of more local forms of puppetry forms such as the Wayang Kulit in Indonesia. 

Wayang is the Indonesian word for shadow and the Wayang Kulit is a form of shadow puppetry where the puppet outlines appear as  shadows on a backlight screen. The stories initially acted out in the Wayang Kulit were the famous stories from India of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana but some local stories were acted out and both Indonesia and Malaysia eventually even acted out stories from their local and Islamic heritage.  

By the 1600's, Puppet forms had migrated to Eastern and Northern Asia and the Japanese form of Bunraku puppetry was born. This is a form of puppetry where large puppets are operated by people through a stick attached to the head of the puppet and sticks attached to the hands of the puppets. 

In Bunraku puppetry, the operator or operators of the puppet are normally also seen on the stage and visible to the audience. It is thought that Bunraku eventuates because of a ban on actors acting out characters on stage. Another legend states that a famous Japanese playwright grew tired of actors demanding that their parts be made larger and he thought that his plays could be much better acted by wood puppets so he commissioned some craftsmen to make some puppets so his plays could be more authentically presented. Many modern theatre companies and shows use Bunraku styles puppets to enhance the performance or story. 
Watch this snippet about how to get puppets to behave like actors with emotion Modern Theatre Company using Bunraku puppets

Here are some video demonstrations. Bunraku Demo

In Europe, puppets continued to develop in popularity and by the 18th Century the Marionette or string controlled puppet system had started to flourish in Italy, Germany and places like Prague.

By the 19th century, under the direction of famous puppeteers and puppet makers like the Venetian puppeteer Pietro Radillo, marionette puppets became more complicated and were upgraded from two strings and a rod to controls that included as many as twelve strings. 

At the same time other puppet forms started to develop more such as the hand puppet form characterized in England by the Punch and Judy shows which include many elements of the commedia del arte performance styles and forms.

Other forms of puppet theatre develop during this time such as the Korean foot puppet form known as Baltal or Baltalnori which a puppet form using foot puppets or puppets controlled by the feet.

Puppetry started to become out of vogue during the early twentieth century. However the Dada art movement and the Worker's Theatre of the 1920's and 1930's started to advance puppetry through art, political rallies and shows. By the 1960's puppetry started to gain a new lease of life through organisations such as Welfare State and the Bread and Puppet Theatre who both used puppetry along with other forms to further political messages.

Puppetry also started to re-enter the mainstream through television and children's television One of the early pioneers of using puppets on television was Shari Lewis who was a sock puppeteer and ventriloquist who started on the 'Facts N'Fun' show in 1953 but by 1960 she had her own show 'The Shari Lewis Show' where she introduced her most famous characters Hush Puppy, Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse'. 

Programs such as 'Sesame Street' and 'The Muppets' (created by the Jim Henson company) in the late 1960's, started to bring innovative hybrid puppet techniques back into the mainstream. Mainstream movies like 'Jurassic Park' which combined puppetry with animatronics along with the satirical movie 'Team America' where the World Police were produced entirely using puppets, helped to advance hybrid forms of puppetry.

In theatre and live shows, puppets started to have a second life. Julie Taymor, started to develop hybrid puppets which combined wayang kulit, bunraku and other puppet forms with dance techniques and multimedia techniques to create exciting stage shows such as 'The Lion King'.

Today puppets are a part of modern performance and theatre in ways that ensure that puppetry will continue to live on as an important part of theatre and performance. 

Even in extreme circumstances such as war, pandemics and living in refugee camps, puppetry is shown to be a popular perform which is used by many to entertain, explore ideas and express emotions. Below are puppets being used in war torn Syria and home made puppets made during b the global COVID 19 pandemic. 

Puppets are easy to make, fun to use and provide great opportunities for performance. Here are some different types of puppets which can easily be made.

Pipe Cleaner Puppets

Clothes Peg Puppets

Paperbag Puppets

Wooden Stick Puppets

Sock Puppets

Paint Brush Puppets

Here is a link to a good Puppet lesson Plan:


  • Richmond, Arthur (1950). Remo Bufano's Book of Puppetry. New York: The Macmillan Company.
  • Robinson, Stuart; Patricia Robertson (1967). Exploring Puppetry. London: Mills & Boon Limited.
  • Rump, Nan (1996). Puppets and Masks: Stagecraft and Storytelling. Worcester, Massachusetts: Davis Publications.
  • Sinclair, Anita (1995). The Puppetry Handbook. Richmond, Victoria, Australia: Richard Lee Publishing. ISBN 0-646-39063-5.
  • Suib, Leonard; Muriel Broadman (1975). Marionettes Onstage!. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. ISBN 0-06-014166-2.
Puppet Building and Making

Political Puppetry

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