Puppetry Centre – History

Puppets and elements of puppet theatre probably appeared in the regions of Bohemia already in the oldest periods, especially in cult ceremonies, religious ceremonies and folk customs. In the Middle Ages mainly finger puppets, documented by iconographic materials, became part of the entertainment performances of comedians at markets and fairs. As of the 17th century more and more often English, Netherland, Italian and later German theatre groups started to come to Czech regions. Many of these theatre people gradually specialized in puppet theatre; their performances were played mostly in German.

Touring puppeteers

However, in the second half of the 18th century, puppeteers of the Czech nationality started their activities across Bohemia traveling with their marionettes through little country towns and communities. Gradually a tradition of puppeteering families (Bráts, Maisners, Kopeckýs, Finks, Dubskýs, Kočkas, etc.) arose where puppeteering was inherited as a family craft. Matěj Kopecký became the most famous puppeteer and the symbolic representative of puppeteers of the first half of the 19th century. Pimprle was a typical comic figure of Czech puppeteers and then later Kašpárek, who in his humour reflected the mentality of the folk audience. At the time of the peak of the Czech national revival, the folk puppeteers fulfilled a significant social function because often they brought a strong emotional experience to the folk audience as the only representatives of the Czech theatre culture across the countryside.

In the second half of the 19th century, touring marionette puppeteers were no longer able to keep up with the fast development of culture in those times. Even though they were active in Bohemia up to the fifties of the 20th century, since the end of the 19th century, the traditional popular puppet theatre had already been a closed phenomenon in terms of its development.

Puppets for Education

From the middle of the 19th century, playing with puppets on small home stages in so called family theatres started to spread. They were made for the entertainment of their children and friends by many artists as well by gifted visual art dilettantes. Many of these family theatres achieved a remarkable level and they became the basis for public performing amateur theatres. The amateur movement started growing in Bohemia at the end of the 19th century. Puppet theatres in schools and various associations (mainly the Sokol physical training organization who endeavoured for both the physical and cultural development of its members), oriented themselves mainly towards children for whom puppet theatre was supposed to bring suitable entertainment as well as a form of education. Fairy tale plays published in many editions dominated the repertoire. Jindřich Veselý effectively stimulated puppeteering activities with his organizational and publishing activities, especially his publication of the magazine Loutkář. Besides parents and pedagogues also visual artists, writers and actors started to take a pronounced interest in puppet theatre trying to emphasize the esthetic values in the perception of puppet theatre and assert puppet theatre as an art genre.

Puppetry Recognised as Art

The puppeteering movement became more intense mainly after the establishment of Czechoslovakia. Family puppet theatres had lived through their golden times for which puppets were mass produced and high quality printed decorations were issued in many editions. More than two thousand ensembles were active across the republic, regularly playing for children. Ensembles which emphasized artistic qualities in their work had a principal importance in the further development of Czech puppeteering.

In the 1930s a new generation of puppet directors started to assert themselves changing the hitherto staging style of Czech puppet theatre influenced by the poetry of the theatre avant-garde. They especially stressed the metaphoric and symbolic possibilities of puppets and strengthened the function of the director. They stifled the previous hegemony of visual artists with a new quality of cooperation between the director and set designer and in a number of excellent performances they were able to utilize those things only specific to puppet theatre. In 1930 J. Skupa started his professional touring ensemble which achieved extraordinary popularity as well as J. Trnka.

II World War

The war and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia heavily intervened in this promising development. During these hard times, however, Czech puppeteers managed to defend the socially well-founded nature of their creative work. Josef Skupa has an important place courageously playing hundreds of performances with his ensemble strengthening the spectators’ faith in a just future for the occupied nation. Also the activities of the PULS group (Prague Art Puppet Theatre) were successful. It was establis hed in 1939 by J. Malík whose stage sequences of Pomněnky (Forget-me-nots) and Sedmikrásy (Daisies) from classic Czech poetry became a moral support for Czech spectators and initiated similar creative work in a number of other Czech cities. During the german occupation (1938–1945) some puppeteers including Skupa were allowed to perform but many were persecuted (Skupa was finally jailled) and many, especially those of Jewish origin, landed in the concentration camps.

After the War

Majority of the Czech professional puppet theatres was founded in 1949 in close relation with the edition of the Theatre Act (1948). This act has become the legislative condition for the formation of an extensive complex theatre network hitherto subsidized in Czechoslovakia by the state. The immediate impuls to the foundation of the Czech professional puppet theatres, in particular to the Prague Central Puppet Theatre (1950) was the art tour of the Moscow Central Puppet Theatre on the turn of 1948–49. This theatre led by S. V. Obrazcov, had become an intensive inspiration for the Czechoslovak puppet community, and a clear example for the decisive official representatives. For a considerably long time it had become an actual example for the developing Central Puppet Theatre led by Jan Malik (1904–1980) both in the dramaturgy, working with puppets and especially in the technology of the rod puppets which had become the exclusively used type of a puppet on the Czech puppet stages for a very long time.

The state provided training for young puppeteers and in 1952 the Academy of Fine Art in Prague opened a Department of Puppetry (in the year 1990 renamed into the Department of Alternative and Puppet Theatre). The authorities also assured subsidy for the continuation of the magazine Československý Loutkář (Czechoslovak Puppeteer). Many theoreticians and historians of puppetry such as Jaroslav Bartoš, Jan Malík, Erik Kolár and Miroslav Česal had their work published.

The Central Puppet Theatre

Ústřední loutkové divadlo/The Central Puppet Theatre was supposed to research new means of expression, promoting an ideological repertoire according to the principles of the so-called “socialist realism”. Thus the Theatre popularized a type of rod puppet which was effective in its imitation of human movement. After Stalin’s death the theatre was able to return to the folk tradition and also looked for modern artistic inspiration.

Spejbl and Hurvínek Theatre

After the war Skupa left Pilsen and starting from 1945 set up a new company, the Spejbl and Hurvinek Theatre (Divadlo S+H), endowed with its own theatre building. He continued to produce variety shows and children’s plays with Hurvínek as the main character. Young artists founded within the theatre a creative studio group Salamandr in an attempt to abolish the monopoly of the string puppet and to invent cabaret items dealing with new topics and more serious human problems. Salamandr changed the image of the theatre and widely influenced Czech theatre as a whole. Skupa found a successor in Miloš Kirschner to whom he handed over his figures in 1956.

Joy Theatre

Another important group was Radost (Joy) Theatre founded in 1949 in Brno where Josef Kaláb and Jarmila Majerová produced the famous Zlatovlaska (Goldilocks) in 1953. Some solo players remained: Josef Pehr showed his skill as a glove puppet player with the participation of his resident character Pepíček. Jiří Jaroš, famous for his excellent productions Krása Nevídaná (Incredible Beauty) by Y. Speransky (1962) and Tajemství zlatého klíčku (Secret of the Golden Key) by E. Borisová (1964) also brought new ideas to Czech theatre.

Naïve Theatre

By the end of the 1960s imitative realism had been almost abandoned by Czech artists as they turned to a “theatrical” creative theatre. From that time three companies determined the style and artistic trends of Bohemian puppetry. The Puppet Theatre in Liberec was founded by Jiři Filipi but its importance rose under the direction of Oldřich Augusta, who changed its name into Naivní Divadlo (The Naïve Theatre of Liberec). He was a writer and made room for the contributions of various directors and designers. Jan Schmid was responsible for the cabaret shows, utilizing different means of expression with a studio group known as Ypsilon, and Pavel Polák and designer Pavel Kalfus were responsible for the children’s productions, which gave the impulse for the foundation of a special festival of children’s theatre Mateřinka started in 1973. Marketa Schartová directed most of the shows for older children and adults such as the successful Princezna Turandot (Princess Turandt) by Carlo Gozzi (1982).

DRAK Theatre

DRAK Theatre in Hradec Králové was founded in 1958 by Vladimír Matoušek with the cooperation of director Jiří Středa and designer and sculptor František Vítek. But in fact it was Jan Dvořak, director and dramaturg who developed artistic direction of the theatre. Miroslav Vildman instituted a new style with Pohádka z kufru (Tale of a trunk,) by Jan Vladislav (1965) and still more significant changes came when director Josef Krofta joined the company in 1971. He employed various forms of puppet with actors, objects and other media. The most important show of that time was Bartek’s Enšpígl (Eulenspiegel) in 1974 with design and puppets by Vítek. In the 1980s Krofta took control of the company, producing even more successful shows with Petr Matásek as designer and Jiří Vyšohlíd as composer. Examples of Krofta’s work were Píseň života (Song of Life after Dragon by Evgeny Shvarts, 1985), and Kalevala (1987). He also directed several international projects.

Alfa Theatre

Divadlo Dětí Alfa (Alfa Children’s Theatre) was founded in Karlovy Vary achieving a high reputation after its move to Pilsen in 1963. Its most notable shows were Žižka u hradu Rábí (Jan Žižka besieging castle Rabi, 1974) and Ze starých letopisů (From the old chronicles, 1976) directed by Karel Brožek. In 1992 it changed its name to Divadlo Alfa (Alfa Theatre) when it moved to a new building which also became the seat of the biennial festival since 1967 Skupova Plzeň (Skupa’s Pilsen).

Puppet theatre after 1989

The collapse of Communism marked in Prague by the so-called “velvet revolution” opened new possibilities to many artists, especially those of the young generation. Significant changes could be observed such as the adoption of religious themes, previously banned. In the Czech Republic there are 10 professional puppet theatres now. In addition, new independent theatres were established. Among the most progressive and most important are Buchty a loutky (Cakes and puppets), a theatre with an original dramaturgy that often works against conventions, the poetical Continuo Theatre, working as a closed artist community, and the strongly visual Forman Brothers Theatre. These theatres have been working for over 20 years; have their own theatre poetics and influence the next generations of puppeteers.

There are four important festivals, three of them taking place every two years – Skupa’s Plzeň (in June of every even year), Mateřinka in Liberec, focusing on theatre for the youngest audiences (in June of every odd year) and Spectaculo interesse in Ostrava (in September of every even year). There is also an annual festival in autumn, called One Flew Over the Puppeteer’s Nest, featuring always the year’s most inspirational shows by both professionals and amateurs.

Alice Dubská

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