The majority of historians divide the history of the Czech puppet theatre into three main phases of development: the phase of the traditional folk marionettes or, more precisely itinerant puppet players, beginning in the last quarter of the 18th century and finishing at the end of the 19th century the phase of amateur puppeteers in the 1st half of the 20th century the phase of the modern professional puppet theatre, meaning, in this country, the period after 1948 This division into periods isn`t completely straightforward and is to a certain degree even unsystematic.
After all, itinerant marionette players were active in this country until the 50s of this century, the activities of the amateur puppeteers covers all three of these phases and the same is true of professional forms of puppet theatre. The basic principle behind this schema of periods however can be justified as in each given phase of development precisely these ways of performing Czech puppet theatre undeniably determined its form and above all provided the decisive impetus for its further development. If we return to the second half of the 18th century, where the majority of historians locate the beginning of Czech puppetry, we must stress that it is in essence the beginning of the continuous and related development of Czech theatre, corresponding in its basic features, form, organizations and function to our modern understanding of theatrical system. This doesn`t mean of course that puppets and puppet theatre (or occasionally only elements of it) were not presented in this part of Europe before that time.
A simple lack of historical material however prevents us from answering the question when puppets and puppet theatre first appeared in this country. They very probably date back to the oldest times. We can however only make guesses about the development in these early ages and by analogy with the signs of development in other European countries we can assume that puppets or moving figures were already appearing at cultural rites, religious ceremonies, and folk customs, where they originally had a magical and symbolical role. We may suppose that the process of development, as reconstructed by researchers from comparisons of iconography, linguistic, ethnographic and other materials, evidently moved from puppet statues conceived as material artefacts appertaining to these rites, to theatrical puppets which, enlivened by movement or sound, started to present active subjects and which thereby led to the creation of the puppet theatre as a specific type of stage art.
The increasing availability of evidence on the development of puppet plays, the variety of forms in medieval Europe and their gradual expansions the through south, west and central Europe on to the east, gives us a concrete conception of how puppet theatre was presented in the Czech land. Puppets, or to be more precise puppets manipulated from below, mainly appeared in improvised entertainment by traveling comedians at markets, but were also seen at the houses of the nobility and the court. The oldest Czech picture featuring a puppet dates from 1590. It shows Lutheran preacher Maxmilian Biber of Halle, arrested in 1558 in the surroundings of Vienna for unauthorized religious agitation, disguising his secret ostensory in the form of a puppet. In the Czech translation the puppet is called a "buffoon" and "fool`s hand-puppet", which cannot however understand to be a description of the puppet type. Some researchers have supposed that it is a marionette, although this type of puppet had not at that time appeared on Czech territory.
We may conjecture that it is probably a type of puppet "á la planchette" (figures moved by pulling and releasing two horizontally held strings), widespread in Europe as early as the 12th century. The preacher Biber used this type of puppet as a hiding place for his ostensory precisely because the puppet in question was at that time sufficiently widespread in the catholic countries of the Austrian monarchy. The other branch of medieval puppet production was originally related to the presentation of religious scenes – bible plays and mysteries. During the 14th to 16th centuries several forms of mechanical puppet theatre developed, in which these scenes, originally shown in church spaces, were presented.
The first marionettes – puppets manipulated from above by strings - began to appear here half way through the 17th century, not long after they had spread through Italy, and via Italian puppeteers to England. At this time, after the end of the thirty year`s war, an enormous flood of foreign theatre companies of the most various persuasions came to central Europe. They were mainly professional acting troupes (one branch coming from England, Holland and later especially from Germany, the other branch from Italy and Austria), who also introduced marionettes here as an entirely new type of puppet. It was the leaders of these groups who realized that, of all the forms of puppet known to them, it was precisely marionettes which, with their shape and style of animation most closely approximated the performance of a human actor and could to a certain degree replace him. With the spread of marionette theatre and its growing popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries came a corresponding decline and demise of a range of the earlier forms, although we must realize that the various productions of this period covered a wide variety indeed of different forms, in which the manipulation of material objects was predominant.
At the one end of this spectrum were spectacles which were distinctively creative in characters – panoramas, peep-shows, magic lanterns – and which, by virtue of their emphasis on visual impression constitute a borderline type of theatrical activity. Marionette theatre relatively quickly gained a leading position among the other puppet forms of the time, not only due to its greater relation to non-puppet styles of theatre, but especially because of the previously unwitnessed degree to which the puppet itself became the dramatic subject of theatrical events.
Author: Alice Dubská
Czech Puppet Theatre Over the Centuries