Weird Figures: a Brief History of Puppets

Puppets are a big deal over here at Magically Real HQ.  We like them all:  marionettes, hand-puppets, finger puppets, shadow-puppets, oversize-Bunraku puppets, Sesame Street and Crank Yankers, action figures of various descriptions, sock puppets, and even hands remaking themselves in silhouette — flowing into shadow shapes on illuminated walls.

The Encyclopedia Britannica online (  tells us that any object can become a puppet; any figure that we move and make speak in front of another person is a puppet. This means that most play-time pretend with any object – be it Transformer or Mme. Alexander doll – is an act of puppetry, if it is performed in front of someone other than the practitioner.

Puppetry is ancient and cross-cultural.  The oldest puppets seem to be connected to religious ritual and magic incantations– as a way to tell a story/invoke a power of the divine that the human body cannot express or tell.  Some critics think that the puppet is connected to the use of the mask: the masked performer becomes a kind of inhuman operative, a thing rather than a person, propelled by the god or divinity that inspires them.

The word “marionette” reveals this divine connection.  This kind of puppet is found in Ancient Greece and Burma, but its name in English derives from Marie and Maria, because these puppets explained bible stories to a primarily illiterate audience in Medieval France and Italy.  (

Puppets are also subversive.  Undersized and therefore unimportant, puppet theaters have sprung up at difficult times, to articulate complex truths and problems.  Operating as a way to critique but not shame rulers in Ancient Burma (see, puppet theaters also abounded in the German Democratic Republic.  Throughout the country, these theaters became a place to comment – in an uncensored way  — on the vagaries of the Soviet Bloc, or even to comment on contemporary political intrigue (

Mao seems to have recognized the ability of these figures to shake things up; shadow puppets were frowned upon and consequently hidden in the PRC.  Currently, an elderly Chinese couple in possession of a vast collection of Chinese shadow puppets is seeking a home for these troublesome avatars in the United States. (

2 fiction writers that we are aware of have understood the power of puppets.  Penned in the early 19th Century, Heinrich von Kleist’s odd essay “Über das Marionnettenetheater” talks about puppets as human forms who have grace precisely because they do not have the imperfect human consciousness that both inspires and limits us.  (

The other writer is Russell Hoban, whose futurist apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker continues to enthrall and challenge readers.  In a broken world where a cryptic, Joycean English is spoken, it is Punch and Judy who have survived the nuclear holocaust and who become the basis for both a governmental ideology and its eventual undoing.

Perhaps we care about puppets because they fool us into feeling.  Watching them we think, but then forget they are not human – a lapse that tricks our emotional censors, and consequently releases genuine and surprising emotional reactions.

Christopher Bolton ( gave a talk at UCR some time ago, comparing Bunraku with anime, and he suggested that there was a connection between the figures of the puppet theatre and the cartoon cyborg of Ghost in the Shell.  He showed a clip from a Bunraku performance where a lover murders his mistress, whom he believes –wrongly – has been unfaithful.  As the black-hooded puppeteers lean over each other, the female puppet in the kimono recoils as she sees the tiny knife coming at her. Then, suddenly — she closes her eyes, awaiting and surrendering to the blow.

Kleist was on to something when he talked about the puppets’ amazing quality of grace.


Puppets and Marionettes:

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