What is a Puppet? Pt.2

As noted before in this column the definition of “puppet” has become more and more complicated in the modern world. Nowadays with the advent of digital art, computer modeling, and advanced animation techniques, a simple question has grown perhaps beyond our ability to answer it.

However, we can look back and learn something from previous attempts to explain what Shakespeare called “such stuff as dreams are made on.” And that idea is the place to begin–that puppets are real but they are not real. Long, long before great Bard of Avon, a Greek philosopher used shadow puppets in his classic The CAVE as a symbol of what seemed real to mankind but was not.

In 1935, an American scholar of puppetry, Bessie Ficklen, wrote: “Flat or round, simple or elaborate, whether they fit over the hand, or hang from strings, or work by rods, or slide in grooves–all are puppets. Gordon Craig around the same time defined puppets as A MODEL OF MAN IN MOTION. Ficklen then wisely responded: “Puppets are images men contrive/and act to make them come alive.”

That seems to solve the problem. A computer managed robot is a puppet. A  water clock animating a moving figure is a puppet with no operator evident. A dancing string or rope is a puppet with human or electrical management. The question has always been, however, does a puppet need to be controlled directly or not.

And still the question haunts. We know what a puppet is and what it is not, but it remains hard to put into words. As the little boy said years ago at a English Punch and Judy show: “Mother, he’s a man, but he’s little.” Professor Richard Pischel wrote about the same time, “puppet plays are…nourished by strangeness.”

I saw my first puppet show at the age of six. They were performing circus monkeys on a big stage, jumping, swinging, dancing. It was magic. But, I knew something was strange. They were not real, live animals…but they were alive. I asked my mother what was happening. She just said that they were puppets.

What is a Puppet?


What Is A Puppet?

The term “puppet” often confuses people who are interested in learning about this branch of entertainment art. A dictionary explanation defines it as “a small human or animal figure animated by strings, wires, or by hand in a hollow body and head, or a toy like a person — a doll.” Misunderstanding starts with this simple description. The true meaning is far more complicated.

The first principle is that all puppets are dolls in one strange way or another, but not all dolls are puppets. Next, a puppet may be almost anything– a dancing rock, bunch of grapes, sweeping broom, a talking tin bucket, or swaying flower.. but not just merely a human or animal. It basically must be an articulated, moving, not alive object that takes on , no matter how limited, the illusion of life. Should it, necessarily, be controlled directly or remotely moved?

A modern master of American puppetry, Bill Baird, tells us that a puppet is “an inanimate figure that is made to move by human effort before an audience.” Although, he gives us a great working idea of current thinking about puppets, these are much more than that. History, sorry to say, does not offer much additional information.

Perhaps about fifteen thousand years ago a mystic made an animal skull move its jaw and speak to the people about important truths. Ancient Greeks, five thousands years ago, used puppets and animated figures for religious and entertainment effects. But much of this history is murky.

Today, we recognize approximately what this strange thing is. We remember it from the movies staring King Kong, Godzilla, Carrot Top (Lily), Pinocchio, ET, RtoDto; from TV: Ollie, Kukla, Senior Winces and his head in a box, Jerry Mahoney, Alf, Kermit, Elmo, Lamb Chop–all puppets.

Despite this difficulty of exactly defining the term, the concept may be identified and classified in order to help an understand of the word:

1. Hand/clove, fist puppet…2. Rod puppet…3. String puppet or marronette…4. Shadow puppet…5. Water puppet…6. Ventriloquist /dummy puppet…7. Finger puppet…8.Body puppet. See the pictures that illustrate each.