Petrushka was a Russian puppet theater spectacle and also the name of its main character (cf. the English Punch).
The play Petrushka seems to derive from a native older Russian buffoon and minstrel tradition and the Western European puppet theater tradition with its roots in the Italian commedia dell'arte. Possible evidence of the Petrushka play in Russia is found as early as 1637 in an engraving and description by a Dutch traveler, Adam Olearius. From around the 1840s to the 1930s, the Petrushka show was one of the most popular kinds of improvisational theater in Russia, often performed at fairs and carnivals and on the streets on a temporary wooden stage (balagan ). The show was presented by two performers, one of whom manipulated the puppets, while the other played a barrel-organ. Recorded textual variants from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries depict the adventures of Petrushka, a dauntless prankster and joker, who uses his wit as well as a vigorously wielded club to get the better of his adversaries, who often represent established authority. The themes tend to be sexist and violent. Petrushka is usually dressed in a red caftan and pointed red cap, and has a hunch-back, a large hooked nose, and a prominent chin. The most popular scenes involve Petrushka and a handful of characters, among them his fiancée or wife, a gypsy horse trader, a doctor or apothecary, an army corporal, a policeman, the devil, and a large fluffy dog. Igor Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka (1911) is probably the most famous adaptation of this puppet theater show.
See also: folklore; folk music; stravinsky, igor fyodorovich.
Kelly, Catriona. (1990). Petrushka: The Russian Carnival Puppet Theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Zguta, Russell. (1978). Russian Minstrels: A History of the Skomorokhi. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.