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puppet A figure, usually human or animal, moved by human agency, used in a theatrical show. Puppets are thus to be distinguished from dolls, clockwork automata, and other toys. They come in several varieties: glove or hand puppets are hollow bodies, usually made of cloth, into which the performer inserts a hand, with the fingers and thumb manipulating the usually wooden head and hands; marionettes are full-length figures moved from above by strings or wires; rod puppets are large, and manipulated by rods to the head and hands; shadow puppets, common in Java, Bali, and Thailand, are flat figures held between a light and a translucent screen. There are many other less familiar types, for instance living marionettes; bodies attached to the actual head of the performer, with either legs or arms manipulated by rods from behind; and ‘held’ puppets — figures carried about by one or several operators, like the characters in Japanese Bunraku theatre.

The origins of puppetry lie with ritual magic. Puppet theatre has featured in almost all civilizations. In Europe there are written records of it from the fifth century bc, and puppets certainly figured in the repertoire of medieval jongleurs. In sixteenth-century Italy they were closely linked with the characters of the commedia dell'arte, though in England they played mainly folk stories and popular Old Testament stories. The introduction of Punch into England in the seventeenth century united these two traditions. Puppet theatre has customarily been a form of folk theatre, often featuring a comic character, such as Petroushka in Russia or Pulcinella in Naples.

Occasionally, however, puppet theatre has become a fashionable, élite entertainment. In the eighteenth century, various operas were composed for puppets; Alessandro Scarlatti wrote works for Cardinal Ottoboni's theatre in Rome, as did Joseph Haydn for Count Esterhazy. The puppet theatre occasionally provided a fine vehicle for parody, as in early Hanoverian England, when Powell's Covent Garden theatre attained celebrity by sending up the vogue for Italian opera, and Henry Fielding, Samuel Foote, and other comic writers presented puppet shows to burlesque contemporary fashions.

In the nineteenth century, various artists and writers sought to turn the puppet theatre into a serious medium. In Germany, an essay by Heinrich von Kleist, written in 1810, was a forerunner of this move; in France, George and Maurice Sand directed a home puppet theatre in the 1860s that inspired many imitators; in Belgium in the 1890s, Maurice Maeterlinck wrote symbolist plays to be performed by marionettes; in England in 1907, Gordon Craig hailed the übermarionette as the ideal actor. Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi (1888), originally written for puppets, has been viewed as a precursor of the theatre of the absurd. In the 1920s the German Lotte Reiniger exploited film techniques to produce remarkable silhouette shows based on shadow figures. In Communist Eastern Europe, state subsidies led to work of great technical accomplishment and artistic sophistication. This highbrow interest, however, has been rather limited, and, for the public at large, puppets in modern culture have typically been regarded as children's entertainment — notably the Punch and Judy show.

Recent years have seen revived use of puppets for political satire, as in the British television show Spitting Image. Puppets have also served as an educational medium in the American TV programme Sesame Street and they are employed in child psychiatry as surrogate figures.

Roy Porter


Speaight, G. (1955). The history of the English puppet theatre. G. G. Harrap, London.
Baird, B. (1965). The art of the puppet. Macmillan, New York.

See also theatre.
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pup·pet / ˈpəpət/ • n. a movable model of a person or animal that is used in entertainment and is typically moved either by strings controlled from above or by a hand inside it. ∎ fig. a person, party, or state under the control of another person, group, or power: the new Shah began his reign as an Anglo-Soviet puppet. DERIVATIVES: pup·pet·ry / -trē/ n.

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puppet † doll; (human) figure jointed and moving on strings or wires XVI; lathe-head XVII. Earlier in deriv. puppetry; var. of POPPET.