1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Marionettes

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MARIONETTES (probably from Ital. morio, a fool or buffoon, but also said to be derived from the mariolettes, or little figures of the Virgin Mary), Fantoccini (from fantino, a child) or Puppets (Fr. poupée Lat. pupa, a baby or doll), the names given to figures, generally below life-size, suspended by threads or wires and imitating with their limbs and heads the movements of living persons.

The high antiquity of puppets appears from the fact that figures with movable limbs have been discovered in the tombs of Egypt and among the remains of Etruria; they were also common among the Greeks, from whom they were imported to Rome. Plays in which the characters are represented by puppets or by the shadows of moving figures, worked by concealed performers who deliver the dialogue, are not only popular in India and China, but during several centuries past maintained an important position among the amusements of the people in most European countries. Goethe and Lessing deemed them worthy of attention; and in 1721 Le Sage wrote plays for puppets to perform.

The earliest performances in English were drawn or founded upon Bible narratives and the lives of the saints, in the same vein as the “morality” plays which they succeeded. Popular subjects in the 16th century were The Prodigal Son and Nineveh, with Jonah and the Whale. And in a pamphlet of 1641, describing Bartholomew Fair, we read, “Here a knave in a fool's coat, with a trumpet sounding or a drum beating, invites you to see his puppets. Here a rogue like a wild woodman, or in an antic shape like an incubus, desires your company to view his motion.” In 1667 Pepys recorded how at Bartholomew Fair he found “my Lady Castlemaine at a puppet play, Patient Grizill.” Besides The Sorrows of Griselda, other puppet plays of the period were Dick Whittington, The Vagaries of Merry Andrew, and The Humours of Bartholomew Fair. Powell's noted marionette show was the subject of an article in The Tatler, 1709, and again in The Spectator, 1711. The latter refers also to Pinkethman, a “motion-maker,” in whose scenes the divinities of Olympus ascended and descended to the strains of music. An idea of the class of representation may be gathered from an advertisement of Crawley, a rival of Pinkethman, which sets forth — “The Old Creation of the World, with the addition of Noah's Flood,” also several fountains playing water during the time of the play. The best scene represented “Noah and his family coming out of the ark, with all the animals two by two, and all the fowls of the air seen in a prospect sitting upon trees; likewise over the ark is the sun rising in a gorgeous manner; moreover a multitude of angels in a double rank,” the angels ringing bells. “Likewise machines descending from above, double, with Dives rising out of hell and Lazarus seen in Abraham's bosom; besides several figures dancing jiggs, sarabands, and country dances, with the merry conceits of Squire Punch and Sir John Spendall.” Yates showed a moving picture of a city, with an artificial cascade, and a temple — with mechanical birds in which attention was called to the exact imitation of living birds, the quick motion of the bills, just swelling of the throat, and fluttering of the wings. The puppets were wax figures 5 ft. in stature. Toward the end of the 18th century, Flockton's show presented five hundred figures at work at various trades. Brown's Theatre of Arts showed at country fairs, from 1830 to 1840, the battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon's army crossing the Alps, and the marble palace of St Petersburg; and at a still later date Clapton's similar exhibition presented Grace Darling rescuing the crew of the “Forfarshire” steamer wrecked on the Fern Islands, with many ingenious moving figures of quadrupeds, and, in particular, a swan which dipped its head into imitation water, opened its wings, and with flexible neck preened and trimmed its plumage. In these mechanical scenes the figures, painted upon a flat surface and cut out, commonly of pasteboard, are slid along grooves arranged transversely in front of the set scenery, the actions of legs and arms being worked by wires from the hands of persons below the stage, though sometimes use is made of clockwork. In recent days the literature for the marionette stage has had an important literary recruit in the person of the Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck.

Marionettes proper, and the dolls exhibited in puppet shows (not including Punch and his companion actors), are constructed of wood or of pasteboard, with faces of composition, sometimes of wax; and each figure is suspended by a number of threads to a short bar of wood which is commonly held in one hand of the hidden performer while the finger of his other hand poses the figure or gives action to it by means of the threads. In the mode of constructing the joints, and the greater elaboration with which the several parts of the limbs are supported and moved, and especially in the fine degrees of movement given to the heads, marionettes have been so improved as to present very exact imitations of the gestures of actors and actresses, and the postures and evolutions of acrobats; and, in addition, ingenious exhibitors such as Theodon, who introduced many novelties in the 'sixties of the 19th century, have employed mechanical arrangements for accomplishing the tricks of pantomime harlequinade. Among the puppet personages presented in the small street shows are generally included a sailor who dances a hornpipe, a hoop-dancer, a dancer of the Highland fling, a wooden-legged pensioner, a vaulter on a pole also balancing two chairs, a clown playing with a butterfly, a dancing figure without head until the head rises out of the body, gradually displaying an enormously long neck, and a skeleton, seen at first in scattered parts lying about the stage, but piece successively flying to piece, the body first sitting up, then standing, and finally capped by the skull, when the com- pleted figure begins to dance.

Ombres Chinoises are performances by means of the shadows of figures projected upon a stretched sheet of thin calico or a gauze scene painted as a transparency. The cardboard flat figures are held behind this screen, illuminated from behind — the performer supporting each figure by a long wire held in one hand while wires from all the movable parts terminate in rings in which are inserted the fingers of his other hand.

See also C. Magnin, Histoire des marionettes (1852; 2nd ed., 1862) L. de Neuville, Histoire des marionettes (1892).