Though we don’t think about it much at all, a puppet has probably played an important role in our lives — especially our young lives. Several generations of American children have grown up on the lessons of Ernie and Bert and Elmo and Oscar, learning everything from numbers and colors and the alphabet to basic values like kindness and sharing. And then there are the puppets of the late Mr. Rogers, and the late Shari Lewis’s Lambchop. But the puppet isn’t confined to the children’s time slots; one of the most popular family television shows in the 1980s was Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, which gave us not only Kermit and Miss Piggy, but the Swedish cook, Beaker the hapless lab assistant, and dozens of other brilliantly drawn (or should I say sewn) characters. Puppets have been an indispensable part of smash hits on Broadway, like The Lion King and Avenue Q; they appear at protest rallies, birthday parties, and even in some driver’s schools, to reacquaint ticketed miscreants with the rules of the road.
But all of these aren’t new roles for the puppet. They’ve been entertaining and teaching us for millenia. Plato describes shadow puppets in the Republic; and in the Hindu tradition the first puppeteer, Adi Nat, is said to have leaped from the lips of the Creator, Brahma. In the Dalang shadow plays of Java and Bali, which are well over a thousand years old, the plays reenact the sacred stories the gods and mankind and seen as vital in healing the spiritual malaises of both individuals and communities.
The marionette began its life in the Middle Ages, where it is believed to have been invented by St. Francis, and where it acquired its name of “Little Mary” because it was a featured performer in nativity plays. According to some reports, there were even comic uses of the puppet in the church, as in a famous instance in 1443, when puppet angels holding candles deliberately dodged out of the way of the priests who were trying to put them out at the end of the service, much to the delight of everyone at the mass.
Eventually, the puppets were asked to leave the churches in the west because they were, well, too entertaining! And they ended up, instead, in the market place where they have been ever since, in one form or another — as Pulcinello and Petrushka, Pinocchio and Punch — the most durable puppet of all time, who is simply too tough to ever really die. Humble, eternal puppets, made of socks or paper, on strings or sticks, let us believe, if only for a moment, in the sheer mystery of the fact that a piece of painted wood can make us laugh or tell us life’s deepest secrets .
The Great Depression in the United States, a decade of economic catastrophe, also produced a golden age in American theatre, which was largely brought about by The Federal Theatre Project, which was funded by the Works Progress Administration in order to provide work to struggling members of the theatre community during the Depression. The Federal Theatre Project also gave us our first (and to date our only) national children’s theatre, through its support of children’s theaters in every major city in America.
These wildly popular theatre units offered serious, high quality, inexpensive drama to young audiences and their parents, many of whom had never been to the theatre before. Most of the productions were based on classic material like Cinderella, Aladdin, Hansel and Gretel, Peter Pan, and Treasure Island. But the Federal Theatre for Youth also hoped that its plays would be educational, in the deepest sense. For example, its version of The Emperor’s New Clothes emphasized the need to challenge the arrogant self-centeredness of some authority figures. One of the Federal Theatre for Youth’s most celebrated clashes with America authority figures occurred over a play called The Revolt of the Beavers, about the struggle of hard-working beavers who are being tyrannized by their bosses, other beavers who have bestowed on themselves the privilege of eating ice cream and moving around on roller skates that are forbidden to the long-suffering workers. One well-known drama critic labelled the drama “Mother Goose Marxism” and quite quickly the play was shut down in New York City.
The Federal Theatre for Youth closed for good in June of 1939 with the cutting off of funds for the Federal Theatre Project as a whole. And Yasha Frank, one of the guiding spirits of the FTY, whose production of Pinocchio had inspired Walt Disney to make his cartoon feature of the tale, took the occasion of the last performance of this play in New York City to ask the salient political question. Instead of ending the play with the puppet becoming a boy, Frank closed the performance with the demolition of the sets and the puppet appearing for the last time on stage in a simple pine coffin, which was taken by the crowd — actors, stage hands, audience –from the theater to Times Square, as they chanted, “Who killed Pinocchio?” And at the rally they held there, on 42nd Street, while the flashbulbs popped, they read off the list of the congressmen who had voted to close the Theatre Project and put the puppet out of work. What a piece of theatre.
Today, Syrian artists and writers in exile, hiding, or refugee camps have kept alive the ability of the puppet to make a political point through their scathing, satiric shows that critique Syria’s dictator, Bashar Al Assad. You can find episodes of these puppet shows on YouTube under the title Masasit Mati-Top Goon. The shows are subtitled, and a number of them include commentary by children from Syrian refugee camps.
For more information on these amazing Syrian artists read this article from CBC Radio.