From Peace by Aristophanes to the XXI century – Research

The origin of puppets

The first articulated human representation created by man goes back to Pre-History. On the top of its head there is a small hole that allowed the head to rotate, and apparently the arms could go up and down. It was built from mammoth ivory, about 26,000 years ago, and it was found buried beside a man in Brno, Czech Republic.
A long time after, in the East, undated registers about the first puppets in India that represented a Hindu God were found. These dolls were able to make movements, even though quite limited. In the West, the oldest mention is perhaps by Socrates, referring to the moving statues of Daedalus, and to an entertainer from Syracuse who makes a statue move through strings or ropes. These were called neurospasta. By that time, in the streets, in symposiums, festive gatherings and philosophy colloquia, mime artists were seen, using dolls or daidala (as they were called), making small performances of the sacred life of gods. These performances, always with a satirical tone, were not considered to be within the concept of Theatre, which would be now at the genesis of its own conceptualization. As to the concept of puppet theatre, it will only be consolidated at the end of the 16th century.

Imagens 1 e 2
Image 1 – Prehistoric puppet
Image 2 – Daidala – articulated dolls in terra cotta, 30cm long and with a vertical rod attached to the head.

A Brief History of Theatre

Theatre is born in the midst of Greek Classicism, with the Dionysian celebrations of a purely religious character, celebrating the god Dionysus or Bacchus (god of wine, festivities, fertility and theatre). Dithyrambs were born in the region of Attica, during the 6th century BC. These were lyrical compositions honouring Dionysus. They were written and recited by the playwright Thespis, known as the first person in the West to appear on stage as an actor playing a character in a theatre play. Dithyrambs had initially a liturgical form, and were recited and danced by the Chorus*. Thespis dared to place an actor called Hypokrites or Pretender in dialogue with the Chorus. This is how theatre was born.
After the birth of Theatre, two styles arise inevitably: Tragedy and Comedy.
Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides were the most important authors of Tragedy, whereas Comedy was introduced by the greatest playwright of this branch of drama: Aristophanes. Comedy was by nature purely satirical and comical, and almost always used the Mask, which represented famous people from real life in caricature. Using the Mask implied the absence of facial expressions, which leads the emphasis of the performance technique to be in the actor’s gestures and voice.

*[Greek theatre] Chorus – homogeneous and non-individualized group of artists from theatre plays of Classical Greece, who comment in a collective voice the dramatic action which takes place.

Tragedy Mask; Comedy Mask; Female Mask.

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Image 3 – Masks
Depiction of some of the masks used in Greek theatre.

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Image 4 – Greek theatre
Depiction of a classical Greek theatre

The puppets pathway

During the Middle Ages, performances with puppets kept their religious character, although no longer based in the Gods of Olympus but in the sacred texts of the Bible instead, especially the Old Testament. This way several biblical stories would be illustrated and presented inside the places of worship.
Later, the Byzantine Church, in the midst of an iconoclastic crisis, tries to prohibit the allegorical or abstract representations of its sacred figures. These decisions were not obeyed by the See of Rome and, a few centuries later, from 1545 to 1563, the Council of Trent was held. This reform of the Catholic Church issued numberless decrees which would from that time on decide the path of the performances with puppets.
The Sacred Plays were banished from churches, therefore performing in different places such as: squares, streets, street markets and secular festivals. Loosing this patronage caused a tremendous impoverishment of the material means available. The scenography and size of the dolls decreased, not only to make theatre displacements easier – for it was now a travelling theatre – but also to reduce costs.
From the 12th century to the Renaissance, the epic poems of the Chansons de Geste (“songs of heroic deeds”), the Latin Comedy of Terence and Plautus and also the emerging romance, such as the one of Alexander Magnus of Macedon, were adapted to puppet theatre. Using mainly glove puppets, the epic battles were, in these adaptations, reduced to simple duels. Other performing arts also appeared in these stagings, such as the performances of minstrels or jesters, magicians and acrobats.
If Catholic interdictions made the expansion of animated dramaturgy difficult in Catholic countries, in Britain and Germany the situation was different. By the end of the 16th century, in London, there were dozens of exclusive places for puppets performances. These performances competed with actors’ theatre in the audience preferences, although at the time these plays were staged in both ways. This means there was a presenter which the audience could see, who recited or told the stories, and the operator illustrated the actions using the puppets.
Germany would also become the destination of many artists and their touring theatres. They brought along the adaptations of Elizabethan theatre plays*, which were adapted and reused. Among the plays that were popular at the time, one of them had a crucial importance in literature: Puppenspiel der Docktor Faust (Doctor Faust Puppet Theatre), a legendary character, half biographical, half fictional, from Faustbuch, a book edited by Spiess in 1587.
Also in the 16th century, a new fixed character appears in Italy – more precisely, in Naples, strongly influenced by Commedia Dell’arte: Pulcinella. This Italian Burattino (or puppet) is now transformed into a deformed, big-nosed character with a hunchback, thanks to its satirical and comical tone. It was called Pulcinella, as it is known even today.

*Elizabethan theatre plays (1558-1625) – refers to theatre plays written and interpreted during the kingdom of Elizabeth I of England; traditionally associated with William Shakespeare.

Puppets in Portugal

In the 18th century, before the earthquake of 1755, there lived in Lisbon António José da Silva, known as “The Jew”. The first and greatest Portuguese playwright to write specifically for puppet theatre, such as: A Vida de Esopo [Aesop’s Life] (1734) and Encantos de Medeia [Medea’s Charms] (1735), directed by João Paulo Seara Cardoso (1956-2010) for Teatro de Marionetas do Porto in 1989 and 2005, respectively.
All the works by António José da Silva were presented in the old Teatro do Bairro Alto, in Lisbon, until the theatre was destroyed by the earthquake. “The Jew” and part of its works were extinct by the Inquisition of Catholic Church.
In the 18th century, the influence of Italian and French puppeteers, arrived in the 17th century, bringing with them Pulcinella and Guignol, was still felt in Portugal. Portuguese puppeteers started to show up then, adopting this technique of glove operation, giving rise to the appearance of Teatro Dom Roberto at the end of this century. Made essentially with little puppets of wood and rags known as Robertos, these glove puppets (fantoches) were operated by only one actor (puppeteer) who performed alone all the short plays of the repertoire. One of the characteristics of these performances was the “reed voice” used by the puppeteer, who, using a metallic reed inside his mouth, added more amplification to his voice and produced a series of sound effects made essentially of specific words and onomatopoeae such as: Porra, rapaz, roberto, carolada, arroz; brrr, prrriu, turrututu, quirri…
The stage design (a cloth boot) has an opening above and is made of four sides that form a square with about 1 meter each size. These small dimensions allow the puppeteer to move two puppets simultaneously all around the performing space. The height of the booth varies according to the height of the puppeteer. This simple scenic element, easy to transport, also makes it possible for the audience to place themselves all around the booth in order to watch the performance. The most important plays of this repertoire that have reached our days are O Barbeiro [The Barber] and A Tourada [The Bullfight], but O Castelo dos fantasmas [The Ghosts Castle] and A Rosa e seus namorados [Rosa and Her Boyfriends] are also well-known.

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Image 5 | Encantos de Medeia (2005)
Scene Photography | João Menéres
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Image 6 | Teatro Dom Roberto
Robertos by João Paulo Seara Cardoso (1956-2010); they are part of the permanent exhibition at Museu das Marionetas do Porto.

Bonecos de Santo Aleixo

The performances of Sacred Plays keep proliferating in the Catholic countries of Europe.
The Bonecos de Santo Aleixo were shaped in the mid-nineteenth century in Alentejo, South of Portugal, under the influence of the coeval crib theatre. It is general belief that they came from a place called Santo Aleixo, municipality of Borba, in the Alto Alentejo. They are small rod puppets between 20 to 40 centimetres high, operated from above just like the Sicilian puppets, called Pupi.
The Bonecos de Santo Aleixo are rudimentarily sculpted from wood and are dressed with cloth when depicting humans, and with skins when depicting animals. The repertoire comes from oral tradition, based in holy stories with profane details, combining popular and erudite language. This operation technique, together with the folk tales, is very demanding for the puppeteer, executing very expressive movements, with great skills and ability.
There are two main types of rod puppets: the ones with a fixed rod attached to the head of the doll and the ones with only a hook in the head, allowing more flexibility when operating the rod. The second type can give more lively movements to comic characters, when bowing, bending and flying, as well as reproducing the hopping movements of folk dances. Most of these dolls, especially the protagonists, also have a rod in one of their hands. This second rod gives more credibility to the doll’s movements and allows the doll to hold and use props.
From the sonority of these performances comes a beautiful score. The sound of the Portuguese Guitar joins with the treble and rhythmic sound that the dolls’ little feet make when banging on the wooden stage, accompanied by the more bass sounds of the puppeteers’ feet thumping on the wooden boxes.
The scenic place where the Bonecos de Santo Aleixo are presented is called Retábulo. It’s made of wood, portable and easy to carry. Installed at the centre of a cloth, the retábulo (small wooden pulpit) has a downstage of about 90 centimetres wide and 40 centimetres high, and a stage curtain that goes up and comes down with the help of two strings. The stage has the shape of an isosceles trapezium; the longest side is next to the spotlight. As there was no electrical light, the performances were made by candlelight and hand lamps, and this tradition is still respected at the repertoire performances.
For these traditional puppets (and just like in the use of Masks), the voice of the puppeteer is fundamental; since he is hidden, his voice must be very expressive, thus compensating the expressive limitations of the puppets.

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Image 7 | Bonecos de Santo Aleixo

Sicilian Pupi

In the south of Italy, we find the traditional Sicilian rod puppets known as Pupi. Sculpted in wood and shaped in a human figure, the main character can be up to one and a half meters high, the height of the puppet defining the importance of the character. They are operated from above, with a rod passing through the upper part of the head and moving the body. In order to better simulate the puppet’s steps on stage, sometimes they are made with one leg bigger than the other. This allows the shorter leg to be thrusted to the front therefore simulating the step in a more realistic fashion. Most of the puppets have a detachable head, which allows it to be taken off during this performances, full of battle scenarios in which artificial blood can be seen gushing. These epic performances, with many bloody battles, are narrated by the cantastorie, who, besides narrating the action, also plays the characters, leaving the weight and the operation of the puppets to the “animators”.

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Image 8 | Sicilian Pupi

Toone Theatre

A little further North in Europe, more precisely in Brussels, we can find the Toone Theatre, whose origin dates around 1830. It’s one of the biggest cultural references of the city and of puppet theatre internationally.
The puppets are built of wood and measure between 70 to 100 centimetres high. They are operated through rods on the head and the movement of the hands is made through the use of strings.
The character narrating the action and presenting the show is named Toone. Just like the contastorie in Italy, Toone is responsible for interpreting all the characters, showing only his face with no make-up, through a small oval orifice on the lateral of the scenario.
Its repertoire comprises adaptations of several classical works, and Peace by Aristophanes is one of the most successful ones. This classical comedy served as a theme for this research on the traditional puppet theatre. Sicilian Pupi and Bonecos de Santo Aleixo are the main inspiration for creating A Paz de Aristófanes [Peace by Aristophanes], the new play for adults by Teatro de Marionetas do Porto, premiering in 2019 at Teatro de Belomonte.

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Image 9 | Toone Theatre Poster

From Peace by Aristophanes to the XXI century

The inspiration for the conception of A PAZ DE ARISTÓFANES [Peace by Aristophanes] is based essentially in two distinct periods of History: the Greek Classical Antiquity and the Baroque period. However, and since the theme of the original play is still current, a few contemporary elements were added in order to emphasise that parallelism.
The inspiration from Greek Antiquity resulted in the technical and plastic option used in the puppets that come close to the references we have of the puppets used in Ancient Greece. Dolls with about 60 centimetres high, roughly finished and operated through a vertical rod attached to the head. Inspired in that age is also the conception of the scenographic façade, which depicts the ancient Greek architecture and also the idea of “Greek Theatre”. Furthermore, we can recognise in the sound design some melodies and instruments which take us back to Antiquity.
A few stanzas from the Hymn to Apollo were added to the text as a dramaturgic option, since the original work only refers to it.
For this performance, the Coryphaeus* becomes the author himself. Aristophanes is played and animated through one of the busts (sculptures) placed in the scenery façade. The daughters of Trygaeus, mute characters in the original play, become in this adaptation an extra chorus.
The influence of the Baroque is evident in the use of a second rod in the puppets, which serves to operate their left arm. Except for the aesthetics and plasticity of the façade, the whole scenographic conception reproduces more or less faithfully the stage or small wooden pulpit characteristic of this period. This option is recurrent in most performances of the traditional puppet theatre. The use, on the scene, of small instruments that complete the sound design also brings us a little closer to this tradition.
Inspiration also comes from current events. The theme of the play is quite topical, leaving us facing the same issues and concerns as people did a few millennia ago.
As a way of approaching the Portuguese social reality we made the option of distributing among the characters some language regionalisms characteristic of Portugal. We also made some options that reinforce the contemporaneity, both in some of the sound elements, as well as in the vocabulary of the characters, or even in the reference to Donald Trump, who in this play replaces Cleon**.

*Coryphaeus – leader of the Chorus; in ancient tragedies and comedies of Greek theatre, the one who enunciated isolated parts of the text and could dialogue with the actors.
**Cleon – Athenian demagogue, political and military leader, protagonist of the Peloponnesian War. He was the first to represent the traders in Athenian politics, even though he was an aristocrat.

Imagens 10 e 11
Image 10 | Photo of a puppet under construction
A Paz de Aristófanes (Peace by Aristophanes)
Image 11 | Photo of a finished puppet
A Paz de Aristófanes (Peace by Aristophanes)


Image 1 – Prehistoric puppet
Image 2 – Daidala
Image 3 – Masks
Image 4 – Greek theatre
Image 5 | Encantos de Medeia (2005)
Marionetas do Porto’s archive | by João Menéres
Image 6 | Teatro Dom Roberto
Marionetas do Porto’s archive
Image 7 | Bonecos de Santo Aleixo
Image 8 | Sicilian Pupi
Image 9 | Toone Theatre Poster
Image 10 | Photo of a puppet under construction
Marionetas do Porto’s archive
Image 11 | Photo of a finished puppet
Marionetas do Porto’ archive

HERÓDOTO – Histórias Livro 1. Edições 70, 2002.
XENOFONTE – Banquete: Apologia de Sócrates. Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, 2008.
ZURBACH, Christine (coord.) – Teatro de Marionetas – Tradição e Modernidade. Casa do Sul Editora, 2002.
RUMBAU, Toni – Rotas de Polichinelo – Marionetas e Cidades da Europa. Museu da Marionetas, 2002.
FERREIRA, José Alberto – Da vida das Marionetas – Ensaios sobre os Bonecos de Santo Aleixo. Companhia das Ilhas, 2015.

Wordl Encyclopedia of Puppetry Artes – UNIMA – visitado a 6 de maio de 2019