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Ed. note: We present this essay, translated for the first time from Russian (and Czech) into English, both for its insights into traditional Czech and Russian popular theatre and, perhaps even more importantly, as a pivotal document in the development of goth-century theory of puppet theatre. In the early 1920s Pyotr Bogatyrev and Roman Jakobson began publishing texts of the Moscow Linguistic School as a means of applying the semiotic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure to the practical situation of contemporary culture. In Soviet Russia contemporary culture was affected both by the practical urgencies of industrial development and long-standing interests in folk culture going back to Russian symbolism at the turn of the century. The Moscow School saw the importance of Bogatyrev's essay in its attention to folk theatre as an area worthy of study, and particularly in its focus on the importance of the word structures in performance, at a moment when Russian theatrical experimentation had developed alternative languages of image and gesture. But, perhaps more importantly from our perspective, Bogatyrev's essay marks a moment where a recognition of the richness of the words used in puppet theatre began to open up a whole new body of semiotic studies: the development of performing object theories undertaken by the successor to the Moscow School, which Bogatyrev and Jakobson began in Prague in 1928. These structural theories of the Prague Linguistic Circle (or "Prague School") examined the function not only of words, but objects, and provided the foundation on which the performing object theories that followed are based. The essay was first published in 1923 as part of the Collections on the Theory of the Poetic Language. We have had to make a number of cuts and these are indicated by "[...]."
1. Czech Puppet Theatre
A strong case for puppet theatre is made by its admirers and followers. Among them we find such names as Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Marcus Aurelius, Apulius, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Moliere, Swift, Fielding, Voltaire, Goethe, Byron, Beranger, and others. In recent years there has been a pull towards puppet theatre amongst many great men of the theatre. Bernard Shaw recommends that all actors "go to the puppet theatre." "Every school of drama," in his opinion, "should have its own puppet theatre." The famous English director Gordon Craig gives high praise to puppet theatre. The great Russian directors Yevreinov, Meyerhold, and Tairov give a great deal of consideration to puppet theatre in their theoretical work and borrow from its technique for their own productions. Not long ago, at the state theatre in Berlin, there were stagings of Moliere's comedies George Dandin and The Doctor in Spite of Himself in which the movement of the actors was stylized after that of puppets.
In this section I will offer information about puppet theatre in Czechoslovakia, a country where puppet theatre plays a prominent role in cultural life. I will not simply assert this but cite statistics: at present in Czechoslovakia there are 1,000 folk puppet theatres, 2,000 puppet theatres connected to schools and cultural organizations, and innumerable family puppet theatres which are not counted in any official tally. The numbers speak for themselves.
In Czechoslovakia the two most prevalent forms of puppet theatre are loutkove divadlo, in which the puppets are manipulated with the help of strings, and the so-called bramborove divadlo [literally "potato theatre"], in which puppets are worn on the hands and are moved by the fingers. Brabmorove divadlo is less prevalent in Czechoslovakia than loutkove divadlo and has been kept alive primarily by folk puppeteers.
At a fair in Prague I saw a pantomime done by folk puppeteers in the bramborove divadlo style. Kasparek and the Jew appear on the stage. Kasparek gets into a fight with the Jew, kills him, and hides him in the coffin. The Jew's wife arrives. She has come to mourn her husband. Kasparek kills the widow too and hides her in the coffin. The Devil appears. He brings in a gallows and orders Kaepfirek to put his head in the noose. Kasfarek asks the Devil to teach him how to do it. The Devil puts the noose over his own head, and Kasparek pulls the noose and throws the Devil in the same coffin. At the end of the performance Kasparek and his friend throw a live mouse (which throughout the performance has been sitting on the other side of the footlights) into the air and catch it in mid-flight. And with that, the simple performance comes to an end. The hostess of the bramborove divadlo circulates among the public and collects voluntary donations in a dish ... And then the same performance begins all over again.
The majority of theatres connected to schools and cultural institutions are essentially loutkove divadlo, theatres of puppets on strings.
We will now take a look at the practical aims of educational puppet theatre. Puppet theatre in Czechoslovakia is used as a pedagogical tool. More often than not children experience their first contact with native literature and folktales in schools by means of puppet theatre. The majority of contemporary puppet plays are adaptations of native folktales. In one Czech middle school Elektra and Hamlet were staged in the puppet theatre. For the production of Elektra an exact replica of a Greek stage was built. The performance was directed by one of Czechoslovakia's best scholars of classical theatre, University Professor [Josef] Kral. The students themselves operated the puppets and spoke their lines. It is not uncommon for elementary school children to participate in puppet theatre productions. The teacher reads a story and the children each take a puppet and perform the story on their own. One teacher explained that in places where there is a mixed population of Czechs and Hungarians, Czech children rushed to Czech schools primarily because they have puppet theatres, while the Hungarian schools do not. In this way, puppets are used to defend national identity.
Currently there is an attempt in Czechoslovakia to use puppet theatre for the dissemination of medical propaganda. A Czech doctor wrote a medical play with the following characters: Infectious Bacteria, Fly, Shoemaker, and Kasparek--a comic character who appears in almost all puppet theatre plays. The Shoemaker lives in a little room that he never airs out or cleans. Infectious Bacteria sneaks up on the Shoemaker. The Fly, Bacteria's assistant, tries to infect every corner of the domicile. Kasparek sees trouble coming, and despite the protests of the Shoemaker, flings the windows wide open, ventilating …