Time Out Melbourne

War Horse and a history of puppets

With the arrival of the multi-award winning National Theatre production of War Horse, Time Out takes a galloping tour through the history of puppets

For Basil Jones, co-founder of the Handspring Puppet Company, creators of the life-sized puppet horses that have made War Horse such a colossal success, it is the essential vulnerability of the puppet which explains its universal fascination.

“An actor struggles to die onstage,” he says in his now famous TED Talk, “but a puppet has to struggle to live. And in a way that is a metaphor for life.”

This symbolic capacity has made puppetry one of the most enduring and ancient art forms.

Venus figurines – the beginnings

About 35,000 years ago, European early modern humans produce small, extravagantly curved female figures carved from stone and animal bones. These spread and develop with the spread and development of human society. About 5000 ago, in the civilisations of the Middle East, similar figurines with moveable parts begin to emerge, the first recognisable puppets.

Ombres chinoises – East meets West

In the mid-18th century, French missionaries bring back a theatre of shadow puppets from China, inspiring a new branch of the arts in Paris, and inaugurating the modern tradition of artistic cross-cultural influence. Puppets are a feature of almost every society around the world, so contemporary puppeteers like the Handspring Puppet Company draw on an incredibly rich cultural history.

Punch and Judy – the Industrial Revolution

With the rapid development of new cities around England, a popular form of street entertainment also begins to develop. The extravagant violence of Punch and Judy gives symbolical vent to the frustrations of common people and relief from the grim realities of urban life at the time. We see this use of puppets to lightly overstep social boundaries and to assuage certain appetites continuing today in shows like Avenue Q.

The Muppets – mass-market puppets

With the debut of Sesame Street in 1969, puppets gained a sensational, almost cult-like popularity around the world. But from the start, puppets and television had gone together, hand in glove, or sock. Television helped puppets overcome the popular preference for realism, making it easier to obscure the human agent, while puppets helped bless the wholesome potential of television as a tool for educating children.

Puppets on the biggest stage

Most recently, puppets have undergone yet another popular revolution, with directors of big-budget musicals and operas embracing the uninhibited solidity of the puppets in main-stage spectaculars. BeforeWar Horse, other recent examples include Julie Taymor’s The Lion King and her production of the Magic Flute, the latter seen in Melbourne earlier this year. There have also been developments in animatronics that have seen whole new species of puppets evolve, the arena-dwelling dragons and dinosaurs of Australia's own Global Creatures. Puppets, it seems, are literally bigger than ever!

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Updated on 17 Dec 2012.

By Andrew Furhmann   |  
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