puppet, human or animal figure, generally of a small size and performing on a miniature stage, manipulated by an unseen operator who usually speaks the dialogue. A distinction is made between marionettes, moved by strings or wires from above, and hand puppets, in which the hand of the operator is concealed in the costume of the doll. Popular forms of the puppet show include the Punch and Judy shows of England and the Guignol in France. Puppet theaters have been established in the Americas; old epic dramas, often based on the Chanson de Roland and other medieval and modern pieces, have drawn crowded houses. The Greeks of the 5th cent. B.C. were familiar with it; in Java, China, and Japan it is almost immemorial; in the Europe of the Middle Ages it was the most popular form of entertainment for the masses; and it is a constituent in many folk cultures.
From the end of the 16th cent. to the end of the 18th, puppet or marionette shows, sometimes called motions, reached the summit of their vogue on the Continent and in England. During Puritan times in England they flourished after the theaters were prohibited. On the Continent great writers such as Goethe and major composers including Mozart and Haydn wrote for them. Avant-garde theater, such as Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi (1896), used puppets in reaction against naturalistic conventions; Manuel de Falla composed a puppet opera, El Retablo de Maese Pedro (1926). In 18th-century Japan the most celebrated dramatists wrote plays for the bunraku, or puppet theater. Nonetheless, puppets have primarily been used in popular entertainment.
Puppets have enjoyed something of a renaissance in late 20th-century America. For instance, during the 1950s in the United States, Burr Tilstrom's hand-puppet show Kukla, Fran, and Ollie was a popular television series. In the 1960s, Jim Henson created a group of madcap educational and entertaining puppets, known as Muppets, that appeared in the television series Sesame Street and their own feature films. During the Vietnam War and after, the Bread and Puppet Theatre utilized larger-than-life puppets in their political theater pieces. At the end of the 20th cent. and the beginning of the 21st a new generation of creative puppeteers, including Roman Paska, Julie Taymor, and Basil Twist, were producing a variety of innovative new works and updated classics.
The art of ventriloquism (making the voice appear to come from a source other than the speaker) has also been associated with the puppet. The manipulator, in full view, converses with the "dummy," a large doll usually held in the lap of the manipulator. The dummy's words appear to issue from its own mouth. Skillful ventriloquists are able to speak the doll's words without moving their lips and to "throw" their voices so that their dummies appears to speak.
See S. Bemegal, Puppet Theatre around the World (1961); P. Fraser, Puppets and Puppetry (1972); G. Speaight, The History of the Puppet Theatre (2d ed. 1990); E. Blumenthal, Puppetry: A World History (2005).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.