Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mischievous marionnettes, misbehaving males.... and Maurice Sand.

Roll up, roll up, roll up! The cry to muster spectators to witness and participate in perennial domestic and social battles, an integral part of one of the older shows on earth - Punch and Judy....
Punch Magazine.
While I had always assumed that you could hardly get more 'English' than the diminutive belligerent puppet Mr Punch and his entourage, the reality is rather different.

Far from being simply a stalwart of seaside resort entertainment, with a heyday in the Victorian period, some of the origins of the Punch and Judy show trace back to the Classical Greek era and Mr Punch finds distant roots in the 4th century B.C in far-flung Naples.

At this time the masked actors performing in Atellan farce (from Atella near Naples) also had to draw in an audience, not unlike Punch later, using rowdy, burlesque scenes and stereotyped characters to attract and keep hold of a public which was greatly sollicited by other open-air performances, and accustomed to the violence and action of the gladiatorial arenas. The performing artists from Atella followed a printed text a 'canvas' but used their skills of improvisation to create an art form that was highly appreciated yet was ultimately to fall into decline on the demise of the Roman Empire. Acting reappeared later in public places, church squares and castles in the Middle Ages when performers would enact the Mystery plays to educate and entertain a largely illiterate audience.
 Often puppets would be used to interpret stories, thus drawing on a tradition dating back to the decadent end of the Empire. Marionnettes - Marions or Mary dolls would present religious themes, but gradually more secular ones were introduced. In this way elements drawn, yet improvised, from the Bible accompanied scenes from daily life and all these were interpreted in differing ways from performance to performance.
In mid-16th century Padua actors started to sign contracts and in so doing left behind their dilettante status to become recognised professionals from the Commedia dell'arte, henceforth paid for their work. The themes of their performances were similar to those treated before this change of status, further animated with acts of juggling, mime and acrobatics and with improvisation still playing a large part. Little by little however, the work performed would reflect the social background and its movements and so it was that the reigning instability, a distrust or disregard for the leading classes were portrayed in ironic anecdotes and mimicry.
Jacques Callot: Balli di Sfessania, 1622.
Maurice Sand
 Valets, servants, young maids would be presented 'getting the upper hand' often through turbulent scenes using disrespectful means with regard to their superiors and providing great mirth in so doing. More and more troups of actors criss-crossed Europe until the mid-18th century, leaving the influence of their themes, characters and interpretations on audiences and fellow artists alike. Pulcinello, anglicised to Punchinello and finally Punch, was one of these personnages - along with Columbine, Pierrot, Arlequin.
Colombine Maurice Sand

Molière, the French playwright was heavily influenced by the work of the Italian actors seen Paris and with whom he shared the Palais Royal from 1662-1673 and was particularly marked by the interpretations of the actor Tiberi Fiorelli. The misunderstandings, chance happenings, disguises and role reversal, prefered by the commedia dell'arte were to be reflected and developed in the works of Molière....
Despite the initial wit and sophistication of dialogue, the performances became increasingly burlesque, even obscene and in spite of the efforts of the Italian Carlo Goldini to refine the form in the mid-18th century the commedia dell'art all but disappeared in the 19th. At the end of the 18th century the English performer Joseph Grimaldi introduced the first modern clown to the world of the circus and this would finally eclipse the Italian art form that had already fallen into disrepute.

It had long been recognised that marionnettes could express the same themes of the commedia dell'arte instead of 'expensive' actors and offer artists greater flexibility, impunity and therefore greater freedom of expression in public places. In addition, the relatively small, easily dismantled puppet theatres - the castelets, offered significant mobility and enabled performers to travel from district to district, city to city with greater ease - "That's the way to do it!" as Punch would say...

Mr Punch was first officially sighted and named in Restoration England in 1662 when Samuel Pepys wrote of  a puppet show he had seen in Covent Garden.

The Puritan reign had finally come to an end and Punch, like an irreverent, gaudy Elizabethan jester, was here to mark the event as Charles II gave patronage to actors' performances. Early Punch was rather like Old Vice from Medieval morality plays, acting out the battle between good and evil, with the Devil as a fixture in the performances. In a rapid sequence of events Punch would be confronted by numerous situations that would reflect the social concerns and spirit of the time. Gradually, however, Punch became increasingly individualistic and defensive of his own interests, taking on the forces of law, order, convention and above all his shrew-like wife, Judy. His outrageous behaviour in response to events assumed a farcical quality as it led to mayhem and buffoonery.
Dressed in his fool's motley and a sugarloaf hat, bearing a hunched back, hooked nose and prominent boot chin Punch looks like the ultimate anti-hero who gloats on his bad behaviour ("Pleased as Punch") and loves to flout and outwit all rules and norms. He gleefully brandishes his stick - the noisy weapon that gave rise to the expression slapstick comedy - and doesn't hesititate to wield it against his harridan wife, or even their baby.
The nature of puppetry itself, along with the comic element of the theme, was such that less emphasis was placed on developing dialogue and speech in general and more was devoted to the gesture, especially perhaps when glove puppets took precedence over the stringed variety. Body movement tended to be largely limited and somewhat uncoordinated, dependant on the skill of the operanti or manipulator to bring it to life, often using exaggerated gestures to animate the story line. This exaggerated element was further enhanced in Punch's case by the use of a device that gave him a cackling voice - the swazzle - operated by the puppeteer. The puppeteer or 'Professor' would give a running commentary on the action taking place - helping the audience understand the nuances and also encouraging them to participate in the ambience and proceedings through their responses. Indeed, the call-and-response approach became increasingly common, leading to the "Oh yes, I can/Oh no you can't" catchphrases so familiar to us today, not just through Punch and Judy shows but also through the pantomime tradition.
The performances did not follow a set 'definitive' text, and consequently improvisation and intereaction with the audience led to livelier, up-tempo shows which featured a group of characters and props. These extras would vary but staples beyond the dysfunctional family itself would include the Devil, the Mistress, the Policeman, Toby the Dog, the String of sausages and the Ghost....
Below is the link to a show in Covent Garden.
Themes covered in the performances would include current social issues, but often focused on the eternal demands of domestic life, and particulary the exigencies of the role of father which weighed heavily on Punch who would prefer to cavort with  Pretty Polly, his mistress, than to look after the baby.... Eternal themes indeed!.... Punch's fortunes and the nature of his misadventures were to change in the wake of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 1800's and the social changes this brought about. Indeed, Bank Holidays were introduced to encourage a healthier work force and the seaside resort suddenly gained in popularity with the arrival of the working masses, aided by the advent of a nascent railway network. Seaside entertainment and amusement was the order of the day, and consequently the Punch and Judy show had its field day - Mr Punch's theme song was to be "Oh I do like to be beside the seaside". Here's an extract of the song 'featuring' Edith Piaf....Hmmm!!!
Nevertheless the prevailing morality meant that certain aspects of the show changed to suit the sensitivities of the audience - which  included more and more children. The Mistress and the Devil, soon deemed inappropriate, figured less in the shows but increasing numbers of real Toby dogs wearing a trademark ruff would sit on the front of the characteristic stripey booths, trained to participate in the action. The enthusiasm for Punch and Judy shows grew; even Dickens mentioned their importance and the storyline of The Old Curiosity Shop is said to reflect their influence. Despite dips in popularity due to changing tastes and waves of political correctness the Punch and Judy show survived and has become one of the traditional 'English' institutions. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Punch the magazine, launched in the mid-19th century and yet with its publication ending in 2002. Based on the satirical French paper Charivari, the Punch magazine was outspoken and outraged figures of authority just like its namesake...
 Punch does in fact have many relatives - Polichinelle in France (dressed in his trademark Neapolitan white shirt and black mask); Petruschka in Russia, Kaspar in Germany, Pulcinello in Italy - of course. Here in France Polichinelle has unwittingly lent his name to several expressions to indicate poorly hidden secrets and surprises "Avoir un polichinelle dans le tiroir" means to be pregnant, whilst "un secret de Polichinelle" refers to a secret that is a secret for nobody! However it is probably the distant cousin of Polichinelle and Mr Punch's - a certain Guignol who has best maintained the tradition of French puppetry.
 Guignol and his predecessor Gnafron, were created at the very beginning of the 19th by Laurent Mourguet who wished to distract clients from the real task in hand - toothpulling. Born into a family of silkworkers in 1769, in Lyon, les canuts,  Mourguet presented his puppet to the public to entertain and inform them of the social issues of the day. Whilst the resultant performances of social drama could be humourous, like the Punch and Judy shows, Guignol was far more socially committed than his English counterpart and did not descend into buffoonery. Often dressed like a silk weaver, with his hair tied back in the typical canut fashion (le salisfis), Guignol became a chronicler of the daily news, speaking in the canut accent and dialect. At a time of  limited communication, the Guignol show represented a good means to transmit information especially via sailors travelling along the Rhône and Saone river. The fact that there were no set texts (les canevas) and that each perfomance was largely based on the impromptu meant that the authorities were unable to censor or suppress the shows which would frequently reflect the social injustice of the bourgeois system. With his caustic humour and satirical engagé vision of society Guignol appeared to be a social rebel - a frondeur - who sought to demonstrate how good could triumph over evil or adversity.
I have to say that despite all of that, I prefer good old pugnacious Punch, mad, bad and surely dangerous to know and wholly selfish with it, but endearing nevertheless.
Maurice Sand

And this brings me to another Frenchman, son of the famous 19th century writer, George Sand, yet apparently little acknowledged for his own contribution to art - above all to the world of the marionnette. Perhaps Maurice Sand remained partly in the shadow of his mother, George. She was indeed a leading figure in the literary world, yet equally well known for her lovers (Alfred de Mussy, Frédéric Chopin amongst others...) and a wide circle of artistic acquaintances, her masculine clothes, her involvement in politics and her defiance of social conventions.
George Sand
Devoted to his mother, Maurice was highly influenced by her interests in the arts and particularly the theatre. He wrote an extensive study of  the Commedia dell'arte titled Masques et Buffons in 1860 and as a gifted artist like his mother (even shortly the pupil of Delacroix), illustrated its pages himself, portraying each character of the Italian theatre. In addition to that he set up his own puppet theatre in the family home at Nohant, in the Berry region, and for many years dedicated himself to perfecting techniques - from the puppets themselves (expertly dressed by George herself) to stage management and story lines.
A Sand Marionnette.
The term dilettante is sometimes used to describe Maurice Sand but this seems unjust and fails to recognise his worth and his contribution to puppetry. I haven't yet visited Nohant, but will be delighted to see the magnificent collection of marionnettes (well over a hundred). In the meantime,  here in the Champagne-Ardenne region we have the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette at Charleville-Mézières (also birthplace to the poet Arthur Rimbaud)..... Every two years the Festival des Marionnettes takes place in the city and I shall certainly be going this year when it opens in September.

In this manner, the world of puppetry is perpetuated, although economical considerations and the foibles of taste sometimes lead to strange arrangements, with the most bizarre stage couplings as can be seen from this Guignol poster I came across!
Here's the link for the school - I noticed that the students will be studying the Punch and Judy show in the autumn!
That's the way to do it!

And finally, two years after writing this post in 2011, I finally made it to Nohant.... Here's the post:
The marionettes of Maurice Sand


  1. Thank you for this post!!!!!!
    I will be back to read ALL later.
    THIS is a subject I'm very much interested. Thank you!!

  2. Dear Beach Combing Magpie,
    Thank you for writing this eloquent article. You have an amazing gift for writing. You have summed up and organized everything I wanted to know.
    I've been working on a Puppet theater for many months now and is finally starting to come to life. Recently I took out a book from the library called The art of The Puppet by Bil Baird 1965.

    I was blown away to learn that some of my all time favorite illustrations, (prints that hang on my wall), were drawn by Maurice Sand! Then to learn that he and his mother were into puppet making and giving shows. This is the style of puppets and puppetry that inspires me. This made me want to googling the subject and voilà, you wrote this!


    Again, thank you for your article!

  3. Thank you so much for your kind comments! I am hoping to visit the family home of Maurice Sand in Nohant soon, as in theory it is not too far from Paris. His marionnettes appear to be very beautiful, as do his drawings, and yet both seem to have been overlooked. I can't wait to see them 'in the flesh'. A post will no doubt follow... I came across a great book about Maurice Sand a few months ago - 'Maurice, fils de George Sand', written by Christiane Sand, Editions du Patrimoine. The photos are so rich - I found the whole thing quite a revelation.... There is also the Festival de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières to look forward to this autumn.

  4. Dear Magpie,
    Please let me know after you visit!! I'll be interested to read your thoughts and see your photographs. Thank you for the book recommendation. My theater is almost 'there' and when it is, I'll send you a photograph.
    Happy 4th to you and yours.
    Keep discovering the shiny trésors!

  5. Dear Magpie,
    Did you get to the Festival de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières to look forward last autumn?


  6. Hello! Yes, I did make it to Charleville, and here's the post that I wrote on it...


    I'm still trying to get to see George Sand's house (I don't have a car), but hopefully this summer....


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