Claude Debussy, cuntastori, Estampes, gamelan, Hacivat, Indian shadow puppets, Indonesia, Javanese, Karaghiozis, Karagoez, Lotte Reiniger, Mahabharata, Marionettes, metallophones, Mimmo Cuticchio, Pagodes, Paris Exposition, puppets, Ramayana, shadow puppets, Teatro dell'Opera dei Pupi, Turkey, Wallace and Gromit, wayang kulit
Welcome, as always, dear readers.
From our childhood, we’ve been interested in puppets. We began with marionettes.
(These, by the way, are from Palermo, in Sicily, and come from the famous Teatro dell’Opera dei Pupi, whose chief puparo, or puppeteer, is a hero of ours, Mimmo Cuticchio,
who is also a street-corner storyteller, a cuntastori, who, with only a cape and wooden sword, can make anything happen.)
All kinds of puppets interest us, however, from the most elaborate, like marionettes,
to the most basic–
and what can be more basic than Cookie Monster?
In our last, we briefly mentioned the work of Lotte Reiniger (1899-1981),
who, in a long career, created hundreds of figures in silhouette, employing them to tell both traditional stories as well as original ones.
Her method was to draw and cut out figures, then film them with stop-motion photography—if you know the adventures of Wallace and Gromit, you’ll have seen the clay figure version of this method.
Her figures, as we wrote, reminded us of traditional shadow puppets, once popular in many parts of the world, from Karagoez, in Turkey (KAH-rah-goes on the right, with his friend, Hacivat—HA-tsih-vat)
to his Greek cousin, Karaghiozis,
to Indian shadow puppets
to their direct descendants, the wayang kulit, or “leather puppets” of Indonesia.
Not only the look of these puppets, but how they’re managed against a screen reminded us of Lotte Reiniger’s work.
We say “direct descendants” because, considering the two main stories Indonesian puppeteers tell, as well as elements of the puppets themselves, it’s clear that this part of shadow puppet tradition has come to the island from farther west, those two stories, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, being traditional Indian epics, like the West’s Iliad and Odyssey.
(If you don’t know Indian epic, we would recommend this English version of the Ramayana. It’s meant for children, but it’s nicely told and keeps to the basic story—we also like the fact that the author’s first name, Bulbul, (“Nightingale”) is that of one of our main characters in our new novel, Grey Goose and Gander.)
Lotte Reiniger’s puppets are cut from what appears to be black cardboard and therefore lack color.
Traditional puppets are made of buffalo leather, scraped thin, and painted in such a way that they almost look like figures from medieval stained glass windows.
They are large and are supported on a rod, with thinner rods allowing the arms to move.
The stage is a large, white screen
and the shadows are created by a lamp behind it. Traditionally, an oil lamp is used, but you can now see performance pictures with an electric light which, to us, is too bright and rather spoils the old-fashioned, smoky effect.
Because of the bright colors of the puppets, some people actually prefer to sit behind the screen,
where they can also better hear the accompanying orchestra, a gamelan, or group of metallophones.
Here’s a LINK to music used in performances. We recommend it, believing it to be very beautiful, as well as being very different, both in sound and structure, from western classical music (and, if you read us regularly, you know that we’re passionate about that, as well). In fact, it has even influenced western classical music, particularly that of Claude Debussy (1862-1918).
Debussy first heard a gamelan in 1889 at the Paris Exposition,
was impressed with what he heard, and began to play with effects which echo gamelan compositions. “Pagodes” from his 1903 collection, Estampes (“Prints”) is a good example. Here’s a LINK so that you can compare it with the gamelan.
The performances themselves are an interesting mixture, typical of what was originally an oral tradition. Although plot lines are taken directly from epic, they act as a mere skeleton for the play. The puppeteer, like someone rebuilding a body on a skeleton, adds his own material—dialogue, subplots, extra characters, jokes, and, sometimes, political commentary—to (literally) flesh out the basic frame. It’s interesting, too, that the characters can be on two levels. On the upper level, they are all princesses and princes, kings and queens, nobles and generals.
On the lower level, they can be demons,
who act not only as servants, but as interpreters, a very necessary function as the upper level characters tend to speak in Old Court Javanese, an archaic language which the audience wouldn’t understand. The lower level speaks the local language and so can guide the audience through the (often complex) plot, as well as make local references and jokes.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see wayang kulit outside of Indonesia or in any language besides those of Indonesia, but one of us has been fortunate to see several performances in English by the US puppeteer, Larry Reed, of Shadowlight Productions. These shows are about two hours long (very short in comparison with Indonesian performances, which can go on all night) and feel like 10 minutes, the magic being in the shadows, the plot, and the quick wit of the puppeteer. Here’s a LINK to Shadowlight to tell you more.
We want to end on a different note, however. A long time ago, we saw a very good amateur production of The Hobbit as a play. At the time, we were struck by how much could be done very simply on stage and, in particular, how Smaug could be brought to life with a small group of actors bunched together, swaying in a strobe light (that’s one of those flashing lights which alternates light and shadow effects) and all speaking at once. Ever since, we’ve thought about shadow plays and The Hobbit—just look at this dragon from a production by the Great Arizona Puppet Theatre—what do you think, dear readers?
And thanks, as ever, for reading!
If you’re bitten by the puppet bug, and would like to know more, visit The World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts at this LINK.