Puppets and the elements of the puppet theatre in the Czech lands probably appeared already at ancient times, primarily in cult rituals, religious ceremonies and folk customs. In medieval times mainly finger puppets were used, as documented by iconography materials, and became part of the entertainment performances by comedians at fairs and markets. In the 17th century English, Dutch, Italian and later German theatre groups started coming to the Czech lands, who next to the performances by live actors also presented marionette shows as an added attraction. Among the first significant puppeteers of this era were Johann Hilferding, Girolamo Renzi, Antoni Geissler a/o. Many of these theatre groups gradually specialized in the puppet theatre. Their repertory covered various genres and topics of the European theatre (biblical plays, English tragedies, Italian improvised comedies, opera librettos, the Germanaupat-und-Staataktionen) a/o. In view of the fact that the Bohemian Kingdom was. since the 17th century, part of the Austrian Monarchy and the germanization endeavours affected mostly the population of larger towns, the performances were held predominantly in German. However, in the latter part of the 18th century puppeteers of Czech nationality began to appear in the Czech lands, wandering with their marionettes through towns and villages of the Czech countryside. Thus gradually the tradition of puppeteering families (Maisner, Kopecký, Fink, Dubský, Kockovi, a/o.) came into being where the operation of the puppet theatre was inherited as a family craft. The most famous puppeteer and a symbolic representative of puppeteers of the first half of the 19th century was Matěj Kopecky. The stage design of Czech puppeteers was in the artistic sense derived from Baroque traditions which was most evident in the marionettes made by wood carvers of religious plastic sculptures.The puppeteer himself manipulated all puppets and spoke for all figures. This led to a unique staging style where the rigid movements of the marionettes on a wire were compensated by a highly stylized pathetic vocal expression.
The repertory cnsisted of original plays taken over from foreign puppeteers, e.g. Faust, Genevieve, Don Juan, Alceste. Since the beginning of the 19th century, the repertory also began to include adaptations of plays from the Czech drama scene, particularly those about knights, robbers and historical patriotic plays. Among the most interesting plays were a number of anonymous plays (Posvícení v Hudlicích – Fair in Hudlice) most probably written directly for Czech puppeteers. The typical comic figure of Czech puppeteers was Punch, later little clown, whose humour conformed to the mentality of the popular spectators. At the time when the emancipation movement for the enlightenment of the Czech nation came to its peak, the folk puppeteers filled an important social role, offering the people a strong emotional experience and at the same time, despite the naivety or lowered literary standard, indirectly inspiring them with the ideas of enlightenment and national revival in the Czech language.
In the second half of the 19th century a puppet theatre form developed in towns particularly in Prague, the so-called mangers, originally intended for the introduction of Christmas Bethlehem plays. In the productions of itinerant marionetteers, who at this time could no longer keep up with the rapid development of Czech culture, a considerable decline occurred. The programme orientation on the less mature audience only furthered its isolation from the general cultural development. An exception was puppeteer J.N. Laštovka, who tried to adapt to the new social conditions by a revival of the repertory as well as by style of staging. The development of the popular puppeteering was further affected by the onset of realism the aesthetic postulates of which the popular puppeteers were not capable of fulfilling with the means of expression of the puppet theatre. Although they functioned in Bohemia up to the fifties of the 20th century, the traditional popular puppeteering was since the end of the 19th century a closed phenomenon.
Since the middle of the 19th century, the manipulation with puppets on small home stages, so-called family theatres, created for the entertainment of the children and friends by many artists (e.g. M. Alex, A. Scheiner a/o) as well as creatively talented dilletantes began to develop. Many of these family theatres achieved a considerable standard and became the basis of public amateur stages. The amateur movement began to increase towards the end of the 19th century. The puppet theatres in schools and various associations (mainly the physical education organization Sokol which was striving for the physical as well as cultural development of its members) concentrated mainly on children for which the puppet theatre presented a worthy entertainment as well as a form of practical education. Fairy tales published in many editions predominated in the repertory.The Czech Union of Friends of the Puppet Theatre (founded in 1911) and its most active member Jindřich Veselý, who by publishing the magazine “Czech Puppeteer” (1912-13) and “Puppeteer” (1917-39) effectively promoted puppeteering activities thus trying to awaken mass interest. Next to parents and teachers, artists, authors and actors also began to take an interest in the puppet theatre wanting to stress, in the so far existing concept of the puppet theatre, its aesthetic values and turn the puppet theatre into an artistic genre. The puppetry movement intensified particularly after the Czechoslovak Republic was established. It was the golden era of the family puppet theatre for which puppets were being produced in series and printed decorations of high quality were being produced in many series. There were over two thousand ensembles, regularly performing for children over the territory of the republic. Companies which stressed artistic quality in their work were, for the further development of Czech puppetry, of vital importance. Among these were the Puppet Theatre of Art Education (1914-54) headed by artists O.Bubeníček and V. Skála, the Puppet Theatre Recreation Colonies in Plzen (1914-37) with J. Skupa participating, the Realm of Puppets (1920-up to the present), founded by sculptor V. Sucharda and artist A. Suchardová-Brichová, the Sokol Puppet Theatre in Prague-Libeň (1923-39) headed by J.Malík etc. While these stages strove for an aesthetic effect on the harmonious development of the children’s personality, J. Skupa, in his Plzen theatre, where he created the original comic types of Spejbl and Hurvínek aimed his cabaret and vaudeville shows at the adult audience.
In the thirties a new generation of puppetry directors (J.Malík, E. Kolár, V.Matouška, V. Smejkal) came to the forefront and having been influenced by the poetry of the theatrical avantguard, changed the present style of staging of Czech puppetry, particularly stressing the metaphorical and symbolic possibilities of puppets and enforcing the role of directing. The new quality of collaboration of the director and the stage designer stifled the previous hegemony of artists and in a number of outstanding productions managed to exploit the specifics of the puppet theatre. In 1930, J. Skupa launched his professional touring company which won extraordinary popularity. Another professional stage was opened in 1936 in Prague by J.Trnka, which despite its high artistic standard did not manage to face the economic problems.
The war and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia heavily interefered with this promising development. However, Czech puppeteers managed to defend the social justification of their work even in those difficult times. An imporant part was played by Skupa who, with his ensemble, courageously performed hundreds of performances strengthening the trust of the spectators in a just future for the occupied nation. The activities of the PULS (Prague Artistic Puppet Stage) ensemble founded in l939 by J. Malík was also successful with its stage performances of Forget-me-nots and Daisies, based on Czech classic poetry, and became the moral support of Czech spectators giving an impetus for a similar creativity in a number of other Czech towns (Trutnov, Rakovník, etc.)
by Alice Dubská
Puppets as a significant part of the Czech theatre first emerged in Bohemia in very early times and were especially used in cult and folk ceremonies. The fact that the Czech kingdom was part of the Austrian Monarchy from the 17th century meant that these performances were most often in German. In the second half of the 18th century, puppetry performances in Czech also began to spread through Bohemia. From the middle of the 19th century, puppetry performances on home stages in so-called family theatres became widespread.
An amateur movement began to grow in Bohemia at the end of the 19th
century, and puppetry became an especially strong movement after the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic. The majority of Czech professional puppet theatres were founded in 1949, in close connection
with the introduction of the Theatre Act, which became the legislative
impetus for the creation of an extensive theatre network subsidized in Czechoslovakia by the state. After 1989, the ranks of professional puppet theatres were joined by free professional associations, such as Cakes and Puppets Theatre (Buchty a loutky), Continuo, The Forman Brothers’ Theatre (Divadlo bratří Formanů) and Líšeň Theatre, and these companies won a positive response for their work from audiences and
critics at home in the Czech Republic and abroad.