History of Puppetry

The word “puppet” owes its origin to the Latin word “pupa” which means doll. In French the word was written as “poupe.” The diminutive of “poupe” was “poupette.” This word was translated into English as “puppet.”

Puppetry has existed for thousands of years in all cultures. Ancient tombs in Egypt were found with puppets and the Greeks and Romans enjoyed plays and dramas in which the characters were puppets.

There are various types of puppets. The most common are hand (sometimes called glove) puppets. These have a hollow body in which a hand is inserted into the head and arms to give it motion. Punch and Judy shows are perhaps the most famous type of this form of puppetry.

Rod puppets is another type. In these the puppets are full length (unlike hand puppets) and are also manipulated from below, not with a hand but with rods.

Shadow puppets are composed of flat figures seen through a translucent screen. The screen is illumined from behind which allows the audience to watch the figures as shadows. This type of puppetry is popular in the Middle East and in the Orient.

Marionettes (also called string Puppets) are full length puppets controlled from above by strings attached to a controller. They grew in popularity in the Middle Ages when Biblical shows were performed in Medieval churches. They were called “marionettes,” a reference to the puppet figure of the Virgin Mary or “Little Mary.” If anyone watches the Sound of Music, one will see a short production of “The Little Goatherd” which is performed by marionettes.

“Muppets,” a term coined by the late Jim Henson, are a combination of hand and rod puppets. Sesame Street are made up of these types of puppets.

Puppetry reached its peak in the late 19th and early 20th Century. With the introduction of modern forms of entertainment through movies, television and computers (using CGI) led to a gradual decline in puppetry. Yet the magic of watching live puppet performances lingers. Children and adults still enjoy this ancient artform. New Bern Puppets is proud to continue the tradition of puppetry in Eastern Carolina.

By Dennis Vierling