This is the text of a booklet published in 1959
George L Somerville is neither amateur nor professional puppeteer, and certainly has no vested interest in any puppet enterprise. He is a live-theatre enthusiast, which does not forbid his enjoying puppet shows and appreciating puppetry and finding excitement in their development. He resents the inattention of newspapers generally to puppetry as an art.
THE HARLEQUIN PUPPET
THEATRE OPENED ON THE
SEVENTH OF JULY, 1958
The opening of any theatre is an occasion for high hopes and promise of great adventures. The opening of the Harlequin Puppet Theatre is no exception, and when one considers the recent trends in the world of entertainment, one realises that hopes must indeed be high, and adventures courageously sought, by those who design and build a jewel box theatre especially for puppets.
Television is now the main source of entertainment for most people, and is likely to remain so. Those entertainments which depend upon the attendance of fairly large audiences will never again enjoy once known prosperity. Inevitably there will be fewer cinemas, fewer theatres. And it is in such seemingly distressing circumstances, with such glum prospects that Britain gets her first permanent puppet theatre.
What is there about this puppet business to excite those responsible for the Harlequin Puppet Theatre to such bold adventure?
If you listen to professional puppeteers, or read what they write about puppetry, you will find they eagerly point out the antiquity of puppetry, and the universal appeal of puppets. You will learn of the use of puppets in Education, and their value in therapy and rehabilitation. You will be told how comparatively easy it is to build your own puppet theatre and the creative joys this will bring. You will begin to suspect that many professional puppeteers are anxious to make puppets important, even anxious to justify puppetry.
Fortunately this very serious demeanour is not maintained once the puppeteers are manipulating their puppets. Freed from the train of academic thought and no longer breathing the dusty air of antiquarian delvings, they reveal their sense of fun, their artistry. It is at these times, we know for certain that while people have a sense of humour, a sense of fun, an appetite for satire and enjoyment in fantasy or a curiosity in oddities, puppets will be welcomed. They have always been welcome.
It would be guesswork only to offer any account of the origins of puppetry; impossible to state with accuracy the date of the first appearance of puppets; and yet not frivolous to claim puppets may well be but a little younger than man.
A puppet being any inanimate figure controlled by human agency, it is conceivable that elementary puppets were among the earliest playthings, perhaps they were even the primitive aid to storytelling, and perhaps the first tools employed in the forging of satire. It is certainly not difficult to imagine how an oddly shaped piece of wood or stone, found by chance, could have been used by a raconteur, to convey an impression of something - or somebody. It is quite possible, puppetry was an entertainment before man had learned to till the land, and fashion tools. Of course these are but personal speculations.
Authentic historians prefer to propound that the earliest appearances of puppets were in connection with religious ceremonies, and their primary function was to popularise religious legends. Such a theory is tenable, for even today, the centuries old custom of presenting by means of puppetry. The traditional epics of Buddhist mythology are practised in Burma, China and Java.
Historians also record in connection with puppets, the finding of temple statues of ancient Greece and Egypt which were ingeniously constructed, so that by manipulation of secret controls, the heads of the statues inclined, the eyes opened or the arms were raised in benediction or malediction. Similar statues were found in the churches of medieval Europe, and in Africa, idols which had been venerated for centuries, were found to have movements directed by secret controls.
Puppet enthusiasts may not care to recognise any relationship between puppets and these mechanisms, with their attendant charge of charlatanism, and may prefer to point out the family resemblance between the impressively deceptive statues and the sensational automata found in fairgrounds and waxworks exhibitions, but no matter how staunchly puppets are defended, the history of puppetry is not immaculate. Puppets can be as shocking as they can be delightful. Just as they have been employed to promote religious fervour, for teaching the stories of the bible, and for moralising, they have been used to travesty religion and communicate obscenities.
The antiquity and nature of puppets in England is a subject which historians have, it seems, not examined closely. Only a feeble candlelight is thrown on puppetry through the ages by the references scholars have snapped up from the plays and diaries of varying periods. And candlelight is perhaps more romantic than floodlight.
It is known that puppet plays are of very ancient date in this country, probably pre-dating, certainly contemporary with the Mystery Plays (1415). It is known that the great Dr. Johnson expressed the opinions that puppets were so capable of representing even the plays of Shakespeare, that Macbeth might be performed by them as well as by living actors. Both playwrights Will. Shakespeare and Ben Jonson make reference in their plays to puppet plays or " motions" as they were called, and it is fact that puppet shows provided real rivalry with the regular theatres. The proprietors of theatres in Drury Lane and the neighbourhood of Lincoln's Inn Fields, petitioned Charles II that puppet shows stationed in the Strand might not be allowed to exhibit, or might be removed to a greater distance as their attraction interfered with the prosperity of their concerns.
Puppet-shows no longer provide such powerful rivalry, although not long ago, a marionette show attracted such attention and praise that supporters of a nearby theatre
company cried out in concern and alarm at those who could champion a puppet show! No petition was sent to the Queen, but the incident underlined the misguided policy of theatre enthusiasts who will cry out " Support the Live Theatre" and thereby spread abroad reason to hold suspect an entertainment which has to beg for support. As an industry -an art industry if you insist- the Theatre must attract patrons, not plead for them. It is useless to live in the past glories of the stage. The time has come when the Theatre, like the Cinema and the Puppet Theatre, must attract, develop and hold its own audiences.
The director of the Harlequin Puppet Theatre, Mr. Eric Bramall, has said, " Tradition in puppetry, as in every form of art, can be a millstone around the neck of progress. If puppetry is to escape the threatening decline, it is necessary for puppeteers, while making the best use of tradition, to explore new fields of expression and to exploit to the full those true puppetesque qualities which are limited only by the bounds of imagination!"
To genuine puppet enthusiasts this statement clearly reveals Mr. Bramall's awareness of the state of puppetry today, besides indicating a manner of progressing in puppetry, and if he can practice what he advocates, his directorship of the new theatre must be fruitful to puppetry generally.
It is often said nowadays that puppetry is on the wane, but how true this is, is difficult to determine. Possibly the professional puppeteers see the position from another angle, but it would seem impossible to state when puppetry was most popular, and therefore impossible to make fair comparison. If one accepts as a sign of high popularity the splendid touring marionette theatres of the 19th century, it must be admitted that as a means of entertainment they had little competition compared with puppet theatres today. The choice of entertainments for families was restricted even to the 1920s. Today, despite the variety of entertainments, despite the technical advances of the motion picture, the studied comforts of cinema, the glamour of the theatre and the scientifically publicised stars, the puppets still gain audiences. And never before have there been so many puppeteers.
Unfortunately strength of numbers has not brought any noticeable gain to the art of puppetry, mainly because so many of these puppeteers simply seized upon puppetry when it seemed puppets were " money spinners."
In the early days of Television, when studio staffs and producers were hard pressed by staging problems, they found puppets convenient subjects for televising, and puppets were thrust upon the viewing public with sickening frequency, alarming carelessness and crass ignorance. The art of puppetry was made to appear childish and for children only. As a result of frequent appearances of puppets and the generally low standard of manipulation many callow minds received the impression that puppetry was an easy game. There was a rush to buy mass-produced puppets and for a long time afterwards it was difficult to avoid at fund raising assemblies the brash youngsters jigging their purchased dolls, calling it puppetry-and being paid for it.
Consequently, one can sympathise with people who are wary of puppet shows, and one can fully appreciate how so many parents believe puppets are mere child's play, for unless they have taken the only antidote (attending a genuine puppet show) against the sickly poisonous stuff so often televised and " put on " at concerts they must be convinced a puppet theatre is something like a creche.
Nursery characters certainly figure, largely in any puppet theatre simply because fantasy is a natural element for puppets and children are quick to appreciate the fun of fantasy, but this does not mean puppetry is not adult entertainment. Ice cream is not enjoyed only by children. This is not to claim that any and every adult will enjoy puppets. Stupid persons of any age will fail to appreciate the impudence and quicksilver shafts of truth, which burst on the stage when puppets are at work. And then again, high intelligence and penetrating minds are not essential to appreciate puppetry. The minds of people who enjoy life, people who appreciate living, are the people who largely form puppet audiences.
To enjoy puppetry, and the sole ambition of puppets it to give delight, just sit back (you'll soon crane forward), and do not regard puppets as anything but puppets. Don't think of them as substitutes for live actors. If they move realistically, admire by all means the dexterity of the manipulator, but human movement is not the criterion for puppet movement. The puppets have their sense of animation, bringing with it in a flood of life, their own grace and rhythms. If a puppet is made in the image of a known personality, the puppet is but a facet of that personality. Maybe it scintillates, maybe it is dull. It is for you to find if the fragment of personality does successfully achieve what the puppeteer intends. After all, when we have watched, wondered and laughed at the miniature performers it is the work of the puppeteer, an artist, sometimes an artist in a number of spheres, who we applaud.
In Music Hall, or Television, we like or dislike a performer's manner or methods. Often talented singers and comedians with quite good material, lack the right technique and fail to project their personalities across to the audience. It is the technical accomplishments, the ability to "get over" which is the telling factor. The same applies to the puppeteer. If his puppets and setting are pleasing, his music apt or witty, and his manipulation well timed, he is playing the part of impressario, producer and comedian-tragedian, at the same time. Though often unseen he is projecting his own personality; his sense of humour, his style of grace or grace of style; his tastes good or bad, are being illuminated by means of puppetry, which to him is a highly personal activity.
In Britain today we have few puppet showmen who are artists in entertainment, but the few are extremely good and well worth seeing. One of the few is Eric Bramall.
Eric Bramall, Puppet Master
The Eric Bramall Marionette Theatre is a company of 400 puppets, all expressive witnesses of Eric Bramall's experience as a puppet showman. The majority of them are his own creation, designed, devised and dressed as his widening experience advised. In twelve years he has presented all kinds of puppets, glove, string, rod and shadow puppets, in theatre, music hall, ballroom, television studio, and department store. He has appeared in pantomime, revue, variety bill and cabaret. Under the auspices of the Arts Council he has presented his show for Art Societies and colleges. He has toured and has had resident seasons. He entertains at Children's Parties, at Men Only Dinners, Women's Clubs, Old Folk's Gatherings and Youth Clubs. Obviously Mr. Bramall does not cater for a specialised audience. But this is not intended as an advertisement for Mr. Bramall but to suggest rather that puppets have not only a narrow and limited appeal.
To have been so fully occupied as a popular entertainer has no doubt brought handsome rewards, and yet in October 1957, Mr. Bramall laid aside the puppets which had brought him some measure of renown, and launched a programme of pure puppetry which he called THE NEW PUPPETRY. This was most unusual fare, many of his puppets were simple objects such as table tennis balls, and rolls of parchment paper, others were Surrealistic, some bizarre, none were conventional, but the programme emphasised the puppetesque qualities of puppets.
Unfortunately British newspapers' show little interest in puppetry as an art, and since there are so few writers qualified to criticise a programme of puppetry, THE NEW PUPPETRY did not arouse the attention it possibly deserved, This revolutionary puppetry will gain a wider viewing in the near future, but not during the first season at the Harlequin. For this reason The New Puppetry is not dealt with fully here, but in all the Bramall acts, that is, in his popular and New Puppetry programmes, puppets are nothing but puppets, they are not substitutes for actors. Much of their attraction and entertainment value is in their ability to do so many things that a human actor-or any human being cannot do. His puppets, as all good puppets under good guidance, have a telling power of suggestion, they will satirize, burlesque and exaggerate human movement, they will highlight human idiosyncracies but they will always behave in a manner peculiar to his puppets and display characteristics of their purposeful design. No matter how cleverly they move, how expertly they are manipulated. They call for the imagination of the audience, even when he indulges in giving his puppets realistic movements. For instance, in a recent television series Mr. Bramall showed a diminutive puppet clambering up to the platform. The studio audience applauded the well-timed movements. The puppet still clambered unsuccessfully in his effort to reach the top. The little puppet hands firmly gripped the edge of the platform, and the legs moved so that knees or feet could gain a foothold. It seemed the marionette would burst a blood vessel, or his skin, or his trousers. The programme ended with the puppet still vainly clambering. During the following week viewers wrote letters pleading that the puppet should be allowed to reach safety.
In the mind's eye of viewers the platform had become a precipice, and every calculated and deftly manipulated movement of the puppet made to convey an impression of frustration and desperate struggle, produced an atmosphere of suspense and tension seldom created by means of puppetry.
Eric Bramall obviously relishes adding macabre touches and giving a Grand Guignol treatment to many of his acts. In The New Puppetry programme he has more deaths than there are in an Elizabethan tragedy, but this flair does not smother the delicacy with which he stages an idyll or gay fantasy. This happy disposition to use diverse means of communicating points of view has suggested to one writer an idea for a puppet play, in which Eric Bramall will be seen linking arms with children, skeletons, fairy tale princesses, ghouls, Japanese heroines, vampires, lambs and lions.