The Beginnings Of Puppet Theater

The first traces of puppets were revealed by the archeological diggings of Cucuteni, Jassy county (and later in other areas). Sites from the Neolithic (6.000-3.000 B.C.) have been examined and numerous figures made of bone or clay, which were probably used for religious or magic rituals, have been found. Some of these rituals, such as Caloianul, practiced in villages, with two clay dolls Mama ploii (Mother of rain) and Fratele Soarelui (Brother of the Sun) – being buried, while participants are chanting ritual formulas, have survived to this day. In feasts throughout the year, but especially in the winter and spring, ancient rituals take place, in which masked people recite lines related to the events and dance to the rhythm of the music. The masks are made of fur, textiles, wood and even metal, and represent Capra (the Goat), also named Brezaia or Tzurca, Corbul (the Raven), Boul (the Ox), Berbecul (the Ram), Cocostarcul (the Stork), Ursul (the Bear). The man wearing the mask dances, punctuating with the sound of the mask's jaw the rhythm of the music. As a rule, the animal dies and is resurrected in the end, suggesting, through a metaphor, the death of Nature in winter and its rebirth in spring. But the masks represent not only zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures, but also old people and various nationalities such as gypsies, Jews, Turks, Russians or demons, wizards, etcetera. Many of these ceremonies are still alive. Various mask and doll games are practiced during some feasts, weddings and even wakes (the number of days starting with the death of a person and lasting until the funeral). There have been even Romanian versions of the à la planchette marionettes: two minute characters are animated on a flat surface using a string tied to a finger of the puppeteer-musician, who plays the pipe or the bagpipe. The first written mention on popular, Vasilache-type marionette theater dates back to 1715, but the main character was initially named Paiatza (Harlequin). One of the first puppet masters from Jassy was Vasile Dragan (whose partner was Ilie the Puppeteer). In Moldavia, the diminutive of Vasile is Vasilache (or Lache), and thus the artist gave his name to the character, who turned from Paiatza into Vasilache. His wife's name was Gacitza, later Marioara. There is a period in which information about the existence and activity of Romanian puppet masters is scarce, as very few documents survived. However, we cannot forget the influence of the medieval religious theater on puppet theatre, especially through the Saxons from Transylvania, who settled in the 13th century, as well as – for the other Romanian provinces – the influence of Szozka from Poland and Vertep from the Ukraine, chiefly in Catholic areas. Such shows exist even today in communities with Lutherans, Protestants or Uniates, but Orthodox as well. In time, puppet masters reached fairs, were they would entertain provincial audiences. Until the 1980's, puppet masters traveled from one fair to another all over the country. The improvised scene (a curtain), a few puppets in a box and a minimal wardrobe made their trips easy. The first writings for puppet theater appeared at the beginning of the 19th century, e.g. The Comedy of Ban Constantin Canta, the Monk and Basket Knight by Costache Conachi, N. Dimachi and Alecu Beldiman, performed in Jassy by a group of young intellectuals, and Mavrodiniada by Iordache Golescu. These were social and political satires. The life of the puppeteers is reflected in the Ion the Puppeteer monologue, written by poet and playwright Vasile Alecsandri. The same author included in his comedy Jassy in Carnival scenes of puppet theatre. Even the great Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu wrote a puppet theater play, Infamy, Cruelty and Despair or the BlackCave and Bad Songs or Elvira in the Despair of Love, a virulent satirical comedy. Around 1880, a German circus held shows in Timisoara and other cities in Banat. Among the sensational acts was that of the Brauer-Berger acrobat band. An accident put an end to the career of a few acrobats, who remained in place after the circus left. They ordered a set of large puppets, from Czechia, which they used in shows from 1882 to the end of the Second World War. The band obtained a license, and their plays, in Romanian, German and Hungarian, both for children and adults, toured all over Banat and Transylvania. Valeriu Şesan studied in Prague, where he married Bojena Nemcova. He was impressed by the Czech puppet theater, and after he was named professor of Canonic Law at CernautziUniversity, he founded, together with his children Carolina and Milan, a "family" puppet theater addressing a broader audience. In 1929, he participated in the founding convention of the International Association of Puppeteers in Prague; thus, Romania became a founding member of the organization. The puppet theater in Cernautzi owns its existence to Theodor Nastasi, who was a foreign languages teacher in the city. His meeting with painter George Baron of LÅ‘wendal was beneficial. Together they founded, on the 1st of May 1928, a puppet theater. The first plays put on stage are The Theatre Manager, Bastien and Bastienne by Mozart. In 1920 begin the attempts of Lucia Calomeri, a schoolmistress, to set up a puppet theatre, but she will succeed only 19 years later, by presenting educative shows in schools and school camps. In 1945, supported by King Mihai I Cultural Foundation, Elena Pătrăşcanu, together with the set designers Alexandru Brătăşanu, Lena Constante and Ileana Popescu, founded a permanent puppet theatre. The group of four set designers joined forces with Lucia Calomeri's troupe, founding ŢĂNDĂRICĂ Puppet Theater.

by Mihai Crişan