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Pulling the Strings

Author John Cech
Air Date 4/26/2007

Pulling the Strings Transcript

Tomorrow is National Puppetry Day, and though we don’t think about it much at all, a puppet has probably played an important role in our lives — especially our young lives. Several generations of American children have grown up on the lessons of Ernie and Bert and Elmo and now Abby Cadabby, learning everything from numbers and colors and the alphabet to basic values like kindness and sharing. And then there are the puppets of the late Mr. Rogers, and the late Shari Lewis’s Lambchop.

But the puppet isn’t confined to the children’s time slots; one of the most popular family television shows in the 1980s was Jim Hensen’s The Muppet Show, which gave us not only Kermit and Miss Piggy, but the Swedish Cook, Beeker the hapless lab assistant, and dozens of other brilliantly drawn (or should I say sewn) characters. Puppets have been an indispensable part of smash hits on Broadway, like The Lion King and Avenue Q and in operas like the Met’s recent production of The Magic Flute. Puppets appear at protest rallies, birthday parties, and even in some driver’s schools, to reacquaint ticketed miscreants with the rules of the road.

But all of these aren’t new roles for the puppet. They’ve been entertaining and teaching us for millennia. Plato describes shadow puppets in the Republic; and, in the Hindu tradition, the first puppeteer, Adi Nat, is said to have leaped from the lips of the Creator, Brahma. In the dalang shadow plays of Java and Bali, which are well over a thousand years old, the plays reenact the sacred stories of the gods and mankind and seen as vital in healing the spiritual malaises of both individuals and communities.

The marionette began its life in the middle ages, where it is believed to have been invented by St. Francis, and where it acquired its name of “little Mary” because it was a featured performer in nativity plays. According to some reports, there were even comic uses of the puppet in the church, as in a famous instance in 1443, when puppet angels holding candles deliberately dodged out of the way of the priests who were trying to put them out at the end of the service, much to the delight of everyone at the mass. Eventually, the puppets were asked to leave the churches in the west because they were, well, too entertaining!

And they ended up, instead, in the market place where they have been ever since, in one form or another — as Pulcinello and Petrushka, Pinocchio and Punch — the most durable puppet of all time, who is simply too tough to ever really die. So let’s hear it for the humble, eternal puppets, made of socks or paper, on strings or sticks, who let us believe, if only for a moment, in the sheer mystery of the fact that a piece of painted wood can make us laugh or tell us life’s deepest secrets.

Posted in Holidays, Television