July 18, 2009

"Through puppetry we accept the outrageous, the absurd or even the impossible, and will permit puppets to say and do things no human could. We allow a puppet to talk to us when no one else can get us to speak. We allow a puppet to smile at us even when we have not been introduced. We allow a puppet to touch us when a person would lose an arm for the same offense" - Anita Sinclair.

Puppetry is one of humanity's most ancient and mysterious forms of theatre, having begun at least 30,000 years ago, and most likely predating theatre with live actors. One who minimizes or discounts the importance of puppetry to theatre - and to life itself - does so at his or her peril, and with profound ignorance.

In America, depending on whom you ask, the most well-known puppets are probably Jim Henson's Muppets and Rick Lyon's Muppet-parodies done for Avenue Q on Broadway and Crank Yankers on television. Older generations might say Kukla, Fran & Ollie, Howdy Doody, or Shari Lewis' Lambchop. (Walt Disney's version of Pinocchio might also qualify as the most well-known puppet in America, if not for the fact that most people probably don't consciously think of him as an actual functioning puppet so much as a mere wooden doll that came to life.)

But in Europe, ask anyone on the street who's the greatest puppet of them all and it's likely the resounding answer will be: GUIGNOL!

Who is Guignol? He's a charming little marionette created by illiterate French dentist and silkweaver Laurent Mourguet circa 1798. In order to attract people to his dentistry business, he began holding crude puppet shows out front. His puppetry quickly eclipsed his teeth-pulling. By 1804 he'd given up dentistry completely and become a professional puppeteer.

Mourguet's earliest puppets were knock-offs of Polichinelle, a beak-nosed character borrowed from the Italian commedia dell’arte's Punchinello (who went on to become Punch in the popular European Punch & Judy shows.

Unlike the fanciful fantasy stories of many puppet shows, Mourguet instead chose an Earthier approach, feeding on the day-to-day concerns of his working-class audience. References to current news events also gave his shows a very timely quality and made the shows enjoyable to adults as well as the children.

In those days long before the notions of political correctness, one of Mourguet's first original puppet creations was Gnafron, a hobo-clown-like unrepentant alcoholic. In 1808 Gnafron's Joker friend Guignol was introduced. Other characters, including Guignol’s wife Madelon and a nameless gendarme (later referred to as Flagéolet) soon followed. But it was Guignol who rose to prominence and became the star of the shows.

Each Guignol play seems to take place in a stand-alone universe; sometimes he is married to Madelon and sometimes he is not. Sometimes he is a carpenter, a valet, a silkweaver, a shoemaker, or whatever the story demands. In all plays, however, he lives in poverty yet unflappably transcends his situation with humor. The stories almost always frame him as a hero, who outwits stupidity and evil with his own cleverness and goodness.

Traditionally, Guignol occupies "House Right" on the puppet proscenium, and thus must be employed by the puppeteer's left hand. Gnafron is almost always seen on the left, on the puppeteer's right hand.

Ironically, the scripts to the original Guignol plays survive today only because Napoleon III's strict censorship policies required that any and all performance texts be submitted to the Government for pre-approval. Had this law not forced the dialogue to be written down, the skits would likely have remained an oral tradition.

So ubiquitous is Guignol's fame, that the word "guignol" has long since become common French slang for "puppet" in general, and in more modern times has come to be used as a derogatory epithet for people one considers puppet-like. Easily duped and weak-minded people (especially politicians), suspected to be controlled by another's metaphorical puppet-strings, are often called guignols in this sense. It's an unfortunate trend, because the real Guignol is no stooge - he's supremely wise and nobody's fool, despite his Jokerly and Jesterly countenance.

Guignol's name was also perverted by a wry joke on the part of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris, who sarcastically employed the children's symbol of goodness for the name of their transcendentally degenerate theatre of sexual sadism. In America, more people have heard the phrase "Grand Guignol" used in reference to gory entertainment than have heard of its namesake, Guignol the happy puppet. (You can read more about the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol on my Voraxical Theatre blog.)

Contact the author at jshpaint@gmail.com

Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at jshla.com