“…The purpose of playing… was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”
-Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 111, scene 11
This quote may well have been written to describe African puppet theatre, where characters are endearing, humorous and absurd, with a dialogue and content that is cutting and to the point.
The flexibility and adaptability typical of life and performance in Africa results in an amazing ability to improvise, and as such African theatre knows no boundaries. An African puppet can be any object fashioned from any media. It is manipulated by men during a drama with dialogue that reveals characters in a tragic, lyric, or satirical content. Western marionette tradition is centred on the production of children’s plays. In Africa, puppet theatre is performed for all age groups, sexes and social levels. The use of puppets and masked characters are an essential means of communication in non-literate societies where they perform in order to educate the youth and reinstate the importance of traditional values within the community. They accomplish this social control by satirising the follies and foibles of tribal life, or by enacting the burlesques of those individuals who have embraced western morals.
The beginnings of this fascinating art form may well lie in ritual and magic but historically puppets are believed by scholars to have originated in India 4000 years ago. They were also recorded in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Psychologists may argue that marionettes’ popularity through the ages is due to a social collective need to process and transform reality in an unthreatening manner, usually accompanied through the medium of illusion and fantasy. Others might question why marionette theatre survives when actors could perform just as well. Or can they? There are strong points in the marionettes’ favour.
A puppet’s potential is realised when in motion. At this point it grips the imagination of the spectator and begins to exist. Due to the lack of gravity, and sometimes a movable stage, the puppet’s actions controlled by the manipulator often tend to be exaggerated and distorted. This results in a greater theatrical freedom of movement, an otherworldliness difficult for an actor to duplicate. The hidden identity of the puppeteer and the fact that puppets are impersonal, lacking direct rapport with the audience, gives the playwright greater license. The audience usually accepts the portrayal of anti-social behaviour by puppets. Because of these reasons, and the humorous physiognomy of puppets, opinions expressed by the playwright or innovated by the puppeteers about: the society, social conflicts, injustice, and criticism of political figures, are easier to digest.
Examples of typical characters to be found throughout Africa might include a: miser, holy man and a loose woman or animals such as lions, hyenas, gazelles, monkeys. The appearance of a particular puppet is generally accompanied by a soloist singing an appropriately bawdy song. A character often satirised like this is the holy man. A refrain commonly repeated by the Bambara of Mali is:
Fear the charlatan holy man.
The holy man sits there telling great lies.
Fear the charlatan holy man.
The holy man says he won’t drink beer.
The holy man says he won’t drink mead.
But the holy man will give beer to a woman and take her off to bed.
Marionettes Du Mali. Were-Were Liking. Collection traditions Africaines. Nea-Arhis. ISBN 2-906755-03-6
Bamana and Bozo puppetry of the Segou Region youth societies. Mary Jo Arnoldi. Department of fine art. Indiana University.