Talbot wrote “Amongst the Ibibio, if a puppet was dropped or its hidden mechanisms exposed, the offending puppeteer was slain and the rest of his troupe sold into slavery…”
This punishment was advocated at the turn of last century. Today things are a little different!
In this second part of an article on African puppets, I discuss how the puppeteers ability to adapt to change, explains the enduring nature of these performances.
Originally puppet theatre was the medium considered sacred and used for ritual, divination and funerary purposes. Today puppetry, masquerades, dance and music are combined and the content has become more secular. In rural areas puppet theatre is performed by youth group associations. Many of these comprise migrant workers returning from the city, during the dry season, bringing fresh ideas of political, social, and religious change. These young men are reintegrated into village life by educating audiences using humour and satire as the vehicle of entertainment. They provide the impetus for reinventing characters, dialogue, form, colour and movement of puppets throughout the duration of the play. The content of their shows reflect society’s constant transformation.
Also, the lines dividing reality (the audience) from illusion (the play) constantly shift because etiquette surrounding audience participation differs from that in the West. In Africa, there is greater audience participation. Exchange between puppets and audience is considered normal and spectators feel free to talk, reject ideas, and discuss concepts of moral behaviour, providing puppeteers countless opportunities to improvise. Spectators at times become rowdy, abusive, and elders have been known to physically attack what they consider is an objectionable character, resulting in hasty improvisation on the part of the puppeteers. As a result of this, the content of a play is known to differ radically from one village performance to another, depending on its reception.
This freedom requires great flexibility on the part of the puppeteers and one guesses that only very gifted individuals will be successful: A good performance must be different, fresh, and full of surprises. This is a truly popular form of theatre linking an intimate exchange between the audience and the human emotions so aptly portrayed.
Marionettes Du Mali. Werewere Liking. Collection traditions Africaines. Nea-Arhis. ISBN 2-906755-03-6
Bamana and Bozo puppetry of the Segou Rebion youth societies. Mary Jo Arnoldi. Department of fine art. Indiana University.