Why children, I wonder?
On Monday, I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the Shakespeare Puppet show mentioned by Louisa Young in her History Girls “Fear of Puppetry Overcome” post a few weeks back.
As well as displaying and demonstrating different kinds of puppets, the script was cleverly woven through with lines from Shakespeare’s great plays to introduce his phrasing and poetry, and very enjoyable it all was.
However, the quantity of very small children in the audience set me thinking. Why, here in England, are puppets almost always seen as something for young audiences? Even those magnificent Warhorse puppets – like the horse on display in the V&A Theatre Gallery – originated in a story written for children.
I started wondering whether this attitude had any historical link. Might our national response to puppets go back to the Reformation, and the destruction and defacing of so much religious statuary and images? Did that great ferment turn all forms of images into suspicious objects, especially any used in processions or plays and likely to deceive souls by seeming "alive"?
Did whatever puppets existed back then – in whatever was street theatre or as part of mystery plays - become deceits of the devil and casualties of the Puritan view? Or were puppets far too close to the venerated icons and miraculous statues of enemy Papist practices, and all those other suspicious customs of “foreigners”?
(European puppet companies still have a tradition of producing shows for adults as well as for children, and many other world traditions are intended for all ages.)
Would the fear of witchcraft or, worse, accusation of witchcraft, make people shun puppets in case such objects were seen as evidence of their crimes? Were children's "poppets" and "babies", used to encourage mothering skills, seen as innocent when puppets themselves were not?
And if so, does that mean that Henry VIII, Good Queen Bess and Old Noll killed the English love of puppets? Note: I'm just wondering here. I don’t know, not yet. Do you?
However puppets are still around, hanging on at the edge of our culture. We still have Punch and Judy shows, even though the rascal originated in Italy. Occasionally, the art of puppetry resurfaces in the theatre, or on our televisions whenever Spitting Image's satirical caricatures become newsworthy.
We still have human puppets like the “’Osses” of the mumming tradition, and speaking dolls like the ventriloquist’s dummy. Sometimes whole communities get involved with puppets: the town of Skipton has a bi-annual puppet festival and procession, next due in 2015, and not so long ago a huge Elephant puppet paraded through London to great audiences and acclaim.
Even so, I bet any publicity about a puppet show will be – unless there are very explicit warnings - read and seen as “for children” - and very little children at that.
By the by, I once read that the violent destruction of so much religious art during the Reformation created such intense trauma that English visual tradition ceased. The main means of expression shifted towards words, which brings me very back nicely to the glory of Shakespeare’s language and that V&A puppet show.
ps. I'm rather fond of puppets and created an old Punch and Judy man as an important character in my children's novel. A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. (Bloomsbury)