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Tasos Angelopoulos



The hidden socially interested puppetry underneath his stories


Abstract: The article deals with Gianni Rodari’s stories, as containing their own transcription into puppet plays. Using historical references, from commedia dell’ arte’s puppetry tradition till the context in which Rodari created his stories, and combining the “fantastic binominal” of Rodari’s writing theories with the methodological tool of alienation in puppetry, as it has described especially by Henryk Jurkowski, the article argues on the Rodari’s tales transformation into puppet plays.   


Gianni Rodari, foto: https://www.periodicodaily.com/Gianni Rodari, foto: https://www.periodicodaily.com/ 


In 1951, Gianni Rodari, journalist and famous writer of children’s books (1920-1980), suggested a series of theatre recreational activities for the young “pioneers” (the youth organization of the Communist Party), puppetry included, usually based on specific themes, suchas the defense of peace or work (Rodari 1951, 68-69). His views seem to approach hiscontemporary aspects for young audience’s theatre – and, especially, the Catholic Church’s practices, expressed mainly through the magazine Teatro delle Giovani [Theatre for Young People] (Cavallaro, 2017). Later on, Rodari will alter the significance of the puppet’s use in education, which consists of, among other things, the transformation of the teacher into a more approachable figure: ,,Children may say to amarionette what they don’t dare to tell the teacher himself” (Rodari 1973, 137). This alienation of the teacher’s role from his authoritarian features, and his replacement by a playful facilitator of the children’s imagination seems to exist at the center of Rodari’s thoughts on education. But, in addition to his proposals on structures, which would educate young communists against the system, or his thoughts on how we may transform school classrooms into creative anti-authoritarian environments, what Rodari couldn’t possibly imagine is thatthe stories for children he wrote would not only incorporate the same main theme – the fight against power – but would also pick up the baton from another major tradition of Italian and global theatre and puppetry: the commedia dell’ arte.


The theatre of professionals (commedia dell’ arte or commedia all’ improviso) flourished in Italy beginning in the 16th century, and its roots seem, even today, a mystery. Some scholars suggest that its origin may be found in Roman theatre(especially the phlyax satirical plays of the Southern Italy and Sicily), others on the ancient Greek comedy, the mystery plays of the Catholic Church or even the popular spectacles during the Middle Ages, such as jugglers and jokers (Hartnoll, 1968, 53). Since none of these assumptions can be proven – or, alternatively, are all accurate at the same time– commedia dell’ arte’s difference from its contemporary scholar theatre becomes more important. Usually performed on squares and public spaces, by itinerant theatre groups, commedia dell’ arte developed its stereotypical stories and charactersby listeningits public’s needs and desires. The plottraditionally includes a poor young peasant in love with a beautiful young girl. In his effort to meet and couple with her (“marry” her), he has to overcome the obstacles put in his path by the other characters: her rich, old guardian, who is also in love with her, the half-taught Latin speaking Judge and the false, courageous Soldier (normally a Spaniard). Since our hero is unable to directly face them, he is obliged to use his cleverness in order to defeat them. And, typically, he succeedsin marrying his beloved after humiliating his opponents.


This straight relationship with the large audience’s thoughts and ambitions, the victory of a poor, weak peasant boy against everyone who oppresses him, contributed to the tremendous success and proliferation of this theatrical style.Poor people, especially in southern Italy, enjoyed seeing their oppressors (the Spanish conquerors, the lawyers and judges, the rich merchants and usurers) defeated on stage and to dream of their real and total extermination.  Soon, the boy got a name: Pulchinella(o), and he began to travel all around Europe, changing names and features(Hartnoll, 1968, 80). But another transformation was more scandalous: he stopped beingonly human and became an object, a living doll, a puppet. Actually, we can’t be very sure which came first, puppet or living actors’ theatre (Curell, 1974, 9), since commedia groups seem to include all kinds of folk entertainers and to use all the theatrical means they could. So, puppet Pulchinella accompanied real Pulchinella in his travels across the country and Europe, but when the actors’ groups were dissolved or gained a more “institutional” position,i.e. at the French monarchs’ court, the puppets, allergic to all kinds of power and obedience, were left to occupy the space left behind (Jurkowski 1991, 53).


Looked at on its own, Italian puppethistory goes together with another anti-authoritarian revolutionagainst the ultimate power of the times: The Church. In mystery plays, performed by the church (inside the temples) to celebrate a Christian saint, and in the “morality plays” –didactic simple plays by semi-professionals for the common people (in inns, squares and fairgrounds)–the church allowed the use of puppets and marionettes. In addition, it is believed that the word “marionette” actually comes from “Mary dolls”, the little worshiping figures of Virgin Mary (Mabel & Les Beaton, 1948). But, as comedy elements gradually grewinto plays, the church banned puppetry and exiled puppets from the temples. Outside the temples,as we already indicated, those puppets met Pulchinella and his companions and we may only imagine their common journey and interaction through time. The fact is, they created together a traditional so stable that even today, Naples and Rome’s glove puppets maintain the commedia characteristics: they are small in size, use improvisational and comic texts and their central figure is still named…Pulchinella (Parousi 2012, 45).And, additionally, this, let’s call itcommedia dell’ arte puppetry, with all its transformations, became so widespread that its influenceovercame the narrow boundaries of its own art field: it became something popular, a subconscious fertile terrain for all artistic expression.


Αs Walter Puchner indicates, through the useof these puppets, social and political parody will gradually replace divine foreknowledgeand the puppets will become one of the most powerful weapons in the struggle for human rights (Puchner 1989, 49).Jurkowski (1968, 3) starting from another point of view, seems to agree:


,,Striving to reach artistic freedom for his creative will, man invented the puppet theatre. Through its discovery he freed himself from the threat of destiny, creating himself a world of his own and –through the characters which owe him total dependence– he strengthens his will, his logic and his aesthetic. In short, he becomes a little god in his own world.”


The deconstruction of power and the challenge of established morality, deriving from the dispute against the church and its representatives, seem to be the great inheritance of thiscommedia puppetry. It was actually a decisive step for the autonomy of any kind of puppetry from its ritual and religious past in favor of its artistic future. And it has created a movement with tremendous influence, since all central heroes of traditional puppetry across Europe started to share several particular characteristics: they all are superficially courageous, famished andfull of bluster, they don’t respect laws and authorities and they help the poor. In order to survive or achieve their goal, they demonstrate a lack of morality and they often get involved in fights and beatings. Although they have no heroic features, they become popular heroes and the lower social classes identify with them. In other words, all these Punches (and Judies), Guignols, Pierrots, Petrushkas, Kasperls, Hanswursts, these ugly, violent and immoral heroes succeeded through centuries in replacing the noble and beautiful heroes of the past (Speaight 1990) in our collective imagination. Or, in semiotic terms, a glove around an uplifted hand –because, they were and are all glove puppets–gradually became a basic factor in the conquest of the freedom we constantly asked forin the social and politicalarenas.


As this deliberation process moves forward, the need ofthe future citizens’ education arises. The connection between puppets and education seems today as if it were simply a matter of time, but, actually, it followed a more peculiar pathway. Among other factors, its roots can be found in the 19th century: an attemptof the puppet theatre “real doers”(the puppeteers) to avoid state’s prohibitions(Jurkowski 1984, 121). Since then, countless professionals, papers and academic research projects have proven the positive effect of puppets on the child’s development and education. The most important function is the identification of children with the puppet characters:


,,We assume that every child identifies itself, according a special manner, with the puppets and the actions they represent. We assume that each child projects in the puppet show its own sentiments, desires or needs” (Woltman 1965, 637).  


But similar positive remarks also apply tothe influence of fairy tales and stories on the cultivation of children’s imagination –finally, the whole process of acquiringknowledge. Sharing a noticeably similar historical past with the puppets –tales that are also believed to have come from rituals– in fact, both these“tools,”nowadays, puppets and tales, seemalmost inseparable, a necessary complement to each other in the teaching of the most diverse subjects (Kroflin 2012, 46). But their relationship, as far as which comes first and which followsin the educational process, is not a matter of discussion. As Ursula Tappolet (1983, 6) puts it this way: ,,What the fairy tale brings can take a form, can be materialized in a simple or more sophisticated marionette.”


Nevertheless, when reading Gianni Rodari’s tales and short stories, we mightdiscover an exception to this “rule”. What we will try to prove then is that Rodari, in fact, may be considered as havingde-materialized puppetry –and, especially, commedia puppetry–to create his famous stories. Our case study is exactly this: reading Rodari’s stories you can’t escape thoughts of commedia puppets: they are there, hidden underneath the words, in a strange signifier-signified relationship.   


Let’s start, step by step, according an external point of view. For this external attempt to identify puppetry and Rodari’s tales, every single element may be proven valuable and historically certified: even the names are significant. The “burattini” –glove puppets developed in 17th century Italy along with the “fantoccini,” the marionettes (Leydi 1982)– transformed Pulchinella to the characters of Sandrone and Gioppino. The small acoustic distance between this last one and Gianni Rodari’s“Giovanni”, the protagonist of several of his tales, may give us a clue of their straight relationship at the level of features and functions. This “Giovanni the lazy” truly seems to have just arrived from commedia puppetry. In fact, in his 1962 book Favole al telefono [Tales on the telephone]Rodari included some stories with this peculiar protagonist. One of these stories is“If you Want to Touch the King’s Nose.” There, Giovanni decides, for no particular reason, to touch the king’s nose. When his friends tell him that such an action may prove dangerous, and he may lose his head, Giovanni decides to practice on his way to Rome: he touches the Governor’s and other significant persons’ noses and he always gives a teasing excuse for his action (i.e. there was a fly sitting on the nose, etc.). When he finally meets the king in Rome, he manages to touch his nose and to disappear into the crowd. At the end of this tale, other people in the crowd also want to touch the king’s nose and they do. In vain, his prime minister tries to persuade his majesty that this is an action of respect: the king is not at all happy and his nose gets crumpled. 


The connection of this story with commedia dell’ arte puppetry’s tradition seems self-evident. We have almost everything for a nice commedia (and puppets) script: a lazy protagonist from the low classes (actually, a country boy who wishes to conquer the big city), anti-authoritarian actions that lead to a general “rebellion,” the humiliation of respectable public figures and a happy end for our hero. We also may recognize some other “puppet-like” elements: despite their authority, the rest of the characters seem simple and one-dimensional. They remain “sketches” of themselves, figures with little potential and only one care, the maintenance of their arrogance and power;which is why they are “punished” in the end. In addition, this story may be combined with another one from the same book: “Nose run,” which retells the story of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” But, here, unlike Gogol’s story, the nose, another “puppet-like” protagonist, has a reason to leave his owner’s face: it is treated really badly and it cannot stand it anymore. Another story of rebellion, another story of success on behalf of the “oppressed” (nose), another surrealistic finale.


Of course, we must not forget the social context of these stories, or, better, the context in which Rodari created them.Rodari was raised at the northern Italy, at the province of Varese (Lombardy) and he was appointed as teacher at the age of seventeen in Italy’s rural areas, believed to be a privileged space for popular puppet theatre groups’ tours. In hisGrammaticadellafantazia (1973, 135), he also confesses that he “worked” as puppet player three times in his life: as a child, as a teacher, but also as a man for an audience of peasants in order to gain his everyday food, and he concludes: “Puppet player, the best profession in the world”.


In the story (or, the stories) mentioned above, it may seem strange that we aren’t given a reason for Giovanni’s actions or a motivating cause for his decision. This lack of reason may make us believe that Rodari’s story diverges from commedia’straditions: in other words, we don’t have a girl waiting for Giovanni. But this does not seem like a problem for Rodari, since, as he also confesses, he used to build his stories around a structural element: the alienation through the “fantastic binomial,” as he calls it.


The “fantastic binomial,” a surrealistic pair of words against their normal and ordinary need for “coupling” seems easy to understand: if we have the word “dog” our first tendency is to pair it with the word “cat” in order to create a sentence or a story. But, Rodari will wonder: “what if we pair it with the word “closet”? [Actually, he gives this same example]. Or, the word “car,” we could add? “Novel,”“missile,”“ice-cream,” “moon”…? What if we combine, in our story, Giovanni with the king’s nose? Then, we don’t seem to need a reason of their common presence in a story: The reader’s imagination will fill out the gaps and jump over the empty spaces.This imaginative combination, this realistic but not real conjunction, this alienation by the word’s context–he argues– provides us with infinite possibilities for the creation of an interesting story. Nevertheless, the “alienation effect” (Verfremdungseffekt in Brechtian terminology) can also be considered so structural in puppetry that “without its presence a puppet show is unthinkable, because it is part of its essence, consisting in the tension of its developing duality [again the term duality as structure element],” (Kavrakova-Lorenz 1989, 235 in: Jurkowski 1968, 54).


What do we mean by alienation in puppetry, and how may it combined with Rodari’s alienation for tales? The scholars’ thoughts are controversial, but we may extract some common features. Either we speak for alienation occurring by the fact that “puppets are only material” (Waschinsky 1980, 57), or by the separation of the object from the character (Jurkowski 1988, 41, which refers to the phenomenon as “opalization”).Alienation between puppet and real actor, puppet and its material, puppet material and puppet character lies at the very heart of the puppet performances.As in stories, we don’t need an explanation for watching a puppet performance. We just admit it as normal, accepting that our contribution at a performance will be the completion through our imagination of this gap, or as Tillis (1992, 65) says:


,,What is willful in the live theatre is native to the puppet: a process of representation that is inherently make-believe, and is predicated on a double-vision that acknowledges the “object” of the puppet as having “life.”


Annie Gilles (1981, 55) supports another kind of “alienation” of puppets, posing them at the place of an “intermediate,” something “between the imaginative and real world of the child.” This way, the puppet becomes a metaphor of each child’s mother, who finds in them a reassuring way to overcome the traumas of absence. The puppet, unlike the parents, may always be there for the child. So, the puppet is “a metaphor of a dependent relationship” (Zsilagyi 1996).


But, the metaphor is another structural element that puppetry and stories by Rodari seem to share. Of course, the nose of the king in our example story is nothing more than a symbol of his arrogance and power. “What do you think? That you candrag meby the nose?” a character screams at Giovanni. And the “rebellion” of the nose(s), in the second story is only a symbol of how easy it is to lose this authority. Giovanni, in this sense, is only a “fuse,”which allows the movement of these metaphors’ significance, the free passage of symbols from one condition to the other, where the spectator remains the final recipient.Similarly, in puppetry:


,,The first and most basic metaphor in puppet theatre appears at the moment when the player takes the puppet in his hand, and it exists as long as the player demonstrates it on stage. At such a moment the animated substance loses its material qualities and transforms into its own negation. Another metaphor is connected with an object that is presented on stage. In this case, it is important whether or not we are able to convince a spectator that given object is alive. […] In this case we can speak of a concrete metaphor. The essence of the metaphorical presentation consists in the spectator’s emotional and intellectual reaction to the creative impulses of an artist” (Tarbay 1972, 54 in:Jurkowski 1988, 37).   


What we may conclude here is that both metaphor and alienation in puppetry, “give the spectator [or, the reader] space, stimulateshis creativity. No marionette would have life without the spectator’s conscious or unconscious choice, without his will to see life where he knows there is not” (Meschke 2002, 259).What else do we need to suggest that Rodari’s stories are “puppet-like”, since his whole life’s work lies on the stimulation of the child’s imagination through stories? In this sense, the commedia puppet-like tales seem to serve another function as well: being so recognizable at the level of form and scenario, tales including these elements give extra possibilities to the child’s creativity. In other words, whatRodari seems to believe is that the more common the elements, the better. And what was morewell-known than commedia puppetry?


Of course, if we wish to build a real puppet-like scenario from Rodari’s tales (reversing what we were supporting so far), we have to be more concrete and faithful to basic dramaturgical principles. In this case, Giovanni needs a reason for his actions and the play’s structure must follow the triangle: exposition-development-solution. But this happens for the opposite reasons: what has been de-materialized to become a story, now, through imagination, has become more fast and fluid. But, when we try to re-materialize the story elements (as puppet show), we must help the spectator to overcome theinitial de-materialization: we can’t expect him to materialize twice! This triplet (which consists of puppet de-materialization/ tale/ puppet re-materialization) when we use Rodari’s stories as materialfor our shows, gives space for infinite transformations in the future (a new de-materialized story etc.) but also puts down some very specific rules, from which the most significant is that a Rodari story, in any case, cannot be presented with puppets if they are not commedia-puppets –in other words, if they are not glove puppets who beat each other, scream to each other and fight each other under the most peculiar circumstances. And the poor boy always wins.     




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