Puppet Theatre in Slovene National Customs – the lileki
For quite some time it was believed that the Slovenes had no puppet theatre of their own up to the founder of the first Slovene puppet theatre Milan Klemenčič in 1919. There were, of course, German and Italian groups performing in this territory. In 1942 however, the ethnologist Peter Orel described an acted joke called Litigation for the Boundaries performed with some very special manual puppets at a wedding somewhere around the town Ptuj. After some accurate field research the remains of a national traditional puppet theatre were traced out, from which it is easy to conclude how these play forms spread within folk customs. They were performed mostly during festivities and celebrations, and they usually dealt with material taken from everyday life of ordinary people (litigations for boundaries, taxation, threshing). It is typical for this kind of puppet theatre that the actor (animator) was lying hidden below a bench. The basic harness of the puppet was a cross covered by a jacket with a hat placed on top of it. Sometimes a simple stick had to do – it was pushed through the sleeves of an old jacket and the puppeteer held it in the middle; while with two or three fingers he held some old hat or a cap.
The form of a cross for the body of the puppet is unknown in Western Europe, so it is believed that it was introduced and spread in the Balkans by the Turks. It is still not clear how it came to Slovenia, there are, however, various explanations: it could have been brought by soldiers, by season workers, by refugees ... A further variation of such a puppet play was a performance where the puppeteer used mime to present anything the spectators suggested. These usually divided into two parties both inciting the two paesants (farmers) arguing about the property boundaries. So, the play achieved an additional, quite realistic dimension. The centres of such puppet plays were the region around Ptuj called Ptujsko polje, the surroundings of the monastery Stična, the region of Suha krajina, the valley Šaleška dolina and the upper valley of the river Savinja.
There was no main character in these plays as there was Petrusha in Russia, or Guignol in France, Kasperl in Germany or Punch in England, yet these old Slovene puppet plays still had many a thing in common with the above mentioned European plays performed with manual puppets. Their most typical common feature was the fight or rather the beating that usually started towards the end of the play. Another common feature was the shortness of all these plays. At some fair or during some religious festivals (such as wake) puppeteers used to put up a stand and attract the attention of the passing-by people. They usually played simple scenes so that even the late comers could follow the story and then join the play. All scenes were short and full of witty remarks and insinuations always leading to final fights and beating of the guilty. A special feature marking the folk puppet play in Slovenia was the occasional appearance of a live actor in the role of a judge, a landlord or some head of the community.
So, the puppet play was actually quite known and popular within national customs in Slovenia, yet it had no influence whatsoever on the development of the later forms of the Slovene puppet theatre. This actually started from nothing and it followed other examples and completely different legacies in the puppet art – simply because there was no original form of a puppet theatre in Slovenia.
The Beginning of the Art of Puppetry in Slovenia
The beginning the puppet theatre as a special theatrical form in Slovenia reaches back to an interesting periodthat is very important for the history of the European theatre. It is a period marked with the the birth of prominent authors such as Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Jean Anouilh, Max Frisch ... However, the conditions in Slovenia were not very favourable to the development of the Slovene drama and theatre art. In the years 1910-1913 the Slovene language could already be heard from the stage of the Ljubljana Regional Theatre celebrating its second decade of activity, although often the words were still spoken with a Czech accent and most of the plays were seldom performed more than once. Being an actor at that time was considered no special honour, and the theatre repertory could offer merely popular plays with rustic characters like Krjavelj or Martin Krpan, so strongly opposed by the great writer Ivam Cankar in his remarkable polemics that was supported by the poet Oton Župančič in his striving for a higher cultural level in the Slovene theatre. In this period coinciding with the years when most European capitals were opening important puppet theatres ennobled with experiment and avantgarde, the Slovene painter Milan Klemenčič was concluding his first phase of activities in establishing the first Slovene national puppet theatre. All puppet theatres of the time belonged to various painters, sculpturers or authors of the first original texts for puppets. After his arrival to Ljubljana, the painter Milan Klemenčič, who was a follower of European movements, succeeded in gathering suitable co-workers into a creative group. With his own translations (especially Pucci), with the adaptation of Ivan Lah's Snowhite and with some original texts for puppets written by Miran Jarc, he assembled a programme for the Slovene Theatre of Marionettes. This new theatre named after the main character Gašperček was equally affected by the puppetry heritage coming from Europe as well as by the special features typical for Slovenia and so different from the main European stream. The traditional European hero was now enriched with original Slovene characteristics. His fate had a lot of space for joy and even more for hope. Milan Klemenčič marked this little hero with a challenging spirit of independence, he took away his long stick and armed him (not by random choice) with a long and sharp tongue – which is understandable enough since the Slovenes have always fought their battles mainly with their tongues.
Withn two decades, Milan Klemenčič succeeded in making the idea of a Slovene puppet theatre come true. However, the task was not entirely completed since he could never assure his theatre an appropriate and steady theatre hall. In his striving he was strongly supported by the painter Rihard Jakopič and the architect Jože Plečnik. His activities actually represent the basic stone for the art puppetry in Slovenia. The bonds between the Czech puppetry artists and the Slovene drama theatre were soon reflected also in Slovene puppetry. These reflections left no greater artistic trace yet they definitely contributed to the formation of over forty puppet stages within the Sokol Association, which resulted in the popularisation and preservation of the puppetry activity in Slovenia. The circle of puppet theatre lovers became even wider with the foundation of the Pavliha Company and the formation of the manual puppet stage of Niko Kuret.
Then came the destructive period in the history of Europe, which almost destroyed the European civilisation and culture turning countries into space of torture rooms and prisons. The Slovenes resisted and and stood up in strong hope for better times – even if only through scenes created by the theatre. In the liberated territory, side by side with the Slovene National Theatre performing Shakespeare, Molière and Tchechov, the sparkling marionettes of the painters Lojze Lavrič and Nikolaj Pirnat kept entertaining the audience with their witty cabarets ridiculing the weaknesses and mistakes of the enemy. The parody Giorgie and the Three Brigands, anticipating the imminent end of the bloody war, was popular not only in the back of the battle fields but also later, in the first months of freedom.
It was only with the foundation of the Puppet Theatre of Ljubljana in 1948 that the uninterrupted period in the development of the Slovene puppetry began. Rich experience and preserved tradition represented the two main sources for the first post-war puppet performances. They were, however, soon limited in programme by the relentless and art-mature personality of Jože Pengov, who was determined to place puppetry art to a higher and better level within the Slovene theatre history. He measured the limits and counted the debts that puppetry had to its tradition, and he made a stand against everything that was already known. As an original puppet artist he completely renewed the Slovene puppetry scene, he cancelled some typical characters and many romantic features. His success was founded on stepping away from the traditional plastic art, away from the static approach in directing (dominated mainly by the detail), he leaned instead on the introduction of new technical solutions that allowed more dynamics in animation. Jože Pengov was a true and distinctive European puppet artist. Ideas inciting his imagination came mostly from foreign literature, which replaced almost completely the rather poor Slovene writing for the puppet stage. His art of directing is reflected not only in classic proportions and in the beauty of the puppet design but also in the harmony between the plastic art figure and spoken word. In his performances he persited in opening new and fresh directions for the Slovene puppetry, he never gave up searching for new meanings and better expression forms. He was equally convincing in his adaptations as he was as a director / alwazs squeeying out of his co-workers the best their imagination could offer.
There was only one professional puppet theatre in Slovenia up to the year 1968. This fact represented a strong stimulation for the development of numerous amateur puppet groups. The Puppet Theatre Dravlje (today Puppet Theatre Jože Pengov) was especially active already in the mid-sixties. It was founded by two brothers – Edi and Zdenko Majaron. Their pupper performance Dickhead, created as the last Pengov's performance in this same theatre, continued to be performed for years after the amateur period within puppetry was long over. It actually started a period of great variety in contents and new searching in the art of puppetry – two features engaging the puppet artists up to the present day.
The first ludistic directing were initially based on some excellent translations and adaptations of Polish ans Czech dramas complying in contents and dramaturgy with the modern plastic art, with new developments in the art of directing, in the technique and technology of the modern puppet theatre. In the breaking seventies the above texts filled up the gap suddenly appearing within the domestic original writing for the puppet theatre. They opened new possibilities and new combinations regarding the relation between the puppet and the actor. The actor started to appear on the stage, he became a partner, a co-player, a figure upon whom the entire play depended. Ludism re-established the role of the animator and gave the actor a new sesnse. In the drama theatre the stream of ludism was already over at that time - it kept repeating itself – in the puppet theatre, however, it found its new place of constant and weighty presence hidden in the very essence of the puppet theatre, in the continuously changing relation between the actor and the puppet. Puppets were given new tasks, actors were engaged with new responsibilities and a new alliance filled with sincere love was born between them.
In the first years of the seventies, the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre began to care again about the development of the Slovene literature for the puppet stage. From 1972 on, a number of texts started appearing one after another, joining as equals the main contemporary streams of the drama theatre production in Slovenia. It was the beginning of the most importan period in the development and modernisation of the Slovene art of puppetry. Creative inspiration for stage activities was found in original Slovene texts. Harmony between the drama topic for puppets and its stage implementation was reborn. A typical feature connecting all these new texts was that they were all created by the most prominent and most interesting Slovene poets and playwrights, the most popular literary representatives of the Slovene theatre: Svetlana Makarovič, Frane Puntar, Dušan Jovanovič, Dane Zajc, Milan Dekleva, Boris A. Novak. These new plays represented an exciting confrontation of the modernism with the treasury of the Slovene traditional myths and stories. They appeared on stage reshaped in clothed in modern patterns and represented an important share within the repertory of Slovene theatres. In 1973/74 another important theatre was founded in Slovenia - the Puppet Theatre of Maribor. It gave a specific and original mark to the art of puppetry in this country – especially by putting musical puppet shows on stage.
In the beginning of the seventies, most of the puppet-theatre directors were involved in searching for new rules within the art of puppetry. Just like with generations before, they felt it was their mission to engage in the reconstruction and renewal of their theatre. Their activities were directed into renewal of techique and technology as well as the puppets themselves; they wanted to move as fas as possible from the most faithful – so beautiful yet empty - image of the man. Copying the human picture was replaces by the passionate desire of capturing the essence with all its features. All the the best performances of the time followed the European streams in the art of puppetry contributing thus to the exceptional popularity of the Slovene puppet theatre and enabling the authors to co-operate with other puppet theatre in the ex-Yugoslavia. For more tha twenty years, Slovene directors were shaping the modern Yugoslave puppetry scene – let us mention just Edi Majaron, Helena Zajc, Matjaž Loboda, Jelena Sitar and Tine Varl.
The eighties brought a deeper continuation of changes in the artistic field as well as in significance, changes that were already started in the sixties and seventies, which represent the peak of a years-long rise in the art of puppetry in Slovenia. Puppets could finally elope from the extremely limited (exclusive) and intentionally isolated position. Auch a change resulted in the fact that a puppet performance (Young Breda, 1982) was performed within the frame of a regular repertory of the main Slovene theatre the Drama SNG in Ljubljana. Puppet performances were included also in some important drama festivals in Slovenia such as the Festival of the Experimental Minor Stage in Gorica, the Slovene Drama Week in Kranj an the Borštnik Drama Festival (the greatest national drama festival) in Maribor. These extremely favourable circumstances enabled the Slovene puppet theatre to open to the world and to co-operate with foregn artists, who enriched the Slovene theatre with fresh knowledge and new creativity in the theatre arts.
Another feature typical for the Slovene puppet theatre in the eighties was the activity of the first generation of directors educated and graduated abroad, combined with a great number of graduated actors coming from the Ljubljana Academiy of performing Arts (AGRFT). In the late eighties and in the beginning of the nineties, many new professional groups and theatres were founded in Slovenia. The most important and still active nowadays are: the Puppet Group Papilu, the Freyer Teater, the Mini Teater and the Association of the Puppet Artists.
The spreading of the experiment born in the sixties and seventies, which disclosed the richness of the speech within the plastic-art dramaturgy, became even stronger in the eighties. The new rules were adopted by almost every puppet theatre or group in Slovenia. In the late eighties and especially in the nineties, however, it was already obvious that a rich and effective theatre-set spectacle often had no message at all offering merely an exchange of plastic art language and puppet techniques.
Today, the Slovene art of puppery is considered to be in transition. The anticipation of new endeavours has been felt for quite some time now. Talented and creative artists are confronted with the complex and multiple face of the modern world, yet they will definitely find the most appropriate puppet form to answer every question.. All the doors to aesttetics and to everything human are wide open. Puppets could actually never afford the safe, healthy and incredibly boring provicialism, to which they used to be pushed too often in the past. In their striving for the right place within the world of new arts, puppets are fighting their way - slowly but with strong determination - towards true art worthy of their human infinity.
Written by Robert Waltl
Translated by T. Galbiati