Journey into European Puppetry #1: The Little Buffoons
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 1- The Little Buffoons
It was a pleasant Parisian Sunday afternoon in March 2005. After watching several men tightrope-walking high up in the trees of the Buttes Chaumont Park as part of the French Arbor day celebrations we strolled over to the small Theatre Guignol Anatole. I had come to visit Les Petits Bouffons (the Little Buffoons) de Paris. Pascal Pruvost was a wiry stubble-headed man with a striking countenance. Bernard Willeme, his laconic partner in Guignol crimes, stood by. When asked by my friend Corinne which story they were going to perform today he replied in French “I have no idea yet.” The show was only a half-hour away. Both men were around 40 years old and certainly did not fit the American stereotype for the kind of people who perform with puppets for children. But I suppose that is because too many Americans equate puppets solely with cute and goofy Muppet-like creatures.
Eventually it was time for the show. Pascal took a large old brass hand bell and walked around near the entrance of the compact outdoor theatre and rang it. This was the traditional signal that Guignol was about to appear to work his mischief. Guignol is the French relative of Punch in England,Kašpárekin the Czech Republic, Jan Klaassen in Holland, Kasperl in Germany: all descendants of Pulcinella of the Comedia del Arte in Italy. He is not as viscous as Punch but will always eventually find a way to get the Gendarme in trouble. To these American eyes, deprived as we are of a native Punch variation, he reminds me of the old Warner Brothers cartoon character Bugs Bunny. The brilliant thing about these performances is the way get the children involved. Although involved is too polite a term. In this episode the officious Gendarme was eaten by a large puppet crocodile. After the Gendarme’s demise, Guignol arrives on the stage to have a picnic and to go fishing. The crocodile lurks just off stage; the children go nuts trying to warn the hapless Guignol. They shout. They point. They even stand. Guignol turns to the kids several times and says, “What are you talking about? I don’t see a crocodile.” They point furiously at the corner of the little stage. He continues fishing. A big tug is felt on the line… the children are almost pulling their hair out. Of course, in the end Guignol survives because he is Guignol. And you can’t kill Bugs Bunny. You can’t kill Guignol.
On Monday I took the metro out to the 20th arrondissement to find the office of Les Petits Bouffons. I was greeted by Pascal and Bernard in their small stuffy studio. They showed me dozens and dozens of puppets that were hanging from hooks on the wall. Pascal explained that they did longer shows like Beauty and the Beast and Puss’n’Boots, not forgetting to mention a few very bloody fairytales that did not find a home in the English-speaking world. They also had a futuristic (!) Guignol show. As comical as these shows could be these guys were very serious about the Guignol tradition. And even if they performed a standard fairytale Guignol had to at least be a minor character in the show, a butler or a waiter. In my interview with Pascal we discussed the meaning of puppets in this postmodern age. He pointed out that children have changed even since they started the troupe in 1991. Kids are now so immersed in television, games or computer screens that, even at a very young age, they come to the puppet show with very different expectations than they used to. As a result they are even more surprised than they used to be. You see the stage of the puppet theatre resembles an enormous television screen to the child’s untrained eyes. So they expect something like a movie. But then as they watch something strange happens. The puppets become real. They talk to the children. They come out from the stage in three tactile dimensions. They are completely unpredictable. All of Les Petits Bouffons’ performances are improvisations based upon many traditional plots.
But the rascally Guignol or the anarchic Punch stand very far down on the puppetry scale of respect. Pascal said when it comes to puppet festivals “They don’t want to see us. It’s all become about the Performing Object. It’s become quite artistic.” Yet even though Guignol performances are folk art of the highest order they are basically ignored in the world around them. Yet it’s guys like Pascal and Bernard, with a passion for the strange little rogue, that keep the tradition alive: Guys like these and the thousands upon thousands of French children and their parents who accompany them to relive their own childhood Guignol recollections. I felt kind of proud of them for holding down the fort without much recognition or financial reward just because they value the reality of the puppet over the artificiality of the televised screen. Impressive.
In 2008 the 200-year anniversary of Guignol was held in Lyon. The future of puppetry may indeed come down to performers like Les Petits Bouffons de Paris. The future is always built upon the past. Guignol is a slice of living history. Next time you are in Paris (or Lyon) check out the little buffoon
Meanwhile the Journey into European Puppetry continues with a visit to the surprising École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières.
For More Information about Les Petits Bouffons de Paris
More puppetry on The Anadromous Life