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Czech and Slovak Puppetry and Puppet Museums

Three devils from the play Don Šajn (Don Juan), carved by Bohumír Koubek, 1977.
Robert Fowler recently visited the Czech Republic and has taken the time to get in touch with us to share the sights he saw and provide details of a recent film, The Mystery of Puppets, which showcased Czech puppetry. A link to an album of photos provided by Robert appears at the end of this article. Robert Fowler writes:

The Mystery of Puppets

The Mystery of Puppets, recently shown on Czech television, keyed in to the placing of Czech and Slovak puppetry on the UNESCO (and its quite a mouthful) Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, an honour shared by puppetry from, among other countries, China, Japan, Indonesia, Cambodia and Italy (Sicily). It is, understandably enough, in Czech, which does not make it understandable to many outside the Czech Lands. However, the images and the infectious enthusiasm of all the participants would, I think, make it worthwhile viewing even for those who do not speak the Bohemian tongue.

In brief, and in no particular order, we see the Marčík family (Víťa, who started off as an electrician, his wife, Eva, and the six children), which is based in Drahotěšice u Hluboké nad Vltavou; the Krakonoš theatre, from Vysoké nad Jizerou (Krakonoš is a guardian spirit/sprite in the Krkonoše Mountains, as well as - its the Czech Republic, after all - a brand of beer); the Drak company, from Hradec Králové, probably the only name that will ring a bell; and the Karel Pippich Theatre, which sees action particularly during the annual Chrudim puppet festival, which has been running since 1951. Michal Drtina, puppeteer and programme director of the festival appears several times. The artist Kateřina Ebelová, the organizer of a temporary exhibition held at Pragues Scarabeus café and coffee museum celebrating the award of UNESCO status, makes only one appearance, but as I visited the exhibition, and have supplied a few photographs. Note – link to photographs at end of article.

Puppet Museums of Czech Republic

Of course, if you are in Prague, there are several fine companies to seek out, but, apart from recommending a visit to the Minor Theatre to see what a purpose-built puppet theatre can aspire to, I should prefer here simply to draw attention to the wealth of puppet museums.

The Chrudim Puppetry Museum experienced, under its new director, Simona Chalupová, a wonderful makeover in 2013. I have not been to the Museum of Puppetry and the Circus in Prachatice for a few years now, but that is well worth the detour. I did, however, travel last month to Český Krumlov (all three of these locations are doable individually in a day from the capital) to see its puppet museum, one which draws upon the resources of the Říše Loutek (Realm of Puppets), founded by Vojtěch Sucharda and Anna Suchardová-Brichová in 1920, and the National Marionette Theatre. It exhibits several contemporary productions, though my photographs show only traditional puppets, which simply reflects personal preference. The National Marionette Theatre used to house part of the large collection of puppets belonging to Milan Knížák; over 450 puppets from that collection have, since 2012, been on display in the puppet museum in Štramberk, in the Moravian-Silesian Region. (Knížák, a controversial multimedia artist and former dissident who became a long-serving director of the countrys museums, is, for our purposes, notable as the author of a two-volume, 1174-page encyclopaedia of puppetmakers.) The Moravské zemské muzeum (Moravian Museum), Brno, which has first-rate puppetry holdings, is behind the current exhibition tracing the history of family theatre, the Czech version of model theatre, at the chateau in Valtice, in southern Moravia. Jaroslav Blecha, the head of the Moravian Museums Theatre History Department, has written studies, both erudite and readable, of this genre. The strength of amateur puppet theatre is undoubtedly another factor which will have weighed favourably in the UNESCO decision. While in the film Drtina speaks of their number being in thousands in the past, he also cites a figure of 300 for such groups today, and it might be higher. The book by Jan Novák, Fenoméneského loutkářství/The Phenomenon of Czech Puppetry (packed with information and with 150 photographs to boot), 2016, restricts itself to describing 84 of the longest-standing ones. The quantity and quality of Czech and Slovak output on puppetry is symptomatic of the interest shown in this artistic form. I have included a photograph which shows just a selection of the books in my library from the last dozen years, which obviously understates the actual production, and I should certainly also have taken down and included Alice Dubskás important academic history of Czech puppetry from the mid-18th century to 1945, which came out in 2004.

Finally, I include a few photographs from the excellently-curated, just-ended exhibition of the work of František Vítek and Věra Říčařová, highly significant figures, first in Drak, and then on their own, whose influential Piškardendulá I first had the great pleasure to see at the ICA in 1984.

To view the photographs Robert has sent, click here

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