Table of Contents Hide
- From Czechoslovakia to Slovakia and Czechia
- How did the Puppet Theatre in Slovakia and Czechia Receive UNESCO’s Designation?
- Behind the Scenes of the Puppet Theatre
- The Magic of Puppetry Folk Style Carving
- The Multifaceted Art of Puppetry and Its Importance to Modern-Day Society
- Puppetry in Slovakia and Czechia: Final Food for Thought
Puppetry in Slovakia and Czechia was inscribed as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity under the aegis of UNESCO in 2016. This was a big step towards recognizing but also towards preserving the traditional puppet theatre’s values of the local community.
Serving much more than mere entertainment purposes, the puppet theatre is a powerful education tool that conveys the messages of never-dying and always-relevant moral values.
The puppets can represent both real, as well as imaginary characters. In order to truly understand the rich traditions of puppetry in Slovakia and Czechia, we need to first look into the factors that shaped the unique culture of the natives.
From Czechoslovakia to Slovakia and Czechia
It wasn’t before 1919 that the political union of Slovaks and Czechs gave rise to the independent state known as Czechoslovakia.
But the union of the two ethnic groups was short lived due to multiple tremors, the most prominent one relating to the fact that the Slovaks had less political power than the Czechs.
The Czech ethnic group was more numerous, as the Slovakia accounted for approximately 40% of the total area of Czechoslovakia.
After World War II, communists seized full control over the once independent state of Czechoslovakia. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, the old ethnic issues resurfaced, and Slovakia demanded separation from Czechia.
Thus, in 1993 the Slovaks declared independence, and Czechoslovakia vanished from the map to make a place for the independent republics of Slovakia and Czechia to appear.
Nowadays, Slovakia, also known as the Slovak Republic, is a landlocked country in Central Europe, neighboring with Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine. According to research data gathered in 2015, the population of Slovakia is estimated at 5.12 million people.
Czechia, officially titled the Czech Republic, is also landlocked in Central Europe, neighboring with Germany, Austria, Poland, and Slovakia. Based on research data gathered in 2016, the population of the country is estimated at 10.56 million people.
Despite the ethnic tension between Slovaks and Czechs throughout the years, these two ethnic groups still share many things in common. After all, history cannot be possibly erased even though the country of Czechoslovakia does no longer exist.
Covered by unspoiled forests and mountains, the history and traditions of both Czechia and Slovakia have always been intricately related to working with wood.
Religion has also played a key role in the upbringing of the Slovak, as well as the Czech society. About 60% of Slovakia’s population belongs to the Roman Catholic Church, with the Czech version of the catholic religion being much more liberal than that of the Slovaks.
Throughout the course of history, the power of the puppetry theatre has not only served for entertaining the children. Instead, it was also a mighty weapon for sharing otherwise dangerous-to-speak-out-loud truths that were disguised in the form of jokes and puppetry performances by the hands of the skillful puppet masters.
How did the Puppet Theatre in Slovakia and Czechia Receive UNESCO’s Designation?
It was during the 18th century that puppet theatres started to take place in the two countries. But up-to-date, there are approximately 3000 amateur puppet theatres, as well as professional ones.
Today, puppets are still being made by hand.
And while this alone makes the puppetry of Slovakia and Czechia incredibly impressive, there is actually much more value hidden in the charming puppets than what meets the eye at the very first sight.
“I think that a puppet is an excellent mediator that shows the world of art to children,” says Jiri Bares who is a puppet maker specialized in traditional folk style carving. “And children react well to it and perceive it differently from a normal theatre where adults act on a stage. So I think that it’s fun for children to watch it, and for the adults to play for them. And that’s the reason why I think there are so many people involved in the puppet theatre – at the amateur, as well as professional level in this country.”
UNESCO’s designation was eagerly awaited because it was a much needed in order to protect puppetry and pass it on to the next generations. Of course, this honor was well-deserved but it was also warmly and open-heartedly embraced by the locals.
Lenka Jaklova who worked as a campaigner for UNESCO’s designation sums up beautifully why the puppetry theatre deserves such an honor.
“It’s a wonderful discipline which develops imagination, which develops creativity. It is about ordinary and extraordinary things,” says Lenka Jaklova in an interview for TRT World.
The puppet theatre of Slovakia and Czechia was officially listed as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
“This type of theatre unites dramatic, dramaturgical, staging, interpretation, scenographic, visual artistic and musical skills,” said Juraj Hamar, chairman of the Culture Minister’s Council for the Protection of Traditional Folk Culture and general director of the Slovak State Traditional Dance Company (SLUK). He also highlighted that apart from the unique performance, puppetry is profoundly related to a number of associated traditional customs such as carving, painting, and clothing the puppets.
Behind the Scenes of the Puppet Theatre
When the art of puppetry was first introduced to the countries of Slovakia and Czechia, families of traveling puppeteers were the bearers of the fascinating practice.
Gradually, the Slovaks and the Czechs started to integrate their language and themes, highly influencing the puppet theatre and turning it into an incredible art form of their own.
“The original performers of puppetry were itinerant families of marionetteers in the 1850s,” shares Jaroslav Blecha who is a respected local theatrologist. “Their products were the first contact common folk had with theatre. Due to the increasing national awareness in the late 18th century, puppetry took on a form which in many respects was different from puppetry in other cultures.”
In the 19th century, puppetry was most commonly practiced by amateur performers, as well as in “family puppet theatres.” This played an especially important role in rooting puppetry deeply in the consciousness of the broad public.
In an interview for UNESCO, Ivan Gontko, who works as a puppeteer his “entire adult life” highlighted that he keeps performing in the same way he did as in the very beginning of his puppeteer career.
I run a family theatre together with my daughters,” says Ivan Gontko, and he also shares that he loves performing “at fairs, markets, schools for children and theatres” alike. But his favorite type of performance is, undoubtedly, the open-air performances because of an “unbeatable atmosphere.
“I love it when the puppets come alive and tell stories, as they did in the old days, and when they impart a message. What’s fascinating is all you need to perform with puppets is two hands and a mouth,”Ivan Gontko summarizes with a smile
One of the most famous puppet figures that became an integral part of puppetry in Slovakia is known as Gašparko, (respectively Kašpárek in the Czech Republic).
In fact, Gašparko was so famous that he “could never be missing in any production,” explains Juraj Hamar who is an expert ethno-theatrologist, apart from being a chairman of the Culture Minister’s Council for the Protection of Traditional Folk Culture.
Interestingly, Gašparko has integrated into the culture of the natives to such an extent that it has given rise to a well-known and often used phrase – “playing Gašparko,” referring to situations when someone is up to mischief.
The image of Gašparko can be found on postage stamps, too.
The Magic of Puppetry Folk Style Carving
While discussing the beauty behind the rich cultural heritage of the art of puppetry of the Slovak Republic, as well as the Czech Republic, it is only fair to dig deeper into understanding the leading characters of the puppet theatre – the puppets, of course.
Although the puppet theatre involves a vast array of skills, none of these would be even possible to be brought to the public in the absence of a puppet that is capable of conveying the messages of the numerous artists behind the scenes.
“Slovak and Czech puppetry is inextricably linked to handicrafts and especially wood carvers. The transfer of skills and experience from generation to generation has developed a strong and well-rooted tradition,” says the theatrologist Jaroslav Blecha in his interview for UNESCO.
“I love carving the various faces into the wood: it’s amazing,” says Beata Westrych-Zazrivec who is a local woodcarver and creator of puppets. “The puppets then come to life on the strings. This is what I enjoy. I do not perform with the puppets but when I make them I test them first. I then play with them as a director,” Beata cheerfully adds.
But apart from the fun and joy of carving wood into stunning puppets that come to live on the stage, carving isn’t deprived of challenges.
Each carver puts his soul into the puppets yet still, he or she has to remain faithful to transferring the magic of the folk style carving into the puppets.
While there is a lot of freedom in the process, there are also significant traits of each character that has to be felt through the heart of the carver and then embedded successfully in the carved puppet.
Retaining the main features of the characters is the best way of transferring the past to the present day, keeping the folklore traditions alive.
The Multifaceted Art of Puppetry and Its Importance to Modern-Day Society
Apart from turning into a tradition for the region of the Slovak and the Czech Republic, the puppet theatre is estimated to play a vital role in the social upbringing of the natives.
Performers do not only socialize and interact with the rest of the nation through the magic of the puppet theatre.
What’s more, they learn how to develop creative thinking, and they also learn much about the importance of communication and cooperation – all of these being critically crucial skills for the development of a strong sense of social belonging, as well as identity in society.
The puppet theatre is spectacularly diverse in forms and manifestations, and its influence can be felt far away from theatres, too.
Festive events in both the Slovak, as well as the Czech Republic are traditionally accompanied by the presence of puppets in different markets and fairs.
With this in mind, puppetry in both of the two countries is not merely a historical phenomenon.
Even though it remains rooted in the ancient traditions, it keeps being further developed and nurtured by the dozens of puppet ensembles that continue to operate throughout the neighboring countries of Slovakia and Czechia.
Up-to-date, many museums, research institutes, and nonetheless, art schools are involved in preserving and upgrading the traditions of puppetry for the next generations to come.
From puppeteers, authors of the scripts, creators of the puppets (ranging from woodcarvers to clothing masters), through creators of the stage – a great part of the modern custodians of puppetry remain hidden away from the public who get to enjoy the final performance.
The imaginary world of puppet theatre keeps enchanting the children but this enchantment isn’t deprived of high value for the upbringing of a healthy thinking society.
The morals of the stories are always relevant and serve to help children learn how to distinguish between what’s right and what’s wrong in the world.
Another solid proof of the way the locals cherish the multifaceted art of puppetry is the existence of multiple puppet collectors. Being a puppet collector is possible if you do share an amazing passion for puppetry, and establishing a collection of puppets can take decades.
Puppetry in Slovakia and Czechia: Final Food for Thought
Traditional puppetry of Slovakia and Czechia revolves around the possession of many skills, and it is solely through mutual efforts, support, and cooperation that a puppet theatre stage performance can be brought to life.
From keeping the folklore traditions alive by carefully carving and clothing the puppets through writing the script of a play and setting up the stage décor, the contagious wisdom and beauty of puppetry in the region has never stopped developing for centuries.
Nie ten majster, ktorý začne, ale ktorý dokoná (Not he who begins but he who finishes is the master)according to the traditional Slovak saying.
And as if to perfectly round it out, the Czech saying goes as it follows:
Nejlepší čas zasadit strom byl před dvaceti lety. Druhý nejlepší čas je teď. (The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.)