A Puppet House on the Sadovoye Koltso

These actors do not make a scene with directors and do not quarrel with each other.  They are incredibly beautiful, but also completely malleable in the hands of others.  Theatre puppets, marionettes.  One of the world's biggest collections of these beautiful and unassuming artists belongs to Moscow's Obraztsov Puppet Theatre and Museum, located at 3 Sadovaya-Samotechnaya Street. 

The museum was opened in 1937, when the Puppet Theatre, created by Sergey Obraztsov, was given its first home -- on the Mayakovskaya Square.  When the theatre acquired its own building, Sergey Obraztsov and the then manager of the theatre company Boris Burlakov were so thrilled by this that, according to their contemporaries, they burst into "wild dancing". 
The audience hall in the new building had a balcony.  It was fenced off and used as an exhibition hall for "artists" that were no longer part of the theatre's repertoire.   This was also the place where they exhibited the various gifts presented to the theatre by Ivan Semenovich Yefimov and Nina Yakovlevna Simonovich-Yefimova, founders of the Moscow Professional Puppet Theatre, and the widow of our country's last wandering puppeteer Ivan Afinogenovich Zaitsev (he, too, worked at the Obraztsov Theatre).

The exhibition on the balcony grew to the size of a museum, whose curator became Andrei Yakovlevich Fedotov.  He exchanged dolls, ordered replicas, sent out letters to puppet theatres all across the country, asking them to send something for the exhibition.  Thanks to his enthusiasm, the exhibit grew by leaps and bounds.

When the theatre moved to its new home on the Sadovoye Koltso, the museum was given its own special room.  And now even that is not enough -- the collection already numbers about 4000 dolls.   Over the last few years those dolls have been exhibited with great success in Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Poland, Korea, Iran, France, Spain, and Italy.  This December they are to travel to an exhibition at the Novosibirsk Art Museum, and they are expected in Tallinn in early spring.

The museum is populated by dolls from different parts of the world.  They are all play dolls that took part either in theatre productions or in ritual functions.  The most ancient exhibits date back to antiquity.  Those are marionettes from the I-IV century.  They were found during the excavations of the ancient Greek city of Panticapaeum and were submitted to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.  And in 1978 they were transferred to the Theatre Puppet Museum.

At the beginning of the 20th century, illusionist Dmitry Longo managed to obtain and send to our country the dolls that took part in the Iranian mystery play dedicated to the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad.  In so doing Longo was taking a great risk, for, according to the tradition, nobody is supposed to see these dolls after the theatrical procession that takes place once a year on the streets of Iran.  Those dolls are then either burned or hidden in a monastery high up in the mountains.

Iranian dolls and their clothing (for example, a leopard skin cloak) are made entirely out of natural materials. They all have three-dimensional faces, and only the one representing the traitor Shimr has a two-dimensional face.  That way common Iranians could right away recognize the bad character during the procession. Religious fervor was so strong during these festivities that the "traitor" was often pelted with rocks.  That is precisely the reason why dolls were used in such theatrical processions instead of real artists.

There is an interesting story in connection with Turandot from Prague's "Řίše Loutek" ("The Kingdom of Puppets") Theatre. Sergey Obraztsov got to see her perform for the first time in the 1920s.  Back then he was an actor with the Moscow Art Theatre and came to Czechoslovakia on tour.

In his book "Actor with Puppet" Obraztsov wrote a very detailed and warm account of that Prague performance.  And in 1948 he once again found himself in Czechoslovakia.  It was one of his theatre's first post-war foreign trips to the countries of Eastern Europe.   Obraztsov went to the "Řίše Loutek" Theatre.  They were once again showing "Turandot"!

At the end of the performance the lead heroine came on stage for the final bows.  Suddenly she addressed the audience, "Our artists noticed that today we have in our audience the famous Sergey Obraztsov!  We read his book.  And as a way of thanking him for the kind words that he had written about us, I shall be going to Moscow with him!"

Another one of the museum's prized exhibits is a Boy from the Vietnamese Water Puppet Theatre.  This theatre was created in the Middle Ages by rice field farmers.  When it rained, they would make figurines of people and animals from the water-resistant fig tree wood and entertain themselves with various puppet plays.  These days the productions of the famous Vietnamese theatre are performed in artificial or natural reservoirs.  Actors stand waist-deep in the water and control the puppets using long bamboo rods and string. In the past, though, the puppeteers would stay submerged under the water during performances and breathe through straws.

Ten years ago the Vietnamese National Water Puppet Theatre came to Moscow for Sergey Obraztsov's one-hundredth anniversary to take part in the festival bearing his name.  The theatre performed in a circus tent at the Rechnoy Vokzal.

In addition to the foreigner-puppets, the museum also has many rare domestic exhibits.  Among those are three marionettes from the 1916 production of "The Power of Love and Magic".  It was staged in Saint Petersburg by the famous couple -- theatre critic Yulia Slonimskaya and director Petr Sazonov.   For their production they chose a 17th century French fairground play translated by poet Georgy Ivanov.  The production design was done by Mstislav Dobuzhinsky and Nikolai Kalmakov.  And the puppet costumes were created by artist Anna Somova-Mikhailova, sister of Konstantin Somov.

Alexander Blok and Nikolai Gumilev spoke with admiration about that performance.  Slonimskaya and Sazonov were very enthusiastic about creating new productions, but Revolution separated the couple.  The wife immigrated to France; the husband was unable to do so.  Only four marionettes from their famous production have come down to us.  Three of those -- Zoroastre, the Shepherdess and the Dwarf -- are currently located in the Puppet Theatre Museum.  The fourth one is at the E.S. Demmeni Marionette Theatre in Saint Petersburg. 

Anyone who comes to watch a show at the Puppet Theatre can visit the museum for free.  The exposition is always open before the start of the shows and during intermissions.  People need to sign up ahead of time, however, in order to have a guided tour (led by a professional actor). The same applies to the theatricalized tours -- the museum has three of them: "The Princess and the Pea", "Thumbelina" and "The Snowman".   They are so incredibly popular that, according to the museum workers, people who sign up for them in December get on the tour only at the end of the school year.

We would like to thank Svetlana Gnutikova and Natalia Kostrova, employees of the Theatre Puppet Museum at the S.V. Obraztsov State Academic Central Puppet Theatre, for their assistance in putting together this material.

Anna Chepurnova


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