A small history of Shadow Theatre

Development of shadow theatre in Europe from its Origins to the Present

Shadow play undoubtedly developed in the Far East, China, India and Indonesia. Exactly where and when, however, is still being determined. But its origin probably goes back to prehistoric times. A moving Chinese legend from the 2nd century BC. tells of how a shadow player resurrected Emperor Wu's deceased wife as a shadow. However, written evidence has existed since 1000 AD. In the 17th century, traders introduced it to Europe through Persia, Arabia, and Turkey. It gained popularity in Greece and developed variants like the Turkish shadow play with Karagöz and Hacivat characters in the Balkans and Egypt. Southern Italy holds the oldest written testimony of shadow play in Europe, dating back to 1674. Comedians and puppeteers brought it across the Alps, and a comedy company from Gdańsk requested permission to perform "Italian Shadows" in 1683. European players focused on the figures' outline and movement, using opaque materials like cardboard, wood, and metal. Oil or torches provided lighting, and the figure had to be placed directly on the canvas for sharp contours. In France, it was known as "Ombres Chinoises," and the famous "Theatre Seraphin" in Versailles operated from 1772 to 1870. In 1886, "Le Chat Noir," the world's first cabaret, gained prominence. Despite its short existence, various Le Chat Noir players restaged pieces, performed at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900, and popularized the art worldwide. France remains a significant country for shadow theatre. In Germany, Shadow art thrived during the Romantic period due to its emotional expressiveness. Notable writers like Goethe and Brentano wrote plays for shadow play. In England, London became a hub for shadow play performances, particularly the popular "Gallantry Shows" from 1850.

Around 1900, the film's invention and the two world wars threatened the existence of shadow play. However, a dedicated group of individuals worked tirelessly to preserve this art form. Ernst Moritz Engert, Alexander von Bernus, Rolf Hoerschelmann, Lotte Reiniger, Margarethe Cordes, Leo Weismantel, Prof. Otto Kraemer, Prof. Max Bührmann, Ko Doncker, Pier van Gelder, Frans ter Gast, Paul Vieillard, and Jan Malik played crucial roles in saving shadow play. They used classic light bulbs to create a steady light, ensuring clear shadows. Despite the need to keep the figures close to the screen for sharp contours, the silhouette remained an accurate representation of the figure.

Traditional shadow theatre has undergone profound changes in the last 30 years, thanks to the discovery of halogen light. This bright and precise light source allows clear shadow images to be created regardless of the object's distance from the screen. Unlike in the past, the figure is no longer limited to the screen but can now freely move throughout the stage. This newfound mobility marks the first major change in shadow theatre.

When a figure is removed from the screen, a dark space arises between the figure and the screen, a "volume of shadow" that changes its contours through the figure's movement and creates a changing silhouette. Three-dimensional objects that can be rotated around an inner axis can now be used, which produce an apparently three-dimensional silhouette. Working with modelled figures becomes possible. The shadows cast asserts spatial depth, and perspective is introduced, the second essential innovation.

Furthermore, the role of light has become central in the performance. By manipulating the figure and the light, the player adds a dynamic element to the evolving silhouette, representing the third innovation. These new expressive possibilities call for new contours, replacing sweet romanticism with strong abstraction and angular cuts. The canvas shape becomes more flexible, and materials such as paper, wood, tin, and plastic are explored to create game objects.

This liberation of the shadow allows for expressing dark shapes and emotions. The movement of the light and the figure's contours evoke emotions on the screen. The play expands beyond the traditional flat figures and fixed light, incorporating the play behind the screen. Actors break through the shadow screens, becoming visible with every movement and transforming the performance into a theatrical act. The relations between the players, light, object, and silhouette are redefined, and the viewer participates in the design process.

The reduction to black and white becomes a clear design principle, emphasizing the contrast and consistency in the images.

Nowhere else is the contrast between black and white as prominently used in design, and nowhere else are the images so consistently simplified to their essential elements of light and shadow. The simplicity of the shadow conceals endless possibilities, offering unparalleled creative freedom. Modern shadow theatre is a unique and incomparable form of play where the shadow becomes a space of unlimited transformation, adapting and expanding around itself. It is a new theatrical language that harnesses the power of light and its dark counterpart, providing a rich and immersive experience for both performers and audiences.

(Rainer Reusch and Norbert Goetz)