Internationales Schattentheater Zentrum
Indonesian Shadow Puppet
A finely decorated Indonesian shadow puppet
made of parchment

European Shadow Puppet
A European shadow puppet made of opaque material and with no decoration.

An elaborately constructed stage setting
from “Le Chat Noir”

Shadow puppets with elaborate string movements

A scene from “The Fire Bird” as presented by the Teatro Gioco Vita

Using all available space with moving light sources. Students of the Hochschule für Figurentheater Stuttgart

Abstract light figures projected by a mirror
Tadeusz Wierzbicki (Poland)

The rectangular screen gives way to more creative shapes. Theater Pacjk (Switzerland)

An expressive human shadow filled with dynamism
Teatro Gioco Vita (Italy)

Breaking through the barrier of the screen:
Silhouette and Dance
The Wandering Moon Performing Group (Thailand)

Cross over of various art forms: acting and shadow theatre, dancing, film, music, fine arts and pantomime
Puppet Thetre Hibißkuß (Germany)

Stilisierung des menschlichen Körpers

The Development of the Shadow Theatre in Europe, from the Beginnings until the Present Day

The Beginning

There is no doubt whatsoever that shadow theatre has its roots in the Far East – in China, India and Indonesia. Exactly when and where it began is, however, still unclear but it probably goes back to prehistoric times. There is a moving legend from the second century which tells how a shadow player in China brought about the resurrection as a silhouette of the dead wife of Emperor Wu. Confirmed written proof, however, is only available from 1 000 AD.

In the 17th century traders brought this “Play in Darkness” to Europe via Persia, Arabia and Turkey. It gained a foothold in Greece when a variation of the Turkish shadow play with Karagöz and Hacivat came into being. It caught on in the Balkans and in Egypt too.

Then it took root in southern Italy – the oldest written proof of shadow theatre in Europe is from there and is dated 1674. Comedians and puppet players brought this inspiring play form over the Alps to northern Europe. Just nine years later a company of actors in Danzig asked for permission to perform “Italian Shadows.”

While the far eastern puppets were made of painted parchment and very often decorated with elaborate ornamentation, the European players did not attach any importance to such decorations. They constructed their puppets from opaque materials such as cardboard, wood or even metal. Only outline and movement were important and subtle systems of thread and wire were invented in order to conceal how the movements were enacted. As in the East, light was provided by oil lamps or by torches. But the flickering flames made for agitated shadows and the puppet had to be held right against the screen in order to achieve sharpness of outline. The puppet and the shadow it threw were identical. Strictly speaking it was really a silhouette play as the most important property of the shadow – its ability to change its form – played no part in the presentation.

In France the shadow theatre took root as “Ombres Chinoises” (Chinese Shadows). The “Théatre Seraphim” in Versailles was famous and was in existence for almost one hundred years – from 1772 to 1870. – and toured over half of Europe. In 1886 the first ever cabaret “Le Chat Noir” under the management of Rudolphe Salis and with Henri Rivière as its artistic director came into being. Musicians, writers, artists and scientists came together there and produced plays of a high artistic and technical quality. Unfortunately this cabaret only survived for ten years. Afterwards, however, various actors from “Le Chat Noir” put the plays back on to the stage and performed, for example, at the World Fair in Paris in 1900. This helped to make their type of art world famous. Even today France is one of most significant countries in Europe for shadow theatre.

In Germany the shadow theatre achieved prominence during the age of Romanticism. Because the shadow is able to move the spectator very deeply in its expressiveness, it is no wonder that this art form flourished at a time when the sensitivity of the individual was at a premium. Goethe, Brentano, von Pocci, Arnim, Kerner, Uhland, Mörike and many others all wrote plays for the shadow theatre and sometimes even produced them themselves. It was considered fashionable for a bourgeois family to make silhouettes and to be able to put on plays with these.

In England the shadow theatre had its focal point in London. From 1850 on it became increasingly popular. The so-called “Gallanty Shows” were very well-loved.

The Transition

The invention of the film about 1900 and the two world wars almost led to the death of shadow theatre. Only through the devotion and enthusiasm of a small number of people who worked hard for its preservation was it able to continue through these difficult times and to be saved. It is thanks to people like the expressionist Ernst Moritz Engert, the managers of the “Schwabinger Schattenspiele” Alexander von Bernus and Rolf Hoerschelmann, Lottte Reiniger, who was so good at cutting out silhouettes, the agile founder of the “Hamburger Schattenspilertreffen” Margarethe Cordes, the educator Leo Weismantel. Professor Otto Krämer with his technical shadow puppet masterpieces and Professot Max Bührmann with his Chinese shadows – it is thanks to them that shadow theatre survived.

They all used the classical light bulb to produce their shadows – which, because of its wide spiral-wound filament, spread light over a large area. In contrast to a flickering light it made for still shadows. But in order to achieve a sharp outline, it was still necessary to hold the puppets close to the screen. The farther away you moved from the screen, the less clearly defined was the shadow. The silhouette was still only an effigy of the figure.

Contemporary Shadow Theatre

The classical form of the traditional shadow theatre has changed considerably in the last 30 years. The major reason for this was the discovery of the halogen lamp which has an extremely small radiating surface and is at the same time very bright – and it transmits a punctiform light.

Such a light source makes for continually precise shadows – no matter how far the puppet is from the screen. For the first time for centuries it is no longer necessary to hold the figure directly against the screen but you can now move it all over the stage. This was the first change.

But as soon as the figure is taken away from the screen a black hole comes between puppet and screen, the so-called volume of shadow which changes its outline according to the movements of the figure and thus allows a continually changing silhouette to appear.

Three dimensional objects, or rather objects which can be turned on their own inner axles, are now in use and give the silhouette a three-dimensional quality. It is now possible to work with modelled figures. The shadow which is cast purports to have spatial depth and the perspective moves. This is the second important change.

And still more: while one of the player’s hands takes the puppet away from the screen, then the second hand can – with no problem – grasp the light and follow. Formerly the puppet was the important element of the player but now the light is his principal tool. Moving the puppet and/or the light source presents the ever-changing silhouettes with an amazingly immense dynamism. This is the third innovation.

These new possibilities of expression require new contours: pure Romanticism is replaced by powerful abstraction and angular cut-outs. The eternal rectangle of the screen has given way to other forms – it too has become movable and is brought into the play. Finally materials are used to create the figures which no-one had ever thought of before – paper, wood, metal and even plastic.

A kind of “liberation of the shadow” evolves which is permitted by the expressive “language” and significance of the dark images. The sudden flexibility of the silhouette in the play demonstrates the unsurpassable high profile and sensitivity of the phenomena and the emotional concept of a scene is spotlighted. The emotions of a scene on the screen become visible by means of the outline of the figure and the movement of the light source – depending on rhythm, speed, proximity or distance. Now the shadow is able to show its entire artistry: it is no longer a simple copy but is rather distortion, enlargement, extension – and the way it moves gives the figures feeling.

Finally in addition to the classical two dimensional figure and the stationary light the third and final attribute of traditionv has also died: playing behind the screen. The actors break through and open up their shadow screens and every movement they make becomes visible. The entire performance becomes a theatrical act and there is no longer any movement which is not dramatically motivated. The players no longer move according to the needs of a fixed light source. The relationship between them, the light, the object and the shadow image must be redefined.

The result is a play on various levels: the silhouettes on the screen are accompanied by the candid technology of the play, by acting and by narration. The spectator becomes involved in the process of structuring and has to be prepared to throw himself into another level of presentation. Nowhere else is the polarity in the transformation to black and white so clearly applied as a formal principle. Nowhere else is the reduction of the image so forceful. Our need for so little is fed by the most fascinating material in the whole universe: light and its “dark brother”. A unique and incomparable type of play opens up and becomes clearer and clearer. Its fundamental form of expression – the shadow – is a region of unlimited metamorphosis. It adapts itself, takes on shape and expands around itself, providing darkness and absolute profile. Unlimited chances are concealed in its simplicity and no other type of play offers so much creative leeway. Everything is delineated because its vacuity can be transformed into anything. Modern shadow theatre is a new means of expression in the theatre.

Rainer Reusch und Norbert Götz