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Glossy Communism: Polite Propaganda from the Eastern Bloc

Puppet Theatre and Stop Motion Animation in Czechoslovakia

Throughout the 20th century, stop motion amination was an incredibly popular visual media in Eastern Europe, especially in the Soviet Union and Soviet satellite states. The cannon of feature length and short animated films using stop motion animation include, but are not limited to, Zenon Komisarenko’s Interplanetary Revolution (1924), Aleksandr Ptushko’s The New Gulliver (1935), Jiří Trnka’s Špalíče (1947), Roman Kachanov’s A Cloud in Love (1959), Gena the Crocodile (1969), and Cheburashka (1971); Ivan Ufimtsev’s Losharik (1971), and Aleksander Tatarsky’s Last Year’s Snow Was Falling  (1983) to name a few. Within the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (1948-1990), stop motion animation expanded on a longer history of Czech and Slovak puppetry. The historical significance of puppetry and the shift in what was considered ‘traditional’ to ‘modern’ puppeteering is chronicled in Czechoslovak Life, a monthly magazine established in the 1950s and created by the Socialist government with the intent to display all aspects of life in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic to Western audiences.
The August 1965 edition asserts in an article titled “The Golden Key,” that no other national culture in the world reveres puppet theatre as Czechoslovakian culture does. Written by Professor Zdeněk Bezděk of the Puppetry Department at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Prague, the two-page spread attempts to construct Czechoslovakia as the cradle of traditional puppetry, and Czechoslovak puppetry as a catalyst for Czech national consciousness under Habsburg rule and in the wake of bolstered resistance against Germanization. Bezděk writes that in the early 1800s, puppet performances were often the sole theatrical form carried out in the Czech language. Prior to World War II, there was an astounding number of puppet companies in Czechoslovakia. After the Second World War, the Theatre Act of 1948 officially recognized puppetry as a proper form of theatre. Because of this, in 1949 many professional Czechoslovak puppet theaters were established. The importance of puppetry is evident in the state’s efforts to train young puppeteers and subsidize the publication and dissemination of the magazine Czechoslovak Puppeteer. The Central Puppet Theatre, one of the foundational theatres established in 1949, became one of the forerunners in experimenting with new techniques of puppetry, and exploring new means of Social Realist expressions of ideology. Following Stalin’s death, the doctrine of Socialist Realism was swiftly abandoned, and puppet theatre reverted to its folk roots. Academies like Bezděk’s flourished, attracting puppeteers from all over the Soviet Union and Soviet occupied lands and sometimes from abroad, which contributed to the active deconstruction of the longstanding notion that puppet theatre was solely children’s entertainment. National Artist and Director of the Central Puppet Theatre, Jan Malík, worked tirelessly to see that puppet theatre received proper esteem. Malík constantly experimented. One of his best-known works, The Golden Key, combined live actors and rod marionette puppets, a groundbreaking technique at the time. Thus, modern Czechoslovak puppetry came to be. 
Another prominent figure in the Czechoslovak puppet scene was Jiři Trnka, puppeteer and motion-picture animator extraordinaire. In a February 1970 issue of Czechoslovak Life, Jan Hořejší pays homage to the Trnka in a piece called “Jiři Trnka in Retrospect”.
Hořejší begins by telling the readership the immense impact Trnka’s work had on himself and his peers. He praises the late artist’s ability to charm audiences and captivate them with his sketches depicting Czech folklorist and poet Karel Jaromír Erben’s works. Trnka’s most famous works are referenced, not in a way that introduces you to the films, but in a way that presumes the readers’ prior knowledge of the ever-so celebrated Trnka. Hořejší points out the inspirational depictions of heroism and courage in Trnka’s 
Old Czech Legends [Staré pověsti české] (1953) but does not provide a frame of reference for the film. Old Czech Legends is based on Alois Jirásek’s Ancient Bohemian Legends [Staré pověsti české] (1894), an anthology of broadly Czech, and specifically Bohemian, epic origin stories. Similarly, Hořejší casually mentions the brilliance of using plain rag doll puppets in The Czech Year [Špalíček(1947). The Czech Year depicts traditional song, dance, and folkloric legends over the course of various seasons and holidays, like Shrovetide (Masopust), in a Czech village. This film was inspired by Czech painter Mikolaš Aleš’s works, many of which portrayed Czech traditions, and were created during a time of bolstered patriotism prior to Czech independence—the Czech National Revival movement (Národní Obrozen), which began towards the end of the 18th century. Furthermore, Hořejší brings up the fairytale princesses in Trnka’s Prince Bayaya [Bajaja] (1950), inspired by Božena Němcová, another writer of the Czech National Revival movement.
By now, puppetry had established itself as a significant form of theatre, and an engaging tool used to disseminate information. Many of Trnka’s stop motion works employed puppetry, an age-old medium heralded as Czech and Slovak at its core and referenced traditional folklore and origin myths as recorded by proud Czech Revival artists. Trnka and his peers were responsible for the modernization of both Czech folklore and puppeteering in a way that managed to conserve Czech national consciousness, even during a brief period of attempted Sovietization. In an article titled “Tubby Teddy on Czechoslovak Television” from the April 1973 edition of Czechoslovak Life, Jaroslav Vidlař writes that stop motion films established “puppet heroes” for children in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and by the time of this edition, puppets programs were vital components of children’s television shows. These programs, Vidlař claims, were enriching and given the vast possibilities of format, puppet programs were tasked with the specific purpose of being entertaining and educational. These articles from Czechoslovak Life celebrate vital actors and films that made use of puppet theatre, but they do not explicitly present the fact that television and film allowed for the broader dissemination of meaning and information via puppetry. When thinking about the importance of puppeteering in Czech and Slovak cultures, the idea of folk drama often appears. Through traditional and modern puppet theatre, these works often succeeded in portraying select phenomena that reflected the reality of life in Czechoslovakia, whether they were present realities, or historical realities that informed the present. When not literal reflections of real life, the puppet programs were often fantastic but remained based in ideas familiar and accessible to the audience. Puppet theatre in Czechoslovakia really got under way after the Second World War, it experienced its “Golden Age” through the Thaw Period and well into the 1980s. Many of the actors and works mentioned throughout the selected articles of Czechoslovak Life dealt with this Soviet era “Golden Age” and expound on the historical legacies and continuing importance of puppetry in Czech and Slovak cultures. 

Bezděk, Zdeněk. “The Golden Key.” Czechoslovak Life August 1965: 16-17. Print.
Hořejší, Jan. “Jiři Trnka in Retrospect.” Czechoslovak Life February 1970: 22-23. Print.
Vidlař, Jaroslav. “Tubby Teddy on Czechoslovak Television.” Czechoslovak Life April 1973: 22-23. Print. 
Proschan, Frank. “Puppet Voices and Interlocutors: Language in Folk Puppetry.” The Journal of American Folklore94(374): 527-555, 1981. 
Goldreich, B, translator. Puppetry in Czechoslovakia by Jan Malík, Prague 1948. 
Dubská, Alice. “Josef Skupa.” World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts, 2009.
Dubská, Alice. “Jan Malík.” World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts, 2012.
Dubská, Alice, and Nina Malíková. “Czech Republic.” World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts, 2012.

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