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Petrushka and Vertep: on Traditions of Russian Puppet Theatre
November 27, 2007 17:25

Folk performances of Petrushka and Vertep theatres have existed in Russia since the 18th century. However, puppet folk theatre, just like folk theatre in general underwent hard times: its traditions were lost in the 20th century and so today we have only reconstructions of those original folk performances.

Petrushka, the Russian Punch

Petrushka, used as a marionette or, most often, as a hand puppet, was the main and the most popular character of Russian folk puppetry.  He appeared as a long-nosed jester wearing a traditional red skirt and a pointy hat with a tuft. Petrushka slapstick plays made up of comic tricks, dialogues and funny stories, were a must in skomorokh performances and were often performed at fairs. It was the Empress Anna Ioannovna’s court jester Pietro-Mira Pedrillo from Italy, who served as a prototype for Petrushka.

Petrushka’s voice was created be means of a special instrument “pishchik” (a whistle; from the Russian word “pishchat’”, i.e. “to cheep”) and the dialogue was based on a momentary change of the pishchik and the “live” voice of other characters. This technique demanded truly high mastery and long training. Besides, Petrushka actors needed physical strength and stamina; they even lost weight during performances.

The show booth of the puppeteer was made of three frames, fastened with staples and upholstered in chintz. It was put right on the ground and the puppeteer hid himself behind it. The sound of a barrel organ gathered the viewers together, and then the actor started addressing the public through pishchik (a whistle) from behind the screen. Later Petrushka wearing red dress appeared with gags and laughter before the viewers. Sometimes the organ-grinder became the partner of Petrushka and conducted the dialogues, repeating Petrushka’s phrases, since the latter’s speech was not very distinct because of the whistle.

 Some reminiscences and diaries of the 1840s point out that Petrushka had a full name: he was called Pyotr Ivanovich Uksusov or Van’ka Ratatui. There were a number of basic plots: the medical treatment of Petrushka, his learning of soldier’s service, the scene with his bride, the buying of a horse and testing it. According to same data, one of the popular scenes was about a priest, yet no records of it have been preserved, probably because of the church censorship. The plots where handed down from mouth to mouth, from one actor to another.

Till date hand puppets are widely used in puppet theatres, yet Petrushka who used to be rather rude and vulgar has been replaced by many other characters.

Vertep, Christmas Folk Theatre

It was a custom in Siberia and Pskov region, in Byelorussia and Ukraine to go around with vertep on Christmas Eve. Vertep stands for a puppet show booth, a plywood box with a span roof, decorated with gilded paper and colourful lubok pictures. Country children wearing paper crowns on their heads and decorated staffs would be “Persian kings” who came to bow to the Infant God. The mummers would usually carry the vertep box on sleighs, when going from one house to another with their performance.

 The painted folds of the theatre-box would open up, and the Angel puppet would light a candle at a tiny footlight. Church canticles would alter with edifying sacred verses or folk Christmas carols, the characters’ rhythmic speech would turn now into prose and then into singing.

The viewers watched the stories of Adam and Eve’s banishing from Heaven, the Nativity of Jesus Christ, and the massacre of the Innocents from the Bethlehem, finishing with the death of Herod. The sacred drama was often followed by some comic circular plays to the accompaniment of peasant instrumental band, playing the violin, the tambourine, the sopilka (a pipe), the drum and the bandura. The band played both folk dance music and accompanied songs taken from lubok editions.

The time of vertep performances varied depending on the area. Village shows were strictly related to the folk Nativity rites and thus could hardly take place in any other period except during svyatki, the twelve sacred days from Christmas to Epiphany. Yet, professional city vertep puppeteers could perform at fairs at any time of the year.

The word “vertep” comes from the Old Slavic word “vertep”, i.e. “cave” or “secret place” and so is directly related to the cave where Jesus was born. Some scholars, however, prefer the folk etymology, according to which the word “vertep” developed from the verb “vertet” (to twist, to turn).

 Vertep in its narrow meaning denotes a folk Christmas performance, played in a special box with the help of rod puppets and accompanied with songs and dialogues. In a broader sense, vertep can stand for any Christmas acting about Nativity or the Holy Innocents, played either by puppets or by “live” actors. Vertep performance was peculiar for various sacred canticles, which distinguished it from the secular drama plays with live actors that were also shown for Christmas.

The history of Russian vertep theatre is truly dramatic. The Bolshevik revolution in 1917 was followed by persecutions of church and religion, and especially rituals and ceremonies associated with Christmas. Due to the social upheavals of the 1920–1930s the folk puppet theatre was not merely forgotten, but almost lost.


 Texts of vertep plays sank into oblivion (not a single text was published from 1917 to 1980), as well as the practical principles of puppet manipulating. The folk theatre of vertep seemed to be lost forever, and only some museums in Moscow, Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and Kiev harboured some traces of it, such as show boxes and puppet sets.

In the 1980s, however, the puppeteers Dmitry Pokrovsky and Victor Novatsky took to restoring the old art of vertep, thus starting the revival of the Russian folk puppet theatre, in particular that branch of it, which does not have much in common with Petrushka and buffoonery theatre.

Since the 1990s, with the Orthodox belief starting a new turn of its development, vertep has been played for children at events held by the church. A number of verteps take part in circular Christmas art festivals as well.

    Russian Wiki (1) (2)


Tags: Russian Traditions Russian Theatre Folk Theatre Christmas  

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