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In the Second Quarter of the 19th Century

In the Second Quarter of the 19th Century

There were more then 200 puppeteers working in the territory of the Czech lands. For more some it was just a means of making a living, while others formed a deeper relation to the profession and the lifestyle which went with it. For the most part they were members of larger dispersed families, in which the father successively handed his successors not only equipment and experience but also a strong passion for puppets. The important puppeteering family of the Maizners, who were all dedicated to puppet theatre in a direct line until the 60s of this century, worked mostly in the east of Bohemia. They were puppeteers with a high level of self-confidence, link to tradition and patriotic sympathies. It is thanks to them that some of the very oldest puppet scripts have survived along with a collection of very valuable puppets from the workshop woodcarving family of the Suchardas. The most important member of another puppet family, mostly operating in central Bohemia was František Vinický (1797-1854). His activities earned him esteem from all side, and in 1836 he was the only puppeteer to be officially invited to perform at the folk celebrations during the coronation of Ferdinand V. Clearly the most noteworthy personality of the first half of the 19th century was Matej Kopecký (1775-1847). He grew up in Mirotice in southern Bohemia from where he is out with his father Jan on a puppet tour of southern Bohemia Although only receiving a slight education, he had a unique opportunity to absorb the years of experience acquired by the puppeteers of that day. He received his first licence in 1797, but soon after was conscripted to the Austrian army and made to fight in the Napoleonic wars. After leaving the army, he tried to make a living as a shopkeeper, road-mender, and watch-maker before returning to puppetry for good in 1820. He was 45 years old, he had no property, and of the 14 children born to him 8 had died at a young age. He was however a mature personality, who was not broken by the extremely tough conditions of his life, as is shown by the degree to which he established himself. His sons played puppet theatre firstly by his side and later by themselves: Jan (1804-52), Josef (1807-56), Václav (1815-71) and Antonín (1821-85). Although a thousand of spectators saw Matej Kopecký´s puppet shows, although his activity fell into the period of the national revival, in which theatre played such a significant role, despite the way that he played and the way his playing was accepted by the public, only a handful of second-hand reminiscences remain of him. For the executive section of the Czech patriotic intelligencia, who dreamed of theatre as a cathedral of art representing national advancement, puppet theatre played by poor wandering puppeteers wasn´t of great interest. Interest in Matej Kopecký only started to grow after his death. In 1851 Karel Roth in Lumír wrote: "Especially old Kopecký, recently deceased, stood out above all of his colleagues with his great sense of justice and immense high-spirit". Indeed only from later acclaim can we presume that he was among the leading figures of Czech puppetry, as he himself signified, and although we doubt his claim that he was on familiar terms with leading revivalists J. Dobrovský and V. Thám, it follows from the claim, that he at least associated himself with the basic currents of thought of his age. The enduring popularity of "old Kopecký" across a wide section of society was later reinforced by a two volume edition of Comedies and Plays of Matej Kopecký composed by his son Václav in 1862 (unfortunately the documentary value of this first edition of a broad selection of Czech plays was impeached by the work of the editors in Vilímek publishing house.) The growing cult of Matej Kopecký was also supported by the drawings of artist Mikoláš Aleš, a native of Mirotice, who also apparently created a fictitious portrait of Kopecký in the likeness of his son Václav. The legend of Matej grew, and invention and myth soon outweighed the concrete facts. By the end of the century the picture of Matej had been transformed into the image of an heroic puppeteer - a builder of the nation, as suited the uncritical, fervently nationalistic conceptions of the day. Current historians of puppetry think of Kopecký as foremostly a representative of a whole range of Czech puppeteers of the national revival, and his image in the national subconscious as having a mostly symbolic significance. Take away the crutch of the various legends and he encapsulates the significance of the puppeteers of that period who, while working in the Czech countryside which was distinctively influenced by the tradition of baroque culture (artistic, musical, and theatrical), supplied a theatrical form which was harmonious with that tradition. This is true of not only the creation of the puppets and the sets, but the production style, which used the puppets to emphasise the symbolic nature of the theatre. While in the main run of productions Czech puppeteers basically remained faithful to the baroque style, with the rest of their repertoire they managed to gradually make their audience familiar with the theatre of the day, which was promoting the ideas of the enlightenment and the national revival. This significance is not even reduced by the fact that their productions were often inartistic and naive. The death of Matej Kopecký in 1847 effectively brings the most significant phase of Czech folk puppetry of the 19th century to a symbolic close. By the end of the 19th century the development of Czech folk puppetry gradually came to an end. Its stagnation was distinctly influenced by an overall stylistic change taking place in art and in the theatre. The death of romanticism and the onset of realism, whose main postulates could hardly be satisfied by the puppet theatre, resulted in a decided loss of contact with developments the other theatrical arts. Author: Alice Dubská, Czech Puppet Theatre over the Centuries

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