Shadow puppetry
February 18, 2008 6:55 AM   Subscribe

Shadow play has been a part of human civilization for tens of thousands of years. After its birth in China, it spread to many other geographical areas and cultures, most notably Turkey and Greece. Shadow theatre is seen as a predescesor to cinema; in fact, the earliest existing animated feature is Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1927). (YouTube has her hand cream ad, "The Secret of the Marquise".) Today, a few regional companies still practice shadow theatre. Animators such as Thanh Nguyen of 300 infamy and Aleksey Budovsky [flash] have taken the influence of Reiniger and shadow theater in their own directions, and film students make their own silhouette movies. Learn about the history of this fascinating craft [flash], or make your own.
posted by pxe2000 (15 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Direct link to Aleksey Budovsky's Bathtime in Clerkenwell.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:03 AM on February 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

Further Reading.

Nice post. Thanks.
posted by Evstar at 7:04 AM on February 18, 2008

How can you have a post about shadow plays without mentioning the Indonesian shadow plays??
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:58 AM on February 18, 2008

Poseiden was an asshole. A Medusa fucking pedantic invisible man in the sea asshole.
posted by chillmost at 9:29 AM on February 18, 2008

Is there any basis for the statement "Shadow play has been a part of human civilization for tens of thousands of years"? I've never heard of it in any archaeological context, at least not in this puppetry sense.
posted by Rumple at 10:02 AM on February 18, 2008

Rumple: From the first link, "Shadow play originated during the Han Dynasty." The Han Dynasty began approximately 206 BC.
posted by pxe2000 at 10:10 AM on February 18, 2008

Thanks, I saw that, though 2213 years is < than 10,000 years.

It's an interesting post, I am curious about the evidence of temporal depth. I think some kinds of shadow play are likely for some kinds of rock art, but never heard this for Palaeolithic puppets!
posted by Rumple at 10:18 AM on February 18, 2008

Thank you for correcting my math. Someday I should really learn to count, or subtract, or something.
posted by pxe2000 at 10:22 AM on February 18, 2008

What a coincidence, I saw A Boy in the Beastly City, by Sgt. Rigsby and His Amazing Silhouettes this weekend at the Theater Off Jackson (Seattle.) It was so much fun. I am a fan for life as they say now. Apparently he's been doing this for 10 years (argg!!) So hopefully another show will come along soon.
posted by Wood at 11:26 AM on February 18, 2008

Example of a Greek shadow play (unfortunately in Greek, no subtitles).

A museum dedicated to the last major Greek shadow player (site in English).
posted by ersatz at 12:37 PM on February 18, 2008

While at university, I dated one of the first Britons to train in Java as a dhalang (shadow puppeteer.) I learned a good deal by osmosis, and was especially interested by the similarities between the Javanese Ramayana and Mahabharata plays and British medieval mystery plays.

I didn't know much about shadow theatre in other cultures, so thank you for a fascinating set of links.
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:41 PM on February 18, 2008

Thank you for this post!

Lotte Reiniger is an amazing filmmaker, and Adventures of Prince Achmed is available on DVD, fortunately. These posts from the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive site are also of interest.
posted by ethel at 1:26 PM on February 18, 2008

pxe200, the images of Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed are so exquisite they bring tears to my eyes. wow. Didn't know about her, what a wonderful discovery.

Some time ago I did a post intricate silhouettes about paper cutting artists, not so much shadow play as silhouette art of extraordinary caliber, rather like Lotte Reiniger's subtle work.

Enjoyed meandering through your links. There is something so dreamlike about shadow theater, it has a special allure all its own.

Wonderful post. Thanks so much.
posted by nickyskye at 7:54 PM on February 18, 2008

Michel Ocelot's lovely "Princes and Princesses" owes a lot of its silhouetted beauty to Reininger (zipped jpgs here: 1, 2, 3, 4; more screenshots here.)
posted by progosk at 12:14 AM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

It was good to see that incontrovertible scientific proof that shadow plays were invented in China, like absolutely everything else - soccer, chess, golf, noodles, Japan, music, shoes, the wheel ... I wouldn't have thought that a single-origin-in-China-and-diffusion theory of shadow puppetry would make much sense, especially given the fragility of puppets and shadows and their general absence from the archaeological record, but there it is, in black and white. Shadow puppets were invented in China 5,000 years ago, just like boats.

Also, I second lupus - strange to mention shadow plays and not mention Indonesia. Otherwise an excellent post, and I love the Prince Ahmed stuff too.
posted by alexwoods at 2:37 PM on February 19, 2008

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