Minstrels and the story of puppets in Majorca

Were he still alive, John Earl Varey would have celebrated his 98th birthday at the end of last month. Professor John Varey, born in Blackburn in 1922, was one of the world's greatest experts on the history of Spanish theatre. He attended Cambridge, where his doctoral thesis was inspired by a childhood hobby - puppetry. By the early 1970s, he was not just an expert on Spanish theatre, he was the world's leading authority on puppetry, an element of theatre which he was to explore in two books - "Historia de los titeres en España" (The history of puppets in Spain) and "Los titeres y otras diversiones populares de Madrid, 1758-1840". Popular entertainment came in different varieties, but puppets were right up there in terms of popularity.

Although an acknowledged and leading Hispanist, whose research tended to concentrate on Madrid, Varey would no doubt have greatly approved of the puppetry tradition as it developed in different cultures in Spain. Part of this tradition is currently on show in Majorca - the 22nd International Festival of "Teatre de Teresetes de Mallorca", puppetry theatre. The puppets have "resisted" the virus, and eighteen performances by companies from Majorca, Catalonia, Madrid, France, Germany and Italy will be staged in fifteen different municipalities until Sunday.

Varey traced the first appearances of puppets in Spain to the twelfth century. They were brought by minstrels from France, and in the thirteenth century puppets were to become a feature of court life. Alfonso X of Castile, also known as Alfonso the Wise, was a king whose court was characterised by its tolerance of religion, its encouragement of learning, and its promotion of cultural and popular activities.

Alfonso was to provide the first written description of puppets which performed at his court. Included among these puppets were religious figures and also, astonishingly enough, the so-called automata. These used mechanics, and Varey reckoned that they had originated in China and were later developed by Arab engineers in Spain. There were also military-type figures, and it would seem that these puppets were the most popular. The small theatres created for their court performances were known as castles. Varey's conclusion was that puppet shows were predominantly battle scenes and tournaments between knights.

But while puppets were making their way into the culture of Castile, they were also known in the Catalan world, and we have none other than Ramon Llull to thank for having been the first to really draw attention to them. The Majorcan polymath compiled his "Libre de contemplació en Déu" (Contemplation of God) between 1271 and 1274. This work was a sort of encyclopaedia, and Llull drew attention to what he referred to as "bavastell", a dancing doll which was manipulated through the use of strings. The puppet on a string was thus known in Catalan culture from the thirteenth century and it had come not from the itinerant minstrels from France but from Muslim minstrels.

Puppets were to then be documented at the coronation of Ferdinand I of Aragon (and therefore also of Majorca) in 1414, and they were to apparently become especially popular in Valencia later in the fifteenth century. These puppets, or rather their puppeteers, were to fall foul of the Inquisition, established by the Catholic monarchs, Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, in 1478. In Valencia, the puppets were used to mock the church.

In Majorca, the assumption is that puppets were around at the time of Ramon Llull and quite probably during the Muslim years before the 1229 conquest. But there aren't any references. It has been said that despite the efforts of John Earl Varey (and some others), historical research into puppetry in Spain is somewhat lacking. Be that as it may, it wasn't until the late nineteenth century that references started to appear to "teresetes", which were said to have been direct descendants of "guaratelle" puppets from Naples that had appeared around the middle of the fourteenth century. Said to be, but as the references are lacking, it's difficult to verify this.

A priest, Sebastià Guasp, established a puppet theatre in Algaida in the 1930s. Antoni Faidella from Barcelona came to Majorca after the Civil War and contributed to the popularising of puppets, but it was only in 1974 that the first professional puppet theatre group was established - S'Estornell Teatre - and this was to lay the foundations for development which led to the staging of the first puppet festival in 1999, the year that John Earl Varey died.

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