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French marionettes still dazzle in the 21st Century

by Susan Owensby

Article published on the 2009-10-30 Latest update 2009-10-30 17:15 TU

The guinols on stage.(Photo: X. Daguzan)

The guinols on stage.
(Photo: X. Daguzan)

At the one hundred and twenty year old puppet theatre in Paris’ Champ de Mars park, French children pack the house to scream and shout for their hero, Guignol, under the able hand of puppeteer Luigi Terrilli.

Culture in France: les Guignols

30/10/2009 by Susan Owensby

Guginol is the French marionette. Created in the early 1800’s in Lyon by Laurent Mourguet, Guignol belongs to the second generation of marionettes: his ancestors are the Italian Pulchinello and the English Punch and Judy.

Puppeteer Luigi Terelli(Photo: X. Daguzan)

Puppeteer Luigi Terelli
(Photo: X. Daguzan)


His beginnings, however, were entirely practical - he was invented as a dentist’s decoy! Laurent Mourguet was a travelling dentist, pulling teeth at county fairs. He first hired a violinist to play outside his tent – very LOUDLY – to mask his patient’s howls, and then came up with the idea of a puppet show to lure in the crowds.

The main character was Gnafron – a boisterous Beaujolais drunkard – and Guignol was his friend, often engaged to Gnafron’s daughter, Madelone. Created for adults – some of the early plays had some pretty strident political satire, and were censored - eventually the puppets became “true” child’s play, with Guignol as the hero.

A rack of puppets backstage.(Photo: X. Daguzan)

A rack of puppets backstage.
(Photo: X. Daguzan)


Luigi Terrelli has been at the helm of the Guignol theatre in the Champs de Mars park – a few steps away from the Eiffel Tower – for thirty five years. He created his first puppet show -  an adaptation of Cinderella  - at the age of twelve, with puppets he had built.  Not much has changed since. He still makes all the puppets and their costumes, builds the stage scenery, and writes the plays. He has over 40 plays in his repertoire.

The stage at the puppet theatre at Paris's Champs de Mars.(Photo: X. Daguzan)

The stage at the puppet theatre at Paris's Champs de Mars.
(Photo: X. Daguzan)

At the Champs de Mars theatre they perform adaptations of all the Grimm and Perrault fairy tales, as well as his own creations. Every single play has its own marionettes - Terrelli estimates they have over 600 marionettes and 200 different sets.

Judging by the packed houses, and the noisy participation of the spectators, Guignol’s place in the cultural education of French children is in no danger of disappearing - and as long as there are dedicated puppeteers like Terelli, the shows will go on!

For as Terelli is fond of saying: “This is not a profession! It’s a passion.”



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