Thursday, September 30, 2010

Communicating Dignity – The Sicilian Marionette Theater Tradition

Swords clang, maidens weep, knights are valorous, villains are loathsome, good conquers evil, dignity triumphs over humiliation. These elements inhabit the world of the Sicilian Marionette Theater and the timeless stories they tell. But really, it was more than entertainment. It was a way to instruct, communicate and transfer wisdom between the generations.

What, exactly, is a marionette? It’s a rod puppet operated from above with wires or strings. The person operating the marionette is called the puppeteer or manipulator. Puppets have been part of human entertainment and instruction for millennia. They’ve been unearthed in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2000 B.C. and were a favorite of the ancient Greeks. While Sicily and Southern Italy were part of Magna Grecia (Greater Greece) for centuries, the Greeks brought the art of puppetry to their shores. The works of Archimedes, Aristotle and Plato referred to puppets, and they were used to present the tales of The Iliad and The Odyssey.

In medieval times the heroic deeds of Emperor Charlemagne (Carlo Magno in Italian) and his nephew, Roland, along with the Paladins of France, greatly influenced the Sicilian puppet theater tradition (l'Opera dei Pupi). Two epic poems, The Song of Roland and Orlando Furioso, were designed for oral performance in the canta storia style of sung history. For half a century these stories were told in daily episodes, often taking a year and a half to complete. Rome’s influence on puppetry was so great that Italy is considered the early home of the marionette. The Christian Church used them to present morality plays and in so doing, the tradition flourished even further across the map. Without mandatory education, illiteracy prevented most people from learning history, literature, music and art. But through the stories performed at l’Opera dei Pupi, the peasantry learned of their country’s turbulent history and were inspired by tales of high ideals of chivalry, patriotism, honor, self-reliance and loyalty.

One of the life sized marionettes on display at the Westchester Italian Cultural Center Tuckahoe, NY.

In the 1800’s the Manteo’s, a Sicilian family, put its mark on this tradition by establishing the Papa Manteo Sicilian Marionette Theater in Catania. This theater became a vital part of daily lives of everyday people. In 1918, after emigrating first to Argentina and then to America, they opened a theater in Manhattan's Little Italy and entertained generations of Italians through superb storytelling.

Producer, writer, director and historian Tony De Nonno became so intrigued that he immersed himself in the lives of the Manteo family and their mission to continue the Sicilian marionette tradition. In 1982, De Nonno created the film, It's One Family -Knock On Wood, which chronicles the creativity, burdens and joys of several generations of Manteos in their fierce dedication to their craft. According to De Nonno, “The self image of many Sicilian males were shaped by these stories.”

De Nonno screened his film along with an informative presentation of the Sicilian marionette tradition on September 18, 2010 at the Westchester Italian Cultural Center in Tuckahoe, New York. He entertained the children and adults in the audience with his knowledge and manipulation of a medium sized marionette of Roland. He recounted many of the stories he learned from the Manteo’s, including how important these tales became to some audience members. One night in Little Italy, when a certain episode finished with Roland bound in a dungeon, the Manteo’s were awakened in the middle of the night by frantic knocking on their front door. A woman had become so engrossed in the story she was unable to sleep; she tossed and turned at the thought of Roland tied up in the dungeon. She begged the Manteo’s to untie Roland so that she could get some rest. They thoughtfully obliged.

Another story involved a marionette who so convincingly portrayed a cruel Saracen that a man entered the theater and shot it in the chest. The Manteo’s decided to keep the bullet hole as a memory and rather than close it, covered it with a shield. The marionette continued to perform.

On display at the Westchester Italian Cultural Center in Tuckahoe.

The Manteo’s dedication to their craft ran deep in their blood. The talent, skills and versatility necessary to sustain the Theater was passed from generation to generation. Every performance required dexterity, acting, singing, piano playing and the art of improvisation. Behind every performance were countless hours of hand crafting each marionette in the wood shop, designing and painting the faces and body, designing and hand making each costume. But that's not all; the sets were individually designed and constructed down to the curtains and pulleys. And after each performance repairs were usually required. One of the Manteo sons remarks in De Nonno’s film that they presented the Marionette Theater every night for 12 years. No nights off. Ever. The son reflected, “It's a sacrifice that you make for your family.” It makes me think that the Manteo’s were just as heroic and dignified as the stories they told.

In the 1990’s, the Manteo’s stopped presenting their tales. However, in 2010, twenty-five of their marionettes, including some created 150 years ago in Catania, were acquired by the Italian American Museum on Grand and Mulberry Streets in New York City. This is especially meaningful as this display is close to the site of the original Manteo Marionette Theater.

And what of this rich tradition today? Sicily, as well as other parts of Europe, is turning its attention to preserving this legacy. UNESCO designated the Sicilian Marionette Theater as part of humanity's “oral and intangible heritage”. The organization created a grant to build puppet theaters and puppetry schools in Catania and Palermo.

After DeNonno's presentation, we were invited downstairs to view several life-sized marionettes from the Manteo collection currently on display at the Westchester Cultural Center. This presentation was part of an ongoing celebration of all things Sicilian at the Center. Events include a photographic exhibit, food and wine specialties and the music of the region. To learn more about how you can enjoy these events, visit To learn more about Tony De Nonno, visit