Puppetry theatre has unquestionably predated written plays and, indeed, literature in general.
A marionette is a human, animal, or formally abstract person moved by human, not mechanical, help. The definitions are sufficiently wide to cover a massive number of spectacles and a massive range of sorts of puppets but exclude some associated activities and characters. A doll, for example, is not a puppet, and a little girl who plays with her beauty as if they were a real baby does not exhibit a marionette. Still, if she walks a doll up a table and acts the part of a baby, she presents her mother’s and her father’s rudimentary marionette performance before an audience.
Similarly, clockwork-moved automaton figures emerge when a clock strikes are not puppets, and elaborate exhibitions of automatons, such as those at the cathedral clock in Strasbourg, France, or the town hall clock in Munich, Germany, must be omitted from consideration. In virtually all civilizations and in almost every time, marionette shows seem to have existed. Their written accounts date back to the fifth century BCE in Europe (e.g., the Symposium of the Greek historian Xenophon).
Other civilizations have fewer old written records, although there are ancient traditions of puppet theatre in China, India, Java, and elsewhere in Asia, which are unknown. Puppet-like figurines used in ritual magic are a tradition among American Indians. In Africa, records of puppets are scarce. Still, the mask is an essential component in virtually all African magical rites. As will be seen, the boundary between the instrument and the masked performer is not always readily established.
Puppetry theatre has unquestionably predated written plays and, indeed, literature in general. It reflects one of humanity’s most basic drives. It is reasonable to wonder why such an artificial and frequently complex style of theatrical art might have global appeal. It has been said that puppetry theatre is the most ancient theatre, the genesis of drama itself. Claims of this sort cannot be proven or rejected; it is unlikely that puppets directly influenced all human dramatic forms, but it appears evident that puppet theatre and human theatre evolved side by side from a very early era in man’s evolution, possibly influencing the other.