Kasper - the German way of glove puppet play
by Peter Widenmeyer
(The following is dedicated to all friends of Punch and Judy who are interested in glove puppetry in Germany, with especial reference to our famous puppet Kasper )

The most important character in German glove puppetry is Kasper (in the southern regions of Germany also called Kasperl or Kasperle which is a diminutive form - Little Kasper). Kaspertheater can be the term for the fit-up, and also for the performance itself. (The performance of Parliament or a Municipal Council can also be called, figuratively, a Kaspertheater when there is much dialogue and many arguments, but no real effort or progress on a certain topic.) 

A (very short) historical summary 

Until the end of the 19th century Kasper like his predecessors Pickelhering ( Salted herring) and Hans Wurst ( Jack Sausage) appeared as a silly, simple, rude and even brutal fellow solving his problems with his slapstick. Like Mr Punch, the character of these protagonists was influenced by the Commedia dell’arte and it seems that in some areas at one period the name Polcinell was also common for the main character in puppet play.

In 1858 Kasper Larifari appeared on stage in a (string) puppet play by Graf Pocci in Munich: "Prinz Rosenrot und Prinzessin Lilienweiß oder Die bezauberte Lilie" (Prince Rose-Red and Princess Lily-White or The enchanted Lily). In Pocci’s play Kasper got a new role: He now was the – not very intelligent but good and brave-hearted - adjutant of Prince Rose-Red who at last helped the Prince to rescue the Princess from the bad wizard Negromanticus. The play was performed for several years.

But puppeteers on streets, markets or fairs still performed a show quite similar to the "Punch & Judy" shows: Kasper beats his enemies (crocodile, witch, devil etc.) with his slapstick. 

The Hohnsteiner Kasper

(The photo shows Max Jacob with his Kasper puppet)
The late Max Jacob with Kasper (and some other pupets)About 1920 a new approach to glove puppetry in Germany appeared, created mainly by Max Jacob and his friends. When he was a young man, Max Jacob joined the "Wandervogel", a kind of rambling-club; a non-political "Back to nature" movement where young people met to go hiking together; their interest was to flee the cities; they re-discovered the old German folksongs and other traditional arts (but not in the same way the Nazis did it some years later; in fact, many members of the "Wandervogel" had to suffer during the Nazi regime and some of them took part in the resistance against Hitler)
Max Jacob's interest in puppetry was aroused by a Kasper puppet with a head made of wood. On his 33rd birthday (August 1921) he gave his first amateur performance! A short time later he quit his job as accountant and started a new existence as a itinerant puppeteer. For several years he and his friends made their home in the castle "Hohnstein" in Saxony, which was used as a youth hostel at that time. Therefore this new style of "Kaspertheater" has been called the "Hohnsteiner" style. Most of the Hohnsteiner Kasper puppets were carved by Theo Eggink, and Elisabeth Grünwald designed and made the costumes for the puppets.
Max Jacob and his friends had to do a certain number of public performances at the castle during the Summer for to pay their rent; the rest of the year they travelled and earned money by performing in schools, inns, parish halls, community centres etc.
The Hohnsteiner way of doing Kaspertheater was new in several aspects: First of all the Hohnsteiners changed the appearance of the Kasper puppet: The stiff, long hat was replace by a long, soft cap; often ending in a bell (like the caps of the medieval court jesters). Kasper can whirl it around like a propeller. Kasper puppets don't have a paunch or a hunchback.
More significantly they gave him a new identity. Kasper still made his jokes, but they were more sophisticated now. Kasper changed to be a positive hero: comic, but not stupid; with a good sense of humour, witty and brave. In the first years Kasper used his slapstick (and so he does in some contemporary performances), but later the slapstick was almost forgotten. And whereas Kasper had always been depicted as an adult character he was now given a child-like image. The shows themselves became more elaborate, the Hohnsteiners often performed with up to four puppeteers and they included dancing scenes, music and pyro-technics.

Thirdly, the Hohnsteiners created new characters: Crocodile, Devil and Policeman were traditional characters but Seppel and Gretel and many more are inventions of the Hohnsteiners; and today they have their part in most Kasper plays.
Additionally the Hohnsteiners are also the originators of Kasper's song at the beginning of the show:

"Tri-tra-trulla-la, Tri-tra-trulla-la,
tri-tra-trulla-la, Kasperle ist wieder da!"

After which Kasper often has a short dialogue with the audience which may start with the question "Seid ihr alle da?" (Are all of you here?) Such routines have become very popular and appear in many Kasper performances today - even amateurs who have never heard of the Hohnsteiners know these phrases.

Not only a great performer, Max Jacob is also the author of many puppet plays: the plot of some being taken from classical pieces (e.g. "Doctor Faustus"); and many others of every-day life or based in the world of the fairy tales. Later Friedrich Arndt wrote several plays for the Hohnsteiners.
In his performances Max Jacob and his fellow puppeteers did not adhere strictly to the script and would always try to involve the audience in their improvisations etc.

In his later years Max Jacob was elected president of the UNIMA, the world association of puppet players.

Present-day Kasper

The Hohnsteiner style has influenced both amateur and professional Kasper performing. In a Kasper performance today, he is the one who attracts all the sympathy of his audience. He is allowed to make his jokes, to misunderstand all the others etc. He might be naughty sometimes and often he is the one who has to learn his lesson – but he has a good heart; and often he is the one who helps to solve a problem. He is sometimes naïve – but quick-witted and in the end he is the winner.
Professional puppeteers mostly present Kasper using old Hohnsteiner scripts or fairy tales with a princess, fairies, a King etc. A very famous play is "Der Räuber Hotzenplotz", based on a children’s book by Otfried Preußler: Kasper and Seppel try to find the robber Hotzenplotz, who has taken Grandmother’s coffee-grinder. Both are caught by the robber: Seppel has to peel potatoes, and Kasper is sold as a servant to the bad wizard "Zwackelmann". But with the help of the fairy "Amaryllis" they manage to find the magic herb and manage to overcome the bad wizard. Professional puppeteers present their performances at puppet theatres, schools etc. and take an admission fee. Nowadays there do not seem to be puppet players at fairs and markets any more. Roller coasters and Ferris wheels seem to be more attractive for the people (and maybe more lucrative for the showmen) than presenting a glove puppet play.

Amateur Kasper shows usually take place at children’s birthdays, festivals etc. Parents play pieces like "The lost birthday present" or "Kasper and Seppel on the moon". Children learn to solve their fears when watching "Kasper at the dentist’s" and so on.

In school or kindergarden performances the Kasper-plays often pick up educational topics as well. So, for example, little children can identify themselves with Kasper when he has his "First day at school". Kasper can be the hero catching the bad polluter who had spoiled the environment. In road safety education Kasper is the one who would cross the street ignoring the red traffic lights. By recognizing and speaking out Kasper’s mistakes, the children learn something for their own lives: and so Kasper is at the same friend and teacher. 

The German Kasper is a big child, and so the shows mainly attract a children's audience. But a good performance can be enjoyed by adults as well as by the children.

The characters of the German "Kaspertheater" 

(Puppets shown have been made in the shop of Gisela Scheithauer. From left to right: Witch, Devil, Wizard, Robber, Forester, African man, Policeman. Front: Crocodile, Fairy, Prince, Princess, King, Grandmother, Gretel, Seppel, Kasper)
The cast (left to right): Witch, Devil, Wizard, Robber, Forester, African man, Policeman. Front: Crocodile, Fairy, Prince, Princess, King, Grandmother, Gretel, Seppel, Kasper.In Germany Kasper is not married. He lives in the house of his Grandmother who has to prepare lashings of pan-cakes for him. The other female person in his life is Gretel (or Gretl [diminutive for "Margret"]): she usually appears as his older sister or friend who often has to curb Kasper's nonsense.
Kasper's best friend is Seppel (or Seppl [diminutive for "Joseph"). They are a good team and complement one another. Seppel is usually dressed in Bavarian style clothes with a green hat.
In many Kasper plays there may also appear the old, traditional characters:
Witch, Wizard, Devil, Robber, Crocodile represent the evil powers in life; Fairy, Princess, Prince stand for kindness and love and the Policeman and the King for justice and rights. Other puppets are the African man, the Forester, the [female] Gossip monger and so on. Animals also may appear: Kasper’s Dog (often called Struppi or Waldi), bears, lions…


Kasper links

www.gischa.de - Puppets made in the shop of Gisela Scheithauer

home.t-online.de/home/mittelschule-ehrenberg/k1atritr.htm - Puppets made by Wolfgang Berger. His shop is in Hohnstein, in the village where Max Jacob used to live!

www.hohnsteiner-werkstatt.com - Puppets made by Michael Kürschner. His father was one of Max Jacob’s co-puppeteers in the Hohnsteiner show 

Kasper literature

Max Jacob, Mein Kasper und ich. Lebenserinnerungen eines Puppenspielers. Rudolstadt 1964

Herold’s großes Kasperlebuch. Stuttgart 1980

Peter Widenmeyer, 2001.