In the heart of Vieux-Lyon (Old Lyon), one of the Gadagne museums, devoted to the art of puppetry, reveals a world of performance, illusion and emotions. Through an interactive and participative visitor trail, the visitors can actually leave the role of spectator and step into the shoes of a puppeteer.
In the ‘city of Guignol’, more than 300 puppets and other objects share a unique space that immerses visitors in the world of puppet shows. Guignol – Lyon’s most famous puppet – is the star and main theme of the trail.
Did you know that the world’s oldest puppet was found in the Czech Republic and is thought to date back to 25,000 BC?
Puppets can be scary, amusing, surprising and educational; they have fulfilled various roles and functions in different ages, cultures and contexts.
How is the illusion created?
In a puppeteer’s workshop, it is possible to explore, touch, dismantle and reassemble, all while delving into the daily work and lives of these extraordinary artists.
This is a family-friendly, history-filled and educational museum, suitable for young children and anyone curious about or interested in the performing arts.
A museum experience to shareThere is a new permanent exhibition that brings together over 300 pieces, from the 15th to the 21st century, from Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.
The exhibition is built around three big questions. Where do puppets originate? Why use puppets? How are they made to perform?
The museum tells the tale of the origins of this artform, from the rituals of the Middle Ages to childhood games. These objects, brought to life, play their part in culture and society across the world: entertaining, surprising, educating, manipulating, enchanting…
Throughout the visit, there are spaces for play and experimentation designed specifically with families in mind.
There is also an entire room dedicated to giving visitors an immersive experience, letting them see all the inner workings of a show. Jacques Chesnais' Le ballet des étoiles (1942) will set the dance in motion for the reopening of the museum.
Not forgetting Guignol, a character created in Lyon in 1808, who will of course have his rightful place. Guignol is present in every part of the new exhibition.
This is a museum designed in collaboration with puppeteers, to create a wonderful moment to share with the whole family.
- Guignol, did you say Guignol?
The origin of the name is uncertain. Jean-Baptiste Onofrio, a Lyon magistrate and fan of Guignol, who wrote 2 volumes on the Théâtre Lyonnais de Guignol (1865-1870), came up with several suggestions:
> It could come from the local expression, “c’est guignolant !”, meaning “it’s funny!” for some and “it’s boring!” for others.
> It could be of Italian origin. A man from the town of Chignolo, in Lombardy who settled in Lyon, would have been noticed. To Gnafron, a companion of Guignol, wasn’t he known as “Chignol”?
> Pierre Rousset, author of Guignol plays in the late 19th c., confirmed that a certain Jean Guignol did exist and could have been used as a model by the puppeteer. Regardless of its origin, the name Guignol soon made its mark and was adopted in everyday language: “Ne fais pas le guignol!”, which translates in English as “Stop clowning around!”
- Physical appearance
Young man, small nose, almond-shaped eyes, braided hair.
How is he dressed?
Brown frock coat and waistcoat, gilt buttons decorated with a ship’s anchor… Guignol’s costume dates from the 18th c. and is reminiscent of that of père Coquard1, a famous puppet in the Lyon crèches.
His leather bonnet is rather strange: Some say it looks like a cocked hat with flat edges, whilst it reminds others of the head gear worn by boat haulers on the Rhône – a wide leather band used to protect the forehead from girths. Last but not least, Guignol would not be Guignol without his “braids“: hair tied in ribbons.
- Special features
Developing a smile with age
His round face, almost invisible nose, and large, almond-shaped eyes have scarcely changed down the centuries, but the same cannot be said for the smile. Whereas Laurent Mourguet’s puppet hardly ever smiled, if indeed at all, the 20th c. heralded the arrival of a smiling Guignol, which was more suitable for an audience of children
Silk worker, good for nothing, valet... emblem of the town of Lyon
Guignol is said to be a silk worker or weaver. Throughout the repertoire, he is rarely a weaver and more often a servant. His profession changes with the plot.
- “Who is Guignol? A good man of Lyon…”
“… represented by a mythical, slightly exaggerated character, it’s true, but one which sums him up perfectly.” This is what Morel de Voleine, a journalist with the Gazette de Lyon, wrote in 1847. Guignol soon became the local hero and a representative of “lyonnaiseté” to coin a phrase inspired by the vocabulary of weavers. The emblem of the town of Lyon, he was praised to the skies by both the radical deputy, Justin Godart, and the royalist, Tancrède de Visan. Although Guignol is losing his vigour and tends to be nothing more than a character in a puppet show for children, the official homage continues, culminating in celebrations to mark the centenary of his birth in 1908 and the erection of a monument in Vieux Lyon (the old district of Lyon). In the 20th c., his portrait decorated numerous tourist keepsakes.
Friend of Gnafron, bachelor, sometimes married to Madelon
The inseparable threesome
Guignol is not on his own. Gnafron, a shoe repairer (gnafre in the Lyon dialect), often accompanies him. Most of the time they are friends, even cousins. As for Madelon, the only recurring female character, she is either Gnafron’s daughter or Guignol’s wife. With a strong, sometimes cantankerous character, she mellowed in the late 19th c.
- Criminal record
Laziness, debts, violence, bad encounters and stealing jam
Watch out for the cudgel!
Guignol’s accessory is the tavelle, a long stick used as a weapon against all types of intruder: crook, landlord or policeman. Split lengthwise, it makes a loud noise when struck against the curtains/panels. As with all accessories used in hand puppet theatre, the dimensions are deliberately exaggerated to make them more visible and, above all, easier to operate!
But, afterall, where does it come from?
It all begins over two centuries ago. Laurent Mourguet, an unemployed silk worker, has a family of eleven hungry mouths to feed. Taking up dentistry – or rather, pulling teeth in the streets – he uses an unusual method to distract his clients from the dreaded pliers. His Polichinelle puppet may not numb the excruciating pain, but attracts crowds of curious onlookers.
French but typically Lyonnais
Laurent Mourguet, Guignol's creator, was born into a family of modest silk weavers on March 3, 1769. When hard times fell on the silk trade during the French Revolution, he became a peddler, and in 1797 started to practice dentistry, which in those days was simply the pulling of teeth. The service was free; the money was made from the medicines sold afterward to ease the pain. To attract patients, he started setting up a puppet show in front of his dentist's chair. In the end, his strategy worked very well to his advantage.
His first shows featured Polichinelle, a character borrowed from the Italian commedia dell'arte who in England would become Punch. By 1804 the success was such that he gave up dentistry altogether and became a professional puppeteer, creating his own scenarios drawing on the concerns of his working-class audience and improvising references to the news of the day. He developed characters closer to the daily lives of his Lyon audience, first Gnafron, a wine-loving cobbler, and in 1808 Guignol. Other characters, including Guignol's wife Madelon and the gendarme Flageolet soon followed, but these are never much more than foils for the two heroes.
Although nominally a silkweaver like much of his original audience, Guignol's profession changes, as does his marital status; he can be in turn valet, peddler, carpenter, shoemaker, or unemployed; at times he is Madelon's husband, at times her smitten suitor according to requirements of the scenario. What remain constant are his poverty, but more importantly his good humor and his sense of justice. The use in French of "guignol" as an insult meaning "buffoon" is a curious misnomer, as Guignol is clever, courageous and generous; his inevitable victory is always the triumph of good over evil.
Sixteen of Mourguet's children and grandchildren continued his tradition, and many of the companies performing today can trace their artistic heritage back to him although Laurent Morguet´s last descendant - Jean-Guy Morguet - died October 8, 2012, at the age of 82, after working all his life in the Theatre de Guignol at Lyon, France. Jean-Guy, learnt his job helping his grandmother Augustine and then his parents. He became, later, the director of the whole theatre until his death. Laurent Mourguet maintained according to the era, the region, or the performers. Guignol's original caustic satire has often been watered down to simple children's fare, and has even been used to parody grand opera, but his original spirit still survives in his hometown of Lyon, where both traditional and original contemporary performances are an integral part of local culture. In addition to his social satire, Guignol has become an important protector of the local dialect, the parler lyonnais.