The Origins of UNIMA BELGIUM since its foundation until its renewal in 1962 with BELUNIMA

The text for the Conference celebrating 90 years of UNIMA International on 5 and 6 July 2019.

First of all, I would like to apologize not to be with you in Prague for this important commemoration and birthday of our organization. I would like also to thank the Institute of Czech Theatre and Madam Nina Malikova to have thought to invite me for representing Belgium and, moreover, friendships for Czech Republic and the masters of this huge puppet history, whose our theatre is linked by my mother Biserka Assenova, follower of Dr. Jan Malik and Dr. Erik Kolar in DAMU in the 1960s. This year 2019, our theatre also celebrates 90 years and it is very special to think the relations between UNIMA and our theatre in Belgium and around the world, by the friendships of all big figures of Unima with our theatre and by our different festival organized since 1958. During all these important UNIMA figures, we can mention Jan Malik (1904-1980), Erik Kolar (1906-1976), Sergei Obratzsov (1901-1992), Max Jacob (1888-1967), Jan Bussel (1909-1985), Guido Van Deth (1913-1969). Many of these puppeteers and figures of UNIMA are present in our collections of our International Puppet Museum of Brussels.

  1.  Before the Founders (1929),

Belgium was all the time a puppet country by its very rich tradition of rod puppets (and glove puppets) (1). We could assess Belgium is a rod puppet country.  A part of this tradition is a legacy of Middle Age, if we are thinking about the Bettième of Verviers, or the Bettième of Mons, and even in the tradition of Tchantchès, or in Brussels, there is always this religious link with the Nativity and the mysteries. Still now, in Liège and in Brussels, we play in the Christmas ‘s time Nativity and the Massacre of Innocents at the Eastern times of the year. Through the time, Antwerpen, Gent in Flanders and Brussels and Liège continues to have local and popular heroes. If we are thinking to the importance of heritage and folklore, we could enlarge the puppet importance in Belgium to all events around Carnival and Giants playing a very big role for the cohesion and different belongings to some community depending on your city, as the parade of the dragon called Doudou in Mons or the Giants in the city of Ath.          

In the same time, it is also interesting to underline Belgium is world-known in theatre for two dramatists, who loved puppetry: the symbolist Maeterlinck and the expressionist Michel de Ghelderode.  These two dramatists have played a big role for the drama literature for puppets in the modernity and for the dramatic use of puppetry in the quest of a new theatre.  And even today, these dramatists are still influencing the regard of puppetry in theatre and for adult audience, searching to the acknowledgement of this theatrical art.

The contrast is striking: Puppetry in Belgium is balanced between tradition and modernism. And this modernism was rooted in the tradition of puppets able to play without the « psychologism » characterizing the actor’s theatre. Symbolist and expressionist characters rely on a gothic mind, and strangely neither baroque in comparison with Czech Republic, nor classicist like the French. The Catholicism legacy in our country is all the time tainted by « carnival’s resistance » (Mikhail Bakhtine) to the external oppression and by a strong attachment to the local mind for a « grotesque way of art ».

Nevertheless, the local heroes as the Woltje in Brussels and as the Tchantchès in Liège appears in the beginning of the 19th century: for Woltje in 1830, and for Tchantchès (in 1860 with the Italian Conti, but it seems earlier). If we are looking closer, we could say that the Neus from Antwerpen is also an appearance of 19th century, as the Pierke from Gent. As Freek Neyrinck, the Pierke character is plunged into the spirit of the Renaissance and of commedia dell’arte, heir to the Gothic era (2). The different modern heroes are descendant of mysteries and of Commedia dell’arte’s characters. The emblematic and traditional puppet hero is Pulcinella.

2. The Founding time of UNIMA, and the participation of Liège’s delegation of puppeteers in Prague, 1929.  

In regard of this background context of puppetry, we have to realize the time of this enthusiastic wish of participating and founding UNIMA by a delegation of Belgian puppeteers from Liège. Liège is until now a very peculiar city for the puppetry. In the 1920s, a lot of puppet theatre are disappearing by the fact of the film’s invention and popular progression of the film’s entertainment for the society and for workers in an industrial city as Liège. The popular characteristic for the puppet theatre for adults was based on this social determination of workers of 19th century. And everywhere around the world, and especially in Europe (3), we see this decaying phenomenon of traditional puppetry by the rising phenomenon of the film’s entertainment in the beginning of the 20th century.  For example, in the case of Brussels, the Woltje tradition and the Toone Theatre would have disappeared without the creation of an association « Les Amis de la Marionnette » in 1929 buying the puppets in the flea market. (3) This association would play a very big role in the history of puppetry in Belgium, because it will save puppets of Toone by buying them in the flea market in 1929-1930, and also help the creation of Peruchet Theatre, a key theatre from the 1929s until the renewal of Unima in 1962. Inside this association, we will see Michel de Ghelderode, the painter Jeff Bourgeois, Marcel Wolfers from the big family Wolfers in Brussels, and the founder of the new Peruchet Theatre, founded in 1929.

In the case of Liège, and the tradition of Tchantchès rod puppets, we are looking the same phenomenon of decaying, but exceptionally, this tradition was even knowing a renewal of puppet theatre, with an association founded in 1926, for preserving and defending the living tradition and puppet art of Tchantchès. (Liège still stays until now a very special city for the puppetry and we can say an exceptional city for puppetry and the Tchantchès tradition- we can actually count up and down 12 theaters of Tchantchès.)  In contrast with France for example, Tchantchès was never a character emigrating in another city as in Brussels or Mons, as Guignol could be found in Lille or Paris or in Bordeaux, although he is from Lyon. Tchantchès is typical character from Liège. This character would come from 8th and 9th century.  His origin also is enigmatic.  Tchantchès is alteration of François in French, but we also know Tchancthès could be small John, « petit Jean » in Flemish, Jantche or Dj’antchès (Look at the website of Denis Fauconnier, )

Although the Tchantchès tradition was suffering as many traditional puppetry in 1920’s and the fifty theatres at the end of 19th century was less and less, until count more and less ten theatres, in comparison with other cities where traditional theatres were totally devasted (as in first line in Brussels with the Toone’s tradition), this association for preserving and defending the traditional puppetry of Tchantchès was called « fraternité des planquets, joueurs de marionnettes liégeoises » (« association of planquets, Liège puppet players »). The first goal of this association was to help and to stop the closing of puppet theatres in Liège.  This association gathered Jean Lassaux (Théâtre Vautour blanc), Oscar Danthine (théâtre de la Gaîté), Joseph Crits (Théâtre de Saint Nicolas lez Liège), Pierre Wislet (Anciens Cuirassiez), Hubert Strée (Théâtre Liégeois) with the presidency of Thomas Thalbot.  This association sent a delegation to Prague in 1929, and after to Paris, and they succeeded to welcome the third congress (22 September 1930) and Unima international festival in Liège in September 1930.

Strangely, after the congress and the international festival of 1930, all the members of this Liège association would die and disappear in few months one after other. A kind of curse falls on these members: Crits, Thalbot, Lassaux, Danthine and finally Strée. Following this hecatomb, the fraternity disappeared as the same time as the Unima in Liège and, it seems, in Belgium. The following puppeteers of Liège in the history never wanted again to try to unite for fear of this « curse » still alive (Jacques Ancion, Christian Deville, José Maquet). This story is still vivid when the will of unifying puppeteers appear in Liège. (Thanks to Denis Fauconnier for explaining this history).

  • Peruchet Theatre (1929-) and Carlo Speder (1899-1985)

In the same time of this tragic history of Liège puppeteers, we see a success story of a young puppeteer creating a marionnette theatre in 1929 (4). Starting with the admiration of Marionneten theater of Paul Brann in München, the ambitious Carlo Speder founded the Theatre Peruchet. The name of the theatre means « dear beloved daddy » in French with the mispronunciation of the smallest daughter of the founder. Carlo Speder wished to create « Art Marionnette Theatre » and wanted to renovate the style of string puppets. Quickly, he was invited in the three World Fair of Arts Décoratifs in Paris, in 1933, 1935 and 1937.  In 1933, the Theatre Desarthis in Jardin Luxembourg was built and opened. At that time, Geza Blattner, Jacques Chesnais, Carlo Speder from Belgium, Marcel Temporal, Marcelle Moynier (founder of les Petits Tréteaux in Geneva) and Max Jacob from Germany met each other in this first World Fair in Paris. And these World Fair would happen again two times in 1935 and 1937. These three meetings were very important for puppetry in the dark 1930s. In 1937, Peruchet theatre reached his world celebrity by proposing before the creator of Boléro, the first choreography of his music. Few people know the Boléro was first danced by a marionnette, and especially a marionnette Peruchet. (5)

After these friendly meetings with a lot of puppeteers in Paris and a move to another place in Brussels, the Peruchet theatre founded his International Puppet Museum in 1938, with some puppets form Max Jacob and his very famous Hohensteiner Puppenspiel. As also some wayang golek and kulit puppets, and also quickly comedia dell’arte marionnettes in 1939. In 1940, Carlo Speder found the first Academy of puppetry in Belgium, giving course and workshops for developing education and craftmanship for the future puppeteers (Could we consider this Academy as the first Puppet school in Western Europe and even in Europe at that time?). During all this 1930s in Belgium and after the Liège ‘s Congress, we could not assess it existed UNIMA in Belgium.

  • The World FAIR OF BRUSSELS and the World Puppet Festival in 1958

Carlo Speder had met in 1949-1950 Franz Jageneau (1927-2010), his future assistant, director of Puppet Academy in 1952, and future director of his theatre in 1958. Carlo Speder, the founder of Peruchet theatre, wanted to leave the hand and Franz Jageneau was the most gifted follower he met in his life. In May 1958, Brussels became the city world by organizing this huge world exhibition. In this context, the Peruchet organizes the first world puppet festival during the four months of the Exhibition. Besides the official program organized by Carlo Speder and Franz Jageneau inviting the recent president of Unima Max Jacob (1957), Max Buhrman, the Salzburg Marionnette Theater, Jacques Chesnais and Guido van Deth, Kirchner with the Spejbl and Hurvinek Theater from Prague, and parallel to the festival Fratelli Napoli from Catania and even the Imperial Osaka Bunraku Theatre. In the backstage, Jan Malik, Erik Kolar (both from Czechoslovaquia), Margareta Nicolescu, Sergei Obratzsov, and Bill Baird, among others, were also present. All the world puppetry was in Brussels. Liège would also organize a world festival in June 1958. with some guests as Michael Meschke or Jacques Chesnais. But never before have there been so many international puppeteers in Belgium.

In this context, José Géal (1931-), director of « Theatre de l’Enfance », playing during our festival in Brussels with other guests from Belgium and with the international guests, met all these important UNIMA-personalities as Max Jacob, Sergei Obratzsov, Margerata Niculescu, Bil Baird, etc. Franz Jageneau, follower of Carlo Speder, looks the politics with distance and prefers only to play and to organize festivals. With all the contacts of Brussels World Puppet festival, José Géal will create 4 years later BELUNIMA, a renewal of UNIMA in Belgium in 1962 – a challenge for another communication about the role of BELUNIMA.

We hope we have offered some important lines of the Belgian UNIMA history. The history of UNIMA will stop between the Congress of 1933 in Ljubljana and the fifth Congress of Prague in 1957. This history has to be developed more in details, but i hope this text will help for the future. We have underlined the important role of World Fair of Arts Décoratifs jn Paris in 1933, 1935 and 1937, where Peruchet theatre was present beside other theatres and pioneers of puppetry. We would like to develop more researches about the World Puppet festival in 1958, festival which has given a lot of puppets from UNIMA masters to our International Puppet Museum (founded in 1938) (7). We hope all information given in this communication could open new perspectives and give new visions about Belgian puppetry, UNIMA in Belgium and Peruchet Theatre.      

                                                                                                                                           Dimitri Jageneau


  • Ancion Jacques, Belgique, World Encyclopedy of Puppetry Arts (WEPA), .
  • Neirynck, Freek, and Hetty Pearl. Marionnettes Traditionelles en Belgique [Traditional Puppets of Belgium]. Gand: Theater Taptoe, 1989.                      
  • Antonio Pasqualino, The Sicilian Puppets, Museo Internazionale delle Marionnettte Antonio Pasqualino, 2002.
  • Longcheval, Andrée, and Luc Honorez. Toone et les marionnettes traditionnelles de Bruxelles [Toone and the Traditional Puppets of Brussels]. Bruxelles: Paul Legrain, 1984.
  • Flament, Julien. Les Marionnettes de Belgique [Puppets of Belgium]. Bruxelles: I.N.R., 1937.

And for the important role of Theatre Peruchet in the Belgian Puppet history : Coumans, Yves, Françoise Flabat, and Francis Houtteman. Marionnettes et théâtres de marionnettes en Belgique [Puppets and Puppet Theatres in Belgium]. Bruxelles: UNIMA-Belgique, 1983.

  • Colpaert Albert, Théâtre du Peruchet, son créateurses marionnettes, éditions Grisard André, 1981. 
  • Jageneau Dimitri, Collections Peruchet, éditions Swalens, Beersel, 2013.