Inside Ljubljana Castle, situated just above the Slovenian capital’s scenic old town, there are a few heads in jars. They hover in murky liquid, attached to spindly outgrowths halfway between spinal cords and centipedes. If you pull a cord, they’ll move.
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The heads aren’t some remnant of a medieval torture device — though Ljubljana Castle does include some restored prison cells. Rather, they’re figures from Meat or Revelation, a 2010 puppet show about the moments before death. Today, they’re also an exhibit in Ljubljana’s Museum of Puppetry.
Slovenia, the tiny Central European country that birthed campus darling Slavoj Žižek and future first lady Melania Trump, has cultivated a rich tradition of puppetry for more than a century. Tour guide Aleksander Jovanović admits that Slovenian puppets are less well known than their German or Italian counterparts. But the Museum of Puppetry, which opened in May 2015, may give those other puppets a run for their stuffing.
“In the past year and a half since we opened the museum, we have never had a disappointed visitor,” Jovanović says.
Puppets say everything that needs to be said in a way that doesn’t hurt us.
Master puppeteer Edi Majaron
Slovenian puppetry began in 1910, when Milan Klemenčič, an artist who had studied in Germany and Italy, staged Dead Man in a Red Coat. Klemenčič, who would receive great acclaim for his marionette adaptation of Doctor Faustus, captured an eerie foreboding with his gaunt figures, still visible in the reconstruction that appears in the museum. “The level of craftsmanship, love and dedication behind it are overwhelming,” Jovanović says.
Puppetry survived both world wars — in 1944, the Partisan Puppet Theatre was founded, named after future Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito’s resistance movement — but its position in Slovenia was only solidified in 1948, with the founding of the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre. This year, that institution’s offerings included a show meant to teach children about death, a puppet adaptation of Animal Farm and a revival of Klemenčič’s Faustus. This diverse lineup is indicative of the outsize role puppet shows have played in Slovenian culture, from the family-friendly productions of Jože Pengov (1951’s Speckles the Ball deserves the Disney treatment) to the “creepy heads” (Jovanović’s words) of Meat or Revelation.
“Puppets don’t hate, they are not envious and they are not mean,” master puppeteer Edi Majaron wrote before 2014’s World Puppetry Day. “They say everything that needs to be said in a way that doesn’t hurt us.” Those who think Majaron is putting too much faith in marionettes can try it out themselves: According to Jovanović, the museum is fully interactive. “I’ve seen families with kids come to the museum, and the children had their noses buried in their smartphones,” Jovanović says. “But as soon as they discovered that they can touch and move the puppets, they forgot all about their phones.”
And if Majaron is to be believed, the revelations won’t stop there.
“We don’t realize enough that every day, we are puppets — marionettes,” Majaron wrote in 2014. “As Plato had written, it is Gods who pull the strings of our lives.”