Puppetry dates back to the second half of the 18th century in the Czech Republic. Travelling marionetteers entertained both adults and children. Often the stories had hidden political subtexts, due to the Austro-Hungarian masters strict censorship of any show of Czech nationalist sentiment.
These puppeteers were frequently in family groups. Karel Novak, his wife, and foster father teacher J N Lastovka are such an example. The Novaks arrived in Plzen in 1914 and worked there until 1927, for a time in partnership with an upcoming puppeteer, Josef Skupa.
An artist, theatre worker and teacher, Skupa started a career in puppetry first as a hobby, with often satirical content in his productions. In 1919 he designed a Dada style puppet with a round head and protuding ears, a tail coat and wearing clogs. He named him Speijl.
First a solo act, a young son was later created for Speijl, called, Hurvinek. The latter character was manipulated by Skupa’s wife, Jirina, for many years. Together the two puppets were a huge success, with a somewhat stupid father and a quick witted son. The characters went on to perform on radio and in films and are still around even today.
Plzen has a wonderful Puppet Museum in yet another beautifully restored historic house to showcase the strong tradition in this region. The town also celebrated puppetry in grand style over the weekend with a visit of giant puppets, where they performed in the packed town square to the delight of a large numbers of families.