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Puppets & Dentistry: Guignol de Lyon

What do puppets and tooth extraction have in common?

Imagine a crowd has gathered on the street in Lyon, in about the year 1797; people laughing and clapping. You push forward to see what it’s all about and you see a colorful and lively puppet show. Behind the puppet show, something very different was going on – a dentist’s chair was set up and people would come to get one or several teeth pulled.

Laurent Mourguet was born on 3 March 1769 into a family of silk weavers. They weren’t wealthy by any means, but they made a modest income. As the silk trade began to fall apart during the French Revolution, the illiterate Monsieur Mourquet sought out a new profession and became a dentist. Dentistry in the 1700s is not what it is today – it was simply the practice of pulling teeth! The dentist would make their money by selling the pain medication which they would be in dire need of after the extraction.

Mourguet’s first shows featured a character named Polichinelle, borrowed from the Italian commedia dell’arte. If you’re familiar with Punch and Judy in England, Punch was also based on this character. As his puppet show had become such a resounding success, Mourquet was able to give up dentistry by 1804 and become a professional puppeteer. His themes were based on the experiences of his working-class audience and he would draw on the current news. The very first character was not Guignol, but Gnafron, a cobbler who loved his wine. Guignol appeared in 1808 as a silk weaver. Soon thereafter, people would be introduced to Guignol’s wife Madelon as well as the gendarme Flageolet. The vivacious and mischievous Guignol proclaims social injustice, while challenging regional or national authorities.

 

Although the clever and courageous Guignol was always poor, his profession was fluid and could change according to the story. He was at times a shoemaker or a peddler, a carpenter, or without a job at all. Sometimes he was married to Madelon or sometimes he was courting her. A sure conclusion to the stories is the triumph of good over evil and Guignol’s ability to achieve this feat.

We chose to see the show in a beautiful part of the city, on the street Montée du Gourguillon, where the Théâtre la Maison de Guignol sits.

Guignol has also become an important protector of the local Lyonnais dialect, evidenced by the fact that our daughter understood very little of the performance and my French husband confirmed that the show has a lot of local dialect so it can be difficult to follow. Of course, it is all spoken very quickly, but it didn’t deter me from thoroughly enjoying this very local piece of history. It’s a small, homey theater where one can buy snacks and drinks and enjoy them during the performance.

Oops, it’s a little blurry, but it’s tricky to get decent photos with the combined darkness and bright lights near the stage!

 

 

Afterwards, the audience was invited to take a tour backstage, which was an exciting surprise!

There are many characters that appear in the cast according to the story, and even a few famous ones – chef Paul Bocuse from Lyon, being a major one. Can you spot him?

 

 

I really recommend stepping inside this theater to experience such incredible local history. It’s an amazing victory for Laurent Mourguet that his puppetry continues on today, not just in Lyon, but throughout France today.

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