by Attila Szabó and Éva Hutvágner (Hungarian Theatre Museum and Institute, Budapest)

This is an attempt at the digital reconstruction of a puppet performance by the Nemzeti Bábszínjáték, the first permanent puppet theatre in Hungary. Founded in 1941 by István Árpád Rév, in a room of a former hotel in Budapest’s Podmanicky street, the troupe performed on a repertory basis for both children and adults, with monumental success. During their short existence of only four years the company put up ten shows: folk tale adaptations for children and puppet operas, mystery plays and puppet cabarets for adults. Toldi, based on the epic poem with the same title by János Arany, was one of their biggest successes. The show ran for 756 times, in the hall seating 130 people. Their last performance was in September 1945, as they received no playing permit in the new regime.

The performances played by the National Puppet Play, founded by puppeteer and puppet maker István Árpád Rév in the 1940’s, offer a unique material for reconstruction. The puppet maker and theatre manager was very meticulous in the documentation of his performances. Rév, after returning in 1941 to Hungary from his drawing studies in Düsseldorf, founded the first permanent puppet theatre in Hungary. The National Puppet Play (Nemzeti Bábszínjáték) received no public funding, he used his own savings to operate the puppet company, of which he was the director, puppet designer, puppet maker and dramaturge. He developed his unique puppet mechanics which enabled him to move the eyes and mouth of a traditional glove puppet, with an intricate system of small levers. Their first performance, Toldi, was a huge public success, being performed for no less than 756 times.

What makes our reconstruction work feasible despite the age of the performance is the fact that Rév was extremely meticulous in documenting his own work. The artist’s attention for detail, which becomes obvious when looking at any of his puppets, is echoed in the abundant (and very specific) documentation that survived about the National Puppet Play’s short activity: performance photos, full sets of wood-carved miniature furniture which was used for the set, and a detailed photo album about what each scene represented in the plot, puppet costumes carefully placed on miniature hangers with a detailed dressing plan booklet and many promotional materials. In Rév’s puppet theatre some puppets were redressed to play different characters both in the same performance and also between different shows of the company. Also very unique of the puppet theatre of this period is a short film fragment which features Rév’s company in action.

Toldi was their first and undoubtedly most successful performance. Based on János Arany’s hyponymous epic poem, the performance followed the extensively epic structure of the literary original, thus the need for 21 different sets. It is advisable to dwelve shortly on the analysis of the literary source, since we know that Rév used the full text of Toldi for the performance. The epic poem, which presents the life of a peasant boy (of distant aristocratic origins) who becomes the bravest knight in the king’s suite due to his extraordinary strength and kindness of heart, is not just an ubiquitous literary work from the 19th century, a compulsory reading for high-school students, but also one of the principal works of the Hungarian literary canon, which, from the mid 19th century onwards was a most important literary bearer of Hungarian cultural identity and cultural memory.  Written in 1946 for a poetry call published by the Kisfaludy Társaság, which explicitly demanded a work which poetically rendered the story of one of the great Hungarian heroes remembered by folklore, the epic poem was actually based on a literary paratext: the Toldi by Péter Ilosvai Selymes from 1574. Later in his life Arany wrote two other parts to Toldi, but this first work undoubtedly started him on the route of becoming the prime poet of Hungary for several decades into the late 19th century. Although the content, form and purpose of folklore inspiration in relation to Toldi is a very complex and much-debated issue, one cannot argue that Toldi had instantly became a literary blockbuster (receiving the acclaim of both the critics and the wider public), and it managed to keep this position more-or-less unchanged throughout the late 19th, early and mid 20th century, the communist times and well beyond. Just as its “folk epic” sibling, John the Valiant written by Arany’s great literary friend Sándor Petőfi, next to being a compulsory school reading, Toldi keeps endlessly recurring in very different adaptations, many of which are for the theatre or puppet stage. Due to its simple, folktale-like story line, clarity of language and beautiful and coherent system of symbols and tropes, it is easy to see how the poem could be appealing for both young and adult readers. Even in the 1930’s the literary public opinion sees Toldi in a virtually unchanged way. Literary historian Elemér Császár writes in 1932: ‘In János Arany’s Toldi the Hungarian poetic spirit presents itself in is purity and originality, at the peak of its power, and, together with Petőfi’s lirical oeuvre, reaches its zenyth, and rises to international rank’.

We know from contemporary accounts (reviews) that the text of the epic poem was performed uncut and without changes. There was a puppet character in the show of János Arany, the poet himself, presumably he was playing the role of the narrator. Still, without having found the exact script it is hard to tell if all narrative parts were recited by the figure of Arany or maybe the dialogue parts (present also in the original) were made more numerous, to give more text to the individual characters. It is also impossible to tell without recovering the script or finding references of contemporary viewers how the more naturalist, carnivalesque elements present in Arany’s text were rendered on the puppet scene, how was the bloodshed, murder or drinking presented for an audience which would also have children present. But by looking at the puppet of the Bull, with whom Toldi fights in one of the scenes, we can conclude that the animal could move its body parts (horns especially) in a way even a real animal could not. So it is quite probable that raw naturalism was translated here too to some sort of surprizing, mechanical and “ultra realist” puppet mechanics effect.

Original photographs

István Árpád Rév with his puppets of poet János Arany (Narrator) and Bence from Toldi
István Árpád Rév showing the backstage of his puppet theatre, with the puppets of Toldi in the background.
István Árpád Rév in his workshop, fine-tuning stage technology.

Toldi Anyja OBJ by szaboate on Sketchfab

Toldi György by szaboate on Sketchfab

Lovag a Toldiból by szaboate on Sketchfab

The set

The puppet scenery elements were preserved in a remarkable quantity in large cardboard boxes. Luckily, the set album with black-and-white photos of the set (without puppets), and the names of the scenes, and cut-outs of the corresponding verses from Arany, served as a good guide of how to assemble the set designs. In my digital reconstruction I made separate 3D models of each element and assembled them later in a software, using the black and white photo as a backdrop. The 3D virtual space created in this way became a very challenging palimpsest: the metonymical record of a past (dead) moment represented by the photo is overlaid with 3D colour representations of the small furniture elements which give the impression of small bit of reality invading this black-and-white space. By cutting up the two-dimensional photo and wrapping the fragments around 3D planes (virtual ‘coulisses’) a sense of fullness and liveliness is restored to the space, where the lost set elements break the total illusion: here we only see the shadow-like contour on the photo of the small pieces which were not preserved.
Photo of Scene 6 from the book of set arrangements, specifying the arrangement of furniture, the type of curtain used and lighting.
Portraits of Ilona Zrínyi (1643-1652) and her husband Ferenc Rákóczi I (1645-1676), painters unknown (18th century).


I also experimented with the virtual animation of the puppet models, based on the movement possibilities we can reconstruct knowing the technical possibilities of Rév’s puppets. The simple glove puppets used for centuries in the marketplace folk puppet tradition, versatile enough by the possibility to just swap characters by swapping a simple costume form the set, were complemented by Rév with a wooden head carved in detail, and, of course, the unique expressivity achieved through the movable eyeballs, head and mouth. These were operated through a rod which had ingenious small levers attached to them, which moved the mechanics of the eyes and mouth with the help of nylon strings. All these movements could be implemented in the animated 3D model and published on an online service so that viewers can watch them interactively, and study their movement from all angles.


Puppet costumes, made by Rév’s wife, were used to dress the few basic puppet figures into other caracters. The costumes were neatly labeled and catalogued, which described the exact order the costumes should be used in the show. These are just a few of the dozens of costumes used for Toldi, on display in the Puppet Department of the Hungarian Theatre Museum and Institute.


The puppets used by the National Puppet Play for Toldi in 1941 differ quite much in visual style from the wooden statues made by István Árpád Rév in the 1930’s. As a sculptor Rév chose more characteristic curves and cubist forms, achieving a higher level of abstraction with his figures of various animals. The elaborate titles he gave the statues, the dynamism, tension and their caricature-like forms give these artefacts an important place in the arts history of Hungarian sculpture and also the history of applied arts and interior decoration: or generally design, as we would call today. However, for his puppets he chose more simple forms and a more pronounced naturalism, wishing to appeal to a broader audience (both children and adults) and underline national characteristics, also with the costumes also naturalistically fitting in the costume history of the Hungarian renaissance. In one of the sets I reconstructed, Rév meticulously placed two miniature re-paintings of two historical portraits from the 17th century. This contrast between the two approaches of Rév’s oeuvre is very clearly shown when comparing the 3D model of a wooden cow statue from the 1930’s with his puppets from Toldi.