A small audience of parents and children had gathered to watch the puppets on Pont Saint-Louis, but plenty of other passersby turned their heads to follow the action as they walked on. The story in verse had a good rhythm to it and the puppeteer’s own gestures and expressions added drama to the movement of the simple marionettes. The puppet on his shoulder has climbed a tree to get away from the bear, while his companion plays dead on the ground.
The short story ended with a clearly stated moral, which to many French listeners would have identified it immediately as one of the fables of Jean de la Fontaine. I couldn’t catch all the words so I looked it up later.
‘Il m’a dit qu’il ne faut jamais / Vendre la peau de l’Ours qu’on de l’ait mis par terre.’
This wasn’t about friendship (I’d misheard ‘de l’ait mis’ as ‘de l’ami’) or animal protection but rather more prosaic advice: ‘don’t sell the skin of the bear until you’ve killed it.’
Storytelling with puppets is a longstanding tradition in Paris. In the seventeenth century, when Jean de la Fontaine was writing his fables, marionnettistes entertained rich and poor, at court and on the street. Later guignols or puppet theatres were established in all the city’s main parks and some still function today.
The Fables with their rhythmic verse and simple stories are well suited to being dramatised by puppets (as a quick web search confirms) but it is unlikely that la Fontaine saw his work performed on the street. Marionettes arrived in France from Italy with their own stock of stories and characters, talking animals not included.