For sixty-two years, from 1955 to 2017, one of the unique attractions of Steinau was the Holzköppe marionette theater, which performed in the Marstall, a historical building which had originally served as the horse stables for the nearby Steinau Castle. The word Holzköppe means ‘wooden heads’ in the local dialect, and they chose the name because the marionettes were made of wood and of course had wooden heads.
We went to the Holzköppe at least once in the 1970s or 80s with our then-small children, and again in 2012 with two of our grandsons, who were seven and five at the time. The performance we saw with them in 2012 was the fairy tale Cinderella, which in German is Aschenputtel. It was done in the German version, in which Cinderella is flown to the young king’s ball by two white doves, instead of going in a horse-drawn coach that turns back into a pumpkin at midnight.
The marionette performance was quite simplified for the children (leaving out some of the gory details in the Grimm Brothers’ version) and included a cute little dog for Cinderella. The young king had a kindly old adviser who explained that since theirs was a very poor kingdom (not a Königreich but a Königarm — this being a play on words in German since reich can mean rich and arm can mean poor), the menu for the royal banquet would consist of sausages and potato salad.
(By the way, there have been several operas based on Cinderella. The best known is La Cenerentola — in Italian, but based more or less on the French version of the story — by Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), which I have seen in Wiesbaden, Nürnberg, Bremerhaven and several times in Frankfurt am Main.)
In 2012, the sign on the front of the Marstall in Steinau said that the Holzköppe troupe had been in existence for 88 years (they changed the number every year, of course). But they were counting from the founding of the troupe in 1924, not from when they settled in Steinau in 1955. And in the “88 years” they were including a decade-long hiatus starting in 1939, when the founder Karl Magersuppe (1900-1981) was drafted into the German army at the beginning of the Second World War.
Their website says the first performance of the Holzköppe was in Bad Hersfeld in 1924, when troupe put on the traditional Doktor Faust (not Goethe’s version), which has been a standard of German puppet and marionette theaters for hundreds of years.
Originally the Holzköppe was a travelling company, both before and after the Second World War, until they finally got the chance to settle down in the Marstall in Steinau in 1955. The founder, Karl Magersuppe, went on doing performances up until his death at the age of 81. After that his widow and then his son took it over, and more recently the third generation of the same family has continued doing the performances.
In 2017, after a series of conflicts with the mayor of Steinau, the Magersuppe family canceled their lease on the Marstall (after 62 years) and went back to performing as a travelling company, playing mainly in nearby towns such as Bad Orb and Bad Soden-Salmünster. Since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdowns in March 2020, they have not been able to perform at all, but they say they hope to resume as soon as the pandemic allows.
On their website, the Holzköppe lists various productions which they say are suitable for various age groups. In earlier years, when their performances were nearly always sold out, they strictly refused admittance to children under the age of 4, and added:
Gilt auch für Wunderkinder!
Which means: “Applies also to child prodigies!” But in the meantime this admonition seems to have disappeared from their website.
My photos in this post are from 2008 and 2012. I revised the text in 2021.