Rehearsing with Gods

Since the 1960s, Bread & Puppet Theater has come to life in urban street protests and remote farmlands, awakening in audiences a sense of wonder, solidarity, and a recollection of life’s essentials.
Godface, dance, The Pageant,  1986. Photo by Ronald T. Simon
Imagine a landscape as a painter's canvas—one in which pigments of green are swayed by the wind, dampened by the rain, lightened by the sun; a canvas where tiny figures emerge from the distance, changing the surface with their footsteps and filling the foreground with life.

The sky in this canvas is often darkened by a flurry of activity; by wars and the suffering they cause. But even as the darkness passes, soft voices are heard singing, rejoicing, and lamenting the dead.

This is the reality of the Bread & Puppet Theater's Domestic Resurrection Circus, and of director Peter Schumann's ability to people the landscape with puppets, parades, and pageants.

Bread & Puppet is the distillation of Schumann's aesthetic into a visual language where the syntax is humanism and the only verb, in a social-political sense, is to act.

I, too, want to join your circus
Peter Schumann is likely the only 16-century human stalking planet Earth today. His art is of that time, as is his thinking. For what sane mind these days is swirling with gods and demons and swimming among archetypes? We mostly exist in our little world of images and simulacra, fed to us by the media masters—look, honey, I shrunk the universe, major credit cards accepted.

But Peter's world is as large as it was for Luther or Michelangelo, or Giordano Bruno, as full of portents, images, characters, all speaking, listening, to be embraced or exorcised. He runs a workshop, as did the Renaissance masters, laying out the big ideas and nourishing apprentices as they grow toward his vision. But he is still, at 69, far beyond any of them—the best stilter, the most graceful dancer, the most music-filled musician, the most visionary painter and sculptor, the most lateral-thinking inventor, the funniest, the most serious, the most innovative with language.

The theater itself manifests those virtues, and so Bread & Puppet—as a whole—projects a kind of model for the human—inquisitive, energetic, hard-working, ethical, frugal, imaginative, thoughtful, knowledgeable, articulate, opinionated, joyful, hopeful, zany, and eccentric, passionate and free-wheeling to the point of madcap; and at the same time, humble, good-natured, approachable, compassionate, idealistic, and generous; and in the face of injustice, fearless and cocky, audacious and militant, resilient, rambunctious, persistently defiant, incorruptible, indestructible. Overall: magical, principled, and visionary. Not a bad combo. Something to emulate.

You can feel emulation in the crowds' rhythmic clapping and spontaneous sing-alongs: not “thank-you for a great performance,” but some kind of longed-for joining, “take me with you, I, too, want to run away and join your circus.”

Insurrection of the spirit
This is the dialectic Bread & Puppet looks out upon: the world affirmed, the world denied, the world adored, the world detested. World, Unworld. It is clear which side the theater is on. But there are no rose-colored glasses in the prop room.

A recent blast from the past: The chorus I sing in is rehearsing Mozart's Requiem, and being too cheap to buy another score when I knew I had one around somewhere, I went rummaging deep in the music boxes to find a score from when I had conducted the piece for the puppets. Inside the score, an old mimeographed scrap of paper, a message from Peter to the cast, perhaps a program note:

Mozart's Requiem pleads mercy for fated souls. The guilty consumer and guest of the world argues for his salvation on Judgment Day. Since the decision to create the Day of Wrath has slipped away from God and Satan and has fallen into the hands of our defense policy makers, our modern souls' plea has to be directed to our political leaders and their constituents. We have endowed them with the ultimate power to destroy what we know and to crush what wants to grow.

Responding to this urgency, the Requiem becomes a call for the insurrection of the human spirit against a bureaucracy which was meant to organize our traffic and troubles and is now out of proportion, crazy, and in charge of our deaths.

“Guests of the world” we are—and now guests that are called to insurrection. That's the theater's big picture of what's going on out beyond puppetland.

Does Bread & Puppet Give Me Hope?

hope to be able to name names when names need
hope to see the slapstick in the tragic, the tragic in the slapstick
hope for the tongues that can speak the unspeakable
hope that the glib may come unglued
hope that persistence will continue to persist
hope that the uninvented may already be born
hope that probity and integrity will triumph over want
hope in idealism at the helm
hope for the categorical imperative
hope in the rightness of Yes! for an answer
hope that I might someday play the accordion
hope that the great unicycle will roll on, upright
hope that the dead can actually rise BOOM CLASH
hope that the virtues—classical and theological—will triumph by Glover example
hope to be at demonstrations I don't attend
hope that you don't get only what you pay for and
hope that the best things in life will not be things
hope that un-American activity may triumph in the world
hope that the ever-renewable will continue to renew
hope that human reach will continue to exceed its grasp
hope that there is still an alternative to There Is No Alternative
hope that the New World Order may become new
hope that Hope will not be deferred, nor the heart be sick
hope that in this hell, hope need not be abandoned
hope that swords may also be beaten into puppets
hope that giants may still walk the Earth ...

Excerpted with permission from Rehearsing with Gods: Photographs and Essays on The Bread & Puppet Theater (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004). Author Marc Estrin is a writer, cellist, puppeteer, and activist and author of Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa. Photographer Ronald T. Simon's study of the work of Peter Schumann spans 20 years. Simon has worked for the National Film Board of Canada and CBC Radio.

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