The Political Ecology of Peter Schumann's Bread & Puppet Theatre Company in 'Rehearsing With Gods'

breadandpuppetWhether or not you already know the Bread and Puppet Theater, “Rehearsing with Gods” is a wonderful way to learn more – to see, feel, and almost taste some of the magic of the seminal puppet theater founded in 1962 by German Peter Schumann.

Simon and Estrin have both been a part of the B & P family for a long time (Simon photographing them since the 1980’s, and Estrin a B & P performer for several yrs), and so the writings and photos show deep familiarity with their subject matter.

At the end of every B & P performance, fresh baked bread is generously shared with the audience, with the whole grain subtext that art should be as basic to life as bread. Their shows are almost always outdoors, puppets often much larger than human-size, which means their shows often border on pageant, parade, even ritual. Their home since the mid-1970’s has been a Vermont farm, outside the town of Glover, whose gently sloping fields are perfect for their outsized shows.

Schumann has not been afraid to meld his poetic aesthetic with concrete political causes. Through B & P’s history, his shows and street parades have embraced protest against everything from the Vietnam war, to the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, to recently, the WTO (World Trade Organisation).

“Rehearsing With Gods” includes short, freestyle essays (often only a page) in chapters entitled Death, Fiend, Beast, Human, World, Gift, Bread, and Hope. The essays and large photos, all black and white, work perfectly to take us into B and P’s elemental, yet mythic world. We are transported to other worlds seeing the often huge, roughly made papier mache faces, the billowy cloth legs blowing in the wind, the ceremonial fire at one end of a group of characters.

Photos in the “Death” chapter include a large blurry pair of wings in front of a crowd of tree trunks; a group of shrouded actors raising at various angles several large (as large as them) disembodied ears; a huge face/mask on the earth, with grass growing out of its seemingly decomposing surface; and what looks like a sitting grassy corpse, next to a cross labelled “Sergio Hernandez – 4/28/87.” Is the latter image an homage to a Mexican refugee dead in the Arizona desert? a Guatamalan peasant killed by soldiers?

In this chapter, Estrin writes of:

“a man named Schumann in a land called Glover. He is on good terms with Death. Not Keats’ ‘easeful death’ of the soft name, but Death of the scythe and saber, Death of the slicing edge.”

Later in the chapter:

“Somebody has to say it. In the face of our denial, some child has to point it out. That child is Peter Schumann. He’s only sixty-nine, not old enough to be socialized, to know the blindness and civility expected of him.”

The final chapter, “Hope,” has many photos of puppets that are variations of a large, often white head, with huge outstretched arms (or are they wings? or holy robes?). Near the end of that chapter, one photo has the proportions switched: a smallish head, covered in white cloth, clearly a nun, with enormous hands spread in prayer or offering.

One page in that chapter is a poem titled, “Does Bread and Puppet Give me Hope?” which attempts to answer, in many lines that come straight out of the Bread and Puppet World, that question. A few are:

“hope to see the slapstick in the tragic, the tragic in the slapstick
hope that the great unicycle will roll on, upright
hope that the wine and wafer will sustain and not be genetically modified
hope that there is a shore for Michael’s boat to row to
hope that fire will always bake as well as burn
hope that the dead can actually rise BOOM CLASH
hope that the swords may also be beaten into puppets
hope that our masks may show us who we are”

“Rehearsing With Gods – Photographs and Essays on The Bread and Puppet Theater” by Ronald T. Simon & Marc Estrin

Guest Reviewer Harvey Stein is a filmmaker and writer, originally from New York, who moved to Israel in 2006. He is currently working on two feature length documentaries, “RxCannabis – a Freedom Tale” and “Heart of the Other,” and can be reached through either of these sites.

More on puppets and bread:

Reuse It or Lose It: How to Make Puppets 
Earth Day and Leavened Bread 
Organic Whole Wheat Bread for Harvest Time and Shavuot

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