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Frieze Week New York 2024

Bread and Puppet Theater’s 60-Year Dance of Death

Though it left the Lower East Side half a century ago, the Bread and Puppet Theater’s participatory anti-war morality plays continue a New York history of performance and protest

BY Hussein A.H. Omar in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 02 MAY 24

I saw Bread and Puppet Theater’s most recent show in San Antonio, Texas. This city was the former home of US Air Force serviceman Aaron Bushnell, whose fatal self-immolation on February 25 this year, just a few days prior to the performance, recalled the horrifying spectacle of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc’s protest in 1963 against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Bookending Bread and Puppet Theater’s work thus far, these two acts were desperate demands for conscience: one echoed by the company over the course of six decades.

Bread and Puppet
Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover (VT), 1995, performance view. Courtesy: Associated Press and Alamy Stock Photo

Some 60 years after it was founded in a loft on the Lower East Side by Peter and Elka Schumann in 1963, and 50 years since it left New York for a farm in Glover, Vermont, Bread and Puppet Theater continues to respond to urgent crises with unapologetically political performances, staged in any place that’s not a “proper” theater. With its ritual distribution of bread and aioli to audiences, its repurposed bedsheets and its painted cardboard sets, its papier-mâché heads and woodblock-printed banners, the group has a homespun aesthetic redolent of the 1960s anti-war movement from which it emerged. Before October 7, 2023 those aesthetics might have felt nostalgic, even reactionary. And yet, as the world sees mass demonstrations on a scale that nears that of the anti-Vietnam War protests, the idioms, tactics and languages of those times feel closer to us than ever.

By the third scream, the captive audience began to desperately, cathartically, even hysterically, join in.

With remarkable consistency, the work of the company has persistently framed the American empire as a death cult. Described by Schumann as “a wild against death,” his first show in the US in 1962 was called Totentanz (literally, “death dance”) and his latest, The Palestine Emergency Mass (2024), conducts a funeral service for the ongoing catastrophe we are forced to witness but are powerless to stop. He demands during the course of the performance that we reflect on whether it is worth saving “a civilization that has routinely large numbers of dead as part of its merchandise.” Bread and Puppet’s shows more often than not have little plot: largely allegorical, their eponymous “puppets”—which are sometimes masks, sometimes idols—stand for archetypes rather than characters. They are a cross between medieval morality plays like Everyman and Mankind and avant-garde performance art, infused with the rituals of High Church Catholicism and a playful—entirely concocted—“pagan” cosmology.

When asked in an interview published in TDR: The Drama Review in 1968 why he turned to puppets to intervene in politics, Schumann insisted that it was for the sense of “alienation” which “is automatic with puppets.” The performers operating the company’s puppets—typically dressed in white—fade into collectivity, allowing principles to float above personalities. Where egos fall apart, ideas come into sight. One might say that the performers, who are often masked and sometimes concealed, make it possible to unmask the ideologies that shape our political horizons but which we seldom recognize as fictions.

Opposite Bread and Puppet Theater in Montpelier, VT, 2006. Photograph: Randy Duchaine/Alamy
Bread and Puppet Theater in Montpelier, VT, 2006, performance view. Courtesy: Alamy; photograph: Randy Duchaine

The apparent naivety of Bread and Puppet’s aesthetic aims to uncover the illusions that conceal our most deeply held convictions. To take one example, during The Palestine Emergency Mass, the company performs “a traditional American war dance.” It is nothing but histrionic screaming, the entitled temper tantrum of those whose unquestioned sense of moral and material superiority has been questioned. Here, the condescending, hubristic ethnographic gaze, through which the “West” constantly imagines the “rest” that it seeks to either remake in its own image or eradicate, is turned back on itself. In this regard, the company’s puppets “profane the holy,” to paraphrase a segment from The Communist Manifesto (1848) that’s-chanted in this recent show: the mélange of pagan and Catholic ritual unveils the irrational contingencies that underwrite both, equally.

The show depicts a conflict between two groups of protagonists: “the Terrorists” and “the Horrorists;” the former are depicted as merely the enemies that have decided to get in the way of the latter’s unencumbered “total military superiority.” The difference is cosmetic: the former are small, and the latter wear suits. Just as shredded newspapers and flour can make a hollow god, a suit can transform a man. Power makes truth and might makes right.

In a surprising twist, the show’s titular funeral mass isn’t held for the thousands dead since October 7 but instead is a funeral for moribund thinking, “a funeral to bury the rotten idea of the day”—revealed, mid-ceremony, to be the limited notions of “freedom” and “democracy” that politicians disingenuously tout. It is for ourselves—what the production, evoking cultural theorist Klaus Theweleit’s “not-yet-born,” calls “not-yet-dead”—that we are grieving. In the final scene of The Palestine Emergency Mass, the performers start to repeatedly scream. By the third scream, the captive audience, unprompted, began to desperately, cathartically, even hysterically, join them.

“Indulgent, sentimental, defeatist,” so wrote art critic and AIDS activist Douglas Crimp of public grief rituals during the AIDS crisis in his 1989 essay “Mourning and Militancy,” reflecting the suspicion in which some activists have held them. To skeptics, these performances may seem at best like distractions and, at worst, like a kind of numbing agent, satisfying impotent people’s desires to feel like they are doing something, while in fact postponing the kind of risk militant actions that could more effectively force the hand of the powerful. In that way, the company’s name, Bread and Puppet, seems deliberately to invoke not just the revolutionary demand for “bread and roses” but the Roman panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses,” which the poet Juvenal said was all that was needed to appease the masses.

Before seeing Bread and Puppet Theater’s work in person, I was wholly convinced that the point of political theater was to “turn grief into anger,” that mourning was only worth indulging in if it could be transformed into activism. But, on watching the performance, I realized that this persistent demand that political theater convert grief into “something useful” misses a fundamental point. We need to mourn, collectively, the lost objects that we believed made us who we are, as a prerequisite for self-transformation. Derailed by a density of death that’s hard to digest, there is an unacknowledged power in our capacity to scream back, together.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week New York 2024 under the title “Paper Gods.”

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Hussein A.H. Omar is writing a 500-year history of Egypt as told through the stories of his family and their cemeteries. He also organizes with Writers Against the War on Gaza.