Peter and Elka Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater, the anticapitalist troupe founded in 1963, occupies several buildings on the former Dopp Farm in a remote corner of Vermont. Shanties built from scrap metal and timber dot the landscape, along with some beached flowerchild school buses. When you approach the property through dense forest on a country road, Bread and Puppet at first looks like any other hardscrabble farm here in the Northeast Kingdom, the poorest and most rural part of Vermont. Seeing its weathered structures, you might conclude that there is a phenomenon called time, and that, as it passes, it ravages things. Otherwise, the place seems more or less frozen in 1975, the year the company first arrived. That it had not changed, and might never, was already part of its mystique in the early 1980s, when I first visited the farm. The doors have always been wide open at Bread and Puppet, but an outsider would have an easier time assimilating into an Amish village.
Though it shares the features of a working farm and a commune, Bread and Puppet is an enormous puppet maker’s workshop: a factory devoted to the manufacture of, mainly, human likenesses. There are too many puppets and masks here to house with any semblance of order: they are strewn about the property, tacked to hickories and maples, piled in sheds and under porches, hung up like deer hides in stalls. The company’s ambitious performance schedule means that some of these effigies do get taken down off their pegs and recycled, bestowed again with life and movement; but for many of these poignant souls, the best that can be hoped for is a kind of grimacing retirement in the museum that fills every inch of a large dairy barn on the property.
The Bread and Puppet Museum, where some of the best and most storied puppets are kept, is often deserted. You turn the lights on when you arrive and stuff some cash, if you have it, into the donation box. The gift store also runs on the honor system. Unlike most museum stores, this one sells original works of art: you can buy limited-edition prints, banners, and posters made in the company’s print shop, all for a pittance. These rather primitive woodblock designs, with stenciled, well-worn slogans of defiance (“Rise,” “Courage,” “Resist”), are a fixture of Vermont kitchens and coffee shops, stapled or taped to the walls. I think I have never seen one framed. Down the aisles from the shop, the former stalls of the barn function like shrines in a medieval cathedral or vitrines in a natural history museum, in which retired puppets and sets are crowded into expressive narrative scenarios.
Smirking, wincing, portly, wizened, the puppets make up a vision of humanity in its entirety: heroes, pests, capitalists, sadists, all of them helplessly locked into their assigned natures and motives, unchanged from season to season. In one painted scene, tiny angels or babies rain out of the sky like something from an acid-trip Blake engraving. Many of the scenes and figures are said to have originated in dreams, where they are certainly destined to return. The museum is in fact a kind of collective American unconscious in which our nightmares of guilt and culpability are heightened and accentuated. Bread and Puppet has produced some of the great visual representations of modern American atrocity, from Hiroshima to Vietnam to covert assassinations and environmental terror; yet as a medium for expressing moral and political anger, puppetry, with its innate connections to innocence and childhood, serves also as a powerful ironizing force. Walking through the museum, it is hard to compose and sustain a single response: jest and genocide adjoin, as they do in the national conscience.
Most of the exhibits memorialize shows from the company’s past. In a downstairs corner of the barn, “The White Horse Butcher” presents an anticapitalist tableau with a frightened, pitiful, tormented horse at its center, a pure being surrounded by expressionless white-faced bureaucrats who have come to sacrifice it to the god of money. Upstairs in the loft, the tall rafters frame the company’s distinctive “giants,” presences perhaps forty feet tall, like primitive gods with an eye on the mayhem below. There, the Founding Fathers hang lifeless and slack from thick beams, as though it was finally their turn to be lynched. In one stall, an enormous effigy of Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was assassinated by a CIA-linked group while saying Mass in San Salvador, presides over his last Eucharist. Across the aisle we are faced with the most terrifying exhibit of all, “The Birdcatcher in Hell”: here vivisectionist puppets painted in sickly reds and dark pinks, the color of viscera, oversee the fate of Lieutenant William Calley, the soldier who was charged with 109 counts of murder after the 1968 My Lai massacre.
The company’s uncompromising politics is expressed in spectacles of shock and confrontation, images that “can’t be unseen,” as we say. Decades later it all still has the power to unsettle. But the puppets, mostly made of papier-mâché, cannot really be preserved. And so an extra layer of pathos clings to the museum, a feeling of old battles, old adversities, perhaps even lost causes. A world now vanished, where puppets could serve as countercultural tools, rhetorical weapons, or literal disguises: in 1970 Father Daniel Berrigan, who had been placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for evading prosecution for his part in burning hundreds of draft cards with the Catonsville Nine, fled from the authorities inside an enormous Bread and Puppet figure of an apostle.
Elka Schumann died on August 1, of complications following a stroke. According to most accounts, it was Elka who shaped the farm as a working and living environment, with her husband Peter’s mask-making and their bread-making at the nucleus of a system that included, under her supervision, the profitable and thriving printing press, a cider press, a sugarbush with two thousand taps, and a flock of sheep providing wool for the Schumann family and others. The farm blurs the line between forms of work that produce outcomes deemed necessary for survival (bread) and those derided as frivolous (puppets).
Peter Schumann, aged eighty-seven, is the Geppetto behind all these puppets. The civilization that he and Elka have assiduously tended and elaborated here for nearly fifty years includes not only artwork and performances but an austere code of life, a playfully expressed but fierce moral logic, the coaxing of a rather forbidding and harsh landscape into self-expression, and the quiet management of his large stake in an entire region’s cultural life. Peter’s art is collaborative, with a high degree of freedom delegated to his many and various partners, including spur-of-the-moment volunteers.
What he and Elka created is an approach: a distinct visual and performance idiom, the traces of its making inscribed on its surface, with room for innovation. It can be crude enough to be reproducible by hastily trained amateurs and even by young children. It is above all an ethic of cheapness, never betrayed in all its years. I once overheard some members of the company planning to drive to St. Albans, an hour or more away, to pick up a load of old construction scrap. Neighbors drop off their old house paint and worn bedsheets, which Schumann and his collaborators turn into works of art.
Many of the volunteers at Bread and Puppet are paying tribute to their past. At a Bread and Puppet performance, “one is seized by one’s childhood,” as the poet Barry Goldensohn once put it. Archetypes of causation—a puppet-hammer hitting a puppet-nail, a son saying good-bye to a mother—drive deep into the preconscious mind. Generations of Vermonters were taken as babies and toddlers to these performances. I attribute to Bread and Puppet an important role in my first narrative memory, a sequence with movement and sound: this was July 4, 1976, at the Bicentennial celebration in Battery Park, Burlington, Vermont. I was five. I remember shriners, a band, a parade of drummers. A neighbor hoists me up on his shoulders for a view of the concert and, beyond it, of Lake Champlain. But then I see frightening puppets many times my size.
I shut my eyes to protect myself, and then the memory ends. I have played this clip over and over in my mind and written a long poem (“Bicentennial”) that recasts the moment as a confrontation with my estranged father. The trauma of witnessing those huge effigies ends the memory; the imagination has to take over. My subsequent early associations with Bread and Puppet, which turned up often in Burlington to participate in fairs and parades throughout the 1970s, are of something cruel, sordid, and dangerous, the dream version of the town’s countercultural demimonde that, in a household presided over by my grandfather, a decorated World War II veteran who led the Vermont National Guard, was regarded as an insidious and filthy, an un-American, scene—an occupation.
Since the early 1970s, the main event on the summer program has been the company’s Domestic Resurrection Circus, which this summer celebrated its fiftieth performance year. From the beginning it was a throwback, staging shows that were well known from the company’s earlier work doing traveling shows and street theater. It is a powerful form of ritual, summoning and enacting memory for both its performers and its audience, the boundary between those two constituencies, as always, very porous. One arrives at the farm and is directed by performers to the large natural amphitheater—said to be a drained glacial lake—where the performance unfolds. Sideshows and skits, vaudeville acts, weird Shakespearean bits, Chaplinesque comic fiascoes, jug bands, ragtime, mimes, lute players, what have you: these often precede the main event. The “resurrection” of the title is both enacted by the massive puppets and implicit in the event itself.
If you see the Circus week after week, it starts to function both as a news aggregator and a kind of church service. At a performance this August, a call for relief for Haiti, a few days after its catastrophic earthquake, was followed by antics involving a puppet-zebra and some fleeing children who had been, as always, recruited and assembled the afternoon of the performance. Then, emerging from the background, an iconic Archbishop Romero puppet, his gentle face rendered at enormous scale, presided over cutouts of fallen bodies. The appearance of the martyred bishop was one of many solemn details that gestured toward Elka’s recent death, while reminding us—though who needed reminding, with the news from Afghanistan?—that even in a humid meadow in Vermont, we were all in the belly of a brutal and tragic empire.
Bread and Puppet is a repository of theater’s own preconscious history, of those works and traditions—pageants, masques, passion plays—that underpin modern theatrical forms. These old modes are linked to the Schumanns’ first-hand experiences of twentieth-century mass violence. The idea is that the oldest human expressions can be summoned to assist our grieving for our newest innovations in cruelty and humiliation. Peter was born in 1934, in Lubin, Silesia. When he was nine the family fled under attack from both Soviet tanks and Allied bombs. From his earliest childhood, he remembers “the midsummer night arts of the country people in these northern countries,” including Kasperl, the wandering German puppet theater. In a refugee camp in Northern Germany, Peter entertained his family with puppets and baked rye bread, following the same recipe used today at the farm, in a communal oven. In Munich in the 1950s he founded a dance troupe that in its “proselytizing effect on spectators” recalled, for the poet and theater historian Stefan Brecht (son of Bertolt), “the wandering flagellants of the 14th century.”
Elka Scott, the granddaughter of the American pacifist and simple-living guru Scott Nearing, met her husband in Munich during this period, when he was attempting to arouse the community with spectacles, as she put it, of “mass choreography and some huge events like Oberammergau,” the huge open-air passion play staged in the Bavarian alps every ten years since the seventeenth century. But Peter was probably too “curt,” according to Elka; the advertising posters, though beautiful, were “illegible.” And so these large-scale shows were basically unperformable, though there was much “talking and theorizing” about them.
Peter and Elka soon found themselves in Ridgefield, Connecticut, living with her parents. Her father, John Scott, had begun as a socialist and migrated to the Soviet Union, where Elka was born. Disillusioned by Stalinism and turning against his own father, Scott became an OSS officer, then an editor at Time magazine and a prominent lecturer against Bolshevism. For an Eastern European Communist with fairly intense anti-American leanings, it was a strange environment in which to launch a career as a puppeteer, but Scott did arrange for Schumann to show his sculptures, constructed from scavenged materials around the Ridgefield property, in the lobby of a local fuel company.
By the fall of 1961 Schumann was ready to bring a menagerie of figures to the Lower East Side, where avant-garde traditions and community activism—“high” and “low,” to put it crudely—could be joined. Though Schumann was influenced by Merce Cunningham and John Cage, his impulse was always to revive, in stark modern ways, the darkest and oldest spectacles. His debut production in the United States was Totentanz, or Dance of Death, in 1962—his interpretation of a medieval liturgical play, demonstrating in hyper-legible forms the cycles of life and death, which reminded reviewers of “a pagan exorcism” as well as “funeral dirges” and “kindergarten bands.” This stark primitivism distinguishes all of Bread and Puppet’s classic 1960s shows: studies of fear inspired by Grimm, one of the few books Schumann’s family carried with them to the refugee camp; meditations on fire itself, derived from memories of seeing his village burn under Allied bombardment; pageants suggesting seasonal rituals of planting and harvesting; antiwar parades with figures of Christ and his disciples reenacting the Stations of the Cross.
The company soon found an audience on the Lower East Side, during street protests in New York neighborhoods, and in demonstrations all over the country. But when Totentanz was taken to the Putney School in southern Vermont, where Elka was teaching Russian in the fall of 1962, Bread and Puppet had to reconsider the scale and meaning of their constructions against a vast natural backdrop. The dancers from New York, never having seen the countryside, “filled themselves with dope and were in a trance.”
Bread and Puppet moved to the country for good in 1970, taking up residence first at Goddard, the experimental college in Plainfield, Vermont, before moving to the Dopp Farm in 1975. The story of their transition from provocative urban street theater to a residential company, set up as a kind of utopia in the serene countryside, is told in a two-volume history, long out of print: The Bread and Puppet Theater (1988), by Stefan Brecht. The volumes run to almost 1,600 pages and are filled with interview transcripts in several languages, a copious and polyphonic oral history, photos, documents, scripts, promotional copy, and other ephemera. It is an astonishing critical work, worth finding and buying for anyone interested in experimental theater: a kind of proto-Internet, at times quite close to seeming mad.
An ominous plotline begins to creep into Brecht’s otherwise sprawling history: the rise, from the mid-1960s onward, of a historical phenomenon called the “hippie.” Brecht’s deadpan account tracks the encroachment of hippies on Bread and Puppet the way you might chart the onset of a fatal disease. The title of chapter 18, volume 1, for example, is “November ’66. First hippie-style anti-war demonstration. Schumann tried to adapt.” Schumann, still blinking away the nightmare visions of his childhood when they were refreshed by the news from Vietnam, was not a hippie; neither, apparently, was Brecht.
Schumann’s attempts to do kids’ shows in the country during the early years gives a sense of some of the conflicts of temperament and worldview that loomed for the company in its new pastoral home at that historical moment. As Schumann’s theater partner at the time, Bob Ernstthal, recalls:
The shows were not entertaining…. That was the whole point. The shows, even for kids, even at the beach in Maine or at this church that we played in somewhere in Vermont. In these places the shows were always dark…because of Peter’s nature. It was very hard for him…. In a way he was obsessed. It’s like this: he was obsessed with soldiers—soldiers marching and soldiers killing.
In the early years the Domestic Resurrection Circus, the big annual event, was part of the dense 1970s summer infrastructure of people’s fairs, organic suppers, peace rallies, sarcastic Independence Day parades, and other unclassifiable happenings that a young Vermonter might attend with a van full of family or friends. But as Bread and Puppet established itself as a countercultural attraction in the 1980s, offering as anathema to Reagan’s America its annual, and therefore repeatable—and also increasingly nostalgic—experience, it was gradually colonized by a more commercial weekend-warrior type of hippie culture. The artist Mike Kelley is quoted in Fieldworks, Lytle Shaw’s book on arts utopias and site-specific poetics:
How does the relationship of the French situationists to their culture compare to the Yippies’ relationship to American culture? What’s the difference between Malcolm McLaren’s hip capitalism and Frank Zappa’s “selling out” jokes? How does the Clash’s role as a “political” band compare to that of the MC5? You’ll never know. Because all the Americans I’ve just mentioned are categorized as hippies, not artists. They don’t count.
Subsumed by hippie culture, the art of the Circus became hard to distinguish. But I think Kelley gets it slightly wrong. Hippies do “count” in American popular culture and commerce, much more than serious artists ever will. Hippies count first and foremost as a brand, while the looks and products inspired by, say, medieval dances of death or adaptations of the traditional Japanese kyogen have not made nearly as big a dent on the American commercial landscape. The central experience of the annual Bread and Puppet festival, always polychromatic, surprising, and mesmerizing when seen up close, was lost, for a time, inside a growing hippie scene—this began in the 1970s with families in tents, connected to the land and the region, with their own cherished histories at the Circus, and later turned into hordes of prep-school and college trustafarians who’d heard a rumor about a party in the woods.
The 1960s were present in etiolated form, in customs soullessly reenacted by members of my generation in the mid-1990s. I was working at the Kountry Kart Deli in downtown Burlington on the August day in 1995 when Jerry Garcia died. Grieving Deadheads asked us for free subs and bags of chips in solidarity as a van circled City Hall Park playing “Casey Jones.” The plan from that day forward seemed to be to elevate the Burlington band Phish—smug, calculating pranksters who were long a regional contender for the Dead’s fan base, and a few years before were annoying young lovers at high school proms—to iconic status.
By the summer of 1998, “Bread and Puppet” meant, to many of the attendees, merely a huge campsite in the Northeast Kingdom and a stop en route to the huge Phish show scheduled for later in the week at a former air force base in Maine. During that year’s Domestic Resurrection Circus, at an encampment near the farm two men got into a fight and one was fatally bludgeoned. As though in tribute to the cable TV version of the past they’d internalized, this new generation, my generation, had arranged its own Altamont, and Bread and Puppet, its history and deep meanings lost on the revelers, had to step back and take stock.
After the murder at the festival in 1998, Bread and Puppet turned its annual Circus into a daytime event running many weekends throughout the summer. The crowds are smaller, though the shows are no less ebullient or grand. It was a decision that kept the farm both from turning inward and from facing permanently outward, monetizing and commercializing the theater, making it into a brand. Those tens of thousands of pilgrims could have been given what they’d come to expect at Phish shows and other large-format summer spectacles: merch tables, concessions, ticket scalpers, an “experience” that awaited its destiny with the arrival of Instagram and Facebook.
The decision reconsecrated Dopp Farm as a farm, which here means a place where outcomes and processes cannot be severed from each other; where art is synonymous with the labor that goes into it; and where the forms of labor adjacent to art-making are elevated and presented as equally valuable. This was, I think, largely due to Elka’s intervention. But well-versed as she became in country things, she had to contend with a formidable ghost in the farm’s previous matriarch, Daisy Dopp, the longtime author of a farm column in the Newport Daily Express. In 1983 Elka published a collection of the columns, Daisy Dopp’s Vermont, with a preface she wrote and illustrations by Peter.
It is natural to think of farming and writing as adjacent forms of work that exist along a continuum, as many poets and writers since, say, Virgil have done. Dopp’s columns were read for their clear prose but also consulted for their practical tips, a little like the YouTube videos of today that can be used to learn how to tap a maple, make sourdough, or raise hens. A reviewer in The Burlington Free Press praised Dopp’s description of “sugaring the old way” as “the clearest we’ve ever read,” the method laid out painstakingly for reader-sugarers to follow. When I heard the news about Elka, I dragged out my copy of Daisy Dopp’s Vermont, bought at the Bread and Puppet Museum store. Here was another form of work, a small-scale retail operation overseen by Elka Schumann, who also gave impromptu tours of the place. In the corner of the barn where she once milked cows, there is a puppet of Daisy Dopp, with her Newport Daily Express columns tacked to the walls.
The legacies of the work of Daisy Dopp and of Elka Schumann mean that Bread and Puppet is, now more than ever, really a name for a series of intricate and time-consuming, and time-revealing, processes: the making of masks and puppets, the baking of bread, the hours of rehearsing and performing; but also the processes that undo all that work, processes of decay, decline, the coming of fall, the logging of another year.
A few days after Elka Schumann’s death I was at the farm, keeping a low profile as I always do at Bread and Puppet. Try as I may, I have never felt sufficiently free of the taint of capitalism to want to make much of an impression there, or even to make much eye contact. My vehicle, my clothes, the basic state of upkeep of my person, which by most other standards are not at all spruce or coordinated—all suggest the interloper, if not the enemy. My reflection in the framed items in the museum displeases me. I noted though, on one of the barn doors, an ad for a production I’d missed earlier that season: Aeschylus’s The Persians, presented three times in June then gone, likely never to be performed here again. This is the oldest extant drama in the Western tradition, a play whose arc is one of the simplest and most moving I have ever encountered, and one that has meant a lot to me since I translated parts of it in a college Greek class.
When the play opens, the Persians await word of their soldiers’ fate at the Battle of Salamis. A harried messenger arrives to deliver the news of a slaughter, with many Persian generals dead in the battle. The rest of the play is an elaborate lament for the Persian dead, honoring their names and legacies. That’s it: news is expected; it arrives; at first denied, the news sinks in; and then we weep. The play was first performed for an audience that likely included Greek veterans of the battle.
It is quite short, and not often performed—though it was staged in ancient Greek at Epidaurus during the early days of Covid lockdown, and streamed worldwide. Bread and Puppet, still fighting the American imperialist project after all these years, gave this 2,500-year-old play its first significant staging in the US in perhaps a decade, lasting one weekend in the summer of 2021. Then The Persians was gone all over again, an ancient mayfly.
September 23, 2021
Conceiving the Future
The Well-Blown Mind