did it go?
asks Penny Francis
From renegade to royal approval: John Styles with Mr. Punch outside
(right) Bread and Puppet Theatre
so difficult with politicians and the arts:
they have trouble with intangibles. They rarely believe there
is a vote to be had in the repeated statement of an arts policy.
In the search for help to relieve poverty and suffering, has
any politician said to his colleagues ‘This is the moment
to turn to our arts practitioners to bring a boosting of morale,
a raising of the spirit, to the tragic survivors, and we will
fund musicians, puppeteers, performers to go and establish networks
and facilities for local artists to carry on when ours have
to leave: most importantly to make contact with practitioners
of the relevant cultures, to offer them financial and material
assistance and - our experience, to work alongside them’
In the aftermath of the Tsunami, there were brief filmed scenes
of aid workers, humanitarians to a wo/man, either professional
or voluntary, were telecast playing games with some of the bereaved
and traumatised children, trying to raise a smile, to divert
them for an hour or two. It occurred to me that an army of puppeteers
should have been there, helping in the ways that puppetry does
so well: not just for reasons of occupational therapy, but for
possibilities of creative, extended playtime, recreation in
its true sense.
Hard not to make it sound patronising, but I dare to say that
for many years, Britain has had the strongest, most widely spread
arts programmes for young people in the world. That includes,
of course, the work of most puppeteers.
Yet during the general election campaigning, and after the elections,
we hear almost nothing of the arts programmes of the various
parties. It should be at the heart of their endeavours to improve
the country’s quality of life, to affirm the essential
spirituality that lies in all of us and which we can only begin
to express and access through art. However I have recently read
two pleas for the abolition of the Arts Council. So easy to
destroy: so difficult for the destroyers to propose any better
Puppetry and politics paired has often been written about and,
more importantly, produced; there is innate potential in the
symbolic message of a puppet to change minds and highlight stupidity
and injustice, first and foremost through parody and satire.
The street glove show of Punch and Judy (‘Joanie’
distorted by the swazzle) embodied a very English protest by
the poorer classes against the increasing powers of the late
18th and early 19th century bourgeois class with its imposition
of ‘middle-class morality’ on the populus: this
included marriage, the clergy, the doctor, the policeman, the
Law and finally Death and the Devil. Punch, the common man (and
here I do mean ‘man’), was the outrageous champion
of individual freedom, the hater of authority. His appalling
behaviour was made palatable and enjoyable through his slapstick
There was, however, an underlying seriousness which politicians
would have done well to heed. I suppose they did, by making
it harder and harder for him to be seen on the public streets
and fairgrounds, often reducing the performers to destitution.
One of the greatest itinerant puppeteers of Europe, Matej Kopecky,
has a gravestone marked with his name and the word ‘Beggar’.
Gradually, the Punch show - and that of his cousins - became
diluted in content, terminating in a rather puzzling and sometimes
disturbing show, ostensibly for small children.
The ultimate revenge by politicians on his mischief-making occurred
in the Soviet era in Russia and her satellite countries - not
on Punch of course, but on his cousins, such as Petruchka. It
was simply decreed that no public performance might be given
without approval of the text by the Authorities. Petruchka was
effectively muzzled. (You can read something about this in Henryk
Jurkowski’s History of European Theatre Volume Two in
the chapter called ‘Support and Oppression’, and
in Obraztsov’s My Profession where he explains how dismally
he failed with Petrushka). Percy Press II used to tell the story
of how he entered a Moscow park in the 1970s and by force of
habit took Punch out of his coat to show and speak with the
children there. He said it was a matter of seconds before he
was surrounded and escorted from the park.
Giant figures parading through the streets in protest marches
have been a relatively common sight ever since Peter Schumann
brought his formidable talents as a sculptor to such occasions
with his Bread and Puppet Theatre. His parades and performances
were and are made high-profile by the beauty of the enormous
puppet heads, the hieratic, implacable calm of the figures’
movement and the courage with which he, Schumann, stormed citadels.
Bread and Puppet staged protests in situations of injustice
worldwide, with his followers (gathered from locals to supplement
the U.S. contingent) where lesser men and women feared to tread.
Vietnam, Poland under communism, Chile under Pinochet, Nicaragua,
London against nuclear armaments and Putin’s stand on
the environment, Washington, Philadelphia, all under the nose
of the Authorities, and most recently and amazingly, Iran. As
long as Schumann heads the group, its voice or impact will never
be diluted. And the beauty of it is that Bread and Puppet truly
merits the word ‘seminal’. Many groups in the U.S.
have been formed by disciples of the Schumann way and are currently
astonishingly active, if various articles on the web, such as
that of Wise Fool (see www.
zeitgeist.net) are to be believed. Over here, Welfare State
International, Horse and Bamboo, Emergency Exit Arts all owe
him much, but none now fly in the face of authority in the same
The television programme Spitting Image I used to regard as
the nearest thing to the radical Punch and Judy tradition: it
was hard-hitting political satire, and its survival for so long
was rather surprising - even encouraging - in view of the roughing-up
it gave to all things authoritarian and overblown in public
life, from the power politicians (including, notably, Margaret
Thatcher), the Royal Family to sports and movie personalities.
The programme is long gone here, but in France I believe it
survives and still makes trouble. Actually an authoritative
voice told me it is to be revived in Britain – good news
if it happens.
Catalunya is famous for its spectacular street puppetry and
I remember the San Jose Fallas in Valencia when vast bonfires
were lit at every crossroads to burn huge effigies of politicians.
Nowadays across Europe the giants accomplish spectacle, celebration,
social involvement and integration, and community creativity
more than political change.
The last show I saw touching on a political injustice was Horse
and Bamboo’s street piece about the death of Nigerian
writer Ken Sarowiwa. You may remember he protested vigorously
against the financial and environmental horrors perpetrated
by the Shell Oil company against the Ogoni people, and was put
to death by the government for his pains. H+B combined puppets,
masks, dance and text to make a riveting show - it’s a
good adjective because the passers-by, almost to a man, were
riveted to the spot - unusual for a long street show.
Would there were more such shows: God knows the world needs
all the highlighting of injustice it can get. And the puppet,
the mask, the symbolic and poetic world of the creative puppeteer
have such extraordinary power. Doo Cot have for many years waged
war on sexual prejudice through their work with puppets and
projections; Gary Friedman of South Africa attracted attention
for his attacks on apartheid, using only puppets. Both companies
have shown real courage, both have helped to win a battle, and
Doo Cot is rewarded with Arts Council subsidy nowadays.
Maybe there is more hard-hitting activism in the States because
the arts there are so little dependent on State aid? It’s
a thought. Maybe without an Arts Council… No, no. Perish
Gary Friedman will be in Britain in October 2005. He will
give an illustrated lecture on his political puppetry work for
British UNIMA members and anyone else who cares to be there
at the Puppet Centre in the second week of October. See www.unima.org.uk
Penny Francis would be grateful for any news of puppeteers who
went to any of the south-east Asian regions affected by the
Tsunami. Please send any information to Penny via the Puppet
News of British radical theatres using puppetry to change the
order of things welcomed: email