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Political Puppetry
where did it go? asks Penny Francis

(left) From renegade to royal approval: John Styles with Mr. Punch outside the Palace.
(right) Bread and Puppet Theatre

It’s 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 replacement.

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 humour.

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 way.

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 the thought.


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 Centre Trust


News of British radical theatres using puppetry to change the order of things welcomed: email



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