Puppets are Dangerous

“Glover? Why are you going to Glover?” the cheerful guy at the border asked. “Nobody goes to Glover.”

In one of his articles, Stephen Kaplan notes that two artists revolutionized American puppet theatre in the late 20th century: Jim Henson with the muppets, and Peter Schumann, the artistic genius behind the vast demonstrations and outdoor shows of Bread and Puppet.

Peter and Elka Schumann are still active on their farm near Glover, in northern Vermont. They still receive interns every summer and create shows, which are performed both outdoors and in a converted barn, the “Dirt Floor Theatre.” I visited them at the end of the summer in 2017.

It’s the history of the troupe that is chiefly interesting nowadays, and you can see that, up close, in the amazing museum that the Schumanns have created on the property. Puppets crowd both sides of the barn and reach up to its distant roof: vast, intricate, highly colored faces and groping hands, arranged in groups, each group from a different show. They cover its walls and crowd its ceiling, like a Hindu temple or a medieval cathedral, transforming it into a zone that is strangely sacred, a long silent cry of pain against war and oppression and unjust power and human violence. It’s a moving experience, visiting that museum.

Here’s a good, simple, short introduction to the Schumann’s achievement: a visit to that museum with a cameraman and a reporter, with Elke Schumann as guide. The reporter asks all the basic questions. It’s the place to start.

If you want a glimpse of the current shows, here’s the Grasshopper Rebellion Circus, from the summer of 2018. They no longer make the amazing puppets that are on view in the barn and there isn’t a lot of political edge in the dramas that white-clad volunteers perform. Puppets are shield-like and provisional, sometimes just painted cardboard. But there’s a band, and everybody has fun.

Finally, here’s a truly crazy little video, which should be comical except—well, read on. A panicky ball-capped girl talks breathlessly into her iPhone as she claims to be “infiltrating” Bread and Puppet’s farm, which she imagines to be a dangerous cult. She takes surreptitious photos of the barn museum—which in fact is completely open to the public, and has no secrets. She seems to think that the huge papier-mache puppets of the museum are diabolic. She also peeks through a door on a group meeting in the dirt floor theatre, but does not go in, terrified at the indoctrination that she imagines to be taking place.

I spent a weekend in Glover, and wandered freely around the farm and its buildings. I’ve interviewed Peter Schumann and chatted with a few of the members of the collective. It’s totally innocent, and it’s not a cult. It’s left wing but not even very radical in its politics, and its people are completely dedicated to the creation of giant puppets and masks and performance pieces, some but not all of which illustrate political themes.

So this weird little video is a study in right-wing American paranoia. But it’s also malevolent, in that it ends with an apparent pursuit and claims that its hapless narrator has disappeared without a trace.

Puppets are dangerous—to the right wing mind.