I went down to Chelsea last night to see a traveling performance of the Bread and Puppet Theater in the old town hall. The setting was classic Vermont–tiny town surrounded by green hills, dusty wood-floored room with paneled ceiling and folding chairs in front of the stage. A space and a part of the state I love.
I had heard of Bread and Puppet, but had never seen one of their performances. Founded by a German baker in New York and now located in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the group has spent the past half-century baking bread, writing manifestos, and presenting provocative, surrealist, and occasionally anarchic spectacles in New England and around the world. They are Cheap Art and Political Theater, they say–art is for everyone, art is food, art wakes up sleepers!
The show I saw was based on a series of Renaissance paintings and entitled, quite lengthily, Piero Della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross: A series of tableaux vivants depicting the legend of the true cross as seen in Piero’s murals in Arezzo, mounted on a stage which resembles the Death of Adam lunette, with the Contemporary Crucifixion of an Oppositionist by Bread & Puppet Butchers and Bureaucrats.
Indeed. The four performers mixed larger-than-life puppetry, instruments, and sung and spoken word–sometimes shocking, sometimes beautiful, always with an underlying layer of absurd humor. The portrayal of the Christian religion was sometimes satirical (was God perpetrator, victim, or spectator?), sometimes deeply respectful and almost reverent (the tableau of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba with a recitation of the Song of Songs, for instance). In keeping with the group’s motto, Biblical archetype met Newsweek drama in the last scene, where contemporary “oppositionists” were symbolically crucified–the last being, rather predictably, Edward Snowden.
If you are in Vermont and get a chance to see them, do. The gritty, vital feel of the evening and the political/artistic philosophy of the company were, to me, quite reminiscent of various avant garde movements of the early 20th century, and particularly of Dadaism. Tristan Tzara’s brilliant and insane Unpretentious Proclamation, for instance, somehow fits right in. I include it below, as it too loud to be ignored.
How different this type of artistic expression is–Dada and Bread and Puppet–than the order and rigor of a Renaissance painting, the self-conscious profundity of a Mann or Dostoevsky novel. How much more playful, unstructured, irreverent–yet still provocative, shaking us up and making us reconsider, trying to get at what it means to be human and live in the world and create.
Art is crazy. Above the rules of the Beautiful and its inspection, indeed.