Art: Dada and Bread & Puppet

library2

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.

Tristan Tzara

Zum Spaß: Exams….

Wittenberg University, late 1590s.

Scene: 2:30am. A dark, gothic study hall, a sort of Faustian “dumpfes Mauerloch.” Tall black windows, wooden table with half-burned candles and stacks of parchment. Hamlet and Horatio are pulling an all-nighter for their Philosophy exam the next morning.

Hamlet is the worst study partner imaginable.

Hamlet: (emphatically not studying, staring into space in a metaphysical manner) Words, words, words…..

Silence from Horatio, surrounded by stacks of parchment and dutifully color-coding his notes.

Hamlet: (beginning to chew the end of his quill pen, poetic but unhelpful) When midterms come, they come not single spies but in battalions. (silence) –eh, Horatio?

Horatio: (scribbling furiously) Shut up, Hamlet. Study! Or at least let me study.

(silence)

Hamlet: (struck by an idea, gesturing dramatically) But there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy! Let’s go find some food.

Horatio: (shoving a stack of the 16th-century equivalent of index cards in Hamlet’s direction, exasperated) Yeah, well, we need to get all of the stuff we do know in out heads so we can put it on paper tomorrow. Now come on! Quiz me!

Finis.

______________________

The idea of Hamlet and Horatio cramming for midterms appeared rather hilarious to my roommate and myself very late last night. It’s that time of the semester…..  : )

Any resemblance to various members of the Hillsdale student body is entirely intended.