The Persians – Draft
Bread & Puppet Theater: The Persians
January 28-29, 2022
Presented by Chicago Puppet Fest
A new adaptation of Aeschylus’ tragedy from the famed Bread & Puppet Theater. At the 4th Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, this gorgeous pageant adaptation of a famous Greek drama enjoyed live music and the beautiful surroundings of Chicago’s new Epiphany Center for the Arts. On this page you will find resources related to the inspiration, programming, and academic inquiry into this work.
Scholarship and Resources
The Politics of Papier-Mâché: Reading and Re-reading Bread and Puppet’s The Persians
by Skye Strauss
Reduced by time to a tidy story, the fateful battle in the Bread and Puppet Theater adaptation of The Persians is preternaturally swift. At first entrance, the heads of the Persian warriors are caricatures, not so much “played” with any truthful realism as paraded. Their massive, bulbous faces, on the ends of poles wielded by company members dressed in red, swagger about the stage. Huge, hideous and inhuman, the Persians become easy targets when the Grecian forces—represented by a team of white horses painted on recycled bits of cardboard with a stark black background—pour in from upstage to trample them into the dust. With martial accuracy, all at once, the horses turn to expose the spectral skeletons on their reverse side—under an exacting gaze, even the so-called heroes are horrific.
I watched the production as part of the 2022 Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. That night, the Epiphany Center for the Arts in West Town was abuzz—filled by a festive crowd happy to be in each other’s company again after so much isolation. We clapped along to the pre-show brass band and broke bread together in a former church. The activities surrounding the show successfully offered up the blend of ritual solemnity and “joyful noise” that I expected from Bread and Puppet. While the pre-show atmosphere was exceedingly cheerful, once confronted with the production’s multivalent images of loss, I could not help thinking about how Covid had made casualties the price of normalcy. Yet, as I write this some months later, I recall the same stage pictures and now think of Ukraine.
Puppets allow the Bread and Puppet version of The Persians to not only have meaning (as if it could be fixed with certainty) but to continually make meaning. Writing about a “vintage” Bread and Puppet creation, Mr. Budhoo’s Letter of Resignation from the IMF, in his book American Puppet Modernism, company member and puppetry scholar John Bell made an observation in a section titled “The Complexity of Simple Images” that resonated with my experience of The Persians. He noted that we might be deceived into thinking that because Bread and Puppet productions have humble origins, they will be correspondingly easy to interpret (Bell, 2008: 205-207). In reality, the shows are “hardly simple to fathom, basically because the meanings of the show[s] are abstract, often ambiguous, told in the multivalent language of images that allow for, and in fact depend upon, individual interpretation by each audience member” (Bell, 2008: 205). The simplicity of the performing objects onstage allows the images to resonate—in the mind of each audience member—with countless constantly changing current events.
After their defeat in battle at the hands of the Greeks, we never again see the initial distorted image of the Persians, presented as if we were looking outwards through Grecian eyes. Rather, we see human faces, poetic puppet memorials, and mourners faithfully pouring out libations for the dead. In one scene, we see a “sea of bodies” painted blue like water and rocked on an unseen tide. In another, fragile paper forms flutter like gray birds’ wings. Hovering over them are two moon-faced, god-like figures, who embrace and protect. The result is an extended meditation on loss, insistent on humanizing the enemy Other.
In a company known for using volunteer performers and taking inspiration from puppets, as well as people, throughout the creative process, it makes sense to shift focus away from the skill of the puppeteer and toward the performing object itself as the “creator” of both performative moments and their many meanings. The forms of the puppets—including both painted and sculptural elements—create their own dramaturgy, grounding meaning in the very way they are made. Like Bell, I found that these performing objects, despite their seeming simplicity, “rewarded my contemplation” (Bell, 2008: 206).
Aeschylus’ The Persians was originally presented as part of the annual Athenian drama competition, including corresponding communal financial support, so it would have made sense to commemorate the Greek victory over the supposedly superior Persian army.
Instead of the celebration that the audience might have anticipated, represented here by the battle that passes in the blink of an eye, Aeschylus offered something unexpected—a play that focused on the defeated Persians rather than the triumphant Greeks. Building on their history of pacifist protest, the Bread and Puppet version readily gravitates towards the anti-war sentiment in the original text. Beyond that core message, the way the company braids together different strands of story makes the production’s meaning more capacious—sections of the original tragedy are interwoven with another story of director Peter Schumann’s own invention: a parable about humanity’s attachment to “The Chair.” In stage images, what we see is simple—variations on a sturdy chair with a slatted back, whether it is illuminated by a halo like a religious icon or presented in high-contrast white against black. As a symbol, the chair becomes an indictment of inaction in the face of human suffering and environmental destruction.
The production offers us a handful of handmade images that are literally painted in black and white—characters who remind us that to conquer or to disengage means believing in separation rather than empathy. The horses that represent the Greeks and the chairs that also appear en masse in performance are two-dimensional beings literally lacking depth. We also meet a flock of monotone city dwellers in angry, angular masks painted in black on white. Across the arc of the performance, these images, with their high-contrast coloration, imply other binaries—good and evil, right and wrong, insider and outsider—that are linked to selfish impulses.
Even in white masks there is surprisingly meaningful contrast. Two characters who serve as masters of ceremony in various scenes sit on opposite sides of the proverbial line between moral binaries. One is a classic “Butcher” from the Bread and Puppet repertoire (Estrin, 2010: 21). Bell writes about how a similar character, Uncle Fatso, has been read as the effigy of a series of presidents despite having a stable face (2008: 205-206). The Butcher in The Persians, performed by Esteli Kitchen at the festival, is a similar fat bureaucrat in a gray suit who boasts a comically empty head and a smooth, featureless face that aligns him with both capitalist mass manufacture and slick diplomatic equivocation. He is often seen onstage in The Persians encouraging the chaos, making him (in various moments) a politician, warmonger and slumlord.
The second masked figure is a clown-like figure—whose roughly textured face, unruly hair, rounded nose and deep eye sockets create shadows that render the mask expressive. The performer wearing the mask (Clare Dolan in Chicago) is dressed all in white—down to their gloved hands—so that the clown’s movements are magnified in the black space of the stage as they gesture and soft-shoe, working to capture the audience’s attention. The character’s voice, spoken by Torri Lynn Francis and thus bifurcated from the physical body, asks the audience directly: “What grief grieves this city?” If the Butcher is here to encourage our basest impulses, the clown is working to balance the scales by asking us— directly—for empathy and action.
Bookending the production, painted cantastoria hang over the proceedings with a stately gravity. Like tapestries of old, they tell stories—but instead of heralding great deeds, they speak of destruction. They tell the story of humanity’s obsession with “The Chair,” aloof and seductive in its inertia. They show us images of grief, environmental ruin and war. The static nature of the cantastoria is precisely what makes them disquieting—we are given time to contemplate during the banners stately rotation what we humans are slowly but surely doing to ourselves. In the final moment of the show, a speaker gives voice to the unchanging images: “We need to remind you of the Chair, to which Humanity has been glued during its long and brutal history, and from which it continues to exercise its arrogant, privileged rule over planet earth. And only its hands are left, pleading for life.”
Bell, John. “Beyond the Cold War: Bread and Puppet Theatre at the End of the Century.” American Puppet Modernism: Essays on the Material World in Performance. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 189-218.
Estrin, Marc. “The Sustainable Energy of the Bread & Puppet Theater: Lessons Outside the Box.” The Radical Teacher, no. 89, Winter 2010, pp. 20-30.
Skye Strauss received her doctoral degree from the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Theatre and Drama program at Northwestern University in 2022. She will join Baylor University as a lecturer from 2022 to 2023. Her scholarship on puppetry, scenography and devising—including her dissertation Materiality Matters: On the Power of “Things” in Collective Creation—is tied to her artistic practice as a puppeteer and costumer. She was delighted to speak at the Volkenberg Puppetry Symposium during the 2022 Chicago International Puppet Theatre Festival, and her publications include “The Workings of a Wild Mind” in TD&T and a chapter in Theatre Artisans and Their Craft.
Bread and Puppet Theater
American theater company using puppets of all sizes for the creation of political theatre, founded in 1963 by Peter Schumann. Bread and Puppet Theater was first based on the Lower East Side of New York. Peter Schumann was born in Lüben, Silesia, Germany, in 1934. Puppeteer Max Jacob was a family friend. During Schumann’s early years as an artist, he sculpted and danced; a major influence was the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage. In 1961, Peter and his American-born wife Elka Scott Schumann came to the United States. Schumann became immersed in the avant-garde art and performance scene in New York City.
Schumann’s giant puppets, which became the signature of Bread and Puppet, first appeared in 1965 at political street parades in New York City, and increasingly became identified with the anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1966, Schumann created a mask play, Fire, which made a sensational impression at France’s 1968 Nancy Festival and earned Bread and Puppet an Off-Broadway Obie Award the same year. Other influential productions of this period include King Story (1963), Christmas Story (1963), A Man Says Goodbye to His Mother (1967), Grey Lady Cantata #1 (1968), and The Cry of the People for Meat (1969). By 1970, Schumann and his company had created over 60 works and attained international acclaim.
Residence in Vermont
Peter Schumann and his family moved to Vermont in 1970, and Bread and Puppet became the theater-in-residence at Goddard College’s Cate Farm. At Cate Farm, Schumann continued to create new indoor and outdoor shows, including Grey Lady Cantatas #2 and #3 (1971), The Birdcatcher in Hell (1971), That Simple Light May Rise from Complicated Darkness (1973), and The Stations of the Cross (1974). In 1970, inspired by the Vermont countryside, Schumann began to create giant outdoor spectacles of pageantry, sideshows, and circus acts, which he called Our Domestic Resurrection Circus. Live music for Bread and Puppet productions might include a Bach cantata, a plaintive folk violin, Early American “Sacred Harp” singing, homemade instruments, or raucous New Orleans-style jazz. In the mid-1970s, Schumann began to dance on stilts, a technique the company employed in numerous shows to follow.
In 1974, the Schumanns moved Bread and Puppet Theater to a farm in Glover, Vermont, which became the venue of the annual Domestic Resurrection Circus until 1998. With the puppeteers of his Glover company, Schumann created White Horse Butcher (1976), Joan of Arc (1977), The Ballad of Masaniello (1977), Ah! or the First Washerwoman Cantata (1979), Diagonal Man: Theory and Practice (1982), The Door (1984), The Uprising of the Beast (1990), Mr. Budhoo’s Letter of Resignation from the IMF (1996), Insurrection Mass with Funeral March for a Rotten Idea (2002), and dozens of other significant works performed in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The Domestic Resurrection Circus became a venerable countercultural event, a free outdoor spectacle of sideshows, puppet circus, and pageant featuring hundreds of performers and giant puppets performing in a landscape of forests and fields, and providing unforgettable images for an ever-growing number of participants and spectators. Although the Domestic Resurrection Circus ceased in 1998, the theater continues to perform outdoor spectacles on weekends during the summer.
In 1976, The Bread and Puppet Museum was created in a 19th-century barn at the theater’s farm; it can be reached at 753 Heights Road, Glover, VT, 05839, USA.
Bread and Puppet has been featured at scores of international theatre festivals around the world. It performed Joan of Arc at the UNIMA 13th World Puppetry Festival in Washington, DC in 1980, and opened the first Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater in New York in 1992. Hundreds of puppeteers have been inspired by their work with Peter Schumann, including Amy Trompetter, Massimo Schuster, Paul Zaloom, Julie Taymor, John Bell (and Great Small Works), Sara Peattie, Clare Dolan, Stephen Kaplin, and Roman Paska. The Minneapolis (Minnesota) theatre company In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, founded in 1973, was inspired by director Sandy Spieler’s work with Schumann.
After 50 years, Bread and Puppet continues to make “Cheap Art and Political Theater” with indoor and outdoor puppet shows, parades, workshops, and exhibitions. It travels extensively in Western and Eastern Europe, North and South America, and in Asia. The work of Bread and Puppet Theater can be seen in such videos as Brother Bread, Sister Puppet (1993) and Ah! The Hopeful Pageantry of Bread and Puppet (2002).
Peter Schumann has been awarded Holland’s Erasmus Prize (1978), the Puppeteers of America President’s Award (1979), and is a UNIMA Member of Honour (1996). He is the author of numerous articles, manifestos, and books, including “The Radicality of the Puppet Theater” (1991), and “What, At the End of This Century, Is the Situation of Puppets and Performing Objects?” (2001). The Bread and Puppet Press, created by Elka Schumann, has printed hundreds of books, posters, pamphlets, and calendars.
Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater is recognized as a major force in contemporary world theatre. His pageants with giant puppets and masks presented in the streets of New York City and the hills of Vermont created a radical redefinition of performance. The extraordinary range of Schumann’s work can be crude or sophisticated, charming or strident, and sources range from obscure religious symbols to current newspaper headlines. Bread and Puppet Theater began its work with a commitment to building community, questioning authority, celebrating humanity, exposing injustice, and working for world peace. Bread and Puppet Theater inspired a universe of puppet companies and independent artists around the world devoted to political activism and alternative theatre.
About the Festival 2022 Performance, Credits and Reviews
About the Performance
Chicago Puppet Fest present:
January 28-29, 2022
Epiphany Center for the Arts
201 S. Ashland Ave.
A new adaptation of Aeschylus’ tragedy from the famed Bread & Puppet Theater, created in 1963 by the “creators” of puppet pageantry and spectacle in America, Elka and Peter Schumann. Their radical spectacle puppetry style with their 10 foot puppets became a mainstay of U.S. political protests. Here their gorgeous pageant adaptation of a famous Greek drama enjoys live music and the beautiful surroundings of Chicago’s new Epiphany Center for the Arts.
PROLOGUE: Homo sapiens, Humanity, and the Chair
Part 1: Battle
CURTAIN #1: Atossa’s Dream
Part 2: Chairs & Clowns
CURTAIN #2: A Pale face in the Window
Part 3: A Sea of Bodies
CURTAIN #3: Xerxes
Part 4: “Erbarme Dich” Mercy
“Erbarme dich, mein Gott,” from St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach
“Hell Broke Loose in Georgia,” Trad.
“Agincourt Carol,” Anonymous
“O du schöne Rose/O you beautiful rose,” Text: Mechthild von Magdeburg, translated by Peter
Schumann; music: Joshua Krugman
Gideon Crevoshay, voice
Matthew Shiffrin, voice
Melanie Henley Heyn, voice
Nessa Rabin, voice
Tomas Majcherski, saxophone
Esteli Kitchen, Homo sapiens
Iñaki Blanco Sáenz, Humanity
Torri Lynn Ashford
CHICAGO VOLUNTEER PERFORMERS
Jungsuh Sue Lim
FRONT OF HOUSE
Bear Bessette of Dona’s Car Store & Wildcat Busing, tour bus support
CoveyLaw, visa services
Hayley Lewis, B&P Press Online Store Manager
Hillary Savage, B&P Press Director
Phil Stevens of 802 Green Mountain Bookkeeping, bookkeeper
Sylvia Cannizzaro, business assistant
Ziggy McKenzie, artistic assistant to Peter Schumann