Questioning Myths: Bread & Puppet Theater’s Peter Schumann

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Schumann & Vacarr
Goddard College President Barbara Vacarr with
Bread & Puppet Theater founder Peter Schumann
Courtesy of Goddard College

On Sunday, July 22, 2012, Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, bestowed its Second Annual Presidential Award for Activism to Bread & Puppet Theater founder and artistic director Peter Schumann as part of the commencement for the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts. Goddard president Barbara Vacarr stated in a press release, “Peter Schumann embodies the ideals of social justice that reflect Goddard’s mission and values […] We are proud of the shared history of Goddard and Bread & Puppet, and we celebrate that history today.” It was the culmination of a relationship between the radical theatre company and the college that began in 1970 when Schumann moved his company from Manhattan to take up a four-year stint as the college’s theater in residence. In 1974 Schumann and his puppeteers would move to a former dairy farm in Glover, Vermont, where they have been based ever since.

Though Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin declined the invitation to attend the ceremony, in a letter to President Vacarr, he would praise Schumann’s selection for the Award:

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Peter has used his powerful voice to entertain, educate and encourage meaningful action. Like Goddard College, Bread and Puppet Theater challenges us to use our imagination, ask questions and express ourselves.

Schumann’s contributions to the activist counter-culture are vast. It is not uncommon in major metropolitan areas for political demonstrations to include large papier-m√¢ché puppets, especially on behalf of traditionally “leftist” causes like environmentalism, anti-militarism and anti-capitalism. People who have never seen a performance of Bread & Puppet generically refer to this form of activist puppetry as “Bread & Puppets” much as “Xerox” is used as a generic term for photocopying. The rise in popularity of radical marching bands owes much to the brass bands that would convene in various cities to accompany Bread & Puppet on tour. In fact, in my city of Somerville, Massachusetts, HonkFest, an annual festival of activist street bands was first organized by members of the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band, which has long provided music for Bread & Puppet’s performances in the Boston metropolitan area. In short, since the founding of his company in 1963, Schumann has greatly influenced the visual and musical style of protest in America-introducing a festive anarchic alternative to the regimented marching and chanting usually associated with public demonstrations.

His artistic legacy is equally wide ranging: Though his plays do not lend themselves to being performed by other companies, legions of artists working in the field of puppetry and performance art often reveal their Bread & Puppet pedigree by the techniques they incorporate into their work. He has expanded upon the techniques of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre while re-introducing such pre-modern theatrical forms as pageants, passion plays and morality plays to the modern and post-modern stage. On the other hand, his heavily visual style relies so heavily on symbolism and allegory that the very concept of an individual character is often crowded out (it’s a not uncommon criticism that the characters in Bread & Puppet function only as stock or allegory.) It is this artistic legacy that inspired me to work with Bread & Puppet when the opportunity first came up in 2003.

As President Vacarr stated in her speech honoring Schumann:

[…J]ust as individuals do, human societies tend to see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy narratives that, if not challenged, lead to destruction.

[…] Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades-that just about covers everyone in this tent tonight-must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. He points out that these artist renegades serve as prophets and are therefore dismissed, labeled by the power elites as subversive. Given the harsh realities of Peter’s earlier life I would add that society’s wrath does not stop at dismissing the voices of subversives, as we know about so many who have suffered at the hands of those who would silence them.

[…V]isionary artists like Peter Schumann are our sharpest eyes, our keenest ears, our most adept linguists as they see that which has been made invisible or unwelcome, they hear the voices missing from our dominant narratives and they speak in languages that pierce unconsciousness and translate slick sound bites into nuanced and deeper understandings of our world.

Peter Shumann Recieves Activism Award from Goddard College on Vimeo.

Of course, with a career is as long as Peter Schumann’s, it is important to “confront unexamined assumptions” lest biography be idealized into hagiography. My own assumptions about Schumann began to crack in 2004, when I was performing with the troupe during a two-week run in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The run was comprised of a double bill of World on Fire and How to Turn Distress into Success. One evening I was a fly on the wall when Schumann griped to a friend and former troupe member that he had wanted to incorporate excerpts from a speech by Osama bin-Laden but that current members of the traveling company (the ones that actually resided on the Bread & Puppet farm in Glover, Vermont-not part-timers like myself) had refused. Schumann was flabbergasted both by the fact of the rebellion and reason for the rebellion: the troupe did not see bin-Laden as he did: an anti-Imperialist. Schumann displayed no awareness that bin-Laden and the al-Qaeda organization espoused the imperialist goal of imposing a global caliphate, sanctioned violence against Muslims who did not share their particular Salafist beliefs and practices, as well as holding to a form of antisemitism that collectively viewed Jews as a radical evil that needed to be eliminated. At the time, perhaps because I was so entranced by the directorial virtuosity of World on Fire and excited by my role as a puppeteer in that production, I gave the rant no mind and dismissed it as an eccentricity formed during the height of the Cold War.

I continued working with the company during its Boston-area productions. It was only in February of 2007 I was driven to break from Peter Schumann and Bread & Puppet. Though I have written at greater length and detail about this break elsewhere, I will attempt to summarize: Schumann had conducted a puppetry workshop in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour. Upon his return, he created a series of murals entitled “Independence Paintings: Inspired by Four Stories” that were to be exhibited at the Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama in conjunction with a series of performances that I had already agreed to work on. The pieces juxtaposed scenes of the Warsaw Ghetto populated stereotypical Ashkenazi Jews accompanied by Palestinian narratives about the separation wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, Israeli checkpoints, and Israeli counter-terrorist activities. At a February 12 presentation Schumann made some vague comparisons between the economic hardship caused by having to pass through checkpoints in order to enter Israel and the hardships of Nazi-engineered starvation in the Ghetto. The juxtaposition was interpreted by many attendees of the symposium as drawing equivalence between the conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto with that of the West Bank and thus equating Israel to the Third Reich. Schumann’s critics viewed it as a slander against Israel and a trivialization of the Holocaust; Schumann’s defenders saw the equation as a testament to Israel as a genocidal enterprise and explicitly endorsed the equation. Any attempt at a more nuanced defense of the juxtaposition seemed illogical.

A striking peculiarity of Schumann’s presentation was how he placed the blame for Jewish suffering in the Ghetto on “the failure to reach out to the Polish resistance.” However, during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of April and May of 1943, the Jewish resistance groups did work with the Polish resistance groups. The combined resistance efforts, though valiant, were ultimately out-gunned. Schumann simultaneously slandered those Poles who rose to resist Nazi occupation, and the Ghetto fighters who rose up to resist extermination. He went through the evening without mentioning German responsibility for the Ghetto.

The Warsaw Ghetto had been part of a system of ghettos and slave labor camps that Germany established between 1939 and 1941. It extended from modern-day Poland eastward toward the Baltic states. Not content to segregate the Jews, the Germans deliberately starved, overworked and overcrowded them, causing somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews to die before the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau were put into operation. By contrast, the Palestinian population of the West Bank has continued to grow since Israel seized the territory from Jordan in 1967, and the GDP had been improving during the time of Schumann’s visit.

Uncle Fatso
Left: 1934 issue of Die Brennessel portrays
a Jewish press magnate subverting Germany
with a phallic tube of lies
Right: Bread & Puppet iconic avatar of the evils of modernity, Uncle Fatso with phallic cigar

The experience of seeing an artist I admired trivialize and misrepresent the Holocaust, and even draw support from activists who were making deliberately anti-Semitic statements, including explicit comparisons between Zionism and Naziism, pained me. So while others were celebrating Saint Valentine’s Day, I wrote an email explaining my decision to sever ties to the troupe.

One afternoon, several weeks later, I was angrily berated on public transit by Mary Curtin, the show’s producer, when we found ourselves riding the same bus. It was clear to me that if I were to be verbally abused in public for following my conscience, then my position should be made public.

Though he would subsequently claim it “wasn’t my intent” to equate Israelis with Nazis and that he “may have unnecessarily hurt some people’s feelings,” Schumann again exhibited the “Independence Paintings” in September of 2007 as part of Burlington Vermont’s annual ArtHop.

In subsequent years, due to my ongoing commentary, I have been interviewed as a critic of Peter Schumann, and read many an interview where Schumann has responded some of my criticism while further elaborating his views on Israel, Jews, World War II and the Holocaust. My admiration for Schumann’s contributions to the arts has not dissipated, but my ability to regard him as a moral authority, a position he has staked out for himself and his admirers have ceded to him, has.

Schumann speaks frequently of being born in 1934 in a region called Silesia, but he neglects to mention that it was part of the Third Reich and that his hometown of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) was a major base of support of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Indeed, the local German population provided a fertile ground for Naziism to take root: in the 1920s, mob violence had already forced much of the city’s Jewish and Polish populations to leave, and, over the course of Schumann’s childhood, the city was rendered Judenfrei through deportations. Breslau was a city surrounded by a network of concentration camps and slave labor camps providing commercial products for the city. Despite the political nature of his art, Schumann never addresses the fact that for the first 11 years of his life, he was a child of Nazi Germany. He never discusses whether or not his parents were party members, whether or not he was a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk (the Hitler Youth subdivision for boys aged 10-14), or how these experiences influenced him. Popular book-length studies of Schumann and Bread & Puppet (like George Dennison’s An Existing Better World: Notes On The Bread & Puppet Theater and Marc Estrin’s essays for Rehearsing with Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater) make no mention of Schumann’s life in Nazi-era Silesia.

Indeed, outside of one 2006 interview with Rosette Royal of Real Change News, it’s hard to find an instance in which Schumann admits to being from Germany (a 2008 profile in The Boston Phoenix passingly identifies him as “a resident German alien with a green card”) but he makes no mention of life under the swastika:

Schumann: Well, bread is the staff of life. Anyway, the old bread is. The bread you buy in the store is not. But the habit of bread baking – which I have picked up and learned from my mother – I, as a kid, never ate other bread than what she baked. And when we were kids, we were refugees. We went gleaning the fields for the grain. We ground it with our hands in the little coffee mill and all the rest. It is a sourdough rye bread. […] I have tried it out. I have hiked with only my mother’s bread in my bag, and you can live on it. (Pause.) If you chew it long enough.

RC: You said you were a refugee?

Schumann: I was born in Silesia, which was German. It became Polish in 1945, after the war. It was part of Germany that was given to Poland by the Yalta Conference. Ninety-nine percent of the population of Silesia was made into refugees at the end of the War and we were part of that 99 percent. We were all looking for a new life, so we live as refugees for a few years. Then I came to the States in 1961.

This is the closest he comes to making a clear statement on the political circumstances of his youth, and perhaps the most detailed statement he has made regarding the “harsh realities of Peter’s earlier life” of which Vacarr spoke when she introduced Schumann. It is strange that an artist so defined by his political positions would be silent about this part of his childhood when other German artists of his generation, like the late dramatist and director Heiner M√ºller and the otherwise apolitical children’s book author Eric Carle, are more forthcoming. A child should not be blamed for the crimes of his parents’ generation, but it seems odd that he cannot bring himelf to describe the regime whose crimes he chooses to evoke.

The Germans of Silesia and other parts of central and eastern Europe did not become refugees simply because the victorious Allies were enjoying the spoils of war, but because the very ideology of Naziism and the war in Europe had been predicated on the idea of Großdeustchland, a German nation-state that extended to wherever the German language was spoken. The German Silesia that was taken away from Schumann was one where Jews were exterminated (Auschwitz was located in a part of Silesia annexed to Germany in 1939) and from where Poles were deported, often to slave labor camps in the German controlled General Government region. At risk of over-simplifying, the deportation of Germans to the post-1945 Kleindeutschland East and West was to ensure that both that the defeated Germany could not reap the rewards of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and that any future Germany would never again be able to make territorial claims on its neighbors.

More often, Schumann and those writing about him are far more vague, if not misleading. A 2011 profile by Tim Johnson in The Burlington Free Press states in the accompanying timeline:

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1934: Born in German-speaking Silesia, a region in central Europe now part of Poland

Schumann violin
Schumann performs his acceptance of
Goddard College’s Second Annual
Presidential Award for Activism
Courtesy of Goddard College

The timeline does not pick up again until 1961 and the only other details regarding Schumann’s childhood in The Burlington Free Press story is his account of how he and his siblings had performed on Christmas shows using the puppets he had received as presents. (I was interviewed for this piece, and suggested to Johnson that he ask Schumann about growing up under the Third Reich but the article made no mention of Naziism.)

In a 2007 article in Seven Days, another Burlington-based publication, journalist Ken Picard attempted to insulate Schumann from criticism with an outright falsehood:

For his part, Schumann has repeatedly denied the accusations of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial-after all, he and his family fled Nazi Germany when he was 10.

In this case, the Schumann family is portrayed as being refugees from Naziism. More often, he is only portrayed living in Germany as a young dancer, sculptor and choreographer after leaving Silesia.

In a 2008 interview conducted by Greg Cook for his blog, The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, Schumann comes up with what is both a strange comparison between Israeli civilians who have been victims of terrorist attacks and what appears to be a graphic fantasy about Nazi soldiers as victims of atrocities near the end of World War II (note the repeated use of the word “probably”):

[Your critics] seem to say your work doesn’t represent that the Israelis are doing this to fight terrorism from the Palestinians. And so that by not representing the Israelis’ problems you’re being unfair.

I don’t know. It’s like when you go to any war naturally the guerillas who rise up against occupation forces are to be blamed for atrocities they commit, but that’s not on the same page with the atrocity of the occupation. Take an extreme case like the Nazis in Poland. Naturally what the Polish and the Russian guerillas probably did against the Nazi soldiers was probably pretty horrible, dismembering them or burning them or putting them into cement walls, or whatever they could to, probably, to punish them. Is that on the same page as the very fact of the invasion?

Alongside the 2011 Burlington Free Press article, in a sidebar piece on the controversy (for which I was interviewed but is no longer available on the website), Schumann continues to dissociate himself from having grown up in Germany. In fact, he is primarily concerned with how evoking the Holocaust is offensive to Germans:

Schumann was called a “Holocaust-denier,” among other things. “Ridiculous,” Schumann said recently. “Offensive and stupid.” For anyone of German descent, he said, the Holocaust is “one of the most horrible things.”

Schumann’s rhetorical game is crafty: he uses the Nazi extermination of the Jews to attack Israel; he uses the post-war deportation of Germans from eastern and middle Europe and the deaths of Nazi military and paramilitary personnel to attack Israel; and all the while he is soliciting his audience to see the Germans as victims. So, when in the 2006 Real Change News interview he says…

Palestine is an ice-cold reality under the feet of the occupiers. Palestine is homelessness that results from the gestures of politicians. Palestine is a giant body arrested, crushed, and rises up and lives.

…it’s hard not to wonder if Palestine serves as a symbol for the Germany he lost as a youth, the Germany that is “an ice-cold reality under the feet of the occupiers.” The Germany that is “homelessness that results from the gestures of politicians.” The Germany that is “a giant body arrested, crushed, and rises up and lives.”

Articulating myths of German victimization while deliberately avoiding any talk about German responsibility, or what it was like to live in Nazi Germany, perhaps it is not surprising to find Schumann evoking other myths as well. In the 2008 interview with Greg Cook, he described “the Western community,” a nebulous term that appears to refer collectively to the governments or press agencies of North America and Europe as serving Israel:

I think it’s awful that the Western community does not interfere with what Israel’s doing as an occupation force [in the West Bank]. The Western community does not do anything about it. They don’t even speak up against it. They don’t do anything. They basically serve as the Israeli propaganda for the events there.

Fliegende Blaetter
A 1942 issue of Fliegende Blätter depicting Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Rosevelt and Joseph Stalin as puppets of a grotesque Jew.

Note that he does not talk about any particular country, just a vague power that Israel supposedly has over “the Western community.” How does Israel get the “Western community” to produce propaganda for Israel and obey Israeli interests? Money? Well-placed people in government? How does he explain the frequent disagreements that occur between some western governments (especially those of western Europe) and Israel, or what some view as anti-Israeli biases in mainstream western news outlets like the BBC and The Guardian? Rather than providing a criticism of Israeli policy, he propounds an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory using the fuzzy logic of allusion and moralistic pronouncements; he is unable to consider that western governments can have an agenda without it being subordinate to Israel’s agendas. Essentially it’s a recapitulation of the canard of Jews or Zionists controlling both the international press and national governments the world over. He would, of course, have been familiar with this trope, growing up in the Third Reich. Ironically for Schumann, this trope was often illustrated in cartoons of his youth as a Jewish puppeteer manipulating a cast of characters that included Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or Joseph Stalin.

Using the same logic, one could argue that Vermont “serves Bread & Puppet propaganda”: the Governor sends his letter of congratulations when Goddard College decides to bestow an award, while many Vermont-based writers and journalists seem eager to help Schumann conceal his inconvenient past.

Later in the same interview, Schumann offers more conspiratorial hyperbole:

Israel… [is] a fascist democracy just like the U.S. is. And these fascist democracies that are not real democracies, but fake democracies, they do as they wish. They build their ethics with the help of ethics professors as they go. They just have to find the right ethics professors, and they do all the time. They pay enough and so they find another ethics professor.

Does Schumann really suppose that either the U.S. or Israel resemble the Silesia in which he was nurtured, with its concentration camps, genocide industry and slave labor? Were he willing to describe the Silesia of his youth, would he still make such comparisons?

That Goddard College would so honor someone who would so cravenly trivialize the Holocaust is particularly ironic given that only one year prior, Vacarr bestowed the Presidential Award for Activism on Stephan Ross, born in Lodz, Poland, as Szmulek Rozental, a childhood survivor of the Dachau Concentration Camp who settled in the U.S. and went on to found the New England Holocaust Memorial.

Though Schumann presents himself as an anarchist and anti-fascist, describes himself as a pacifist and is irreverent of traditional religion, his callousness towards the victims of fascism, his espousal of German victimhood, his dissociation of German responsibility for Nazi-era atrocities, his nostalgia for Gro√üdeutschland and his romantic portrayal of his Nazi-era childhood, combined with his reliance on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to explain international politics, is evidence of a crypto-fascistic world-view lurking beneath his long hair and white-shirted Bread & Puppet uniform. One may ask if Schumann’s politics are not rooted in, as Barbara Vacarr’s describes, “myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy narratives that, if not challenged, lead to destruction”?

Nazi-era propaganda cartoons provided by Calvin College’s online German Propaganda Archive.