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Essay
August 21, 2012
“Liturgical puppets” have shown up in churches for years, but aren't limited to Catholic venues—they have long been used as agents of iconoclasm and revolutionary agitprop.
Call to Action closing liturgy, 2008.

“We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile.”

— Hilaire Belloc, This That and the Other (1912)

 

I, for one, hesitate to welcome our new puppet overlords.

They visited the 2008 West Coast Call to Action Conference closing liturgy, the video of which the proprietors of the Orate Fratres blog have linked under the title “Mr. Potato Head Concelebrates the Holy Mass?”

Other recent sightings (among many) are documented on the web, showing one puppet floating through a nave at a Minneapolis church’s Palm Sunday Mass, and several puppets pausing for a few moments from Speaking Truth to the Man to pose with their human wards, stimulating the owner of the Bad Vestments blog to ask, “What is up with leftists and giant papier-mâché puppets of doom?”

Sightings of the large, sad variety of “liturgical puppets” go back some years, and are by no means limited to Catholic venues. Episcopalians, unsurprisingly, have paraded them down the aisle of St. John the Divine Cathedral. And St. Michael’s Episcopal Parish in Litchfield, Connecticut supports the Colossal Puppet Theater Company. In recent years, puppets have appeared in many denominations’ services.

All of which has elicited enraged incomprehension in some quarters—what is the point of these visitations into the sanctuary?

The Spirit of Vatican II as today’s special guest on Sesame Street

The puppeteers’ usual answer is that it is to make it more relevant to the congregation, and more meaningful “for the children.” In church settings, the puppets often take part in the processional, the ingathering of the nations and creation into Noah’s ark, so to speak. So also one finds “liturgical” dancers, waving streamers, clowns, donkeys and other livestock, pets, and zoo animals. Sometimes the magi show up, bringing the world, its treasures, and its felt banners—the “work of human hands”—to the Christ child.

At “Children’s Masses” (whatever that means), puppets sometimes give a children’s sermon through original “parables” invariably along the lines of “Our God is a God of Love, Not of Wrath” or “Sing a New Song Like David Dancing Before the Lord.” In this sense, puppets in church seem almost cute—almost, well, Franciscan.

The “new song” that God’s People are meant to sing appears to embody a ground-up, proletarian approach to the Church, as liberated from the domination of a traditional, hierarchical, dogmatic, and priestcraft-tainted notion of Church that supposedly prevailed from Constantine until Vatican II (otherwise known as “Year Zero”), when many in the Church suddenly decided that Catholics should all become happy Puritans, Gnostics, and Revolutionary Socialists. Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street? Come and play, everything’s A-OK. Friendly neighbors there, that’s where we meet. At the “Children’s Mass.”

Effigies of doom eternal

Nevertheless, there is a harder-edged answer to the question of the puppets’ purpose: If it is “Puritan,” why this explosion of celebratory paraphernalia in the puppets and costumes? It derives from the “apophatic” meaning of the puppets: as instruments in deconstructing traditional forms that stand between the individual and God. “Forms,” like “dogmas,” are, to the modern mind, idols, and must be taken down. The traditional form of the liturgy, thus, is the enemy of faith, and the puppets invade its sanctum, as agents of iconoclasm. In short, the puppets are intended as mockeries, speaking (mutely) truth to power (Silence = Death!), meant to pull down the temple in the name of the people, acting in the liberty of the free spirit. They are meant to unmask hypocrisy—regarded as the ancient tradition in its entirety.

“Exactly so! I am a humbug.” W. W. Denslow, illustrator, L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. New York: George M. Hill, 1900.

It is a Leftist commentary on the sacred liturgy equivalent, shall we say, to the scene in that devoted occultist, spiritualist, and utopian feminist L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, when lowly Toto, unfazed by the smoke and mirrors and priestcraft of the Great Oz, knocks over a screen—the veil of the temple—and reveals the mystery as a humbug. I have seen Godspell playwright Steven Schwartz’s Children of Eden performed with puppets in the sanctuary of an Episcopal church, and have seen children—portraying dancing animals—learn from it that the God of the Old Testament was a stupid patriarch who had to be taught a lesson in justice and compassion by an oppressed female from out of Noah’s tribe. So, speaking of The Wizard of Oz, I have no doubt that Schwartz’s Wicked, in which we learn essentially the same “lesson”—as well as that good and evil are merely two parts of a duet—will be next, if it is not edged out by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

Puppets, clowns, dancers, etc., are all understood as épater la bourgeoisie. Of course, part of their effectiveness lies in not admitting that they are an effort to pull the legs of the rubes in the congregation, lest those rubes get wise and block them.

Miniature from the ninth-century Chludov Psalter depicting iconoclasts John Grammaticus and Anthony I of Constantinople.

Perhaps the intrinsically iconoclastic nature of “liturgical puppets” explains why, at least until now, the Orthodox Church—having suffered so much at the hands of iconoclasts, both during the Byzantine Empire as well as in the Soviet period—has not suffered itself to be invaded by these new liturgical deconstructors. The Orthodox Church, it seems, can recognize Revolutionary agitprop when it sees it.

An agitprop parade

The “theory” of the giant puppets was embedded in Russian Soviet iconoclasm. Peter Kropotkin, in An Appeal to the Young (1880), pointed out who the real puppets were, in his view: “…hundreds of millions still steeped in prejudices and superstitions worthy of savages, who are consequently ever ready to serve as puppets for religious imposters.” The European avant-garde accepted this, and playwrights such as Bertold Brecht (winner of the 1955 Stalin Peace Prize shortly before the tanks rolled into Budapest) developed theatrical experiences that relied heavily on puppets and the imagistic disemboweling of traditional certainties.

As Mikhail Bakunin coolly put it (with Dostoevsky in mind, no doubt) in his 1882 God and the State, “If God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.” Because “he” would be an idol. And so this New Age birthed the Revolution.

Early on, to re-educate the peasant masses across Russia, the Soviets collected together groups of avant-garde artists, held a parade for them in Moscow in 1917, and sent them across the country in trains and ships as mobile agitprop theaters and consciousness-raising cadres. In a documentary film made at the time, one troupe’s giant puppets—of fat capitalists, militarists, and clergy—briefly appear waving at the crowd as they head out to the hinterlands. 

Park of Culture and Rest (Gorky Park), Moscow: An allegorical exhibit depicting the end of private trade (1937). University of San Diego, Digital Collections.

After Moscow’s “Park of Culture of Rest” (Gorky Park) opened in 1928, artists held workshops there and erected ephemeral displays of large propaganda puppet figures, often including priests with rosaries cavorting with industrial bosses. Such outsized and malevolent figures kept their place in Soviet agitprop, as well as in Leftist artists’ circles abroad.

It was from these circles that “radical puppetry”—as a Leftist, revolutionary project—was born. Mikhail Bakhtin, the Marxist to whose work Rabelais and His World (1965) we are indebted for the idea of “transgression”—which “subverts and liberates the assumptions” of the dominant culture—discussed what he called the “carnivalesque.” He linked this concept to the medieval “Feast of Fools,” which in a few places included the performance of certain liturgical parodies by the “lesser clergy”—subdeacons—outside the church before Mass, in the spirit, it was said, of “He hath put down the mighty from their seat” from the Magnificat.

Those who practice “radical puppetry” in the vicinity of—or in the midst of—liturgical events contrive this lineage to the Feast of Fools to justify their puppets in church as a true “counter-tradition” suppressed by the Church hierarchy.

Fête de la Raison, Notre Dame Cathedral, 1793.

The link is historically tenuous to say the least—there were no giant puppets in the medieval parodies, for example, and the “Fool” celebrations did not impinge on the real liturgy. The effort to ground radical puppetry’s “religious” expression might better be spent in looking at the Puritan Roundheads’ 1643 ordinance outlawing the “idolatrous” Mass and requiring that all stone altars be demolished, that communion tables be placed in the body of the church, that communion rails be eliminated, that any raised chancels be leveled, that candlesticks be taken away from the communion tables, and that all images of the Trinity or the saints be smashed or taken away and defaced. One might also look at the deliberately blasphemous enthronement of the “goddess of Reason” in the Cathedral of Notre Dame during the French Revolution, replacing Our Lady with the sans-culottes’ favorite bawdy actress. How modern these seem.

The Christ of the Puppets

The Associated Press reported in 1962 on a young Presbyterian minister who called himself a “Christian Agnostic.” This was the Reverend William Bell Glenesk, who had been pastor of the Spencer Memorial Church in Brooklyn since 1957. He claimed inspiration from Paul Tillich’s ideas of “romantic existentialism.” He had also been trained in dance and drama.

His way of rejecting papist idolatry that pretended a demarcation of sacred space from the profane less resembled the Roundheads’ method than that of the sans-culottes. Instead of “desacralizing” his church with a hammer, we might say he did it by flooding it with the street, inviting the world to squat in the sanctuary.

“Surrounded by puppets and a mock warplane, Rev. William Glenesk of Brooklyn’s Spencer Memorial Church performs in a service during which the plane becomes a crucifix. Dr. Glenesk is a leader in church use of drama.” From “Churches Take a Cue from Show Biz,” Life Magazine, October 21, 1966, p. 62.

By June 1964, he was narrating “The Puppet Christ” in his church, collaborating with puppeteer Peter Schumann, the founder of the guerilla street theater troupe, The Bread and Puppet Theatre. The production—as well as Christmas performances at the church over the next couple of years by Bread and Puppet Theatre—featured the large, sad, earthen-colored puppets that were the troupe’s signature style, meant to demonstrate that society’s “leaders” were evil and foolish.

These puppets and their use in the troupe’s street theater over the next few years were unquestionably of the family of the anarchic, “revolutionary” avant-garde. In response to Cardinal Spellman’s reported statement that the war in Vietnam was part of a struggle for civilization, as reported by the New York Times, “Eight members of the Bread and Puppet theater group wearing black cowls and carrying grotesque masks impaled on poles, picketed the church…placing a red-paint-splattered doll, called a token of a ‘Mary’ whose ‘baby was napalmed’ in Vietnam, on the cathedral steps.”

The troupe’s use of puppets was an attempt to dethrone the gods of society by challenging them. “Puppets are not cute, like muppets,” Schumann would later say. “Puppets are effigies and gods and meaningful creatures.” In an interview published in 1968, during a high-tide of anti-war guerilla theater, Schumann explained:

Puppets have terrific intrinsic power. They can be funny—or scary. They can say things that actors and dramatists can’t say—just by their size. ... Because the movements of the human body are so intricate—the harmonious details of a live body make a smooth totality. But in a puppet there is movement that is simple and uncomplicated—there isn’t so much detail, and so there seems to be increased size and power. … Alienation is automatic with puppets. It is not that our characters are less complex. They are just more explicit.

Automatic alienation—a key point, it would appear. The leftist version of exorcism: the diagnosis of man’s suffering is his alienation. And the left’s cure is not to ameliorate it or lesson it, but to exacerbate it, to make man more alienated, until things fall apart in a crash. This is called “heightening the contradictions.”

“Connector Spirits” from In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, 2010

Schumann’s troupe has spawned many anarchist “direct action” guerilla theater groups over the years (such as Minneapolis’ In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, with its May Day parades, taxpayer-funded and only slightly ironic “spirit connectors,” and assistance at Catholic Easter liturgies at St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis). It would be difficult to find left-wing street demonstrations—from the parade of coffins in front of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, to the Burning Man festival, to Pax Christi’s puppet-filled annual protest at the School of the Americas—that have not been staged on ideas and imagery traceable to Bread and Puppet. 

Pax Christi School of the Americas demonstration, 2011.

The troupe’s own “Domestic Resurrection Circus” and its “World Insurrection Circus” are suffused with varied flavors of blasphemy, as is its weekly “Insurrection Mass,” a “Funeral Mass for Rotten Ideas,” based on the structure and form of a Roman Catholic Mass, in a venue filled with giant paintings based on the Communist Manifesto. After each Bread and Puppet performance, Schumann distributes bread he has baked to the audience—no fish, though.

“Radical puppetry” is also alive in not-so-well-modulated demonstrations of the Left, such as in the anarchist demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, and in various Occupy Wall Street encampments. David Graeber, the “anti-leader” of Occupy Wall Street, according to BusinessWeek, and a professor of anthropology at the University of London, wrote an essay in 2007 entitled “On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets: Broken Windows, Imaginary Jars of Urine, and the Cosmological Role of the Police in American Culture.” In it he endows giant puppets with divine powers, although given the way postmodern discourse is self-consciously constructed, it is questionable whether he is being truly serious about anything except his own sense of self-righteous grievance:

Giant puppets…are so extraordinarily creative but at the same time so intentionally ephemeral, that they make a mockery of the very idea of the eternal verities…[they] easily become the symbol of this attempt to seize the power of social creativity, the power to recreate and redefine institutions. … They embody the permanence of revolution. From the perspective of the “forces of order,” this is precisely what makes them both ridiculous, and somehow demonic. From the perspective of many anarchists, this is precisely what makes them both ridiculous, and somehow divine.

I do not think of them as “demonic,” exactly, although I admit that I can picture myself in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, crossing the streams around these Stay Puft Marshmallow Men before they try to advance toward the altar.

It is in “radical puppetry,” in anarchist disruptions, and in Occupy Wall Street encampments (now that we no longer have Trotsky and Mao among the living) that the votive lamp is kept lit at the shrine of the “Permanent Revolution.” And perhaps parading down the aisle at St. John the Divine on Christmas Eve, or with animal totems, children of Mother Gaia, and household gods in retinue at the Presbyterian Conference USA general convention, or as some gaseous “spirit rising” in the pages of Concilium and at the annual Religious Education Conference in Los Angeles.

Who makes the Bread of Life?

It is difficult to believe that anyone who is happy having puppets in the liturgy actually believes in the real presence of Christ upon the altar, veiled and hidden under bread and wine—no matter how righteous they feel about themselves and the cause of the “People’s Church.” Perhaps if we could behold this sacred mystery of the Eucharist in its higher glory, we should die—so He allows us to see and consume Him while our eyes are not yet fully open. It is a far greater miracle than getting a crowd to share their loaves of bread and form a community of solidarity of others (though even that is surely a “miracle,” in a merely metaphorical Ebenezer-Scrooge sense, for some people), and it is even a far greater miracle than multiplying loaves of bread out of thin air or raining manna down from the clouds. It results in bread that has become the very body and blood, soul and divinity of the Lord of the universe. And if it is not that, my fellow Catholics and Orthodox, then Flannery O’Connor puts it best—to Hell with it; for then it is not a mere Pelagian puppet-play in which we manufacture our own salvation in the form of a community of the enlightened, but worse—an idolatrous pretense, deserving of the hammers of the iconoclasts.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “Jesus’ Disappearance from Emmaus” (1648-49). Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

“When he was at the table with them,” we read in Luke, “he took bread blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.” This was a moment of supreme recognition, but an ironic one, too—call it a divine “masque,” if you have to, a play within a play. But it is not “play-acting.” In the Mass, at the culminating point, when the priest, in persona Christi, offers the sacrifice, the audience should recognize that the world in which it lives has been drawn into the play and that very world is transformed. This—not folk-singing or holding hands—is true “active participation” in the liturgy. It actually happens; and all those in attendance have to do is to recognize it in order to “actively” participate.

Jesus is recognized, and he vanishes, and those present then behold him truly present in that broken bread. It is far greater and consequential than the masque that some have ventured to introduce into the liturgy with clowns and puppets. Adoro te devote, latens Deitas; Quae sub his figuris vere latitas.
 
About the Author
John B. Buescher 

John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. From 1991 to 2007 he was the head of the Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service. His books include The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism in the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (Skinner House Books, 2004) and The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006).
 

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