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
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?”
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 quarterswhat is the point of these
visitations into the sanctuary?
The Spirit of Vatican II as today’s special guest on Sesame Street
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 bannersthe “work of
human hands”to the Christ child.
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 cutealmost, 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
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 hypocrisyregarded
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 screenthe veil of
the templeand 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 childrenportraying dancing
animalslearn 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 duetwill be next, if it is not
edged out by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
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
Churchhaving suffered so much at the hands of iconoclasts, both during the
Byzantine Empire as well as in the Soviet periodhas 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
puppetsof fat capitalists, militarists, and clergybriefly 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
It was from these
circles that “radical puppetry”as a Leftist, revolutionary projectwas 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 culturediscussed 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”subdeaconsoutside the church before Mass, in
the spirit, it was said, of “He hath put down the mighty from their seat” from
Those who practice
“radical puppetry” in the vicinity ofor in the midst ofliturgical 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
leastthere 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
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 productionas well as Christmas performances at the church over the next
couple of years by Bread and Puppet Theatrefeatured 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:
have terrific intrinsic power. They can be funnyor scary. They can say things
that actors and dramatists can’t sayjust by their size. ... Because the
movements of the human body are so intricatethe harmonious details of a live
body make a smooth totality. But in a puppet there is movement that is simple
and uncomplicatedthere 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.
alienationa 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 demonstrationsfrom 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 Americasthat have not been staged on ideas and imagery traceable
to Bread and Puppet.
Pax Christi School of the Americas demonstration, 2011.
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
audienceno fish, though.
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
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
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 wineno 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 dieso 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 bestto
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 worsean 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, toocall
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. Thisnot
folk-singing or holding handsis 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.