The Švankmajer Effect Comes to Life
In 2005 I traveled through Europe tracking down puppet theatres and talking with puppeteers. I spent several weeks in the Czech Republic and in Prague in particular. I was thinking about Švankmajer the whole time, half hoping to run into him. At one point I wandered through the library of the Strahov Monastery on the castle hill. I looked through the shelves and glass displays at objects like a desiccated baby dodo bird when I saw a portrait from hundreds of years ago of a face made of seeds. I knew that Švankmajer had seen this too and found inspiration in its pronounced Mannerism.
I had visited tourist friendly puppet shows on a earlier Prague visit so this time I was determined to find something a little closer to the heart of Czech puppetry and also if possible to the spirit of Švankmajer. Jakub Krofta, a director from DRAK in Hradec Kralove, had recommended I look for Buchty a Loutky (meaning Cakes and Puppets in Czech, a parody of Bread and Puppets) whom he said, along with the Foreman Brothers (both sons of the film director Milos Foreman) were making intriguing innovations on Czech Puppetry.
I descended into the brick walled basement of the Švandovo Theatre in the Smichov district, a 15 minute walk south of the Charles Bridge. Buchty a Loutky performed an absurdist take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tale The Hound of the Baskervilles, retitled Pes Baskervillský. There was no stage as such only crudely constructed wooden boxes and cubby holes. Then I watched many strange things that I had never associated with puppetry before. At one point the puppets request tea. On the side of the ramshackle assemblage a Czech puppeteer pours liquid out of samovar into a teapot. Meanwhile the small Holmes and Watson puppets are given full sized teacups. The puppeteer steps up and pours the ‘tea’ straight down into the cups, liquid splashes out of the cups of course, yet some of the refreshment does indeed remain within the porcelain containers, upon which two suited puppeteers stand off to the sides of the little cage-like wooden puppet stage as the puppets and their life sized human doubles sip gently as the tiny figures do the talking. This doubling effect serves Buchty a Loutky as a sort of signature style. A puppet has a gun. Suddenly a human hand in another small box directly below the main puppet theatre is holding a gun as well. At another point we hear the sounds of train while a tiny HO scale train circles the aimlessly around the wooden boxes. Even the intermission midway through the show was handled in the most unpredictable way imaginable. One member of the troupe, Tomáš, began to read from a boring scientific textbook about swamps as an eco-system. He read this for perhaps ten minutes. The time it took a majority of folks to ken to the fact that this was indeed the break and that a small snack bar had opened up. I, of course, was one of the last.
In another performance entitled the Urbild Remix, a variation on one their older shows, a tiny, perhaps seven inch tall, crudely made puppet wanders out into a ‘stage’ about ten inches by fifteen, with a teensy beer bottle in his hands. He sits on a miniature bed drinks a little. And then falls to sleep. The rest of the show is his dream. And takes place in the multiple small boxy stages below him. Then all mayhem breaks out as a mermaid breathes bubbles in a large water filled jar, carnal relations ensue, one character is killed and very red stage blood streams off the already red stained set, enlargement doubles with weapons take place in the space below the dream stage, live acoustic music encircles the audience and an American Indian figure plays a sort of heroic role while a skeletal figure brings a warning. And this state of brilliant theatrical anarchy was as funny as could be even for a non-Czech speaker. Especially when Marek Bečka, the Buchtys de facto leader and founder stood up before the show and recognized a few English speakers. He told us he would explain everything. Then spent several minutes talking to the Czech audience who were sitting on bleachers then turned back to us and said “That was important information.” Then continued on in Czech.
In a discussion with Buchty a Loutky’s Tomáš Procházka, the director of Pes Baskervillský, I asked him about the groups connection with traditional Czech puppetry. He replied “We don’t feel such a strong connection between the puppet theatres and stuff. We are very interested in film and in bringing the film style into puppet theatre.” I was fairly certain I had seen a Švankmajer connection. He confirmed that, “Švankmajer is the only name we can say we all love it.” As I was still about to see the Urbild Remix he added, “You will see in this story the Švankmajer style. It’s made of rubbish.” Among the objects that caught my attention was a vortex shaped chunk of rusty iron that looked like it been unearthed in someones’ back yard. This was definitely not standard theatrical gear. Later after Urbild I observed that, like Švankmajer, they must be pack rats of odd artifacts. Procházka explained, “Our office is full of rubbish. When we find something that looks interesting we just keep it.”
This approached struck me as something I’d really never seen before in puppetry. And it was clear that that the Buchtys were using the junk and detritus of the past less in a postmodern spirit than in an almost entropic patchwork mode. Tomáš Procházka said “Now is the moment when (Czech) people need to find a new way to get the rich life of puppetry, to find some new way to do puppets, what is the modern theme for puppets, to say what is the use of puppets at all. And there are only a few people who really want a new direction. Otherwise it is very classical and conservative, it’s still the same from the 50′s to now.” That is to say that they were seeking something beyond the Modernism of the mid to late 20th Century. To me there was an affinity to Punk rock; not the rage, but the D.I.Y. aesthetic. Procházka concurred “It’s nice to say it. Because then we can say we do Punk. We do Punk Puppetry.”
In an age of artificial surfaces, hollow objects, virtual screens on every angle of perception, Buchty a Loutky had taken hints from Jan Švankmajer about the importance of the dense inhabited tactile object, perhaps what Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor called the l’objet pauvre, the poor, ruined, or miserable, object. Švankmajer’s film work and experiments in tactility open up the possibility for a breed of puppetry that is not interpreted through the artificiality of theatrical tropes. He not only breeches the fourth wall but the other three as well. It was seeing Buchty a Loutky’s version of this as well as coming across the works of some of the students of l’École Supérieure Nationale de le Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières in France that convinced me to hijack this style and to apply these principles to the puppet troupes we would soon form in Haines Alaska. But that is another story.
For more information about Buchty a Loutky read this:
Or to visit them in Prague:
or to find the Divadlo Švandovo:
Explorations in Texture
In 1989 I first came across the puppet films of Jan Švankmajer at the Film Forum in New York City. I remember feeling an oddness popping through the screen. I couldn’t put my finger on it. A little later I also discovered the films of the Brothers Quay, which also touched a similar, if indefinable, nerve. (Someday I’ll discuss the Quays in more depth.) I wasn’t consciously interested in puppetry then. My interest was primarily in film. But over the years I kept returning to the works of Švankmajer. I eagerly bought my tickets at obscure venues to watch Švankmajer’s Alice and Faust as they were released. These works were bellwethers for me.
Švankmajer’s films, with their manic crosscutting and hyperreal sound effects, reflected the preoccupation of the filmmaker with his pet obsessions; childhood nightmares, food, the difficulties of dialogue and, certainly, puppets. As an American I saw puppets mainly as a folk art relegated to the nursery where fluffy Muppets amuse toddlers. Švankmajer’s use of puppetry was a revelation. Yet throughout the early 90′s only slowly, dimly, did it occur to me to seek out puppetry in New York. A little diligence would have amply rewarded. Yet in a way I’m glad that it was only in my last year in the city, before moving to Alaska, that I began to realize that much of the strength of the Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay lay in their puppets. In 1994 I discovered their VHS tapes at Kim’s Video. Only as I began to closely examine these films that I began to understand what I was seeing.
But even before I lay hold of the videos I knew what it was that really grabbed me in Švankmajer’s works. In a word it was texture. By the late eighties I was already convinced that something was off in the modern preoccupation with flat empty surfaces. Whether it was the white walls of galleries, offices and apartments, or whether it was the flatness of of our appliances, fixtures and electronic gadgetry, it occurred to me that humanity was not meant to live in sterile empty environments. Nature was a system at once soothingly simple and extremely complex. Their was the visual sweep of the forest and the unique singularity of the bark on one tree. Traditional art and design had many of these elements as well. But Modernist aesthetics, say Bauhaus or minimalism, had been commercialized and sold to people in a variety of packages. Take a walk through the average postwar office building; look for the cheese in the sterile rat trap. What would be the effect upon humanity living in an environment as dead as the surface of the average refrigerator? While it would be almost scientifically impossible to calculate I think we already know the answer.
Švankmajer’s puppet films fly in the face of the sleek modernist ethic by pushing your face directly into the path of dense textures. There are few simple textures in a Švankmajer film. Instead you get a riot of corrosion, fracturing, old wood grain, rotting food, vegetation, dank metal and dry bone. He even animates cow tongues and pieces of raw pork.
In Rakvičkárna (known in English as Punch and Judy or it’s more literal translation The Coffin Factory) textures and puppetry go hand in hand. From it’s opening shots of decaying musical automaton monkeys it pushes texture to the foreground. The textures that then assault us include mechanical toys and carousel horses, a dead animal eye suddenly slipped in among the painted. Then we are forced to observe the ripped patchwork of gunny sack burlap that makes up one of the backdrops. And then come the two puppets, each a masterpiece of textural complexity. While called Punch and Judy, there is no Judy figure represented. Instead we have Punch and what seems to be Harlequin (which touches of Pierrot). Punch is fashioned in an antique manner a la the 17th Century. But this is not an antique puppet, it is purposely aged. The face of this punch is like a painted moonscape, designed to appeared cracked and dented. Likewise the Harlequin wears an extraordinarily colorful ragged patchwork gown. Then to really up the textural ante, as if it wasn’t already thick with cracks, crevices and features, Švankmajer throws in a live guinea pig then proceeds to show us its fur, eyes, teeth, and moving tongue. All of this is still only the opening salvo. There is a strange house wallpapered with antiquarian clippings from books and newspapers. There is a coffin papered in a puppet sized engraving of a skeleton. The coffin is then hammered, nailed and dripped upon by candles. Finally in a frenetic battle holes are drilled in the wooden floor and carnivalesque paintings are punctured as we are reminded that at the beginning these puppets were merely the extension of fleshy human hands.
Similar textural studies can be found in Don Šajn (or Don Juan) where the Švankmajer thrusts us into further conundrums: Are the puppets old or merely painted that way? Are the puppets real or are they actors in puppet garb? Is that a set or is it a very non-theatrical reality? Švankmajer distinctively blurs such distinctions. At one point two human-sized puppets are sword fighting in a decayed medieval setting, which is overgrown with weeds and shrubbery, when they pass a wing of the Baroque stage they have also been seen on. And it isn’t the front of the stage. We instead get a casual sidelong glances at the back of the painted set. No attention is paid to this detail. This breakdown between the theatrical or the filmic illusion and the grittier denser textures of reality are a hallmark of Švankmajer’s work. It doesn’t matter if you see the hands or the back of the set. He does this without breaking the illusion of the piece at all. What matters is to bring the animated figure or the object freely back and forth across the borders of our reality, much as messages, books, music, etc had to be smuggled in and out of the old Communist world. And texture is one of his chief means for accomplishing this feat.
And so Švankmajer uses real bones in Neco z Alenky (or Alice), his version of Alice in Wonderland, and stuffed rabbits, various socks, actual false teeth, glass eyes and many other objects not generally associated with puppetry or animation. In Moznosti dialogu (Dimensions in Dialogue) he uses most of the objects found on a desk, in a kitchen, in a refrigerator, not to mention shoes, butter and toothpaste. And not content to merely use these things he crushes or destroys each in its turn changing the textures from the rather hollow items purchased in stores into symbolically charged objects.
People sometimes use the phrase object theatre. And just as often they mean something which is taken from the outside world and treated theatrically. The object in Švankmajer’s hands retains the mystery of the thing in itself. He points us away from the slick surfaces of modernity towards the haunted characteristics of older inhabited used materials. In doing so Švankmajer displays an aspect of his professed Surrealism. And old school Surrealists valued the displaced object highly.
(To be concluded next time.)
For more Anadromous puppetry essays:
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 8 – Staring into the Dark River
I was awakened in my converted medieval hotel room by bells pealing loud and long enough to wake the dead. I’m not talking jingle bells either. These sounds were deep, rolling, earthshaking. It was Ascension Day in Salzburg, Austria. Ascension Day? Evidently the day of Jesus’ ascent back into heaven is celebrated pretty widely across secular Europa while we more religious Americans hadn’t even been informed that it was a holiday. I felt gypped. (Hey wait a minute isn’t gypped from gypsy? Uh oh I feel something politically correct hovering about. Down damn you!)
Meanwhile back in Salzburg everything was closed except the Hohensalzburg Castle, which fortunately contained the small puppet museum of the Salzburg Marionetten Theater. I also discovered there that it would be impossible to interview any of the Salzburg puppeteers because the office was closed for the holiday. But I did have tickets for the theatre that night.
I found my seat in the Salzburg Marionette Theater, amid children and Japanese tourists, for an unseasonal (to my mind at least… Or maybe it fits the Ascension Day festivities?) performance of The Nutcracker. This was the most expensive puppet show I had attended on my entire trip through European puppetry: 28 euros (nearly $40 US) and hardly the best seats in the diminutive antique theatre. But after all the Salzburg Marionettes had toured the world. And when I saw their show I knew why. Their technique was elaborate, flawless. It was like watching a three dimensional film without the glasses. The use of lighting was particularly good. But it was the actual movement of the marionettes that was stupefying. Whether it was a parade of snowmen or a Middle Eastern dancer, the performance was truly lifelike. The puppets appeared to be actual miniature beings rather than mere pieces of wood, wire, fabric and paint. As the ballet concluded the possibilities of puppetry appeared nigh endless to me. Although it was curious that the group with the most refined style moved about primarily to prerecorded music. If Buchty a Loutky in Prague had this kind of technique what would they do with it? Indeed many of the students at Charleville would eventually have this level of technique and they were already beginning to move far beyond traditional concepts of puppeteering.
As I walked back to my hotel in the darkness over the Salzach River I stopped on the bridge and looked across to the lights Salzburg and the castle reflected in the dark water. I reflected on what a journey it had been. I could see that puppetry was still an untapped artistic treasury, from the folk art of Guignol to the philosophical experiments at the Institut International de la Marionnette and ESNAM, from the savage comic timing of Der Weite Theater to the gentle humor and earnest ideas of DRAK, from the pure displays of light and shadow at the Fuguren-Zirkel to the dark seriousness of play’s like Groteska’s Balladyna and from the perfect professionalism of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre to funky absurdism of Buchty a Loutky. And I could also easily see how much was left, acres, countries, galaxies to be explored in the puppetry matrix, including masks and objects. Puppetry had been a folk art for so long, with only tentative steps towards art having been made in the 20th Century. It was as though though this art form was still in its glorious silent movie stage awaiting the advent of sound.
I also had another reflection: I remembered back in Berlin going to a rock club to watch three indie bands play. I left before the third one started. Why? Well I think it’s safe to say I’ve seen a lot of music in my lifetime. And these bands were doing what so much music does these days. They were providing a rather predictable experience for the people who like that sort of sound. The club was full of the usual suspects: hipsters standing around looking coolly bored or the folks who invariably bob their heads in approval of the beat. But nothing surprising was occurring. And without some element of surprise nothing new can be said. The musical conversation that had stretched back into the mists of the 20th Century and before now looked to have become stale. (Yes I’m well aware that there is plenty of good music out there. The problem is that it has ended up as our personal portable soundtracks.)
But in puppet theatre after puppet theatre my mind was being blown all ways from Sunday. Puppetry, by retaining its tangible, tactile character, had stepped up to the artistic task of confronting the infernal virtuality of the 21st Century. The European puppets that I saw raised questions that most of the other arts could no longer confront in our maelstrom of hi-tech simulacra. Puppetry can be used effectively in films, but it is barely contained by them. And the best puppet films by Wladyslaw Starewicz, Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay or Genevieve Anderson throw us back upon the textures of the real world with its mysterious essence. But the only way to truly know why the once and future art of puppetry is able to speak into our dismembered reconstituted times is find a real puppet show (not some muppety kiddie show either) and get thee henceforth. And that’s the point puppets require our presence, which gets us out of our isolation.
As I stood on that bridge crossing the Salzach River watching the lights of Salzburg it occurred to me that everywhere you go there are endless musical bands, singers, organizations. But where were the puppet troupes? Why shouldn’t there be just as many? The punk puppets of Buchty a Loutky provided an excellent model. But why not shadow puppets? Marionettes? Toy theatres? Rod Puppets? Puppet films? Crafty automata? Reconditioned action figures? Recycled junk? And not just to make kids laugh either? (But then again why not?) And not just to make adults giggle? (And again why in the name of hell not?) But why not make versions of Shakespeare, Faust or Alice in Wonderland? Why not make versions of movies? Buchty a Loutky did Rocky IX why not The Maltese Falcon or Night of the Living Dead? Or my own personal dream – a live outdoor version of Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a small audience following the Stalker puppet to the Zone. Puppetry is an ancient art with a deep past that ranges from Punch to King Kong, from Captain Pod to Michel de Ghelderode. But it is also an art that is still discovering its grammar, especially since it is not just a language of homunculi and funny animals but of all objects. On my journey I saw stones, grapevines, electric trains, water and light all used as puppets.
And so I determined right there on that bridge that I would take on this art myself and see if I could get it to work back in Alaska, back in North America. And take it I did. And I believe it has worked… But that is another story. It was time to leave Europe and the rich panorama of faces and characters, both human and animated, I had encountered on this astounding journey.
In early May during my last stop in Europe I had one closing benediction related to puppetry. At my hotel in the Latin Quarter in Paris the desk clerk, whom I had known for years, told me that the man on the night shift, Jorge, was a Bolivian puppet master. He introduced us and I interviewed him. As he discussed puppets made out of paper in the shape of condors I realized how much more of the world of puppets I had yet to encounter. There were indeed puppet shows all over the world. I asked him if he thought puppets would have problems surviving in a world of televisions, computers, video games, etc. “No!” He replied with passion. “People need puppets.” “Why?” I asked him. For him all of puppetry came down to one word “Simplicity.” And after all I’d seen I couldn’t help but agree with him: simplicity and a tangible reality.
March 4th 2012
And if you are in Salzburg at the right time dig deeply into your pockets and see the Salzburg Marionette Theater. Visit their website:
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 7 – The City of Eccentric Dreams
Meanwhile Prague was calling. I had been traveling for a couple of months through Europe, visiting friends and hunting down puppet theatres in Europe. The entire time I had essentially been making a Fibonacci spiral towards Prague, the heart of puppetry in Europe. Švankmajer, Skupa, Trnka, Faust, Don Giovanni, Kašpárek, puppetry as history complete with heroic martyrs. The Czech Republic, the eccentric core of Europe, the Surrealist dreamscape, to quote Andre Breton: “Prague, wrapped in its legendary magic, is truly one of those cities that has been able to fix and retain the poetic idea that is always more or less drifting aimlessly through space.” I had come to Prague for the second time, in the second half of April 2005, a little more prepared to unwrap it’s curious puppet mythologies.
My first stop was the Švandovo Theatre to find Buchty a Loutky. Back in Hradec Kralove DRAK Director Jakub Krofta had highly recommended them. They were performing Pes Baskervillessky, their absurd version of the Sherlock Holmes mystery ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. The lights went down. Someone played slow music on a piano. A tall bearded long-haired gentleman in a suit began to read from Sherlock Holmes. Behind him in an exceptionally funky homemade stage Sherlock Holmes and Watson suddenly appeared. Watson and Holmes were full sized actors who had crammed their heads into the tiny puppet stage. Soon the actors were replaced by little string puppets. At one point Holmes requested tea. Suddenly two full-sized cups appeared on the stage. Water was poured from above. Splashing helplessly on the tiny figures as well as into the porcelain cups. It was then consumed by a couple of puppeteers from the side as the play continued. Suddenly the actors would be in front of the little stage duplicating the movements of the puppets. A model train began to roam around the makeshift stage at one point. At another a puppet is falling and falling and falling, the miniature stage curtain descends suddenly the play stops and the bearded guy starts reading a book on swamps through a microphone. This goes on for five minutes before it starts to dawn on everyone that this is the intermission. He reads for 15 minutes. The evening continued with humor, absurdity and inventiveness blazing away in full glory. Holmes does indeed solve the case. Eventually the play ends as a cello lonely tune is bowed offstage. And the players take a bow. I approached the guy with the beard… his name was Tomas Procházka. He is the director of the piece. We set an appointment to talk for later that week before their next show. I walked off thinking, laughing, obsessed with the play, my head positively exploding with ideas. I had seen much on this trip, but nothing had prepared me for this. I would return.
The next evening I decided to visit one of the unique Czech black light theatres, Ta Fantastika to see “Aspects of Alice“, a truly weird variation on Alice in Wonderland. Black theatres tend to be quite commercial in their production design and sadly proliferate largely for the tourist market. Nevertheless as they are tangentially related to puppet theatre I felt I should see another one. This one appeared to be the best of the current crop. In the presentation Alice follows a magician by floating, always lots of floating in these shows, across a day-glow version of historic Prague. She meets some tall Jewish ghost puppets that carry her around in her hands. It was doubly odd since most of Prague’s Jews had been exterminated in World War 2 and these gangly puppets were largely nostalgic characters. Then there was a fairly successful clown show to cheer Alice up after getting depressed by the Jewish specters: lots of floating juggling day-glow bowling pins. After the intermission things turned down right odd. For no discernible reason Alice was suddenly topless and reenacting the Garden of Eden, with the snake represented by another topless woman. Now I’m fairly familiar with the Bible and many interpretations of the GArden of Eve story but I’d never encountered this interpretation before. The magician then becomes Adam. Alice/Eve becomes pregnant. She prays for forgiveness to a triangle with odd lines in it. (Was that the Trinity?) And the show ends. I’m not sure what that meant, but it sure was slick and bizarre.
The next morning I went to meet Nina Malíková, daughter of famed Czech puppeteer Jan Malik, an intelligent animated woman in her fifties, editor of the noted puppeteering magazine Loutkář, who was already being interviewed by a French student, Rachele, doing a Master’s thesis on Czech Puppet history. Eventually Nina, Rachele, an interpreter and myself were deeply involved in a discussion about the meaning and future of puppetry. Nina was worried that there would not be enough good puppet shows for children, since in the Czech Republic everyone wanted to do work for adults. I could only dream of such problems for America. “What about DRAK and other companies”, I said. “They do work for children?” “Yes”, she said, “that’s one show once in a while, but I want to take my grandchildren to puppet shows every week. We are supposed to be the land of puppets.” She had definite and high standards. She lamented that increasingly puppets were becoming a purely improvised visual phenomenon. (Several other puppet theorists have pointed to same defect in so much contemporary puppetry.) She also wondered if the future of puppets was to be contained within various filmic or digital media. I pointed out the use of strong texts by the students of the International Institute for Marionnettes in Charleville-Mézières France. Rachele added that there were writers in Avignon who were assigned to specific puppeteers. That was exactly what I saw at the Institute. I said that there had to be more of an emphasis on texts to bring puppetry to the next level. Nina looked at me and said… I want you to write about what you’ve been telling me for the next issue of Loutkář. We’ll translate it. And she also offered the same to Rachele. It had proved an interesting meeting indeed. (I did write something but I suspect it was too long. You are basically reading a variation of it write now.)
Not all in Prague was fascinating theatre and engrossing meetings. I couldn’t help noticing the predators of tourism as well: the strange bad tourist puppet shows and imitative black light theatres. Prague has so many genuine puppet attractions that it is also plagued by commercial puppetry trying to cash in on the Czech culture. There were so many cheap puppet shops that the authentic ones took a little effort to find. There are two Don Giovanni marionette theatres. The real one is at the National Marionette Theatre. I talked for a while to a Bulgarian girl who was passing out leaflets in front of the imitation Don Giovanni marionette play. She worked 12 hours a day six days a week doing little more than this. She was so bored with her job that she struck up a conversation with me when I turned around to walk away from a theatre foyer. She explained how a group of Serbians also ran many of the most exploitative black light theatres. She was stuck working for them a few years until she could get enough to go home.
Returning to the Švandovo on my last night in Prague I found Tomas Procházka from Buchty a Loutky. I told him that their puppetry reminded me of old school Punk rock. Not the rage, but the D.I.Y. aesthetic. “It’s nice to say it. Because then we can say we do Punk. We do Punk Puppetry.” He explained how the troupe took turns coming up with ideas for shows. The group of five or six people had been influenced mostly through the strange puppet films of Jan Švankmajer, also probably the reason I found myself wandering around Europe looking for theatrical homunculi. Referring to that night’s entertainment Tomas said “You will see in this story the Švankmajer style. It’s made of rubbish.” The stage for this show, entitled Urbild Remix, was actually indeed constructed exactly in the Švankmajer mode. It was made from wood you might have found in your backyard. There were three puppet stages and extra curtains besides piled on top of each other. The show was billed as an adventure. There were chases, murders, mermaids, skeletons, American Indians and stage blood that literally flowed from the middle stage into a teapot, again homemade music, plenty of strange humor and a great comic introduction by the play’s director, Marek Bečka. And it was all a dream! I can’t possible summarize it. Except to say if you ever go to Prague if you must hunt down the performances of Buchty a Loutky at the Švandovo Theatre. I hear Rocky IX is particularly good.
At one point in my two weeks in Prague I was exploring the Strahovsky Cloister libraries, particularly their surreal object collections, not too far from a desiccated baby dodo bird; it was then that I found I found a portrait, several centuries old, made entirely from seeds. As I looked at them locked behind the glass on a low shelf ignored by the hordes of high school students currently being herded through the place, I smiled to myself. This was exactly like one of the images in the short film Dimensions of Dialogue. Švankmajer had been here. And I promised myself that next time I visited Prague I would find the man himself.
Next time we conclude our journey in Salzburg Austria with the most polished and complicated marionettes of my whole trip.
And here is what you will need to explore puppetry in Prague on your own!!!
For more information on Buchty a Loutky:
or their haunt at the Švandovo: (Hint more shows are listed on the Czech version)
And to learn more about Jan Švankmajer begin here:
To see the authentic Don Giovanni puppet opera in Prague go to the National Marionette Theatre. This is an excellent place to begin.
And if you do want to see a strange if commercial black theatre presentation Ta Fantastika seems to be the best one I’ve seen so far. And they are still presenting Aspects of Alice! (They have a video here too.)
Other spots for real puppet shows Říše Loutek theatre. DRAK plays here on occasion.
Divadlo Minor is a good place for interesting children’s puppetry:
If you want to get more adventurous translate this…
Highly recommended The Forman Brothers – Film Director Milos Forman’s sons are experimental puppeteers and high on my list to catch:
To learn more about Loutkář run this through a translation tool:
To buy a serious puppet try:
And finally to have a puppet commissioned for you! (as Reckoning Motions did) write to Lenka Pavlíčková. She does an amazing job!
There are also puppet festivals!!
Get thee to Prague …
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 6 – The Czech Puppet Trail
I stole my way into the Czech lands by train. I arrived at the obscure town of Chrudim, looking for the Muzeum loutkářských kultur Chrudim (The Museum of Marionette Culture in Chrudim) in the heart of its medieval core. Passing the central plague monument I eventually found the museum located in the Renaissance Mydlář building. Museum Manager Alena Exnarova, a very knowledgeable woman, and one of her assistants, a spark-plug of a guy named Radek, graciously spent an hour and a half giving me the Czech history of puppets. (A history I’ve already spent some time writing about back in Antidote Art #1.)
What was curious to me then was that Czechs had been doing mature puppet plays ever since the 1700s. They had been performing medieval church puppetry before that but were highly influenced by wandering Punch and Judy Men and other homunculoid riffraff drifting over from England and Germany. The traveling Czech puppeteers would give miniature versions of famous plays and novels for people who might not be able to see the real thing or read. It was during this time that classics like Macbeth, Don Juan and Faust put down their puppet roots. And this also proved to be a significant influence in helping to keep the Czech language alive while under a ban from the Austrians after the devastating Battle of White Mountain in1620. This was the battle that destroyed the Reformation that Jan Hus had started nearly a century before Martin Luther. Puppets therefore occupied a very special place in the Czech psyche for while their Austro-Hungarian overlords spoke German, the puppeteers performed in Czech: a language too far beneath them for the Austrians to notice.
Puppets were sometimes a way of presenting messages that the authorities overlooked. Kašpárek, the Czech Punch, sometimes made salty comments about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the late 1800s more was being done for children as the trend was developing in many countries. Many children looked forward to getting miniature puppet theatres as Christmas gifts. Yet before World War One there were thousands of roving puppet troupes, some for children many still for adults. They even started a puppet magazine called Loutkář (puppeteer) in 1912… and it continues today. Later Joseph Skupa invented the characters Spejbl and Hurvinek who actually made such anti-Nazi remarks so as to get Mr. Skupa thrown into a concentration camp. The Soviets, ironically, as they had done in other Iron Curtain countries, encouraged puppet theatres. And yes there were many times when the audience saw something beneath the obvious surfaces, they were used to reading the allegories. I realized that alone of all the countries in the world the Czech Republic was the only country I could think of where puppetry was not just woven into the warp and woof of its history but was positively heroic! Astounding.
It was a fascinating history from a fascinating museum in an undiscovered little medieval town. They also housed a library of 70,000 multilingual books, magazines and other items pertaining to puppet history. The museum was supported by the Czechs because puppetry is respected as a vital art form by the Czech government. The museum also serves as a focal point and aid to the Amateur Puppet Festival in Chrudim. The amateur festival is held each July for Czechs only, but foreign guests are also invited. It is a pretty big deal and might warrant a return to Chrudim someday.
As I concluded my interview with Alena Exnarova I asked her about the meaning of puppetry. “The puppet has limitations but then again it can do things actors could never do.” She explained that there is a life to puppetry that will continue even with all of the modern digital screenal gadgetry. What were some of the new trends in Czech puppetry I asked? Radek explained that there was a movement translated as something like Illusion Theatre. It was a return to certain aspects of the roots of traditional puppetry particularly the used the hidden puppeteers. In other words while Americans hardly knew much beyond the Muppets except in a few isolated zones, most of us having not even seen puppeteers standing on the stage with their puppets performing, some Czech puppeteers have already been there, done that and have started to return to the mystery of the hidden hand by behind the puppet.
There is no European spiritual program that allows one to return to states feeling vaguely in touch with the ineffable. It’s not like a trip to Asia. Instead one often just feels as stupid as a laundry bag in need of some real education. (Oh thank you American public school for partially teaching me English and English alone!) And I was hardly finished with my lessons in puppet history. I was now on my way to receive a few more instructions and to tag along with a Czech puppet troupe across some of the most dangerous roads in Europe.
A short one-hour train ride the next day took me to my next destination Hradec Kralove. My purpose in coming to this town was to visit the DRAK (an acronym that spells ‘dragon’ in Czech) Theatre. And to meet with Jakub Krofta, son of Professor Joseph Krofta, who did, and continues to do, so much to change Czech puppetry. Jakub is the de facto director of the theatre most of the time and was rehearsing a new play with actors in bear costumes. When I arrived I spent the first two or three hours interviewing and chatting with Jakub. After giving me a tour of the facilities, that I must say inspired a little wistful envy, Jakub gave me much of the history of the theatre and so many interesting perspectives that it would be difficult to begin to unravel it all here. As I watched them rehearsing their bear play I felt a need to speak out from the Alaskan perspective. Bears sniff around with their sensitive noses. If you ever see this play you might notice the bruins sniffing around a bit… now you know why.
I was temporarily adopted by the troupe and was even invited to travel the next day with them back and forth to Prague on the crazy Czech roads. I felt honored. I got to know several of the cast and crew, including the petite Petra Cicáková an unusual actress/clown/puppeteer and folk musician Filip Huml. Driving on the narrow Czech roads to the wild music of a Balkan brass band was one of the more disturbing adventures I’d ever experienced. Cars passed each other in waves on the two lane highways. Once a car drifted out into the opposing lane from some three cars back and passed three more in front of us an instant before a semi-truck plowed forward on that same lane. It didn’t comfort me to later read that indeed the fatality statistics for the Czech roads are basically the worst in Europe, all fueled by the incredible (and incredibly cheap) beer. Our able driver passed at least 60 cars on the night time ride home.
And the play, The Enchanted Bagpipes, contained a life-size puppet or two and several actors and musicians in devil costumes. The music was curious, rewritten versions of Czech folk tunes while the lead character, Filip Huml, a Czech musicologist as well as actor, played the gajdy, the Moravian bagpipe. Quite an earful! DRAK had over time been moving more into an area that used circus techniques and masks as much as puppetry. This coincided with some of the developments at Teatr Lalka and Teatr Groteska. The message of the piece was intriguing as well. The bagpipe symbolized the Czech soul. The devils tempted Filip to surrender his bagpipes. They used the authority of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the cold uniformity of the communist system and finally the randy cash of the Americanized West. I was happy to see that the old Czech tendency to use puppetry and theatre for questioning the reigning powers was far from moribund.
Finally in a side note, as I strolled around Chrudim, Hradec Kralove and Prague I noticed something. There is a kind of connection between Alaska and the Czech Republic. Back in the U.K. men often wore a sort of uniform short post-skinhead hairstyle. In the Netherlands a very absurd waxy hairstyle predominated for male fashion. Poland was a bit formal. France a bit more stylish. But in the Czech Republic men didn’t seem involved with any particular hair trend: Short, long, beards, mustaches, shaved headed it just didn’t seem to matter, just like back in Alaska. I felt visually quite comfortable. This has nothing to do with puppetry, or does it???
Next time we finally enter the puppetry capital of Europe… Prague.
For more information on DRAK:
Go see them in Hradec Kralove!
The Museum of Marionette Culture in Chrudim is remodeling until June 2012
But this website might be helpful until then:
Eventually their English page will be back up.
Puppetry As Antidote
I need to say something about puppets.
I need to communicate something here, in this manner, about puppetry and it’s relationship to the world we are moving into. The problem isn’t that I don’t know what to say; the problem is that there is too much to unravel, too many long thoughts, involved histories, autopsies of other cultural manifestations. I’m also not quite sure who the reader of this little missive will be. I have to assume that most of the people who will read this, at this moment in 2011, have little or no interest in the subject. Then there are those who may find this introductory little essay who might have a professional interest. Yet I believe what I have to say can span the gap.
For most, certainly most Americans at any rate, the mention of puppets will immediately start hitting exactly the buttons I do not wish to hit. So let me just get this off my chest now and we’ll take it as given. Muppets are indeed puppets, but the world of puppetry is so much wider, so much deeper that I have to state from the beginning “Don’t think of puppets merely as Muppets.” Secondly, in a similar vein, puppets are not a children’s medium. (Any serious puppeteer actually reading this at the moment will wonder why I’m restating the obvious.) I would say that, without a doubt, for the vast majority of folks, puppets are for kids. To which all I can say to that is keep reading. Thirdly, puppets aren’t simply a quaint folk art, though they have a fascinating history. And finally for my lefty friends, puppets aren’t just for protest marches: cardboard turtles and political effigies. Puppets aren’t even exclusively humorous and ironic.
What then am I talking about? Punch? Absolutely. Guignol? Certainment. Shakespeare performed with marionettes? Often. Faust? Don Juan? Mozart operas? Nativity plays? Ballets? Modernist theatre? Puppet films? Seven times yes! Performed in little booths? In traditional theatres? In parades? In barns? In fields? In water? In the dark? Seven more times yes! They can make you laugh, but you knew that. They can make you cry. They can even frighten you. And they certainly can even make you think. They can defy truth, religion and God, because they can also speak of truth,
religion, God. Unlike actors they are perfect as abstractions, as personifications, as pageantry, as philosophy. But like actors they can be imbued with movement, with character and with a voice. Puppetry is an art that is only just now coming into it’s own.
And puppets can even enter into the historical realm. Consider puppetry in the Czech Republic: Folk and church puppets certainly existed there during the Middle Ages, but the proof is scanty. Serious puppetry was introduced sometime in the Baroque Era through English, Italian and German itinerant companies. Marionettes performed versions of Marlowe, Shakespeare and even Molière. The Czechs took to marionettes with great enthusiasm and soon began to produce their own little puppet plays as well as this classic repertoire. Marlowe’s Faust became a traditional favorite, likewise Don Juan (Don Giovanni) and biblical themes. And after the Battle of White Mountain in 1622, which resulted in Germanic language domination by the Austrians, puppetry became one of the few cultural venues allowed to smuggle in the forbidden Czech language. One of the characters inherited by Czechs was the Pulcinella, Punch, Kasperl puppet who was christened Kaspárek in the Czech lands. This loudmouthed creature was like an unhinged court jester who was by the late 19th Century, saying some awfully pungent things about the Czechs Austro-Hungarian overlords. One puppeteer claimed that the remarks were not his fault, but the puppet’s. But this was only the beginning.
Actually, by the mid- 19th Century, puppetry was beginning to take a familiar road in the Czech Republic, the road that leads to the quarantine of childhood. Yet by the turn of the 20th Century Czech puppetry was on a new track that would intensify itself through the darker days to come. Theatrical artists were beginning to discover the lowly hand puppet and shadow puppets had arrived with more visibility. And with a revival of the Czech language came a printing of several classic puppet plays. The first congress of Czech puppeteers was held in 1903, which would eventually pave the way for the formation of UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionette), the international puppetry organization. In 1912 the world’s oldest puppetry magazine, Cesky Loutkár, (The Czech Puppeteer) entered circulation. It continues today as Loutkár. Also in the early part of the 20th Century, puppets began to be discovered by modernists of various stripes. This just scratches the surface though. The real value of puppetry in the old Czechoslovakia can be seen by what happened during the Second World War.
The Nazis occupied not only the Sudetenland but also all of the Czech lands during the war. The Czechs did not welcome the beast however. And one thing they had working for them was the impenetrability of the Czech language. Also the serious Germans did not at first fully grasp the place of puppetry in helping to preserve the language in the face of a previous Germanic Austrian suppression. They hadn’t done any basic research on how many puppet theatres there were in this small country in, say, 1936: 1,357. Nor how many puppet plays had been performed that year: 10,000. Nor did they grasp the significance of the rebellious Kaspárek in thumbing his Bohemian nose at the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Under the watchful eye of the Nazis Czech puppeteers found surreptitious ways to perform suspect material. The SS began the elimination of some puppet theatres in 1938.. By March of 1939 it was clear to the Nazis that puppet performances were clearly a danger to the propaganda of the Third Reich. They shut down Loutkár and the Sokol puppet institution. Underground anti-fascist puppet plays were held even when all Czech cultural manifestations were for a time halted. Meanwhile the plays of Josef Skupa, the greatest living Czech puppeteer, the inventor of the beloved Spejbel and Hurvinek, were presenting challenging allegorical works for their adult programs. These plays did not catch the attention of the SS overlords immediately. In fact they tried to use Skupa’s fame as a propaganda tool by claiming, falsely, that Skupa had performed for the Nazis in Germany.
But as the war entered it’s feverish final phase Czech puppeteers were snagged in the nets of the Germans. Many were tortured, imprisoned, tossed into concentration camps. Professor Skupa was thrown into a jail in Dresden near the end of the war. And in a supreme irony, he was able to escape when the murderous Allied bombs destroyed not only the city but the prison that held him. All in all, however, over one hundred Czech puppeteers were martyred at the hands of the Nazis. And yet in one of the most fascinating chapters of this strange story Czech prisoners at the Terezín and Ravenbrück concentration camps made miraculous puppet shows out of rags to entertain their fellow doomed inmates.
This, obviously, is something quite different from the cute childish figures that linger in the common perception of what a puppet can do. And just as plainly, these puppeteers did not conform to the happy-go-lucky stereotypes that again form the popular imagination of what puppetry can be. These were not simply puppeteers as counter-propagandists. This was puppetry as a courageous truth telling art.
And we haven’t even gotten to communist era yet! Great figures like the puppet filmmakers Jiri Trnka and Jan Svankmajer both ran afoul of the censors with their allegorical works. And puppeteers learned to speak with subtlety so that scripts might be approved, while the imagery might speak a different message entirely. And even after the Velvet Revolution puppetry still speaks in questioning tones about the value of all of that materialistic cash being injected into the Czech economy at the expense of the soul of the nation.
In short, in the Czech lands we have a clear case where puppetry was never simply reduced to a kiddie cute definition. But what is the value of even this sort of puppetry in this 21st Century hi-tech virtually networked media saturated world?
(See part two.)
Most of the Czech puppet history is found in Dr. Jan Malik’s book Puppetry in Czechoslovakia (Orbis, Prague 1948) and The World of Puppets Yesterday and Today (Museum of Puppetry, Chrudim, Czech Republic 1997) – both highly recommended.