I have returned to Tbilisi Georgia nearly two years after my 2016 visit. And I am gaining a larger perspective than I had before. I’ve nearly finished learning the alphabet and I’ve met many friends, old and new, as I wander the streets observing the world around me. My observations directly connected to my chief aims of puppetry, music and dance will be covered on my Gravity From Above site, but here I am going to continue dealing with the other aspects of Georgian culture that call to me. And today nothing called out as loud as the legacy of Communism in the old Soviet Union, which Georgia was buried deeply within, as I visited the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum.
But before we enter that world a bit of background. A quick look at the wars of Georgia, both outside invasion and civil strife, produces well over a staggering 150 conflicts before the year 1800 from Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Mongols and the Ottomans among many, many others. And around the year 1800 the Russian Empire muscled its way into the area and presented a deal the Georgians couldn’t turn down, eventually swallowing them into greater Russia. To this day it is a common misconception that the Georgians speak Russian and write in the Cyrillic alphabet. Then after a very brief season of Georgian independence during the Russian Revolution Georgia declared itself as a state and from 1918 until 1921 they were free and the blossoms of liberty began to grow everywhere. Until they were harvested by the new Soviet Union and were ‘allowed’ to spend another 70 years under Russian/Soviet yoke.
Since the 1991 declaration of independence Georgia has remained free, though not without periods of strife. And so it is inevitable that the marks of both Russia and the Soviet Union (not the same thing at all) are still quite heavy on the land. To be fair some of these marks are not bad. Under the Soviet system education was encouraged as was theatre, ballet, puppets (!) and other cultural products… though always at the whim of the state censors. But other effects were much more troubling. Churches were banned under the atheist system. And many church buildings were destroyed or put to non-religious uses. I stepped into the Lado Gudiashvili Museum to look at work by that painter who had been part of that brief moment of freedom in the early 20th Century and who had continued on under the Soviet Union. He mostly stayed with a sort of surrealistic portraiture heavily influenced by his wide knowledge of Medieval Georgian frescos. And in 1947 he was asked to paint the altar of the Kashueti Orthodox Church on Rustaveli Avenue. He did it, then was barred for a while from the painters union. He often made scabrous sketches reflecting his cynicism of the Soviet system. But his fresco still stands.
Another area where the Soviet Union is still deeply felt is in the endless blocks of concrete apartment buildings circling the town. And they are often indeed gray and eerie as they house thousands upon thousands. And so while there is much new building going on these days it is hotels and not as often affordable replacements for these gloomy structures.
One question I sometimes wonder is where would Georgia be today if it could have stayed free in 1921. It’s a dream I know. Nevertheless the Georgian people have a lot of natural creativity and drive. Yet one gets the feeling that they are still digging out painfully from the basic burdens left by communism. And part of that burden is a kind of fatalism that I have encountered in other former Eastern Bloc countries. In Romania, in the Czech Republic, to a lesser degree in Poland, you often hear some equivalent to the statement “What can you do?” Here in Georgia it attaches itself to issues like traffic congestion, air pollution, recycling, etc. But not only that, these very creative people will sometimes hit a roadblock in their lives. And then you can see a cloud of fatalism passing over them. Which is odd because I’m convinced that this fatalism is a foreign import, it is not native to Georgia. Yet even I being one of the least optimistic Americans you will ever meet, always feel that there must be more options. The world may be dark, but I don’t have that fatalism that clouds future action.
The most interesting thing that happened to me with regard to Georgia’s communist past occurred today. I went to find a strange little museum that I’d heard about. One not covered in guide books. You probably already guessed that I mean the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum. Now if that sounds strange to you trust me on this, the title of the museum wasn’t nearly as weird as the museum itself. I took the metro to a stop I’d never been to before – 300 Aragveli*. (I don’t know what that refers to, it’s not an address.) After a rambling walk I arrived at a door that could be no other than the house museum. It featured hammer and sickle designs in Soviet red. And what was odd is that it didn’t look like commentary or in any manner ironic. And lo and behold it wasn’t. (See above.)
For those who don’t know history as well as you should, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was not Russian, he was in fact the most famous (or infamous) Georgian who ever lived. His Georgian name was Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili (იოსებ ბესარიონის ძე ჯუღაშვილი). He was born in the Georgian city of Gori, where a controversial museum dedicated to him exists to this day. Stalin is of course responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler and yet there are those, even in Georgia, who wax nostalgic for the old days. And I had indeed walked into such a place.
The museum was like a frozen tableau of the Soviet Union without any upkeep whatsoever. Entering the dark corroding building was like entering into a time warp of the days before 1991, no really before 1953, it was the grayest dingiest thing I’d ever come across, from exactly the kinds of minds that thought that people wanted big ugly apartments. I was brought into a room festooned with red flags and pictures of Lenin and Stalin and an old comrade, a true believer in Soviet style Communism, named Zhuli was speaking Russian like a native. A young Russian teenager and his mother were there too. And that was fortunate because the boy became my interpreter for the deeply felt tour Zhuli was just starting. I mentioned that I was from America, which produced a puzzled look from Zhuli, who then recovered quickly with the only question one could ask at such an occasion: Are you a communist? The answer was a simple ‘No’. I wanted to understand what was going on here much too much to say that I was anything but! Yet from then on he took it as his mission to convert me. To tell me of the heroism of comrade Stalin and the way things had been.
Zhuli told us that back in the heyday of the Soviet Union, during the summers, over 500 hundred people a day would come to this museum. And this place was the house that hid Comrade Jugashvili, where they printed revolutionary pamphlets and papers in Georgian, Armenian and Russian. He show us fading imitation copies, decaying on the walls. (“They don’t give us much money for this museum.’) They had built a loud printing press under the nearby house (a reconstruction since it had been torn down by the Georgians after it had been discovered) and had an elaborate escape hatch through a deep well. And that was fascinating in itself. The well was still there. And another printing press, same German make and model, probably used somewhere else for propaganda, was rusting under the house because the chamber would flood regularly. Zhuli showed us diagrams and models of the house plans. He showed us photocopy clippings of atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War 2. He showed us a large map with little lights that glowed where revolutionary cells had been. We walked by socialist realist paintings of Stalin, Lenin, Molotov and others. He told us of Stalin’s heroic escapes in times of danger. Not a word was whispered about purges, famines, gulags, murders, the millions.
I was just in awe that such a man still existed. Zhuli was a man who still lived for the party. He was a man in his 80’s with a cult-like devotion to communism. And he knew it was going to come back. And when I thought about recent far left appropriations of the hammer and sickle image, whether by Antifa or by Jeremy Corbyn supporters in the UK, I wondered if he might not have a point. Because this was a man entirely possessed by his ideology of total egalitarianism, and that idea had come back with a vengeance, though applied with different terms for oppression, among people in the West who know nothing about the Gulag and the millions of victims of communist totalitarianism from Russia to China and far beyond.
As I left I looked at a funny work of graffiti on the wall outside, and I thought of this earnest man inside for whom such a thing would be incomprehensible. Bourgeois hooliganism would be the only category he would have for such a thing. He called the independence of Georgia a blow for the ‘counterrevolutionaries’. But you knew he thought it was only temporary. As I walked back towards the Avlabari metro station I walked passed a massive new Sheraton Hotel going up not far from the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum. Here’s the new ideology Zhuli. Yes indeed there will be one world, it’s just not the one you were imagining.
*Discovered later: 300 Aragveli – The Three Hundred Aragvians are a detachment of the highlanders from the Aragvi valley, near Tbilisi, who fought to the last man against the invading Qajar (Persian) army in 1795 at the battle of Krtsanisi, .
I have been writing mostly about what I saw in Tbilisi Georgia in March and April 2016. And in these observations I have been mostly noting what challenged my perceptions. These ‘Georgian Lessons’ have been primarily about what I learned. But now I’m going to flip the rules inside out and write a little something about what the Georgians might be able to learn from an outsider, a representative of a world that they both aspire to and wonder about. These will not be sweet little tidbits of practical knowledge. And some of these observations will be sharp. Again I am not romantic about the country. Since much of what I say deals with Georgia moving into the future it might be tempting to treat the country as a quaint land of happy peasants with their folk dances and songs with a desire to keep them as folksy as possible. But you’d be wrong. I want them to face the future squarely, but also to realize the many tragic errors that have already been made in the name of hypermodernity. I do not set myself as an expert on geopolitics, economics, legal reform et cetera. These are predominately cultural observations from one who has spent a good healthy chunk of his life weighing the nature of the cultural changes of our times. And mostly it friendly concern, for what I still find in the uniqueness of Georgian culture far outweighs its problems. Consider it advice that can be applied if it is found useful.
First a speck of history, Georgia as a country was buried in Russia, then the Soviet Union, for nearly two centuries. Many Western Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and the like, still consider it a Russian speaking country. Georgia for them is more obscure than Barbados, Vietnam or Fiji. Georgia was only released from its Russian servitude in 1991, which was then followed in quick succession by a corrupt government, a civil war or two, a revolution and finally, in 2008, a five day war with Russia. And most of that is also as unknown to outsiders as the 20th Century conflicts in Laos or Angola. But the main point is this. Georgia didn’t really opened up to the non-Russian world until very recently. And this is reflected in two main areas: First in the Georgians’, particularly the younger Georgians’, desire to be like other Europeans and Americans culturally. And secondly in the looming discovery of Georgia by the outside world, which will result in the descending vulture of tourism, with its truck-fulls of tempting hard cash.
My meeting with younger Georgians revealed a kind of wide-eyed fascination with the results of pop culture and technology. And this is only to be expected. The Soviet system certainly brought in certain kinds of modernity. Georgia is a very educated country as far as scholarly standards go. What is not realized though is just what this postmodern tide will bring along with it. Take the Smartphone, nearly ubiquitous in Tbilisi. The Smartphone may connect you all the time and everywhere. Yet it completely changes the habits of its users. Riding the Metro one did not see much in the way of reading anymore. But one did see the usual scrying into the palms, the games being played, the neurotic gazing at email and Facebook, the endless selfies. In other words though the Georgians have some cultural features, more conversation, even musicians playing for friends on the train, that help to fight against this particular curse, they still aren’t that strong. Because no one is. The Smartphone is stronger than those that use it, without exceptional choice.
Likewise when it comes to one of the prime features of Georgian culture, its music and dance, that hasn’t really stopped the arrival of the dance club. A short British documentary on the subject celebrates the electronica being produced in Georgia as a step towards cultural liberation. Which I find about as honest a thought as recommending cages to tigers. As a former sixteen year resident of New York City I think I can safely say that the dark deafening pulsing womb of club life has never led to freedom, unless your idea of freedom is to shake off the past and bath only in a perpetual now. Yes indeed the discos, raves, parties and clubs will make you more like the Europeans. But is that a worthy goal? The night life produces alienation first and foremost. Yes you can experiment sexually. You can add various chemicals to the mix. You can flee from the philosophies of the Orthodox Church. But where will you end up? It ends with people having atomized relations all round. They no longer sing together except as a joke. They live alone. There is no meaning to anything. Along the way there is a lot of laughter and fun. As well as a lot of hurt and emptiness. No matter what it seems like now, the club life, which late rising Georgians are quite tempted by, will end in a void. I am reminded of a song from Italy in the 1980s and a big American hit for Laura Branigan in 1984: Self Control. The chorus went like this. “I, I live among the creatures of the night, I haven’t got the will to try and fight, Against a new tomorrow, so I guess I’ll just believe it, That tomorrow never comes.” And that sums up that world perfectly. 1984. That’s how long we have understood the problem. The electronica and DJs may seem new and cool, underground, rebellious. But it is a well-paved overused road. It doesn’t have a gram of the integrity of real Georgian music and dance. But I understand. I really do.
There are many other ways in which Georgians are encouraged to seek parity with their Western cousins. Most damaging of all are postmodern cultural and philosophical choices and institutions, which if taken straight would drain the soul from the rich fountain of Georgian traditions. And one of the most threatening of those institutions is Tourism. And the eye of tourism is slowly turning its gaze upon this most unusual of countries. Georgia is still quite underdeveloped for tourism. I would say as of 2016 they still haven’t developed a real structure to support the kind of industrial tourism that feeds many corners of the world now. And I’m not against people coming to Georgia to visit. Not at all. Right now Georgia is getting many thoughtful tourists, the people who are more adventurous. (I don’t know if this assessment applies to the Russians who have been visiting for centuries and are still the most common tourists.)
But here is the problem: As the Germans, English, Australians, even a few Americans go home they spread the word to others. So far so good. And so more folks come, as they have been in the last six years. Then more hotels are built. Fancier hotels. (I hear Radisson Red is on its way, after the success of the Radisson Blu.) More infrastructure changes. A massive chunk of Tbilisi was being polished and renovated as I visited, at the expense of the people who used to live on that street.) That’s where Georgia is now. They are still a bit out of the loop. (Try mailing a postcard home? Nearly impossible.) Transportation is still quite a pain. And these are the kinds of things that keep foreigners happy when they come. But here is what the Georgians may not understand yet. When tourism as a postmodern entity finally arrives in full. Great pieces of Georgian culture will become imitations of what they once were. Everywhere that industrial postmodern tourism shows up it turns whatever remains of traditional culture into simulacra of what they once were. People want to see Georgian dancing and hear Georgian singing. And so shows will be set up just for them. (This has happened in Alaska with Native American culture and the Russian culture of the past.) This effect is nearly universal. And when you combine that with the youth exodus towards postmodern pop dance culture. The past becomes a bad museum. And the present is trapped in the sensations of this eternal moment The Big Wow.
Now I don’t think that it will happen that way in Georgia for a variety of reasons. But I give you my friendly concern as one who has the watched the process replicate itself over and over. At the moment Tbilisi is where Prague was in 1991. Tourists are coming. But the infrastructure still won’t hold them efficiently. TripAdvisor just recommended Tbilisi for hot new destinations for 2017. My dear Georgian friends do you know what that means? Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
Next time, to wrap things up, I will be returning to the lessons that I learned from the Georgians I met on my travels. And why I really have to get back again.
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 6 – On 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.
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 5- Finding the Roman Polanski Puppet
I arrived in Poznan, Poland a day after Pope John Paul II died. After spending a requisite amount of time being thoroughly confused by Polish housing numbers I found myself at the main entrance of the Adam Mickiewicz University along with what started off as fifty or so mourners to the late Pope and which eventually grew to a march of what appeared be about twenty thousand people. I was searching for the Teatr Animacji for puppet shows. I passed it and didn’t even recognize it. The building was much grander than I was imagining any puppet theatre would be. Eventually the next day I would find it in a massive colonnaded grey cement building. I also discovered that all cultural venues in the country were closed for a week. This included puppet theatres. I also found that no one in the offices of Teatr Animacji spoke a word of English.
I continued on to Warsaw. And I met my friend Marta Czanik at the train station. Again the city was in mourning for the Pope. I attended one outdoor service that was extremely moving amongst over 100,000 thousand Poles. Although the puppet theatres were not performing that week there were a few people in the theatre. Marta came to my rescue in regards to the titanic bulk of the Teatr Lalka (teatr = theatre & lalka = puppet) and set up some meetings for me. We interviewed the artistic director for Teatr Lalka, a Polish woman with a strong character named Joanna Rogacka. Sitting in her dark office in the Palace of Culture and Science, the massive Stalinist Gothic building at the center of Warsaw, listening to this regal woman unravel the history of puppetry in the communist era, provoked quite a few thoughts. The gray morning light drifted through the windows shading the woman and her assistant Anna Bojarska is high contrasts. The furniture surrounding us was old heavy dark wood. Pani Rogacka explained that the Soviets encouraged puppetry as a form of art, though Teatr Lalka had a more elaborate history. She explained that how back in the forties a man named Jan Wilkowski began to change the presentation of puppets by stepping from behind the curtain to work with the puppets themselves on stage. Also there was clearly an influence upon the Polish style by the Russian puppet genius Sergey Obraztsov. This moved the world of Polish puppets closer towards a more artistic idea. She showed me photos of elaborate stage shows, including some tantalizing images from their version of Homer’s Odyssey. I was missing one performance because I was on my way to Krakow. But I certainly got the idea. At a certain point the interview, rather the monologue, was over. I had been granted my time. I was brimming with questions. But she was indeed a busy woman, and I was indeed fortunate to have been granted an audience. I watched a rehearsal of a story about a noble bunny rabbit, some strange looking black creatures and shadow plays. I also watched the troupe put on a clown play that reminded me of a cross between Laurel & Hardy and a child’s version of Waiting for Godot. I owe Marta good words for translating the entire interview for me. I couldn’t have done this without her.
It was soon time to go to Krakow. The city was thoroughly fascinating and well worth several visits. I also detoured for a day to visit Auschwitz, which left me with conflicted emotions about the nature of our presentation of the tragedies of the past. At last I made my way over to Teatr Groteska, which was housed in another large old domed cement building. Inside, up the four or five flights of wide marble stairs, were housed examples of the theatre’s sixty-year history. I was also allowed into the puppet storage facilities. An usher named Olga told me that she had become so fascinated with the reactions of children to puppets that it had become the thesis of her doctoral dissertation. She arranged interviews for me with one of the actors of a mature puppet play, Balladyna, which I would see later in the day. But first it was time to watch a kooky version of Little Red Riding Hood. The interesting thing about all of the daytime performances was that they were all full. The theatre had made arrangements with schools across southern Poland to bring kids to the theatre. I was told that over 90,000 students a year viewed the various shows. Now that’s how it should be done!
The afternoon show, Balladyna, was full of high school students. This was a serious work with some eerie raggedy puppets, puppets that reminded me somehow of Auschwitz, used in a way I’d never seen before. Live actors interacted with the humanoid shapes as they manipulated them. And somehow at one moment they were actors and in the next they were the puppets. The story was a dark Polish legend of sorts from a work of classic Polish literature. It was clear to me that puppets could easily do work as serious as Shakespeare’s plays if they so chose. Afterwards I spoke with one of the actors, Franciszek Mula, about the differences between puppetry and standard acting. This was actually his first puppet work. He explained that puppetry was far more humble than theatre work; that the actor had to give space to the puppets, which actually went against the obvious inclination of actors to be seen. When I asked if he would pose for a few photographs with the puppets he replied with a knowing smile, “Of course, I’m an actor.”
A couple of days later, after seeing one more performance with a Chinese theme and a wild use of masks, smoke and balloons (!), I had an interview through a translator with the slyly sagacious director of Groteska, Adolf Weltschek. He too explained that the theatre started as a result of the Soviet push towards classical culture at the end of World War 2. Essentially the way it worked was that the Russians thought that there were four pillars of culture: Ballet, Opera, Theatre and Puppets. That is why every Polish puppet theatre was so large. They had been financed at great expense by the Soviets. He also explained more of how the censorship issues worked. How the text of the play would be submitted to the censor for approval and then how the images might contradict the text to get another message across. He also offered me his theory that all Polish artistic puppetry was influenced by the Russians. And in fact, unlike the Czechs, the Poles did not have such an involved history of puppetry. There were some folk puppets. But the real burst in Polish puppetry had come after the Second World War. When I asked how this transference might have occurred he said probably during the war when Polish and Russian troops were fighting side by side. Before the war he said puppets were nothing special in Poland, just a folk art, but in Russia… And there was no way to get to Moscow on this trip!
As I was leaving Adam Weltschek, descending the marble stairs, my translator stopped. She pointed to an older funky looking puppet and remarked with pride, “This is the Roman Polanski puppet. When he was 12 years old he used to work with this puppet.” Teatr Groteska in Krakow had just become yet another crucial element of this poetic topography of puppet history.
Next we travel to heart of puppetry in Europe – the Czech Republic
January 25th 2012
For information on Krakow’s Teatr Groteska run this page through a translation tool
And this one on Warsaw’s Teatr Lalka
And get yourself to Poland!!!
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 4- Puppetry Can Do Everything
On to Berlin… The name alone conjures up some powerful images: Prussian soldiers, 1920’s decadence, Hitler, the Russians ripping the city to shreds, the Cold War and dances on the crumbling Wall. It’s all there and much more: A city obliterated by the past and a perpetual construction zone preparing for an unrealized future. City workers spend time erasing neo-Nazi graffiti, while the overwhelming Turkish presence raises questions yet to be answered. What does Islam mean in secular Berlin?
My very good friend Millay Hyatt met me at the Ostbahnhof. Millay has an endless curiosity about many subjects. She took me to a Stanley Kubrick exhibit, an abandoned amusement park, rows of endless communist era buildings and a monumental Soviet World War 2 memorial, among other places. She also aided me immensely by becoming my interpreter for two puppet theatres.
The first theatre, a shadow theatre called the Fuguren-Zirkel (Figure Circle), was run by an affable Austrian named Georg Jenisch. We watched romantic and psychedelic displays of light and shadow along with the music of Mozart’s Magic Flute. His entrancing figures were elaborately cut from malleable plastic or even flexible plastic mirrors to give an effect of not only shadow puppets but of light figures as well. Strange little figures danced around in a large circular window, the size of a pair of outstretched adult arms, and it seemed impossible that there was only one man behind the stage. His figures were based partly on Turkish shadow puppets. But he was also clearly influenced by the work of the brilliant silhouette filmmaker and shadow puppeteer Lotte Reiniger. He was also a musician himself and composed music for his performances at times. Georg thought his figures should only move to music and never speak. This was similar in style to the Salzburg Marionette Theater where he had indeed worked. Puppet art had been more innovative in the 90s, he felt, yet he seemed to feel it was regrouping. Overall it was a courteous and friendly interview.
It was then time to see Das Weite Theater performing a piece called The White Hammer at Die Schaubude Theater, which was the funniest piece of puppet art I’ve yet to see. A small cuddly white bunny hops out onto the stage. It eats what appear to be real carrots. A sinister female puppet slinks out onto the stage and then without warning pounces upon the critter and slices open the rabbits throat in an exceptionally bloody scene of red cloth blood. I know this doesn’t sound funny. But trust me the abrupt U-turn between cute little bunny and mad slasher was outrageously funny. I mean who expects a white rabbit to be mercilessly slaughtered within the first few minutes of a play. (Don’t worry though the bunny’s ghost returns near the end of the evening.) The rest of the play was a comic farce based on whodunnits. Blockheaded puppets carved by Czechs moved in frantically satirical actions. One buck-toothed woman spun around in circles every time some the possibility of danger was even hinted at. The farcical movements were given to them by Torsten Gesser and Irene Winter. It was mostly just the two of them with as many as six large wooden hand puppets at a time. And they turned out to be excellent interview subjects. Millay Hyatt provided excellent help by translating their predominantly German speech.
As we spoke I began to piece together the story of puppetry behind the Iron Curtain. The Communist state, through direct Russian orders, funded puppet theatres. For years an artistic council planned the repertoire, which was mostly Russian Fairy Tales and folk tales. Before the Wall fell there were 17 serious puppet theatres in East Germany. Shows for adults began in the early 1980’s, notably a puppet presentation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper or as it is know in English the Three Penny Opera. (Brecht was known for his leftward leanings.)
Was criticism of the government present in these puppet shows?
“The puppet theatres did not feel as much pressure as the standard Theatre and the Opera did.” said Irene. “There was always a way to express criticism through puppetry in the GDR. You didn’t do it in a blatant way though, you used subtlety. People in East Germany were used to reading between the lines. So the audience could tell when something was being said.”
Was it done by allegory?
“Here’s an example?” Irene continued. “ We did a version of satirical Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There were soldiers in the forest watching everything. They were spies for the Queen. You didn’t have to spell out what this meant. Everyone knew it was a criticism of state paranoia. The spies in the forest were even wearing the uniforms of the state police. So we always expressed criticism. And sometimes the audience would read criticism into works where none was intended. And they would be thinking ‘Wow! They are so daring! They actually said that?’ But there were colleagues of ours who did try to speak in a more directly political way. And they did have trouble with the authorities”
Torsten added, “ Then, you did have a feeling that people actually heard you when you were being critical. Nowadays when you are critical they laugh; they don’t listen, nobody cares. But then, you definitely had the sense that criticism was effective.”
Did more people come to the puppet theatres then?
“Theatre was much more affordable back then.” Torsten remarked. “And it was considered a necessity. People were encouraged to go to the theatre from a very young age. The thought was, ‘If we can’t provide them with consumer goods, then we’ll provide them with culture.”
And after the Berlin Wall came down?
“It was a 180º turn.” Torsten said, “We had a professional career. Now we are freelancers.”
“In West Germany they weren’t working with puppets in a professional way.” Irene pointed out. “There weren’t university courses on puppetry. So West Germans were more self-taught or following older folk traditions. But there was no professional training.”
They had been cut off from puppetry in the West. And so it was a bit of a shock for them to see the accommodations that might have to be made to continue as puppeteers in the Western mode. Irene lamented some of the changes.
“So after the Wall came down the East German style began to become more of a popular entertainment mostly for children, although there was some movement the other way. But in the West is was more of an entertainment and in East Germany it was an art.”
When I asked them if they did shows for children they said “No! We do shows for families.” And the distinction was important for them. They didn’t want to be confined to the kiddie ghetto.
“When we have material, we think about what we are trying to convey, we don’t think about age groups.” Torsten explained. “ We try to get across the central idea, what we find fascinating in the material.”
When we did speak of contemporary children and their fixation on screens, they concurred with guignoliste Pascal Pruvost about the tangible reality of puppetry in communicating with modern kids. Irene called it the “live sensual nature” of the puppet.
Finally I just asked them the most basic, yet most difficult question: What is Puppetry?
Irene burst out laughing “Puppetry can do everything!”
Torsten agreed “It can portray thousands of images and fantasies.”
(Next: We travel to Poland to find some of the largest puppet theatres in the world.)
When in Berlin you MUST visit…
And Das Weite Theater
And don’t miss The Figure Circle
And remember to run these through translation tools if your German isn’t up to snuff. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t speak German, you’ll still find yourself truly impressed.
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.
This is a lecture on the same topic from a couple years later.
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.
It’s a Russian word, samizdat. Sam = “self, by oneself” and izdat is from, izdatel’stvo, = “publishing house”, so roughly samizdat means “self-published.”
Writings prohibited by the all seeing eye of the Soviet state were clandestinely passed around often at great risk to the copyists and readers. Those taking on the task of reproduction worked without reward in a laborious fashion. They typed whole books out with perhaps a sheet of carbon paper for duplications. Sometimes whole manuscripts were copied by hand! There were no copy machines in the 1950’s, no faxes, no one was cutting and pasting. It was done for one reason alone: Someone else has to read this! The truth has to be told. This forbidden poetry (poetry was highly suspect) must be seen. This novel is worth reading. That’s how Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago was read. That’s how Bulgakov and Brodsky found an audience. That’s how foreign works were smuggled into the country. Eventually slightly more sophisticated methods were used: surreptitious printing machinery, copy machines and even computers were used for duplication by the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
There is another interesting category of samizdat: magnitizdat, things copied onto magnetic tape, which would include lectures, poetry and above all music. And actually this proved to be a bit of an Achilles heel to the vast Soviet state. The Communists cracked down hard on any means of paper reproduction with stiff penalties. But since every citizen could own a reel-to-reel tape recorder much was passed around this way; especially all of that rock music being churned out by the decadent West. And Russians could be ingenious about how they smuggled in their music. Eugene Hutz, of Gogol Bordello, talks of “music on the bones”, recordings transferred from magnitizdat to plastic x-ray plates with holes punched in the center to play on record players. The legendary Vladimir Vysotsky’s gravel soaked voice was disseminated mostly by cassette. Although he is considered the greatest Russian singer/songwriter of the late communist era he was never allowed by the Melodiya machine to make a full-length album in his lifetime. Yet when he died in Moscow in 1980 his funeral was a major event. People left the Moscow Olympics to attend his funeral. An older Russian man in New York City once told me of the tens of thousands of people who lined the streets such to get a view of his coffin. Not bad for a man who had to wait until the Gorbachev years to get an album released in the U.S.S.R. A similar even more haunting tale surrounds folk punk singer Yanka Dyagileva, who died tragically at the age of 23 in the 1991, the last second of the old Soviet Union, leaving behind a small, poorly recorded body of work that puts to shame much of the music spit out by the world music industry since then. (I’m going to devote much more time to Yanka in the near future.)
It sounds a bit like the Punk idea of Do-It-Yourself. And while there are several crucial similarities I would point out some very serious differences. Samizdat functioned as a means to hear forbidden truth. The government was actively involved in squashing the literature involved and at times the music.
The work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a good case in point. After an accidental breach of the Stalinist wall during Khrushchev’s all too brief thaw, that allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be published in 1961, the book was quickly allowed to go out of print. It then was strictly a samizdat production as were the rest of his novels. So fearful were the Soviets of Solzhenitsyn that anyone merely possessing a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, his massive literary expose of the gulag system, was guilty of a grave offense. Only Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize saved him from another lengthy nightmare in the camps, but not from being booted out of the country. As Walker Percy once remarked, modern Western writers would kill to have their literature taken that seriously.
The D.I.Y. aesthetic of Punk and the Alternative culture of the late 80’s and early 90’s never produced anything so perceptive or piercing. The D.I.Y. scenesters were desperate to have their obsessions and fixations cause some kind of upheaval. But, no matter the provocation, the rants and raves of the alternative world did not cause the commercial and political authorities to tremble. They either ignored them or co-opted them. Interestingly many of the current crops of cutting edge television series are now being written by screenwriters who spent much of the early 90’s pickled in the alternative scene. In the late 80’s early 90’s zines and alternative comics flourished.For a little while there was a modicum of inquisitive life through these channels. Yet what seemed transgressive then now seems commercial. The crude little cut and paste zine featuring badly photocopied photos of rock bands or serial killers has now turn into a stale looking website. The countercultural dream has largely dissipated and isn’t coming back.
And yet it seems that in this postmillennial culture, so addicted to the virtual, some kind of samizdat is required. It is quite clear by now, however, that the old countercultural line running from the Beats through Techno Raves, including pretty much every anti-mainstream trend since the 60’s, has truly failed. But that doesn’t mean that that no counterculture can now exist. It just means that the moribund ingredients that caused the failure of those movements need to be placed in the sociological coroner’s office and dissected to note the pathological elements.
Certain features stand out immediately and certainly should be examined in much more detail later. Top of list is the entire emphasis on intuition and instinct; usually most cheaply stated in the idea to follow your heart, be yourself, follow your dreams. The number of songs and movies containing these sentiments and their kin are legion, innumerable. This road leads straight into the maw of the commercial establishment. This is an underlying tendency that dooms every anti-authoritarian movement to end up as the consumer software to the hardware of mainstream culture. This first occurred to me when I visited a Sex Pistols exhibit in a small New York City museum about 1990 or later the Gap ads featuring Jack Kerouac or the way any death metal song can be used as background music for promos advertising Monday Night Football.
If there is to be a new samizdat that goes against the current in a truly anadromous fashion it can’t be anti-intellectual. Brains have to start working again. Real dialogue has to be reengaged. In order to interrogate the coming society it won’t do to make a big loud angry noise. Noise is the nature of the beast. But it will certainly be essential to understand the chaotic sounds of our recent past. It will also be much more imperative to study history; learn a foreign language; to recognize how propaganda works; to use the aspects of past cultures and countercultures that can be applied in a wise manner. (Wisdom; now there’s a word you don’t here in popular culture much anymore.)
We can understand then what a samizdat for our spewing dervish of an age might be if we go back to the samizdat of that antique Iron Curtain. There are lessons there. Might I suggest thumbing through a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to the chapter called The Ascent and starting there?
“It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful success I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…a small unuprooted corner of evil.”