The End of Our Domestic Resurrection Circus: Bread and Puppet Theater and Counterculture Performance in the 1990s
The Bread and Puppet Theater’s Domestic Resurrection Circus emerged in the context of the countercultural goals of the 1960s and ‘70s. How did the development of counterculture-as-commodity in the 1980s and ‘90s affect the end of this unique 27-year performance event? My intent is not to focus so much on the theatre of the Circus, but on the events surrounding it, and the nature of its presence in the spectacle economy of Vermont and the United States.
1970: Counterculture Puppet Theatre in Plainfield
Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater started in New York in the 1960s, when the city was seeing the creation of a new avantgarde in the midst of the Cold War and its then hot ancillary in Vietnam. In the fertile atmosphere of places like Judson Church, artistic borders were crossed or broken: musicians acted, painters sang, sculptors (like Schumann) danced, and poets wrote plays. Rent was relatively cheap, and there were men and women interested in making art, music, and theatre in ways that would connect new and old forms, in order to respond to and reflect what seemed to be going on around them. Bread and Puppet Theater grew in this atmosphere. Perhaps it did not flourish in the sense of becoming commercially famous (as Jim Henson’s Muppets soon did), but it changed the way puppets were thought of in the United States. Schumann’s moving sculptures created a visual focus, first in parades organized by Puerto Rican tenants’ organizations on the Lower East Side, and then even more strikingly in parades in New York and Washington, DC, protesting the Vietnam War. Yet the greatest renown the theatre had achieved was not in New York at all but in Paris and other European cities, where Bread and Puppet’s intense, often mute images were recognized both as part of the 20th-century avantgarde tradition and as an example of the development of 1960s American avantgarde performance. [End Page 62]
In the late ‘60s Peter and his wife and partner Elka received an offer to be a theatre-in-residence at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. Goddard was (and still is) an experimental school with a long tradition in progressive education. Schumann was happy to leave New York—the prospect of raising five children on an old farm in the countryside was very alluring.
So Bread and Puppet took up residence on Cate Farm, a large parcel of land with a big barn, outbuildings, fields, and a brick farmhouse set in a bend of the Onion River. Goddard College, owner of the farm, was undergoing an enormous boom as its interpretation of John Dewey’s teaching philosophies attracted hundreds of students interested in alternative education. Goddard became a center of 1960s counterculture, a community of artisans, musicians, activists, performers, entrepreneurs, and communes who fed each other the vision of an alternative way of life at some distance from the economics and mass culture of American capitalism.
Plainfield boasted an active food co-op, the Plainfield Village Chorus specializing in Bach Cantatas and 16th-century masses, a Plainfield Village Gamelan, and The Word of Mouth Chorus. This chorus sang Balkan music, Early Music, and above all Sacred Harp music—the early American shape-note singing tradition which implied democracy in its community, nonchurch origins, and independence in the way it forsook traditional European harmonies for more raw “American” progressions and chord structures. In addition to traditional courses, the Goddard curriculum included courses on how to build houses, “social ecology,” a radical history of Vermont taught by Kirpatrick Sale, nontraditional non-Western music taught by Dennis Murphy, and a theatre department, headed by Paul Vela, that incubated the early plays of Goddard student David Mamet and created off-campus groups like Two Penny Circus, and collaborations with Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater.
But in a way, the most important aspect of Bread and Puppet’s move to Vermont was how it dovetailed with the experience of Elka Schumann’s grandfather, the radical economist Scott Nearing, 36 years earlier. In 1934, Nearing and his wife Helen had left New York City for southern Vermont, to live the “Good Life” by creatively combining subsistence farming with political and intellectual activity. 1 The Nearings held steadfast to their socialist ideals throughout the following decades, and by the late 1960s were seen as examples of how to lead an alternative political and social life. The Nearings had wanted to inspire city-bound factory workers of the Depression era, but the young people going “back to the land” in the ‘60s and ‘70s were mostly middle-class, and sooner or later developed hybrid ways of living that reconnected them to mainstream American society.
It was possible, especially in the bustling counterculture of Plainfield, to imagine alternatives; to consider the experience of the Nearings in southern Vermont as an example on which to build. I believe this in large part inspired the Schumanns’ focus on what became Our Domestic Resurrection Circus. Above all, the Nearings’ experiences farming, maple sugaring, teaching, writing, and distributing their books showed that it was possible to achieve radical goals in 20th-century America by doing it yourself and taking slow satisfaction in the accomplishment of limited success. Scott Nearing, after all, was famous for building a pond by excavating a few wheelbarrows of earth every day for decades.
In New York City, Bread and Puppet performance spaces were most often tiny storefronts and lofts, occasionally theatres, and very often streets and city parks. But Vermont opened up new possibilities. The Schumanns and their collaborators began making shows at the edge of the largest field in Cate Farm. They marked out a circular performance area with 18-foot tall flagpoles, set up a large old brown tent at its edge, and, using masks and larger-than-life-size puppets, created abstract political puppet skits played in the [End Page 63] round to the music of a “junk orchestra,” amateur brass band, and Sacred Harp singing. Schumann wrote of the first Circus:
Our Domestic Resurrection Circus will be an effort to find a new way of doing circus that is more human, that is not merely a collection of superlatives, of extraordinary feats arbitrarily mixed together, but something that becomes a story of the world circus. [...] It has to do with just creating a big outside attraction for the people in the area. It’s a piece that shouldn’t be traveled, something we want to perform where we can integrate the landscape, that we can do with real time and real rivers and mountains and animals. It’s something that is seen in the woods, up there in the hills, back here in the river. I guess it would be called an “environment!”
These events were the original Domestic Resurrection Circuses, and they artfully employed the energies of the Plainfield performing community. 2 When Françoise Kourilsky wrote about the Circus in 1974, she noted its connections to Happenings, John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, bauhaus, dada, and Kurt Schwitters. But, of course, to call an event a “circus” is to embrace a central form of popular culture, and Our Domestic Resurrection Circus did exactly this, not only seeking connections to American and European circus traditions, but to American historical pageants, carnivals, and county fairs (Kourilsky 1974). 3
“The first version of Our Domestic Resurrection Circus,” Kourilsky wrote, “was like a history of America, ending with the war in Vietnam” (1974:108). Like most Bread and Puppet Theater productions, it was both more and less than a history: more in that it constantly sought to make bigger sense of events by using the automatically evocative abstract symbolism of puppets and masks; and less, in that it always had room for silly jokes, pratfalls, and sheer nonsense. [End Page 64] This openness marked the development of the Circus throughout its long life, and influenced the form it took until its end in 1998: a presentation of simultaneous Sideshows, followed by a Puppet Circus performed in a ring, followed by a traveling Passion Play, a Pageant during sunset, and then evening shows lasting until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. 4 Schumann distributed his sourdough rye bread in a “Free Bread Store,” and no admission was ever charged, although donations were vigorously solicited.
Moving to Glover
The Bread and Puppet residency at Goddard College ended in 1974. The theatre moved north to an ex-dairy farm in Glover, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border in a somewhat remote region called the Northeast Kingdom. When I drove up to Glover the first summer I worked with Bread and Puppet, I sat in the back of a 1956 Chevrolet panel truck driven by Schumann, and looking through the windshield I quite clearly felt the difference from the busy community in Plainfield. The further north we headed, the sparser the houses and farms became, the longer the unbroken stretches of pine-covered hills and forest. When we finally reached the new Bread and Puppet farm, it seemed to sit quite alone on the slope of a gentle valley.
Elka Schumann’s father, John Scott (Scott Nearing’s son), was a writer for Time magazine. 5 After buying the Glover farm from Daisy and Jim Dopp, Scott sold off tons of gravel at the south end of the largest hayfield to a construction company then building Interstate 91 nearby—a highway that would make it easier for tourists to reach the Northeast Kingdom. The road builders took a large bite out of the hillside field, leaving a steep-sided horseshoe-shaped bank curving around its west end. When the question of smoothing over this new gravel pit came up, Schumann urged his father-in-law to leave it the way it was, realizing he could use its new topography as an outdoor amphitheatre.
The first Domestic Resurrection Circus in Glover took place in the summer of 1975. The Dopps’ barn had been transformed into the Bread and Puppet Museum, [End Page 65] where Schumann’s growing output of puppets and masks was displayed. We set up a ring in the Glover amphitheatre, with flagpoles around the top of the audience area, and played an epic series of shorter and longer pieces out in front of the brown tent. The event began with a small banner story, Hallelujah, progressed through a series of circus acts both silly and pointed, and then shifted into the performance of The White Horse Butcher, a death-and-resurrection show pitting black-clad butchers against a white horse and an angel on stilts (Schumann himself). About 700 people watched.
Bread and Puppet and the Spectacle Economy of the Northeast Kingdom
From 1975 through 1998 the Circus grew in scope, in numbers of performers and numbers of spectators, but its aesthetic focus remained basically fixed. 6 The spectacle economy of the Northeast Kingdom in the 1970s was quite rich, despite the area’s distance from large cities. Annual performance events created by local communities included the Orleans County Fair in neighboring Barton (as well as other county fairs nearby), village Fourth of July parades, festivals, talent shows, and a surprising number of small-scale, Florida-based traveling tent circuses. In addition, there were newer, tourist-oriented events, such as the Craftsbury Fiddlers’ Contest, the Hardwick Banjo Contest, and occasional attempts at Woodstock-style music festivals. During the first year of the Glover Circus, for example, an outdoor, two-day rock-and-roll festival was held just down the road from Bread and Puppet, on fields belonging to Doug Conley, the son of a prominent Glover landowner and sawmill operator. Conley’s festival, although held only that one year, was a prescient counterpart to the Bread and Puppet festival. Our Domestic Resurrection Circus was a complex mix of avantgarde forms, political ideals, populist aspirations, and a definite desire to present an alternative to mass-media, capitalist culture. Conley’s rock-and-roll festival, while sharing the same interests in outdoor, popular, and locally produced performance, focused more straightforwardly on entertainment and pleasure (for example, in the guiltless use of alcohol and drugs), and displayed a pronounced lack of interest in politics. The different emphases marked two contrasting visions of performance and alternative culture, a contrast which a decade later began to contribute to the eventual and perhaps inevitable demise of the Circus. [End Page 66]
A Countercultural Spectacle Flourishes
By 1998, Vermont had changed, as had the cultural economy of avantgarde performance in the U.S. Vermont newcomers (or “flatlanders”) Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield had turned the alternative ice cream parlor they had started in 1978 at an old gas station in Burlington into a nationwide, socially conscious corporation. Bernie Sanders, who used to campaign on Montpelier street corners as a third-party candidate for state office, now represented Vermont as the only socialist in the U.S. Congress. The Barton Chronicle, which had been created by back-to-the-land Northeast Kingdom newcomers in the early ‘70s, was now the paper of record for Orleans County, and respected throughout the state as a model of local journalism. Bread and Puppet Circus volunteers, who had emigrated to Vermont in the 1960s and ‘70s, were now respected members of their communities. The Bread and Puppet Museum was noted in red letters on the Vermont Official State Map, and tourism was supplanting dairy farms at an alarming rate. Doug Conley and his neighbor Ronald Perron were annually making thousands of dollars renting out their fields to the out-of-state campers now flocking to the Bread and Puppet Circus.
The summer Circus had become the central event in Bread and Puppet’s year. During the late 1970s and early 1980s Bread and Puppet tours in the United States and abroad had supported the finances of the Circus. But gradually, as audience numbers for the summer event grew, the amounts of their donations rose, and by the mid-1980s the Circus was not only paying for itself, but had become the largest single annual source of income for the theatre. The Circus was the event for which new puppets were built and new themes, music, texts, and movements were invented, and determined the theatre’s performances for the following year.
Early audiences for the Circus were largely a mixture of the local “new” population of the Northeast Kingdom, central Vermonters who had known Bread and Puppet in Plainfield, and a contingent of New York City fans who had known the theatre in the ‘60s. Most local residents in Glover, Barton, and the rest of the Northeast Kingdom were far more likely to see Bread and Puppet in Fourth of July parades or smaller town hall, church, or school shows. Some native Vermonters came to see the Circus, liked it, and attended it in increasing numbers over the years, but the event certainly had the taint of hippie licentiousness and leftist politics that marked a cultural divide.
Scott Stroot’s 1998 depiction of the Circus gives an idea of the manner in which the event evolved, both as part of the Northeast Kingdom’s summer cultural season, and as a regional or national counterculture spectacle:
Our Domestic Resurrection Circus has become a counter-culture institution (only in America could such a beast evolve!) involving 200 or more volunteer participants, and attracting an audience of nearly 40,000 people of all ages and persuasions to the area around the tiny town of Glover. A little bit Grateful Dead concert (with some un-Deadlike rules: no drugs, no dogs, no alcohol), a little bit Rainbow gathering, a little bit religious celebration, and a little bit political be-in, each year’s event has a theme (usually sociopolitical in nature) and more or less follows the same format: afternoon Sideshows featuring a variety of simultaneously performed small skits and stories, followed by a more focused, larger-scaled puppet Circus featuring a succession of longer, more interconnected narratives in the early evening, and finally, as the sun sets, the Pageant, featuring a procession of multi-operator giant puppets, usually culminating with the immolation and resurrection of one preeminent giant puppet figure.(Stroot 1998:15) [End Page 67]
The apparent oxymoron of “countercultural tradition” (much like, say, the concept of an “avantgarde institution”) characterizes not only the Circus, but the situation of post-1960s Vermont, and, by extension, the cultural quality of the post-‘60s United States. In fact, by the ‘90s, the strict separation implied by culture/counterculture was no longer in effect (if in fact it had ever really been). In Vermont, distinctions between young flatlanders living in communes and native Vermonters working family farms had lessened and in many cases completely disappeared. The newcomers had become absorbed into the cultural, political, and economic life of Vermont, and in fact their energies and enthusiasm were central to the life of the state. Many of the people who annually created the Circus had become selectmen, librarians, state officials, judges, and prominent members of Vermont’s other professions.
The situation of community in the Northeast Kingdom became complicated in interesting ways. The same independent political philosophy that helped foster the Plainfield community also pertained farther north. Robert Kinsey, for example, was a West Glover farmer who also served in the State House of Representatives as Republican Majority Leader. Kinsey espoused the strong liberal philosophy of Vermont Republicanism, a kind of live-and-let-live attitude which, over the years, led him to pronounce liberal opinions about the Vietnam War, homosexuality, drugs, and other controversial cultural issues, and to carry giant puppets with Bread and Puppet in the Barton Fourth of July parade. The same voters who sent Kinsey to the State House also sent Bernard Sanders, a Jewish radical originally from Brooklyn, to Washington. Of course, a handful of Northeast Kingdom residents continued to express their antipathy to Bread and Puppet’s political positions over the years in the “Letters to the Editor” columns in the Chronicle, and others swore they would never come to see the Circus. But the generally flexible, open, and friendly attitude of northeastern Vermont supported the Circus.
Dealing with Problems
The Circus audience changed from the ‘70s to the ‘90s. As its numbers steadily grew (every year another thousand or so), its makeup shifted. While a core group of Bread and Puppet fans continued to come, some initial audience members began to drift away. [End Page 68]
In order to deal with the extra-theatrical aspects of the Circus, a logistics committee was formed from among those who worked annually on the event. Many members of the committee were residents with close ties to the community, including Ellen Braithwaite, a founder of the Chronicle; Everett Kinsey (son of Robert Kinsey), a dairy farmer/carpenter; Chip Troiano, a Staten Island native and Vietnam veteran who, because of his work in the St. Johnsbury public defender’s office, had close connections with Northeast Kingdom law enforcement agencies; Lee Viets, who had served as a state legislator; and Allen Hark, whose lobbying for low-income Vermonters made him familiar with state politics.
The organizational structure within the Bread and Puppet Theater developed in response to the requirements of the Circus—organically (as it were) in an anarchistic fashion, which is to say, in response to situations as they developed, with individual members of various committees taking on responsibilities as they saw fit. All met regularly with the Schumanns and other puppeteers. This organizational democracy was quite different from the artistic leadership of Bread and Puppet, which remained clearly the purview of Peter Schumann.
When we planned the earlier Glover Circuses, the logistics of food, parking, and camping were not of major import. Many, if not most, of the audience members lived close by. More a community of friends than a far-flung network of fans, the audience either went home after the Circus, or camped informally on the Bread and Puppet fields. But as the crowds grew, attendant facilities did also. We soon figured out our own garbage recycling system, which, with the cooperation of the audience, was quite successful: the Circus grounds were never littered with trash. In the late ‘70s parked cars began to crowd public roads, and we asked neighbors near the farm to allow their fields to become temporary parking lots. At first as a favor to us, and then as an increasingly lucrative income windfall, Glover residents, particularly Conley and Perron, took on the job of providing parking and later campsites for Circus-goers.
Food was another question. Peter Schumann baked and distributed his trademark sourdough rye bread in ever increasing amounts, finally building a ten-foot-long oven right next to his bread house on the Circus grounds in the early ‘80s. But this, of course, could not feed all the audience. Many audience members brought their own picnics, but in the late ‘70s we attempted to feed [End Page 69] everyone at the Circus with a free corn and potato roast, asking audience members to contribute the fruits of their gardens. This enterprise eventually proved to be too much of an undertaking for us to handle in addition to the theatre we were creating. Finally we invited food vendors onto the grounds, and their numbers grew, until in the early ‘80s we realized that, like the campers, they were encroaching on the available performing space. When we asked the vendors to move off the Circus fields, they began to set up on Route 122, the state road leading to the Bread and Puppet farm. But the growing number of food stands slowed down traffic, creating a nuisance for our neighbors who did not attend the Circus. In 1993 we resolved this problem by arranging for the vendors to set up on the campgrounds.
We also dealt with more sensitive issues: dogs, alcohol, and drugs. Many Circus-goers brought dogs, resulting in a large free-ranging animal population, and alcohol and drugs became more and more widespread. We began to get letters from parents worried that Our Domestic Resurrection Circus was the place where their children were first offered marijuana, LSD, and other hallucinogens. 7 While the dog problem was relatively straightforward, the situation of alcohol and drug use and dealing was more complex. To regulate individual behavior seemed authoritarian, alien to the open spirit of the event. When we discussed these issues in Bread and Puppet meetings, it was argued that drug use was an inevitable aspect of American culture at large, and its presence at the Circus was in fact a reflection of that culture, not a cause of it. But we concluded by deciding, in the summer of 1997, to ask the Circus audience to refrain from bringing drugs and alcohol onto the Circus grounds, explaining this effort in letters to Circus-goers, press releases, and an insert in the Circus programs. 8
What is striking about these efforts is that they were all basically successful. The Circus audience responded immediately, and at the 1997 Circus there were in fact no more beer coolers, hardly any dogs, and little open drug taking or dealing on the Circus grounds. But of course, the problem simply moved to the campgrounds where dogs, drink, and drugs were rampant and where we were not in a position to control the situation as we had our own land. I think we felt that if we offered an example on the Circus grounds, the campground owners might try parallel measures. This was not to be. [End Page 70]
Variations on the “Bread and Puppet Idea”
At the Circus there was an often vague perception of the “Bread and Puppet idea” which in various forms was considered to define and pervade all aspects of the event. One Circus-goer spoke of it this way:
I think it’s just the Bread and Puppet idea—you know, you don’t sit on seats, you sit on the grass hill to watch the show, and it’s political, so we’re all in a sense brought together because it’s the hierarchy of what we live under. [...] And the fact that they let you come into the pageant and hold puppets that they’ve made, and be part of it, or they let you make the bread they give you—the festival’s for free, as well, you don’t feel like you have to pay or you have to show I.D., it’s a donation [...] Also, giving out the bread—that’s something that’s sort of religious in a way, for community.(in Finegar 1996:33)
This sense of the “Bread and Puppet idea” also extended to all that surrounded the Circus: the campgrounds and the vendors—legal and illicit. The two largest campgrounds, owned by Conley and Perron, lay on opposite sides of Route 122 down the hill from the Bread and Puppet Farm. Conley’s property had become known as the “party campground,” in keeping with the somewhat rowdy image that Conley had fostered since his 1975 rock festival. The Perron campground was somewhat less active, but bigger. A footpath ran between it and the Bread and Puppet-owned fields where the Circus took place. In 1993 the Town of Greensboro, ten miles south of Glover, bought the piece of land holding the footpath, and began to operate it both as a third large campground and as a place where vendors could sell food, clothing, and other items. Soon the path to the Circus became a large temporary bazaar of stalls offering everything from pizza, falafel, and burritos, to cappuccino, bell-bottom jeans, hemp clothing, and tie-dyed T-shirts. It was also a place where dealers gathered to sell drugs. This aspect of the greater Circus event had no financial or organizational connections to Bread and Puppet, but the separation of activities was not often clear to Circus-goers, especially the newer, younger audiences who began to attend in the mid-1980s. The Bread and Puppet productions on the theatre’s grounds, the campgrounds, and the mall—the whole experience became “Bread and Puppet.” 9
Remi Glettsos, a Bread and Puppet audience member interviewed by Janet Finegar in 1996, talked about the atmosphere of the campgrounds as a positive extension of the “Bread and Puppet idea”:
[T]here’s like campfires and drum circles, you know, a real communal kind of thing, you just walk up to someone’s campfire and you introduce yourself, and um, you know, if someone walks up and you hand them a beer, the next day they’re gonna come back with some chicken or something. It’s just, you know, friendly. It’s really nice. You don’t really get that kind of feeling anywhere else.(1996:46)
But Zachary Krol, an audience member who had worked with Bread and Puppet, described the campgrounds as “this whole other scene,” a “side culture” with significant differences from the theatre’s ethos (in Finegar 1996:50). Krol felt that the Circus audience had become too big, that “the crowds destroy what is beautiful about Vermont.” He told Finegar that while he felt the environment at Bread and Puppet “ask[ed] you to be quiet and contemplative,” the “whole scene” at the campgrounds was: [End Page 71]
anything but thoughtful... all the things that are worst about progressive politics and environmentalism these days... everyone drives up in their cars, leaves garbage all over the place and do lots of drugs [...T]here’s nothing wrong with a party but it just seems as if it’s mashed into the wrong place. Seems too mindless for a scene that individually everyone would say is about political/environmental awareness, things that are not the system, the city, all the sort of vague evils that everybody in these crowds seems to talk about.(53)
By the mid-1990s, the “Bread and Puppet idea” of an alternative to American capitalist culture become inextricably mixed with a different, more “mainstream” vision of counterculture, often at odds with what we intended [End Page 72] with our performances. This different vision had become, at worst, a devolution into “alternative” consumer choices, and, at best, a vague sentiment of iconoclasm allied to phenomena such as the summer Lollapalooza festivals, Grateful Dead tours, and the gigantic Phish concerts. 10 We began to hear, amid the occasional reports of rambunctious goings-on in the campgrounds, rumors that some Circus-goers—or many—never came to the Bread and Puppet shows, simply staying all the time at the campgrounds.
The Last Circus
When I look at my notes for the 1998 Circus and read the transcripts of the daily meetings we had to plan the event, I see they are almost totally focused on the productions we were creating: circus acts about current political stories, vaguely or directly connected to Bertolt Brecht; sideshows similarly dealing with Brecht and with contemporary political issues; The New York City Community Gardens Passion Play; a pageant incorporating Brecht’s Hitler-Choräle, set to the music of Bach; an indoor giant puppet show based on the diaries of anarchist Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman; a rough version of the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera; and, for the Great Small Works company, of which I am a member, a toy theatre show about Brecht’s work in the United States. We met with the campground owners and with local Glover groups who provided important services to the Circus: the Glover ambulance squad, the security guards we hired to help us direct traffic, and the Glover Parent-Teachers’ Organization. But the larger performance that the Circus had become, including the campgrounds and vending areas, was somewhat of necessity outside our focus of concentration. Creating the Circus itself was such an intense, multifocused job of coordinating construction, rehearsals, publicity, food, and shelter for our crew of 40 to 100 volunteers that there was no time to attend to events clearly out of our purview. In July, we were aware that a local Glover resident had falsely advertised on the internet that this would be the last Circus, so we made our own internet announcement to the contrary. For years we had [End Page 73] been concerned about keeping audience numbers down, and except for local advertising, did nothing to publicize the show. However, it became clear as the 8 and 9 August Circus dates approached that news of the event was spreading by word of mouth, the internet, and national publications such as High Times (1998). There would probably be 40 to 60 thousand people attending.
At an early morning swim at nearby Shadow Lake the week before the Circus, I met some Circus-goers who had camped out there overnight on the public beach. They were a friendly group of five from western Massachusetts, quite obviously enjoying the opportunity of getting away from the city. As I left, one of the women said to me “Happy Bread and Puppet!” and I realized this was, in fact, a common greeting for the approaching weekend. It did not simply mean “enjoy the puppet shows,” but “enjoy the whole event!”: The entire participatory spectacle of camping, hanging out, experiencing the vendors’ mall, partying, being in the Northeast Kingdom, as well as, but perhaps not even necessarily including, the actual Bread and Puppet shows. The Wednesday before the Circus, the sound of drum circles began to pulse up from the campgrounds, continuing unabated until Sunday. It formed a constant aural background for our myriad dress rehearsals and other preparations. We were still gearing up for the weekend shows, but the Circus had already started without us.
Michael Sarazin, a 41-year-old logger from Post Mills, Vermont, about 45 miles south of Glover, worked with a tree service company. A regular Circus-goer, Sarazin had heard the rumors about 1998 being “the last circus,” and had told his business partner “I got to go up, because it’s the last it’s going to be.” Sarazin came to Conley’s campground the Friday before the Circus. At 4:00 a.m. on Saturday morning he was involved in an altercation with a Vermonter from nearby Morrisville nicknamed Junebug. During an evening that seemed to involve nothing more than “sitting around drinking beer,” a fight broke out, an eyewitness said, as the result of “‘something to do with a hot dog.’” Junebug struck Sarazin and a short while later Sarazin died from a brain hemorrhage (Wheeler 1998).
The Circus performances on the Bread and Puppet grounds that followed over the next two days were, from a theatrical, logistical, and experiential point of view, a great success, especially, in my opinion, the Pageant. At the end of the Saturday Puppet Circus, as I paraded around the ring as part of the brass band, I was struck by the preponderance of young audience members who obviously had never seen anything like this before. How wonderful, I thought, that this fresh crowd was watching exciting puppet theatre about landscape, Brecht, and contemporary politics. And yet throughout the weekend we were all thinking about Sarazin’s death, and what it portended.
Near midnight Saturday, after our performances were done, I walked down the hill with friends to check out the campgrounds. It was an active, wildly enthusiastic scene, with a spirit something between a vast tailgate picnic, the vendors’ area at a Grateful Dead concert, and the vaguely raunchy midway of the Orleans County Fair. Which is to say, not really unpleasant, but somewhat off-balance, especially in the light of Sarazin’s death. Everywhere in the semi-darkness hundreds of cars and tents filled the fields, campfires cooked up a dense haze of wood smoke, and competing boomboxes played from different encampments, some done up like college dorm living rooms, with chairs, TVs, and bongs for an evening’s entertainment. There were also elaborate outdoor performances: a disco complete with a portable dance floor, deejay, and light show; a loud rock band in matching Bermuda shorts playing perfect ‘60s surf instrumentals; and, supposedly, a rave, which I looked for but never found. All of this was at once magical and scary: a huge, night-long party with all the intensity of a small city. And yet, after all, we were in the middle of a hayfield in the otherwise dark night of northern Vermont. At one of the [End Page 74] booths on the mall, I met a middle-aged vendor of hippie paraphernalia smoking hashish from one of the blown-glass pipes he was selling. He said he used to sell at Grateful Dead shows, and had only recently begun to work the Bread and Puppet weekend; he liked the atmosphere. Tired, and mindful of the next day’s 10-hour performance schedule, I walked through the mall back to the Bread and Puppet fields.
After the 1998 Circus ended, Peter Schumann decided it indeed would be the last. Our traditional post-Circus exhaustion was tinged with sadness at Michael Sarazin’s death, so Schumann’s decision was not a surprise. He paid for an ad in the Chronicle, set in a box on the page usually assigned to community notices. Schumann wrote:
Note of Thanks
I want to thank all our friends and neighbors for years of help and very rewarding collaborations, and announce publicly that this was our last Domestic Resurrection Circus. It was our twenty-seventh circus: three on Cate Farm in Plainfield, one in Aubervilliers, France, and twenty-three here in Glover. As we learned how to do these big spectacles and got better at it, the spectator crowd grew and finally outgrew our capacities.
The culmination of troubles was the death of Michael Sarazin on August 8, which makes the continuation of the event impossible. To our neighbors who know the Circus only from the traffic jams on the extended weekends, we apologize for the inconvenience. To our friends and guests we want to say: We are not going away, we will do other smaller forms of theatre during the summer months here on the Bread and Puppet Farm.
Thank you all
Peter Schumann (1998b) [End Page 75]
After Schumann’s announcement there were letters to the editor in the Chronicle, articles in other local Vermont papers, intense internet exchanges on an unofficial Bread and Puppet webpage, and letters to the theatre itself. A few weeks later, I noticed that a Circus volunteer named Moon, who had shown up at the Bread and Puppet farm three weeks before the Circus—with green hair, tattoos, and a star-studded jumpsuit—and had ended up joining us for the whole event, had written an impassioned, frustrated contribution to the webpage (original spelling retained):
Subject: BREAD AND PUPPET IS DEAD
Name: I AM MOON
Time/Date: 22:50:56 9/13/98
Message: Bread and puppet is dead and you, the unconcience spectator, have killed it. You did not need to come to glover to get all wacked out of your gourd and hang out in the campgrounds all day oblivious of a circus going on. If you didn’t know there was a concience raising event going on that weekend you and you chums came to glover vermont, to have a blowout weekend. What you thought was innocent fun was in fact an ignorant paradox. This is not what it’s all about. You obviously haven’t a clue as to what was the purpose of the weekend. Get involved and attempt to understand what it is all about. Not what you think, you haven’t the capasity for constructive thought, these things are put here to accomplish. I was in the circus this year and it was the best moments of my life this year, I learned more than I had ever exspected and it has given me a far better perspective to approach life from. But all this is over. Thank you, ignorant campers [...].
In the postings before and after Moon’s contribution, ravers, drummers, and Phishheads critiqued the scenes they had each created at Bread and Puppet. But on another thread of the online discussion, some long-time fans and younger audience members eloquently and movingly mourned the end of the Circus.
Death and Resurrection
Since June 1998 Schumann and his company had been performing a weekly Friday evening Insurrection Mass, a “Funeral Mass for Rotten Ideas” in Bread and Puppet’s post-and-beam indoor theatre, then filled with Schumann’s giant paintings based on Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The Insurrection Mass used the structure and nature of the Roman Catholic mass to present a ritual featuring Schumann’s “fiddle lectures,” individual puppeteers’ performances, newly minted “household gods,” and the ritual burial of a cardboard sign bearing the name of the week’s “rotten idea” (for example, “Hills of Guilt,” “Progress,” and “Perfection”). On Friday, 21 August, the Mass was performed in memory of Michael Sarazin. Sarazin’s former wife, two daughters, and friends came to the event, and at its close puppeteers buried a sign reading “Typical Modern Emptiness,” a rotten idea which for Schumann reflected the senseless nature of Sarazin’s death.
Two weeks later, Schumann ruminated on the last Circus, and how its own clear intentions had slipped away from much of the press coverage of the event. “Did you read any of the press commenting in retrospect how nice we were?” he wrote. Paraphrasing Marx’s Communist Manifesto, he continued: “Did you read them quot[ing] Marx, Brecht, Marcuse, etc., ‘all fixed fast frozen relations with their train of ancient venerable prejudices are swept [End Page 76] away’?” Schumann was right. Over the years, except for coverage in the Chronicle, the spectacle of the Circus was largely presented as a ‘60s nostalgia weekend, especially in the larger state newspapers such as the Burlington Free Press. This studied avoidance of the substance of the theatre’s work ignored the real content of the Bread and Puppet productions. This was not unlike the manner in which, two decades previously, the work of Scott and Helen Nearing had become the harbinger of back-to-the-land lifestyles, rather than a sustained, independent socialist critique of capitalist society. “There must be some very attractive quality goods for sale in these papers to omit so blatantly what we are about,” Schumann continued pointedly, asking, “How did we get suspected [of providing] such good home entertainment?” (1998c).
Schumann’s analysis points out the difficulties facing political and social critique in turn-of-the-millennium America. The Burlington Free Press (owned by the Gannett corporation) would not analyze what Our Domestic Resurrection Circus was actually about. To do so would mean taking the event seriously, using such words as “capitalism” and “Marx” in earnest. It was far easier, and totally in keeping with the way such mass-media organs present events, for the paper to see the Circus and the 40–60,000 people who attended as seekers of entertainment and 1960s nostalgia.
What I saw in the Circus of 1998 was the exchange we puppeteers were able to have with exactly those in the audience who had come to be entertained, those who probably generally avoided live theatre, but who now found themselves involved in interchanges about someone named Brecht, a chorale by Bach, the foundations of the Spanish-American War, a nonsense text by Kurt Schwitters, or the reasons why anarchists thrived in New York in the 1880s. All this was counterbalanced by the sensory pleasure of dancing stilters, silly walks, brass band music, slapstick humor, and an open spirit of friendliness among thousands. [End Page 77]
I think it was always clear to the puppeteers that despite the end of the Circus we probably would still be making puppet shows in Vermont the following summer. In January 1999 Schumann proposed just that—a new event, or actually a series of events which, like the Insurrection Masses the previous year, would take place every week, thus decentralizing the massive Circus weekend into a series of smaller-scale performances. No doubt the skills Bread and Puppet learned in creating outdoor spectacles over almost three decades will go into the making of the new events. How they develop and fit into the spectacle economy of the Northeast Kingdom and the larger spectacle economy of Vermont and the United States remains to be seen.
3. Kourilsky also notes connections to traditional puppet theatres, specifically bunraku and Sicilian marionettes.
4. To avoid confusion, I shall use the term Puppet Circus to refer to the show taking place in the circus ring after the Sideshows. Circus refers to Our Domestic Resurrection Circus, the entire day-long event. For images of the 1974 Cate Farm Circus see DeeDee Halleck and George Griffin’s film The Meadows Green (1975).
5. The son had a falling out with his father so serious that he dropped his last name, Nearing, and became John Scott. In the 1930s Scott trained as an electrical engineer so he could assist the development of Soviet society in Russia. In the eastern Siberian city of Magnitogorsk, where Scott helped build power plants, he met and married Elka’s mother, Maria. His later frustrations in trying to return to the U.S. with her and his increasing dissatisfaction with Soviet organization led him in the 1940s and ‘50s to join such efforts as the anti-Communist Liberty Lobby. Scott’s account of Magnitogorsk, Behind the Urals (1973) is a valuable history of prewar Russia.
6. Beginning in Glover, each year’s Domestic Resurrection Circus focused on a particular theme:
1976: The United States Bicentennial
1977: Masaniello (collaboration with Pupi e Fresedde)
1978: Oswald von Wolkenstein (collaboration with Music for a While)
1980: L’Histoire du pain (transplanted summer festival at Théâtre National Populaire, Lyon, France)
1981: The Fight against the End of the World
1982: St. Francis
1983: Domestic Insurrection
1984: Central America and Liberation Theology
1985: Bach and Nicaragua
1986: The Hunger of the Hungry and the Hunger of the Overfed
1987: Bicentennial: The U.S. Constitution and Kaianerekowa (the Iroquois constitution)
1988: The Principle of Hope and the Banality of Evil (Ernst Bloch)
1989: State of the Planet (including Passion Play of Chico Mendes)
1990: Theatrum Mundi
1991: The Triumph of Capitalism (including Mr. Budhoo’s Letter of Resignation from the IMF)
1992: The Green Man
1993: Convention of the Gods
1994: Frogs and Luddites
1997: Maximum Security Democracy
1998: Unite! (Anniversaries of Brecht, Hildegard von Bingen, and the Communist Manifesto)
For images of the Cate Farm Circus see Halleck and Griffin’s film The Meadows Green (1974); for a documentary on the 1998 Circus see Halleck and Schumann’s Ah! The Hopeful Pageantry of Bread and Puppet (1999).
7. See, for example, the “High Vibes” article on Bread and Puppet Theater in the December 1993 issue of the marijuana-oriented magazine High Times.
8. After many meetings, we decided on the following text (Bread and Puppet 1997), mostly written by Peter Schumann, which gives an idea of the way we tried to communicate with our audience, Schumann’s attitude towards drugs, and our efforts to make the distinction between Bread and Puppet performances and the campground activities clear:
Dear Circus Audience:
We are getting an increasing number of complaints about drugs and alcohol at the Circus. The Circus is a family event and drugs and alcohol seriously jeopardize its continuation. Please bear in mind—we are a modest little puppet theatre and all we want is to change the world and save it from going down the drain. Support our efforts: NO DRUGS OR ALCOHOL AT THE CIRCUS.
And please, no dogs. They make a lot of problems for us—dog shit, dog fights, dog-disruption-of-shows, and dog bites. Last year several kids were bitten by dogs. Naturally, not your dog, but still, leave it at home.
Please also note: the vending, parking, and camping operations surrounding the Circus field are not Bread and Puppet Theater’s but our neighbors’ businesses. We are grateful for the services they provide, although we receive no profit from them. Please respect the property and privacy of our neighbors.
We appreciate your cooperation and support.
Bread and Puppet Theater
9. For example, an adventurous 18-year-old Colorado high school student named Jarvis Fosdick spent the summer of 1997 traveling on the east coast, and his impressions of the Circus reveal no distinction between the Bread and Puppet Theater events and those performance elements created by others:
Well, in Vermont we went to the Bread and Puppet Festival. It was in a farm in the really beautiful part of Vermont. There was a puppet show, a drum circle, and a huge fire. There was also a circus there, with fire-twirling belly dancer people. There was a big rave, and there were always bands playing. I think there were about 20,000 people. It was probably the best thing that happened [on my vacation].
10. Many long-time creators of Our Domestic Resurrection Circus also helped design and create elements of the large-scale Phish spectacles of 1996, 1997, and 1998, which were held in decommissioned Air Force bases in northern New York state and Maine. This was especially so with the performance elements of the temporary “villages” built in the campground areas of the concert sites. These spectacles at the Phish concerts were different from the Glover events in many ways. Most importantly, audience members paid an admission price, and Phish provided and controlled every aspect of the event, including vending and camping.
1994 “Uprising of the Beast: An Interview with Peter Schumann.” Theatre 25, 1 (Spring/Summer):41–42.
1997 Insert for Our Domestic Resurrection Circus program. 3 August.
1988 Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater. 2 vols. New York: Routledge.
1996 “Research on the Folkloric Aspects of the Bread and Puppet Circus.” Unpublished manuscript.
1975 The Meadows Green. 16 mm film.
1999 Ah! The Hopeful Pageantry of Bread and Puppet. 90 min. Viewing Habits/Bread and Puppet Theater.
1993 “High Vibes: Bread and Puppet Theater.” High Times 220 (December).
1974 “Dada and Circus.” TDR 18, 1 (T61):104–09.
1996 “Tension Brews around Phish Fans.” The Burlington Free Press, 21 August:1.
1998 Posting on Bread and Puppet forum. <http://220.127.116.11/dcforum97n/BreadandPuppet/24.html#0>.
1970 Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. New York: Schocken Books.
1973 Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
1986 “Puppetry and Politics.” American Theatre, November:32–33.
1997 “Jenny’s Kids: Jarvis Fosdick.” The Insight (Loveland [Colorado] High School newspaper), n.d.
1998 “Radical Beauty in the Northeast Kingdom: The Bread and Puppet Theater and Museum.” Art New England October/November:15.
1998 “Morrisville Man Charged with Manslaughter.” The Chronicle 19 August:26.