Friday, August 24, 2012

Nothing But Trouble: Bread & Puppet Theater's Peter Schumann

Left: 1934 issue of Die Brennessel portrays a Jewish press magnate subverting Germany with a phallic tube of lies
Right: Bread & Puppet iconic avatar of the evils of modernity, Uncle Fatso, with phallic cigar.

In the latest installment of my "Nothing But Trouble" column at the Clyde Fitch Report, I discuss the politics of Bread & Puppet Theater founder, Peter Schumann on the occasion of his receiving Goddard College's Second Annual Presidential Award for Activism. Goddard President Barbara Vacarr, in her speech introducing Schumann, noted:

[...J]ust as individuals do, human societies tend to see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy narratives that, if not challenged, lead to destruction[...]

[...V]isionary artists like Peter Schumann are our sharpest eyes, our keenest ears, our most adept linguists as they see that which has been made invisible or unwelcome, they hear the voices missing from our dominant narratives and they speak in languages that pierce unconsciousness and translate slick sound bites into nuanced and deeper understandings of our world.

Of course, the visionary artist is another myth, and when we start examining the myth of Peter Schumann, we find something that should at least give us pause:

Schumann speaks frequently of being born in 1934 in a region called Silesia, but he neglects to mention that it was part of the Third Reich and that his hometown of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) was a major base of support of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Indeed, the local German population provided a fertile ground for Naziism to take root: in the 1920s, mob violence had already forced much of the city’s Jewish and Polish populations to leave, and, over the course of Schumann’s childhood, the city was rendered Judenfrei through deportations. Breslau was a city surrounded by a network of concentration camps and slave labor camps providing commercial products for the city. Despite the political nature of his art, Schumann never addresses the fact that for the first 11 years of his life, he was a child of Nazi Germany. He never discusses whether or not his parents were party members, whether or not he was a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk (the Hitler Youth subdivision for boys aged 10-14), or how these experiences influenced him. Popular book-length studies of Schumann and Bread & Puppet (like George Dennison’s An Existing Better World: Notes On The Bread & Puppet Theater and Marc Estrin’s essays for Rehearsing with Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater) make no mention of Schumann’s life in Nazi-era Silesia.

The question I have been asking since 2007 since I stopped performing with Bread & Puppet has been how much of Schumann's politics are influenced by his childhood in Nazi Germany?

Read the rest in The Clyde Fitch Report!

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Shylock Sings The Blues" Review and Interview

In The Arts Fuse, I review Shylock Sings the Blues a new musical based on Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice with lyrics by David Sokol, music by Dennis Willmott, and recorded by the Venetians.

...It is only natural that some artists would draw on the cultural mystique of The Merchant of Venice as source material for their own work. Burlington, Vermont-based lyricist and illustrator David Sokol (who did all the album art) and composer Dennis Willmott replace Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and prose with blues, rock, and country songs in a concept-album entitled Shylock Sings the Blues. The story has been shifted from the Venetian Republic of the sixteenth century to 1950s Venice, New Jersey...

I also interview David Sokol (who as well as being a lyricist, is an illustrator who provided the cover art):

Sokol: I chose the blues number one because I am most familiar with it. Also the blues is the music of an oppressed people. I would love the stage presentation of Shylock Sings the Blues to have a black Shylock. I have just been turned down by a local radio station who refuses to play any songs from the album because “it is too dark! “How can blues be “too dark”? And there is humor in the musical—Jessica can be comedic and Launcelot is the truth telling fool.

The depth of anti-Semitism is intertwined with the darkest of human misery—and the Devil represents the latter. The fundamental basis of anti-Semitism is the belief that Jews don’t just act evil but that they embody evil itself. Possibly the lineage of European theater, morality plays, etc. and their depiction and teaching of good and bad through the use of devils and angels contributed to the Devil’s visits to the play. Also, in my quest to be entertaining and not pedantic, the Devil is a universal and simple dramatic tool.

Read more in The Arts Fuse!