a band of homeland security specialists checked out the scene,
a line of high-level Bush administration officials emerged
and stood before me. Among them were: Vice-President-Select
Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor
Rice, Secretary of State Powell, homeland security honcho
Ridge and the ever-popular terrorist hunter, Attorney General
Ashcroft. I watched as they approached a docile herd of sheep,
divvied them up and then transformed each of the four-legged
grazers into soldiers ready to be ordered into battle. I wondered
how many sheep it would take to fight a war as I sat there
in an old gravel pit surrounded by the late-summer dark greens
of the forested rolling mountains in the Northeast Kingdom
George W. also made an appearance, following additional security
orchestrations by the homeland security staff. He demonstrated
a simple system for beating an economic recession. With three
assistants who represented the American electorate, the stock
market and Iraq, the president-select demonstrated the dynamics
of his plan. As the stock market went down, the electorate
would get upset, and this, in turn, would lead George W. to
whack Iraq. The electorate would feel some short-lived relief,
but soon would become upset further about the stock market,
which in turn would earn another whack for Iraq. Soon this
cycle was moving so fast that neither George W. nor his assistants
could keep the system in order. Homeland security kept close
watch on the action.
The band of homeland security workers was just that—a band.
With drums beating, cymbals crashing, brass instruments blaring
and a mutated tuba laying down a bass line, the small squad
of men and women marched in formation to the theme song of
Bonanza, the ’60s TV hit series. The band members were
attired in dark sunglasses, white shirts with “Homeland Security
Band” scrawled in red on the back, and black pants. They marched
in formation under the direction of a whistle-blowing commander.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, these events were not
an official function of George W.’s administration. They were
part of the What Is to Be Done? Circus of the Bread
& Puppet Theatre. All this action was taking place in
the fields of the troupe’s farm just south of the Canadian
border, near the tiny town of Glover, Vt.
More than a dozen puppet acts filled the circus show. Along
the way, a string of salient political messages were released,
molded from facts, humor, trash and a lot of papier-mâché.
The action in the circus ring was accompanied by a large
brass band that set tempos and beats, and added an occasional
timely sound effect. An audience of several hundred looked
on as the white-clad musicians and their clarinets, saxophones,
trumpets, trombones, tuba, electric bass, accordion, cymbals
and drums cued each act. All of this proceeded under the watchful
eye and direction of gray-bearded Peter Schumann, who’s been
making recycled trash stand up against war and injustice for
more than 40 years.
Bread & Puppet’s roots twist back to the early 1960s in
the Lower East Side of New York City, where Schumann started
“street spectacles,” enlisting puppets to support rent strikes
and protest against the Vietnam War. Schumann’s politics have
always veered to the left, but with a vibrant mix of pageantry
and humor. For Schumann, puppets have always been at the vanguard
of the revolution (cymbal crash!).
In the 1970s, the troupe headed out of NYC and found refuge
on an old dairy farm in Vermont. The farm became a space for
performing shows, constructing huge puppets, and training
The puppets created by Schumann and his ever-changing band
of renegade puppeteers bear little resemblance to the puppets
most Americans have been exposed to while growing up. For
B&P, puppets are for everyone, not just kids. Their puppets
range in size from inches to more than 30 feet tall. Many
come in the form of humans hidden behind masks and wrapped
in material. Some of the largest puppets are operated by long
poles controlled by coordinated teams of puppeteers.
In one act this summer, a 20-foot-tall puppet dressed in a
business suit and hat moved with the assistance of six puppeteers.
Four puppeteers each controlled a hand or foot, and one held
the body aloft, as the white-skinned giant ate a dinner of
weapons of mass destruction. The sixth puppeteer provided
the giant’s voice via a combination of trombone and spoken
Until 1998, B&P produced a massive annual two-day extravaganza
called Our Domestic Resurrection Circus. The event
grew each year to where it eventually attracted more than
50,000 people. Huge campgrounds rose from the fields of nearby
farmers; eventually these also included a vender’s zone and
performance stages with portable electric generators. B&P
faced a problem rarely experienced by theater companies: Too
many people were showing up for shows.
When a late-night fight in one of the camps resulted in a
stabbing death in 1998, Peter Schumann blew the whistle on
the massive annual gathering. To replace it, Bread & Puppet
launched a summer series of weekly performances. On Sunday
afternoons in July and August, the troupe performs short “side
shows,” followed by a circus and then a “pageant” that takes
place on the farm’s rolling hills. Audience sizes now range
in the hundreds instead of thousands. In lieu of admission
charges, donations are collected in large painted cardboard
top hats as you enter.
The Bread & Puppet farm and museum are on Route 122, off
the Barton exit on I-91 in Vermont. To find out about future
events, call (802) 525-3031.