Saturday, January 28, 2012

If Amnesty International Had Its Own Theater Company

Boston Herald theatre critic Jenna Scherer writes:

If Amnesty International had its own theater company, Bread & Puppet would just about fit the bill.

In the course of its nearly 50-year existence, the Vermont-based collective has tackled more human rights issues than any other troupe out there. B&P’s viewpoints are incendiary and its style unorthodox, and attending one of its shows is a totally unique theatrical experience.

I would not dispute the point that Bread & Puppet's style is unorthodox; so at variance with the rest of the theatre world that I regard the rich dramaturgical vocabulary is worthy of study by both theatre artists and scholars, indeed "Bread & Puppet" has become a generic term to refer to a style of protest theatre: any usage of large allegorical papier-mâché puppets. However, I question Scherer's assertion that B&P should be representing any human rights group. After all, how do you square a concern for human rights with public statements by B&P founder and artistic director, Peter Schumann?

I think it’s awful that the Western community does not interfere with what Israel’s doing as an occupation force [in the West Bank]. The Western community does not do anything about it. They don’t even speak up against it. They don’t do anything. They basically serve as the Israeli propaganda for the events there.

In this statement, from a 2008 interview with the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, Schumann does more than criticize Israeli policies in the West Bank (in this specific instance, it was the the wall that was built to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel.) He claims that "the Western community" by which he appears to mean the governments and media outlets of the European and North American nations are somehow under Israeli control. How does Israel get the "Western community" to produce propaganda for Israel and obey Israeli interests? Money? Well-placed people in government? If it is the influence of money or well-placed people, how is this substantially different than other forces influencing the "Western community." I have noted this implausibility elsewhere. This "Western community" is either made up of sovereign states or media outlets that reside in sovereign states that have interests other than serving as "Israeli propaganda" organs.

Schumann is not "criticizing" Israel, rather, he is openly propounding an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, using the fuzzy logic of allusion and moralistic pronouncements. This conspiracy theory is not unlike those he would have encountered during his childhood in Nazi Germany. While Schumann often speaks of his childhood in Silesia, often bitterly complaining that it was annexed to Poland after World War II, he rather consistently neglects to mention that Silesia was part of the Third Reich. He has also managed to solicit cooperation from interviewers in misrepresenting his childhood. By Schumann's logic, one could accuse the Vermont press of serving as Schumann propaganda by helping him hide his origins.

Take this cover from a 1942 issue of Fliegende Blätter depicting Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Rosevelt, and Joseph Stalin as puppets of "The Jews.":

Another 1942 cartoon portraying the same world leaders as puppets of a Jewish puppeteer, this time in the Lustuge Blätter:

This 1940 cover to the Lustige Blätter reads "Englands Führung Liegt in Guten Handen!" or "England's leadership is in good hands!" while depicting Winston Churchill being led like a child by a stereotypical Haredi Jew:

While in this 1934 cartoon from Die Brennessel portrays a Jewish controlled press subverting Germany from abroad:

The imagery in these cartoons certainly were incendiary: They had the overall effect of making anti-Jewish legislation, street violence, deportations, and genocide more palatable to the German public-- even to those Germans who did not buy into biological racism. So it is disheartening to find a German artist who grew up during that time period repeating the same canards.

It becomes even more disturbing when we consider the strong semblance between some of these grotesque Jewish caricatures and Schumann's own personification of the evil powers-that-be, Uncle Fatso:

I have been raising these difficult questions since I walked out of a 2007 rehearsal with Bread & Puppet after Schumann made a series of installations comparing the West Bank to the Warsaw Ghetto. I was too knowledgeable about the history to not to realize that this was a misrepresentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as a form of "soft-core" Holocaust denial, in that it deliberately trivialized and misrepresented the facts of the Holocaust.

The point is that a theatre company whose artistic director creates anti-Semitic propaganda (even thinly disguised anti-Semitic propaganda) and makes anti-Semitic statements in interviews should not be proposed as the theatrical arm of a human rights NGO, as Jenna Scherer does. Not that I believe that Scherer is making a serious proposal, but it is clear that she is also not engaged in serious thought, having succumbed to the notion that theatre criticism amounts to writing blurbs.

Note: I previously took issue with Jenna Scherer when she was still at The Weekly Dig.

Nazi-era cartoons courtesy of Randall Bytwerk's German Propaganda Archive.

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