Near the front of the tens of thousands of antiwar marchers heading north on 17th Street Saturday was a gauzy Madonna (with dead child), the mother's body mounted on a shopping cart, her arms manipulated with broomsticks. Shortly after came a bulbous-headed George W. Bush, with a hawkish beak of a nose and a bomb cradled in his right hand. And then a weeping woman, an image borrowed from Picasso's "Guernica," her head craned back at a painfully impossible angle, her mouth open as if she's catching raindrops and screaming at the sky simultaneously.
If not a huge display of puppetry, it was a representative one. The Madonna belongs to Marianne Ross, a puppetmaker from Bethesda who works regularly with the granddaddy of political puppet companies, the Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theater. The Guernica puppet was made by the husband-and-wife team of Marco Giammetti and Carol Hendrickson from Freehold, N.J. It harks back, says Giammetti, to the European tradition of large masks and puppets used during Carnival celebrations. And the George Bush figure was made by a guy from Bryn Mawr, Pa., with no particular background in the form.
"My daughter told me to do a puppet," says Hank Wilson, holding Bush low around the president's magenta, gray and yellow camouflage pattern drapery that forms its midriff. "Because it's fun."
There is a renaissance of political puppetry, according to amateur and professional practitioners alike. Since 1999, when protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle prominently featured huge puppets (and a good deal of heavily televised mayhem), puppets -- and large effigies and masks -- have become part of the essential vernacular of protest. Established companies bring them by the truckload to prominent marches. Loose networks of "puppetistas" have posted manifestos on the Web. And everywhere there is the homemade product.
The puppets seen Saturday were ambivalent objects -- both festive and threatening -- and like so much of the iconography of the peace movement, they inspire ambivalent reactions. If a new war in Iraq is like the last one, then tens of thousands of young Iraqi men will be shredded by flying metal, incinerated and bulldozed into trenches. The puppet, bobbing above a sea of drumming circles and Mardi Gras costumes, seems at first a woefully inadequate -- and decidedly silly -- symbol.
But that's the view from outside. Within the puppet world, they are a kind of answer, a riposte, to the criticism that has bedeviled the new era of political protest, whether it's anti-globalism or anti-imperialism. The short list of carps: that protest has become a babble of messages with no coherence; that it reflects an impotent nostalgia for the more meaningful resistance of the 1960s; that it lacks intellectual gravitas.
The puppet, however, is about ideas, say puppeteers, even those who make their living doing theater for paying audiences. Unlike other performing arts, especially the high arts, having an overtly political message doesn't put the puppeteer on the radical fringe of the puppet community. Political protest is a perfectly legitimate part of the form.
The large puppet, say an Uncle Sam dripping blood from his lips, clutching a bundle of missiles and lumbering grotesquely in the wind, is, of course, a throwback to the 1960s. But, according to John Bell, a puppeteer and assistant theater professor at Emerson College in Boston, it is not a simple, atavistic throwback to the Vietnam era.
"People will say, oh, this is like the '60s," says Bell. "It is the '60s, but it is also the '40s, the '30s, the '20s, the 1890s and the 18th century. They are connected to a very strong tradition."
That tradition, says Bell, runs back through anti-Nazi demonstrations in New York in the 1930s, to celebrations of Carnival in the Middle Ages, and further, at least to the Greeks, who used to carry huge phallic symbols through the streets to inaugurate theater festivals. He rattles off a long multicultural list of festivals and dramatic forms that have involved puppets (and masks and processional theater), from the Indian Ram Lila to the Iranian Ta'zieh. It isn't just that human beings have been making inanimate representations of living beings for millennia. They have been doing it (very often) to express a worldview that is anti-authoritarian, often licentious and filled with paradox.
"Puppets are discomforting, puppets are weird, puppets are bringing dead materials like paper, wood, plastic to life," says Bell. "And there is something odd and mystical and spiritual about that."
Bill Severnsen, who accompanied the George Bush puppet from Bryn Mawr, speaks of it affectionately. "Everybody who came with us knows to look for George. It's a rallying point," he says.
There's a whiff of the dizzying paradox of the form in that. People will spend dozens of hours, working together, lovingly crafting an image of the thing they hate ("Well, not hate, I try not to hate anyone," says Severnsen). The large puppet, which looms above the people who made it, reverses a familiar dynamic of theatrical puppetry, the human being pulling the strings or moving the rods of a much smaller creation. The big puppet raises, in visual form, a central question: Who, asks the puppet, is pulling whose strings? It enacts a drama of enfranchisement and frustration.
If puppets burst on the scene with renewed vigor in Seattle more than three years ago, another galvanizing moment came in August 2000, in Philadelphia before the Republican National Convention. Dozens of artists and activists from around the country were making puppets, masks and banners in a warehouse, in preparation for confronting conventioneers with opposing opinions. And then the cops swooped in, rounded everybody up and held them in custody (the charges were later dropped, says one artist who was arrested). Then they destroyed hundreds of puppets. The Philadelphia police, citing a lawsuit, refused to comment. News of the raid on the Haverford Puppet Warehouse swept through the puppet world. It was a tragic/comic, infuriating/intoxicating moment.
"It's what we expected from the current regime," says Nancy Lohman Staub, founder of the museum at Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts. "I love it when people think that puppets are important enough to bring down political action. In America people think it is for children, that it's innocuous. Philadelphia was a triumph."
The triumph gave political puppetry a rallying a cry, a Stonewall of sorts. It wasn't just a confrontation with authority -- the destruction of the puppets resonated with a long tradition of symbolism about representation and destruction, including the burning of effigies and harvest festivals.
"At that moment," says Bell, "the puppeteers involved adopted the name 'puppetista.' Here are these ideas made out of cardboard, cloth, papier-mache. It's nonthreatening. On the other hand, these are ideas that must be destroyed, that can't be allowed on the streets."
Lurking just beneath the surface of the puppetista movement is a whole lot of Bakhtin -- Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian literary theorist who theorized that Carnival isn't just a holiday, it's a whole, rockin' mode of human existence. Carnival, said Bakhtin, suspends "hierarchical structure and all the forms of terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette connected with it." Puppetry, according to an Internet puppetista manifesto, "is an anarchic art, rooted in mockery, a ridiculous gesture towards the absurdity of the established order. It is the unique ability of the clown to laugh in the face of the king."
That central sense of resistance is what gives coherence to the dizzying messages of the antiwar and anti-globalism movements (and there is a lot of overlap between the two). Peace, vegetarianism, freedom for Palestine and "Free Ireland First" (according to one sign) are far from a crazy quilt of messages; the thread that binds is a loathing of injustice, and the conviction that violence is the primary tool that supports the existing order of the world. It is, in puppetista terms, a loose coalition of people united by the need to laugh at the king.
That's the view from inside.
From the outside, the response to a Madonna on a grocery cart cradling a dead baby is often Enough with the puppets already. Makers of political puppets seize on their visibility, on the fact that a few bucks of material can make an object, a symbol, that will be seen around the world if the cameras pan in. It pleases them to compare the cost of puppets with the cost of taking out a full-page newspaper ad: "They may be primitive, but they're effective," says one puppeteer. Puppets are part of street theater, and street theater is the poor man's propaganda.
But what is the message the photograph of a puppet sends? The intentionally ugly, garish and threatening object, no surprise, often registers as: ugly, garish and threatening. Just as Americans either like or loathe mimes, they either like puppets with big, brassy political messages or find them ridiculous. An image of a puppet, of street theater, can go around the world in an instant, and be dismissed, just as quickly, by people immune to its charm or opposed to its message.
"This is the first time for the baby," says Marianne Ross, who made the puppet of the Madonna with dead child. She's brought the Madonna figure, which she calls "another mother for peace," to other rallies. The dead baby has been added because "this is the result of Bush's attacking Iraq."
If you can't commune with Ross's sincerity, this imagery may seem like bathos.
Cheryl Henson, the daughter of Muppets creator Jim Henson and president of the Jim Henson Foundation, doesn't like generalizations, but she volunteers this: "There tends to be a resistance, among Americans, to symbolic theater. Americans tend to be very literal."
It's tempting to leave it right there: that some Americans enjoy the big gestures and stark images of a symbolic street theater -- the weeping mother, George Bush in a cowboy hat, Dick Cheney as the heartless Tin Man -- and others just don't. But it's not so simple.
The rhetoric of the pro-war movement, especially the president's rhetoric, with his "axis of evil" and "Osama, dead or alive," is no less stark and symbolic than Ross's dead baby. Language that would make some people uncomfortable, coming out of the mouth of a puppet, makes other people uncomfortable coming out of the mouth of a politician.
And if there is a puppetista strategy to reveal "the absurdity of the established order," there is no less a strategy of the "established order" to reveal the absurdity of things like street theater. The president, many protesters feel, has dismissed them as "a focus group." Even the term "street theater" is easily turned into a sneer: It is something antic, unreal, adolescent. Puppets don't register as serious discourse among the crowd that bops from one Sunday morning political talk show to another.
Wandering a bit aimlessly through the crowd on Saturday was a young man with a sign that captures the complexities of the dialectic between the suits who run the country and the people who protest their decisions: "Stop Bush's Puppet Show," it read. So it's either a theater of politics or a theater of street protest. And you know where you stand with this simple litmus test: Is it the politicians, or the puppets, that give you the willies?