"And death killed him."

Thoughts on puppets, parables, and the beauty of artifice

I wrote last week about the Bread and Puppet Theater, a radical puppet theater based out of Glover, Vermont. This week, I want to examine one of their stories a little closer.

I first saw “King Story” (also called “The Great Warrior”) performed in 2009 when I was part of Bread and Puppet’s apprentice program, and it has stuck with me ever since. This short, ~15 minute play is one of Bread and Puppet’s oldest and most enduring works. I found an article on JSTOR from 1968 that includes a script and pictures of the Great Warrior; the picture below is from 2013, as is the video.

The Great Warrior from Bread and Puppet Theater's revival of its 1962 anti-war show "King Story" at Boston College. (Greg Cook)

The story is a fairly simple parable. There is a good king of a good land, with a small coterie of advisors, and who is beloved by his people. A great warrior comes to the land and offers his service, but the king turns him down. Why would he want a warrior when the kingdom is prosperous and his people are happy? But a dragon comes and rampages through the land, and the king calls the warrior back against his advisors’ wishes. The warrior kills the dragon. And then he kills the king, the advisors, and the people. Death comes, and the warrior tries to kill death. Death avoids his mighty blows easily, catching his sword hands and breaking them. The warrior makes one last attempt, bending backwards to try and drive the spikes on his helmet into death’s heart. But death catches him and breaks his neck. The warrior falls, dead. Death leaves.

The end.

I love parables for the same reasons that I love puppets: the artifice is part of the point. You don’t worry that someone can see the strings being pulled, because the audience is in on the trick. For a parable or a puppet play to work, the audience has to be a willing participant.

We’ve come to think of parables, allegories, and fables as overly earnest and moralistic. Fit for children, maybe? But too simple for the complex modern world. However, as teaching tools, as an underhanded way to make a point, or as thought experiments to demonstrate a complex and intangible concept, they’re invaluable. All kinds of philosophers and scientists used them: narratives stick in people’s brains more than facts ever will. Lots of people will recognize what Schrödinger’s cat is; fewer will know what you’re talking about when you mention quantum superpositions.

You can argue with a parable—what asshole sticks a cat in a box with poison and radioactive material?—but usually not without looking like a pedantic asshole. You can willfully miss the point, but you can generally only answer one parable with a counter-narrative, one that illustrates the first story’s flaws. This is how you get works like The Symposium; a bunch of dudes drinking wine and telling stories and counter-stories about the nature of love. (It’s honestly tragic that most academic symposia involves very little wine-drinking while reclining on cushions.)

Parables are also used subversively, as ways to undermine or question traditional or dominant ways of thinking. This can be done through the creation of new parables—look at Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”—or retellings of familiar stories in ways that challenge the assumptions of the originals. Folk tales and urban legends pepper Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” as a way of illustrating the way female characters are gaslit, their cautionary stories dismissed as “old wives’ tales.” Machado’s story is also a metanarrative; it comments on the nature of stories themselves, their place in the world, and how they have shaped the character — who is herself a re-imagining of the woman in “The Green Ribbon.”

Image result for the green ribbon book

(I have SO MANY thoughts about derivative narratives, retellings, and fanfiction, but I’m saving them for future newsletters.)

Like I said in my last post, Bread and Puppet believes deeply in cheap, accessible art. While I’ve come to love elaborate and ornamented narratives, this kind of extremely pared-down form always catches me off-guard in its beauty and simplicity. Parables aren’t immersive narratives, the way that other forms of prose are. There’s usually a limit as to how complex they can become before they lose the plot, similar to the way that a joke is set up. And like a joke, the ending is everything. My favorite puppet stories and parables toe the line between mysterious and obvious, and I love when a conclusion seems inevitable and somehow shocking.

Where else would this story end? But I still find myself moved by the death of the king, the priest, the red man, and the blue man and his son. I still hold my breath when Death appears.

I keep coming back to the moment at the end when Death—small and unintimidating compared to the seven-foot-tall warrior—breaks the warrior’s hands. Not just the swords and not just the hands, but also the illusion of wholeness that the puppet creates. Puppets are fascinating because we know they’re inert and controlled by a human handler, but we can’t help but interact with them as singular, living objects. We see the strings, the rods, the puppeteer’s body until, after a while, we just stop seeing them. When that illusion breaks, it shocks us.

A good parable will do something similar. We realize the story is not just entertainment; the story is about how war consumes everything, even itself.

Check out the kids in this audience, and then look at the adults. We assume puppets and parables are meant for kids, but these kids aren’t quite getting it. That sucker punch at the end is meant for us; the adults in the room.

It reminds us that there is an entire generation has come of age since 9/11, who don’t remember the United States not being in armed conflict or military occupations; who don’t believe that you used to be able to walk onto a plane without having your shoes X-rayed first; whose ides of peacetime involves indefinite imprisonment, militarized police forces, and school shooting drills.

Stories like this are subversive because they’re easy to dismiss. Puppets and parables are meant for children; it’s all fun and weird and artificial, so you can relax. Then the illusion breaks, and we see the rods and strings; not just in front of us, but hopefully in the narratives around us too.

Parables demonstrate the artifice at work in the most basic, bewitching story. They teach us how to see how other stories are constructed. We learn to see who gets painted as the people in need of protection and who are the dragons that endanger them. And maybe we become a little more cautious when leaders stress the need for a great warrior to save us all.

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