Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater Presents JOHANNES DOKCHTOR FAUST
From March 21 to April 7, Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., will present Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) in an update of its perennially popular "Johannes Dokchtor Faust, a Petrifying Puppet Comedye," translated and directed by Vit Horejs. This classic of the Czech marionette repertoire is traditionally used to make fun of a king or a local mayor. The company's adaptation was initially developed in 1990 and its topical references are being updated to the current topsy-turvy political climate.
"Faust," the story of a man who sold his soul to the devil in the quest for ultimate knowledge, has captured the imagination of writers, composers, artists and audiences for over five centuries. In this production, the Faust tale is staged with age-old technical tricks of Czech puppetry, including fire and thunder, hellish gargoyles and underwater creatures. The script is the first definitive American translation of a classic Czech text. The production has become a favorite and quintessential part of CAMT's repertoire.
Deborah Beshaw-Farrell heads the 2019 cast as Mefistofeles, joined by Michelle Beshaw, Vít Horejs, Jane Catherine Shaw and Ben Watts. Melissa Elledge provides accordion accompaniment and Karl Peddler of the acoustic punk duo The Head Peddlers performs on slide guitar.
The main Mephistofeles puppet, 26 inches high and about 100 years old, was fashioned in Kladno, Bohemia by Karel Krob, a mason and shoemaker. There are also three copies of Mephisto, differently-sized, used to make him shrink and grow as he gains and loses power. The puppet of Faust is a copy of a folk puppet originally crafted in a Czech-American community over 200 years ago. This beautiful "naive" work of art would be called a "cobbler marionette"; the expression refers to a puppet any cobbler could make. The balance of the 20-or-so puppets in the show come from the company's vast collection.
Following the performance on Friday, March 22, beginning about 9:20 PM, there will be a special one-hour reading of Christopher Marlowe's classic "Faust" script, directed by Elizabeth Ruf-Maldonado. Readers will include Crystal Field and other actors of Theater for the New City plus members of the ensemble of "Johannes Dokchtor Faust." Refreshments will be served. Admission is free but donations will be gratefully accepted.
The story of the learned Johannes Faust, who sold his soul for knowledge, was dramatized in Marlowe's "Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (ca. 1589) and Goethe's "Faust" (1780-1833). Marlowe's play is said to have influenced German and Dutch puppeteers, who in turn influenced Czech puppeteers. Czech marionette plays began appearing in the 17th and 18th centuries and "Faust" became a puppet-stage blockbuster. A dozen or more puppeteering families orally passed down their own versions of the play and one version, signed only with the initials A.B., was finally published in Prague in 1862, the same year in which publisher Vilimek issued a not very authentic transcript of Faust attributed to the legendary puppeteer Matej Kopecky. The text by A.B. was adapted into English in 1990 by Vit Horejs; the translation was published by Dilia, Prague in 1993.
In Bohemia, which became the crucible of European puppet tradition, the Faustian legend has been adopted to such a degree that to this day, tourists visit the house of the 15th century printer, Johann Faust, in Prague and talk of the irreparable hole in the ceiling through which the devil carried out the unfortunate magician. This Faust, an early associate of Gutenberg, is easily confused with the scoundrelly magician and astrologer of Wittemberg, upon whom the original German literature is based. The Prague Faust--or Fust-- mass-produced bibles and tried to pass them off as manuscripts. His brilliant red ink was said to be his blood and he was charged with dealing with the devil. To save himself, Fust revealed his secret to the Paris Parliament and his red ink invention became the admiration of the world. Czech lore is probably a blend of these two figures. To support the idea that Faust is "mainstream" to the Czechs, it is often pointed out that the Faustian struggle is prevalent in Václav Havel's writings.
With marionette theater, the Czechs brought commedia to the Faustian canon. They introduced the jester Pimprle (Kasparek) into the story (his appearance in about half of Czech marionette plays inspired the name "Pimprle Theater") as well as three other clown characters: Faust's comic guards, Dumpling and Bigcheeze, and his German valet, Wagner. It is certain that Goethe must have seen such puppet productions of "Faust" as a boy. His own version differs from A.B.'s and most earlier versions in that Goethe's Faust makes a pact with the devil because he genuinely desires to extend the boundaries of his knowledge; in the end he is not damned. In A.B.'s play, he is yanked out to perdition through the ceiling. This exit has been a source of curiosity through the centuries because it seems an indirect route to hell (the floor is closer).
Horejs' English text is about as "literal" as the Czech puppet genre will allow. Czech puppetry has always mocked the authorities and 19th century Czech political jokes would be obscure now. So the text contains passing references to current events that have had to be updated since 1990. Traditional Czech folk satire also requires lots of mocking of their neighbors, the Germans. Horejs felt that German puns would be lost on contemporary New York audiences, so in many places he converted German puns to yiddishisms which, while also obscure, at least retain the flavor of the language and are accessible to some of the audience. Yiddish also helps reinforce the comic effect of the piece, since it is a lingua franca for comedy to Americans.
The tradition of Czech itinerant puppeteers reaches as far back as the 17th Century. What started as imitation of the earlier English, Italian, and Dutch puppet tradition, in Austrian Empire and Germany, developed into a relationship of mutual influence, with many Austrian, German and Czech companies performing both in Czech and German.
A puppeteering family usually owned a transportable stage, about twenty marionettes, and a set of at least four backdrops: a room, a village, a royal castle, and a forest. In the earlier period, the theater was transported on a wheelbarrow, only later could some afford a cart with a pack horse. For most puppeteers, a box cart with living quarters remained a distant dream.
One performer, usually the "principal" or head of the troupe, produced the voices of all the characters and was also the main puppet operator. The other family members, including children and a maid, helped in every other facet of the performance. Some puppeteers worked in other jobs and trades and took their wooden performers on the road only during the off season. Others supplemented their income by acrobatics, juggling, fire eating, selling patent medicines and stealing poultry.
Since their main goal was entertainment of prevalently adult audiences, itinerant puppeteers presented "chevaleresque" scenes, otherwordly apparitions and other "sensational" themes. They shared these themes and their performance space at village fairs and marketplaces with the immensely popular semi-folk singers of interminably long crime and love songs as described in chap-books and penny dreadfulls. The puppet troupes were by law excluded from performing in large cities. Their peasant audiences, for whom the puppets often presented their only exposure to theater, had to rely on them for information about the life of nobility. But the "high" themes were inevitably invaded by "low" comical characters: the village oaf "Skrhola" ("Dumpling" in this play), dingle-bell clad joker "Kasparek" (Pimprle), etc. Other powerful sources of folk tradition, fairy tales, reached the puppet stages only in the second half of the 19th century after an audience crisis, caused by increased competition and refinement of taste, forced the puppeteers to search for new audiences--children. Plots and fantastic characters (water spirit "Vodnik," who makes a cameo appearance in this play) from the widely known fairy tales joined the always-present kings, knights, princesses, devils, skeletons, necromancers and witches that had populated the puppet stage.
Photo by Deborah Beshaw Farrell