A Journey Into European Puppetry

From the Reality of History to the Unreality of the Mall

Meeting Henryk Jurkowski in Warsaw Poland

I arrived in Warsaw on a somewhat circuitous train route from Hradec Králové. I dragged my increasingly punishing load of back-crunching bags with me through streets blocking my way and being torn up with new construction. I noted that the Poles mostly stopped and waited for the lights to change unlike in the Czech Republic, where you could jaywalk in front of the police, and Germany, where my friend Millay had been scolded loudly in Berlin that by not waiting for the lights to change she was setting a bad example for the children. But the Poles might sneak across if no one was looking… the operative word being ‘might’.

I checked into my downtown hotel to find myself sharing a single restroom with most of an entire hotel floor. And then settled in after the long six hour journey to get a bit of rest before finding Henryk Jurkowski the next day.

A’ Diploma’ for Jurkowski presented by a Punch Professor

Henryk Jurkowski, for those not aware of him, and I assume that to be 99% of the readers of this little essay at the time of this writing, is the foremost historian of European puppetry alive today. He is also an anthropologist and a bit of a philosopher of puppetry as well. The one book I was able to find of his was Aspects of Puppetry, a collection of essays from the late 80’s. I had been reading that to acquaint myself with his ideas. He had also written a magisterial two volume set entitled, A History of European Puppetry, which was selling for a couple of hundred dollars and which I certainly did not have time to read before I taking my trip. But I was conversant with both his ideas and European puppet history. So I felt my self ready for what turned out to be a two day interview.

A Ukrainian Peasant Puppet in Jurkowski’s Library

The next morning I walked several blocks and a couple of kilometers to meet Henryk Jurkowski behind his apartment block. Puppet historians do not live in fine sybaritic splendor. His apartment, which he shared with his wife, was partially a library adorned with a few mementos in the form of puppets. The first day we spent discussing his life, Polish puppetry and and the shape of puppetry behind the Iron Curtain back in the Soviet days. It is a complicated story of a Poland before the Second World War and his participation as a teenager in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 through Communist Party bureaucracy and his being assigned to the theatre, specifically the puppetry department and of his meeting many key figures in the development of the art. I won’t go into the details which should be saved for the film and other related efforts. He treated me to a pizza at a local restaurant where we spoke about other things.

Henryk Jurkowski during our Interview October 24th 2012

The second day we covered a history and philosophy of puppetry. He has a theory that there are different theatres. The puppet theatre for him is very separate from not only the actor’s theatre but also the object theatre, and what he terms the multi-media theatre. Puppets have been increasingly used in styles other than the puppet theatre, yet Jurkowski longs for a purer kind of puppet theatre, but acknowledges in these postmodern times that it is very hard for puppeteers to simply focus so narrowly. I suggested that perhaps the grammar of puppetry was expanding, but he wasn’t so sure about that. At another point he discussed how the importance of the puppet was that the dead object was suddenly given life, a real life breathed into it by the puppeteer. I couldn’t help reflecting out loud that it was remarkably similar, perhaps more than metaphorically to the story of God breathing life into the dust to create us.

Over all it was quite a epochal two day discussion and ended with him giving me a signed copy of his book Metamorphoses, a large, thick, lavishly illustrated tome that I couldn’t possibly resist! (But oh how my back had other ideas.) As I departed he said to me that we were essentially members of the same family, those who had discovered, or perhaps been discovered by, puppets.

Jurkowski’s Obraztsov Prize from Moscow – Named after Famed Puppeteer Sergey Obraztsov

The next day I was due to leave. But I was awakened early in the morning as I had been every night there at three or four in the morning by the most hysterical cacophony of sounds from below my fifth floor window. It seems that my hotel was smack dab in the middle of Warsaw’s club scene. And every night they all closed up shop to let the drunken sleep deprived Poles go home. Now if you walk around Warsaw it soon becomes evident that the Poles are not the most outgoing and talkative people in Europe. But they do have another side. Bloat them with vodka and they will start howling at the moon. Women screamed in the slick darkness. I swear that rapine and pillage were being committed somewhere below my window as rows of designated driver taxi cabs lined up to take staggering Poles back home.

When I finally woke up at the true dawn I did as much as I could do at the hotel before my noon check out time. Then I humped my way through a slushy snowfall to put my heavy packs in a locker at the train station. I roamed around Warsaw Centralna to begin to fill my eight hours until I hopped into my sleeper cabin to Vienna. I noticed that cold Warsaw seemed to perk up in its underground arcades, particularly the one near the train station. Here were warrens filled with little shops of all sorts.

The Złote Tarasy in Warsaw… the Elephantine Mall next to the Warsawa Centralna Train Station

I then stepped through another door to find the Złote Tarasy (Gold Terraces) a massive mall stuffed with everything the shiny soul of the 21st Century might crave. I wandered the place. And was indeed starting to get seriously doubtful about the human race. Had we struggled against everything we had in the 20th Century to arrive at this? Evidently the answer was yes. How could these totally distracted, iPhone obsessed, bauble manipulated, cinematically limited, gastronomically spoon-fed, literacy challenged, globally identical, smiley faced emoticons discover the depth of anything in this world? I stared down on six or seven layers of these people, some enthusiastic, other exhausted, like Mr. Toad from Wind in the Willows, glassy-eyed and driven, thousands upon thousands of them, streaming into the Gold Terraces on this brisk early winter’s day. This was Woodstock for this generation. This was a vast Babylonian Garden, beckoning the worshipers to Moloch. I thought to myself… Here I am trying to make a documentary to question this entire way of life, a film considering puppets as one possible antidote to this insanity. But who needed it? That was a question I would ponder a lot more deeply as the journey continued.

Levels upon Levels at the Złote Tarasy Mall in Warsaw like some Mad Scene from M.C. Escher

(Next we go to Vienna)

Byrne Power

Luzern, Switzerland


2 responses

  1. Pingback: Zemřel Henryk Jurkowski – Divadelní noviny

  2. Pingback: Henryk Jurkowski: 1927 – 2016 ~ A Tribute | GRAVITY FROM ABOVE

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