Episode 16: Much Ado About Puppets


Puppets are actually a pretty medieval art form–and not just for kids. These puppets do and say things that would have been politically risky for the humans controlling them to say, and also they are real works of art. Join us as we look puppetry traditions of Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Turkey, and Egypt. With some digressions about the fun of buying random pastries at Chinese bakeries, and also Shakespeare.

Annotations, Notes, Corrections

1/ Em: I have made vegan mooncakes (mooncakes, or 月餅 / yue bing, are the pastry with egg yolks inside–typically salted duck eggs, I think–there might be other pastries like this too). My Taiwanese friends were, hmm, gracious. Also, I have made my own red bean paste, and it is basically all sugar (well, a lot of recipes have a 1:1 ratio of adzuki beans to sugar; some note that if you’re using the bean paste in pastry, as opposed to serving it on its own, you should use more).

Also, the mushrooms I got hung up on: cat ear mushroom/nam meo is actually, I think, the Vietnamese name for it. The Chinese name is black wood ear/黑木耳, so the word “mushroom” was actually not on the menu, hence my confusion. BUT also it turns out that in the Middle Ages (at least, according to Wikipedia), they were called Jew’s Ear mushrooms! And in fact the Latin name is Auricuularia auricula-judae. Why? The mushrooms themselves are vaguely ear-shaped, and tradition holds that Judas Iscariot hanged himself on an elder tree, which is where the mushrooms grow (in some places).

Jesse: Food is amazing!!! We should have a food episode!!

2/ Cesar: Gaul is full of barbarians.
France, 1500 years later: We are the resurgence of classical civilization, of which Greece and Rome were the primary lights.
Cesar: My, how the turntables have… turned.

3/ Concerning Titus Andronicus: the villain, Aaron the Moor, has the best evil monologue in all of Shakespeare. You can read it here. That is the only thing I really have to say about that play, which in other respects is…really bloody.

Jesse: 3 Henry VI, I.iv–Queen Margaret has (Richard Duke of) York stand on a molehill (which parallels the hill at Calvary) and crowns him with a paper crown (which parallels Jesus’s crown of thorns). Margaret also gives York a handkerchief to dry his tears, and the handkerchief is stained in the blood of his son (Edmund Earl of) Rutland. In this moment, Rutland is symbolic of the Christ child, while his blood on the handkerchief is reminiscent of the collecting of Christ’s blood in the chalice (aka the holy grail) at the crucifixion. We get some good father/son symbolism as well, before York is stabbed to death by Margaret and Clifford. Shakespeare is clearly using the symbolism from Passion plays to great advantage.

Margaret also gets some truly extraordinary lines (it IS Shakespeare): “Brave warriors, Clifford and Northumberland,/ Come, make him stand upon this molehill here,/ That raught at mountains with outstretched arms,/ Yet parted but the shadow with his hand.” (I love this line so much.)

Also of interest, the 1592 pamphlet written by playwright Robert Green (probably, and published by Henry Chettle), titled Greenes, Groats-worth of Witte, bought with a million of Repentance, includes the famous lines “there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie.” The quote refers to a jack-of-all-trades (Johannes Factotum) who thinks a lot of himself as a an actor (player) even though his ability is really due to the playwrights who write his lines (beautified with our–playwrights’–feathers), and now he thinks he can do anything (Johannes Factotum) including write his own plays as well as the “real” playwrights (bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you)!!! The line “Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide” comes from this scene in 3 Henry VI, where York memorably calls Margaret “O tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide!” The pun on “Shake-scene” and “Shake-spear” is presumably to identify Shakespeare to any reader who didn’t see or hear about the line in 3 Henry VI (and, of course, to make fun of him again). Anyhow, this pamphlet is the earliest extant external reference to Shakespeare that we’ve got, and it’s one of the ways we know he started out as an actor before he started writing plays. It’s also how we know he’d already written the Henry VI plays by/in 1592. Interestingly, Greene died before the pamphlet was published, and his publisher later seems to have apologized to Shakespeare “The other, whom at that time I did not so much spare as since I wish I had, for that, as I have moderated the heat of living writers and might have used my own discretion (especially in such a case, the author being dead), that I did not I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault, because myself have seen his demeanor no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes. Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing that approves his art.” See the Groat’s-Worth of Wit section here and here.

3 Henry VI I.iv is a phenomenal scene, and I recommend it!

4/ Moll Cutpurse showed up in episode 6 (see note 20).

5/ Bunraku.
Some great videos here and here.
UNESCO Heritage video.

Here’s the full CBS 60 minutes video on Kabuki (you need to be a subscriber to watch it, I think–sorry!).

6/ [34:10] The Rogue One character I was thinking of was probably Chirrut Imwe, possibly because he fights with a jo (ish) and is played by Donnie Yen, who typically makes his living playing various badasses like Ip Man.

I don’t know if he was specifically the character Jesse was referring to, but there are certainly a lot of articles online about the connection between Star Wars and Kurosawa’s film The Hidden Fortress.

7/ Here’s a guy covering “Master of Puppets” on a shamisen.

Basil Twist’s website. Here’s Basil Twist on Dogugaeshi (also with his shamisen player, who is a woman who is a master).

Here are the western Baroque theatres (we talk about these in a future episode):
Drottningholms Slottsteater (Sweden). And a video.

Cesky Krumlov Castle Baroque Theatre (scenery changes at 3:17).

Cesky Krumlov Castle.

8/ Ibn Daniyal came up back in episode 1 (see note 16). I feel like he maybe came up somewhere else too, but if he did he wasn’t footnoted. Maybe I just think he came up more because he was one of the names that came up when Jesse and I started discussing making the podcast. (This site gives his birth as 1238 not 1248–needless to say, there’s some uncertainty here.)

Jesse: Apparently the translation of the plays is out of print, but I’m sure the library (or ILL) will have it!

9/ Wayang:  The Wikipedia site is quite good and includes a lot of great history and images.

Wayang kulit videos: UNESCO Heritage video.
Complete performance from visiting artist-scholar Madé Sidia at the University of Richmond.
Wayang Kulit Star Wars.

Wayang Golek (rod puppets).

Wayang klitik or krucil (images): The British Museum’s information on them (click on “related objectes”). And specific puppets: a king, and the hero Sapulaga. Videos here and here.

Wayang wong: video and mask.

10/ Tholu bommalata.
Videos here (notice that the color shines through, which can be true in wayang kulit as well) and here.

[50:48] Jesse: Ooops, another moment of messy sound on my end. Sorry all!

11/ Múa rối nước: Water puppets. Not a ton of places on the web have background info, but a guy named Derek Gaboriault wrote his senior honors thesis at Western Kentucky University on them back in 2009. Check out p. 20 and on. Also, apologies for my accent, which is…confused.

Here’s a shorter video with some fun puppets in it.

Fun fact: rice is grown in flooded paddies because the water prevents the weeds from growing, but the rice plants do fine. The technique dates from the neolithic era.

The lake in Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake, aka the Lake of the Returned Sword.

12/ Karagoz and Hacivat. This website has some great info.

UNESCO Heritage video (not in English).
More videos here and here.

13/ Bread and Puppet Theater.

14/ Bardcore is a genre where musicians reset modern pop songs for period (or period-esque) instruments, and occasionally rewriting the songs in Old or Middle English or Latin. Check out some examples (and just Google Bardcore!):

Jolene” (covered by Hildegard von Blingin’).
Summertime Sadness” (covered by Hildegard von Blingin’).

Episode 15: The Not-Evolution of Theatre


In which Em and Jess discuss the important theoretical contributions of Tropic Thunder and Blazing Saddles to performance studies, thereby illustrating the important differences between performance, theatre, and ritual and vital questions about their respective origins.

Also, Jess calls Socrates evil, and then Em and Jess decolonize medieval theatre beginning with India and China.

(Aristotle loves theatre and therefore was not evil.)

Notes, Annotations, and Corrections

1/ Okay, to be honest–we didn’t talk about Australia, and that is a super colonized place that is ripe for a reevaluation–evidently, the period we refer to as “the middle ages” is typically called “prehistory” in Australia because there were no written records. (Refer to previous rant about the privileging of written records over other forms of memory.) Sometime we will have to circle back and think about this. [I read “super colonized” as “spider colonized” at first, which also rings true for Australia. But yes–we will definitely have to cover Australia and New Zealand!–JN]

2/ The dudes are emerging. [So many layers!!!–JN]

The new ice cream truck jingle by RZA. Turkey in the Straw information.

White Christmas “Minstrel Number”.

A NY Times article on the Met production of Othello. [Seriously, WTF!!! Come on, Met!–JN]]

I think the Ben Stiller/Spielberg movie was Empire of the Sun. [Yes, it was!–JN]

The Sean Penn movie was I Am Sam. I [Em] hadn’t heard of it, and–wow. Reading the summary, all I can say is it deserves whatever fun Ben Stiller was able to poke at it.

Also, as a face-blind person, the fact that so many actors become famous because they look like other actors is the bane of my freaking existence.

And here is the trailer for Satan’s Alley.

3/ [17:35] On performing parenthood: welcome to Em’s theory of how gender inequalities get perpetuated from generation to generation despite the idea that women shouldn’t have to do 100% of childcare and homemaking being a thing since at least 1989. (Actually probably a lot of women had this idea earlier, but 1989 is when The Second Shift was published.)

This doesn’t have too much to do with medieval studies, but whatever, sez I. [This was definitely an issue in the Middle Ages! We should have a medieval kid/parenthood episode.–JN] [I would totally be in for that.–Em]

4/ For Ishtar/Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld, see Episode 8 nt. 18.

Oedipus Rex, by Tom Lehrer.

5/ [29:59] “Socrates is evil…we’ll footnote that.” Stub footnote so Jesse can provide some proof or something. Otherwise we are going to get nailed on this by the ancient philosophy crowd. [I stand by this!! I have long rants on this, but I can boil it down to a few points. 1) Socrates’s students–specifically Critias–were responsible for a coup that overthrew the democracy in 404 BCE and installed the Thirty Tyrants, who were sympathetic to Sparta (to whom Athens had just lost the Peloponnesian War). 2) The Tyrants, especially Critias, were only in power for 8 months but managed to kill a LOT of people (maybe 5% of the Athenian population). Scholars have excused this over the years as “necessary” blah blah BS. IT’S FASCIST; THEY WERE FASCISTS. (Or more properly proto-fascist, I guess.) 3) Socrates hated democracy and loved the idea of an oligarchy composed of elite individuals. (Read Plato’s Republic.) Welp, turns out oligarchs are f**king monsters. 4) Critias again. 5) The democracy was restored in 403 BCE, and it was agreed that because SO MANY PEOPLE HAD BEEN KILLED by the tyrants, the newly restored democracy would only kill the tyrants themselves and their closest allies. Everyone else would be given amnesty. SOCRATES continued to preach oligarchy. 6) Seriously, read Plato’s early work. It’s not actually Socrates, of course, but it’s certainly influenced by Socrates. He was a classist, elitist snob. 7) Socrates was told to stop preaching oligarchy (i.e., the idea that the best government was one run by a few “qualified” individuals), but he wouldn’t stop. He was told to leave town; he wouldn’t. He couldn’t be executed directly for his role in the 404 BCE coup because of the general amnesty. (His role was difficult to prove anyway, despite Critias. The tyrants ordered Socrates to help in an execution, but Socrates said later that he just went home). So, “corrupting the youth” was a euphemism for “convincing people to overthrow the democracy.” 8) We celebrate Socrates as a martyr to education and freedom of speech, which is the most BS thing ever. He was a genius philosopher, and he’s had an astonishing impact on Western Civilization (via Plato). BUT he was pretty evil too. He is, of course, not the only philosopher to have felt that he isn’t responsible for terrible things done according to his philosophy.–JN]

Em: Okay, in my Introduction to Ancient Philosophy class (where we read Socrates’s Apology), we definitely did not talk about it in any sort of historical context, and…I don’t remember if we talked about what “corrupting the youth” actually meant. Huh.

6/ Recovering Ancient Greek music (including Euripides’s famous chorus of the furies from Orestes).

For more on Greeks and whiteness, see Episode 11, midway through note 15 (on the Elgin Marbles).

7/ I was in a play where we just sang A Health to the Company in the middle of Henry IV pt 1. I dunno, directing is hard, probably.

Also, to be fair to community theatre, setting all the songs to different Beatles tunes did work pretty well. I do love community theatre, it is the most punk of all available theatres.

8/ The Banana Song, for those curious:

Time to gather your arse up off the floor,
(have a bana-na)
Brush your teeth and go toddling off to war,
Wave your hand to sleepy land,
Kiss those dreams away,S
Tell Miss Grable you’re not able,
Not till V-E Day, oh,
Ev’rything’ll be grand in Civvie Street
(have a ban-ana)
Bubbly wine and girls wiv lips so sweet–
But there’s still the German or two to fight,
So show us a smile that’s shiny bright,
And then, as we may have suggested once before–
Gather yer blooming arse up off the floor!

This site has all the song lyrics in Gravity’s Rainbow. There are actually song lyrics in all of his books. Sadly, only one of the books ever got made into a film (Inherent Vice–it was weird).

Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.

9/ Jesse: Here is the website of the Athens Epidaurus Festival. They live streamed Aeschylus’s Persians from Epidaurus this year when the festival finally reopened.

The theatre of Herodes Atticus.

10/ Hrotsvit was in episode 6 (note 18); she’ll also be discussed extensively in a forthcoming episode.

11/ Kalidasa, The Recognition of Shakuntala.

Sudraka, The Little Clay Cart.

The Natya Shastra.

12/ Things England brought back from India (an incomplete list):

  • Spices
  • Paisley
  • Sanskrit drama
  • Some really big diamonds
  • A lot of other artefacts, including a Buddha statue (the Sultanganj Buddha) that weighs over 500 kg (over 1,000 lbs)
  • Approximately $45 trillion worth of stuff (in 2017 USD) over 173 years

13/ Sanskrit is still a language that is around today and you can learn it. There are about 3 million people worldwide who speak it and maybe 25k speak it as their primary language, but I believe what they speak is different from the “perfected” version of Sanskrit you might learn on your way to a degree in Buddhism (in Em’s program, you had to take a semester or two of Sanskrit before you could take Pali, the primary language of Buddhist texts–note that Em did a different track and didn’t take either).

Also, incidentally, Thai derives a fair amount of its script from Devanagari (the script Sanskrit is written in), but not in a way that is obvious if you look at the two abrugidas side by side.

“When we speak of horses” is a misquote from Henry V, act 1, scene 1 (actual quote: Think when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth).

14/ Chinese opera: Dear China, I say this with the greatest respect as a Sinophile and a lover of opera: your opera is pretty extra.

Also I (Em) forgot, when we had this conversation, that Samuel Ramey used to leap out of the orchestra pit when he played Mephistopheles. Maybe. I was told this at one point. [Yes, in Boito’s Mephistopheles! I saw it at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Great production! Also, it starts with something akin to the Dialogue in Heaven, a medieval tradition followed by Goethe in Faust (and hence by Boito in his opera about Mephistopheles and Faust). Goethe might have decided to include the Dialogue in Heaven specifically because of the influence of Sanskrit dramas, which apparently made prologues cool again. Anyway, the Devil shows up to talk to God and bets God that he (the Devil) can tempt Faust. It’s quite Jobian. Anyway, this is why Ramey lept from the orchestra pit (Hell) to the stage (Heaven) to have a chat with God.–JN]

Jesse: Also, a shout out to David Cangelosi’s Mime in Wagner’s Ring Cycle (in a production originated at Lyric Opera of Chicago), where he climbed around the set of his hut (hanging from the rafters and such). It was very exciting!

Zaju 雜劇 is traditional Chinese theater. The technical term for Chinese opera is xiqu (戲曲), I think.

The Injustice to Dou E, by Guan Hanqing. Technically I think it’s not “E” like the letter e, it’s “ə” (not in the sense of an unaccented vowel, just that’s the sound). Unless the pronounciation has changed since the Middle Ages–totally possible. Hm. We will also discuss this one more in a future episode.

The Chalk Circle by Li Qianfu.

Possibly, rather than a common source (although that would also be pretty cool), people have merely observed certain human traits that are universal? [Nope, there’s definitely a common source. I mean, it’s not hard to believe–Genghis Khan’s troops traveled in both directions, for example, but so did a lot of other people, and people bring stories–JN]

Jesse: Here’s a favorite scene–it’s the battle scene in White Snake. The legend is old. Briefly, the hero is a female immortal (a white snake), who falls in love with a mortal. An evil monk tries to separate them, and White Snake and her best friend (the female immortal Green Snake) rally their good troops to fight the monk and his evil troops. This scene is the fight–color symbolism of good vs evil abounds. There are a lot of dancers and acrobats in this battle scene, but the women playing White Snake and Green Snake are also singers. (More on this in an upcoming episode too.)

Here’s the first half of the opera, to hear the singing.

In medieval Chinese theatre, men could play women and women could play men. Much later, only men were allowed to perform on stage (probably because of the influence of Japan). Today, women again play female roles. However, Mei Lanfang was one of the most famous male Chinese opera stars of the twentieth century, and he specialized in female roles. Seeing him perform on stage inspired Brecht to theorize alienation (Verfremdungseffekt). Here’s a (poor quality because it’s old!) video of Mei Lanfang.

Here’s a reconstruction of a medieval mural of a Chinese acting troupe. The leader of the troupe is in the center in red, and she’s costumed in a manner that suggests she might be about to play a male lead role. The female actors appear to be dressed in robes that cover their feet, regardless of the gender of character they are playing. (This is not because of foot binding, which didn’t exist yet. Instead, It seems to be a way to signal to the viewer that these actors are women, regardless of how they are costumed. It might also have been a way for women playing male roles to disguise the size of their feet.) Also interesting, some of the men in the mural seem to have fake beards. On the left, we can just barely see a stage hand peeking out from backstage. In other words, this is a troupe in costume and ready to perform!

Here is the original mural. The text above the mural reads “Ráodū liked it. Zhōng Dūxiù, a famous actress of sǎnyuè performed here. The fourth month of year one in era Tàidìng.” This is how we know for sure that the troupe is led by a women, Zhōng Dūxiù.

15/ As Jesse says, we don’t often set new lyrics to existing tunes…but Weird Al and Tom Lehrer sure do. (Side note: Tom Lehrer is now 92 and still, as of this writing, alive.)

Jesse: Yaaay Tom Lehrer!!! Also, Weird Al tells the following story about “Smells like Nirvana:” Weird Al asked Kurt Cobain if he (Weird Al) could parody “Smells like Teen Spirit,” and Cobain said he liked Weird Al, but so many of his parodies were about food, and Cobain didn’t want this one to be about food. And Weird Al said–Don’t worry, it’s going to be about how nobody can understand your lyrics. And Cobain said yes.

I love this because A+ for both Cobain and Weird Al. And also, Weird Al was not wrong.