In a Pine Wood

In a pine wood on the Bread and Puppet land, the trees fifty feet tall or more, straight black bark, green needles branching out far above our heads, is the memorial grove. What you think you cannot do alone—put your hands into the ashes of the one you loved, his earthly remains, they are gritty with burnt bone (if you do not know)—becomes possible, even sacral, in community. 

There is a line of Yeats, a signature line (so-to-speak), I have always loved. “Ask not where a (wo)man’s glory begins or ends but say my glory was I had such friends.” Yeats, too, made a theater with those he admired and loved. The Bread and Puppet Theater, sixty years on, is going strong. Our Theater Three Collaborative is being laid to rest this day as we leave George’s ashes here in a grove where many of our artist-friends are also commemorated with small memorial houses or other structures. To the right lies the grave of Elka Schumann, a small mound of earth, already growing things. Her body is here because the land is hers; in compliance with Vermont law, the remains of her friends are memories only. Judith Malina has a small edifice down the slope. She introduced George and me when she directed my play Us in which he starred, for which he won an Obie. Grace Paley is to the right, my friend and George’s who anointed our early relationship with her words, ‘I am so glad you two are together” at a protest march against the Gulf War I. There are many others, including Bob Nichols, Grace’s husband, who wrote the early street theater plays in which George performed.

We are, for the moment, the survivors, Peter Schumann and I. He is holding the trumpets with which he led the Bread and Puppet brass and percussion band as we walked and danced from the farm down the slope to this pine grove. “I found Lady Gregory at eighty on her knees, planting trees,” Yeats writes. On her estate at Coole Park is a large oak in which the Abbey artists carved their names, visible still. “That inquiring man, John Singe,” wrote Yeats, “who dying took the living world for text.” 

“Nature intervened in all our words. We walked with beauty inside and out…” I wrote in one of George’s favorite speeches as Uncle from Extreme Whether, a speech he was rehearsing in his final weeks of life, hoping to perform it once again at LaMama’s Coffee House in his honor, now his memorial service.

With me are Ynestra King, my friend of 40 years, a founder of ecofeminism, Michal Gamily, who is producing George’s memorial, Patrick Mintu, a journalist from Congo who became our trusted friend and driver in the final year of George’s life, and George’s son Alex. All will speak. Alex will read from George’s diary about playing Diagonal Man to rapturous response in Poland, caught in marshal law. Michael Romanshyn and Howie Cantor were also in Peter’s production of Diagonal Man, in which George played the sloping fellow, feet on the earth, straining toward freedom—that very freedom the Polish audience was straining toward. The banner from that play, done in the 80s, marks his memorial mound.

“Bring something to nail to a tree,” Peter had said on the phone. I have George’s Irish cap, which he wore as Uncle and again as Sam Brown in Blue Valiant and which he wore on many trips to doctors, hospitals and back, and on many walks, shorter and shorter they became, around our neighborhood. George loved trees. He wrote about them, delighted in them, often hugged them spontaneously. 

Underneath the hat, surrounding the tree’s tall trunk, are tubs of wild flowers, gathered by the puppeteers too young by half a century to have known George when he rehearsed Woyzech, Othello and Diagonal Man with Peter on the farm, before I knew him. I have a photo of George as Uncle, holding the same hat, dressed in the deerskin robe designed and made in the shop of Sally Ann Parsons, our costume designer for thirty-five years, which also lay atop his coffin at his funeral service, outside on a glorious, hot day at Greenwood Cemetery. Now it hangs on the wall in my Clinton Hill apartment, next to the large Plexiglas panels of the tree branches in full leaf that set the stage for Extreme Whether at LaMama. 

These are the strands of our community, intertwined over decades, with roots far back in theaters like Yeats’ poetic Abbey, or Brecht and Piscator’s epic ventures. Theaters meant quite simply to show the way, or rather, to show images of another way. Theaters made from ideas, the particularity of their creators’ talents, puppets or poetic texts—in every case, visions of lives fulfilled, a world at peace, equality, community, nature honored, verdant and alive. 

I did not believe I could put my hands into his ashes. That flesh I so much loved to touch. I have brought the African wooden bowl I bought on Myrtle Ave. and painted green, decorated with gold leaf. It was Sniffley the frog’s urn in Extreme Whether. George carried it for his young friend, the bereaved Annie, set it on the ground for her funeral song, “Sniffley was/And the world was, too/The most decent frog/The most beautiful place/We knew…” Now, I dip a brass scoop into the box full of ashes and I fill the urn with them. Put on the lid and set the wooden bowl on the ground, under the hat, next to his photo against the tree.   

There are ashes to be scattered, their grit on our fingers, and memories to be shared. Peter tells of his first sight of George and Crystal Field, atop a flatbed truck in Central Park, telling the story of the Vietnam War, its generals, soldiers, victims, simply by changing hats. It was George as clown he first encountered, also a vital aspect of this poetic actor, and he was enchanted, as George was excited by Peter’s puppets, huge and tiny, in the Sheep Meadow. They became friends that many illegal wars ago, a friendship that remained and deepened in the final weeks of George’s life when Peter phoned him in the hospital and they talked and laughed and George felt seen and restored. Again, Peter called. George less able to respond this time—“that doesn’t matter, put him on the phone”—and they laughed together a final time.  At the end of that phone call, Peter and I planned for this day. George knew his ashes would be scattered here and he approved. He would die ten days later in our bed in my arms at home.

What he did not know in life was the full beauty of this place, nor how many others of his friends’ memories he would be near. What he could not guess was the sublime beauty of this late summer Vermont day. Michal, Nesta, Patrick, Alex, and I stand at the tree while the light fades, and changes on George’s face in the photo until he glows, then dims. 

No, I did not think I could do it. Could not have done it by myself. Only in community, only held by the energies, the memories, the presence of these friends could I have done this thing. Put my hand into the ashes of my love and scatter into the wind those that did not fit into the urn. One by one people come to do the same, a handful of ashes, words, and thrown, the ground beneath the tree dusted with grey circles of the ash that did not blow in the scant wind. 

Nothing is possible without community. The Bread and Puppet is the perfect example. We are welcomed, entertained with a new short, beautiful and biting play, fed and housed by the puppeteers and Peter still scattering his visions far and wide. Parts of the company are in Istanbul, others on tour, others here on the farm making “before the Apocalypse” pop-up plays for parking lots. 

Peter is at the outdoor kitchen, in the white chief’s apron given him by another of his close collaborators,Genevieve—also memorialized right next to George, also a cancer victim. “The last I have,” he says. He is making latkes with fresh applesauce for our communal dinner after the ceremony. Those of us who have stayed late at the tree return hungry for drink, food, and comradeship—including my cocker pup, Percy Bysshe Shelley II, who came to us in the last weeks of George’s life, and who binds me to life now. He, too, is ravenous for Peter’s latkes and begs with excellent success. 

“We are next,” Peter says to me as I stand beside him in the outdoor kitchen. As impossible for each of us to have imagined life without our partners in art and love, as impossible for us to imagine our own ends, made more desirable by deaths of our beloveds, and yet we cling to life. Peter calls it a “half-life’  and I, newly widowed, agree, or a nonlife, I might say, as I leave behind the life I’ve known, making theater with the man now dead. To these moments, out of the rubble of modern life, its constant disasters with other, greater disasters yet to come, we cling, only because around us are our friends, eating latkes, drinking wine, laughing, building a bonfire as the cool sets in. To the pup who snuggled with George in the final days of his life, now crunching latkes, licking his lips, asking for more. We are always asking for more.

Nothing is possible without community. This day on the Bread and Puppet farm with generations intertwined, new friends and old, allows the most sacral of acts I could not have done by myself alone. I could not have sent my lover’s ashes to the wind, the earth, nor nailed his hat to a tree. I could not have. So much I could not have done without George, without the community we built around our work, so much I could not have imagined alone became manifest together. 

Nothing is possible without love—of the work, of one another. Everyone, alive and dead, in this grove together thought the same: that we must, against all odds, against the awful commerce, the madness for money and destruction that dominates and crushes all that lives, create. Visions of life through communal acts. We must make work and share it, like ashes scattered to the wind, as useless, perhaps, impossible that any lasting structure might result. Nothing but ash, nothing but love, insubstantial things, have we to offer, to give of ourselves, and finally give ourselves running through the fingers of others to the earth. Nothing but our visions, in words or puppets, with actors, with music, with joy. 

That we have lived this way. That I lived this way with George. That George and Peter over sixty years worked together and apart to tell the same story, the story of the earth, our rightful place on earth, our pledge not to destroy, not to grasp, nor hate, but to create. 

About the Author

Karen Malpede is author and often director of 22 plays performed in New York, Washington DC, London, Berlin, Paris, Copenhagen, Kosovo and Veroli, Italy, and other cities in the US and Europe. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Albanian and French and is taught in Iraq. She is known as an ecofeminist, social justice, poetic playwright, hence well outside the mainstream of American commercial theater. Her plays are published in two collections devoted to her work: A Monster Has Stolen the Sun and Other Plays, with a preface by Judith Malina, and Plays in Time: The Beekeeper’s Daughter, Prophecy, Another Life, Extreme Whether. Her recent plays, Blue Valiant and Other Than We are published by Laertes in Egret Acting Editions. Both are available on Youtube. Her most recent play, Troy Too, was seen in New York at HERE in May. She is author/editor of several influential theater books, including a collection of British and American antiwar plays, Acts of War: Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays, Women in Theater: Compassion and Hope, and People’s Theater. In 1995, she cofounded the Obie winning Theater Three Collaborative with the great actor/producer George Bartenieff, and the two worked closely together until his death in July, 2022. She is at work on a memoir about several extraordinary people and her experience of cancer and caretaking throughout her life.

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