A festival, “Old New Year: 2008”, showcasing Christmas puppet show boxes made at home or by school groups took place at the Brodyachy Vertep (Vagrant’s Cave) Theatre in Moscow. This festival was managed by Aleksandr Gref and was sponsored by the theatre workers of Russia. Traditional Christmas puppet show boxes featuring the birth of Christ in the cave made by amateurs were exhibited.
The Cave… these are traditional presentations dating from the 16thcentury in Russia using puppets, a puppet “mystery play”, if you will, given at Christmas to honour the birth of Christ. The play is given in a special box, the “cave”, which depicts the cave were Christ our Saviour was born. The traditional “cave” box has three (sometimes, only two) levels. These three parts symbolise both the three-part structure of the Christmas play and of the three levels of the world (Paradise, Earth, and Hades). The top portion is reserved for the image of the Holy Family, and the Adoration of the Magi and Shepherds. Also, here is where the announcement of the angel concerning the birth of the Savour occurs. On the bottom level, are scenes involving King Herod. Some of the actions depict the tyrant King Herod, his soldiers, Rachel, the massacre of the innocents, and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt from the villain King Herod.
The tradition of the “Cave” was found throughout the immense region from Poland and Little Russia in the west to Siberia in the east. It was performed from Christmas to Epiphany, and in some regions they even presented it until the Meeting in the Temple. In some rare cases, it continued until the time of the Great Lent. What follows is a description of a typical “Cave” performance by a modern academic.
Peasant children wearing paper crowns, with decorations on their sleeves and staves in their hands, represented the Persian magi who came to bow before the Holy Infant. They carried a plywood box covered with gilded paper decorated with lubok prints. This was the “Cave”, the Christmas puppet theatre. The children walked in their festive costumes from house to house, pulling “the cave” on a sled. After coming to the porch and entering the door of the house, they asked if they could sing kolyadki (Christmas carols). If the people at home allowed it, the children brought the “cave” into the main room, placed on a table or on two chairs, and began the puppet show. It started with the children singing the Christmas troparRodezhstvo Tvoye, Khriste Bozhe Nash (Thy Nativity, O Christ our God). The box was opened, the curtains were drawn back, and a puppet portraying an angel lit tiny candles in the footlights. Liturgical hymns were interspersed with the singing of “spiritual verses” (popular religious folk songs) and folk kolyadki. The dialogue for the puppets could be spoken, in verse, or sung. The performance including such scenes as the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, the birth of the Saviour, and the massacre of the innocent babies by the tyrant King Herod.
From M. G. Davidov, Vertepny Theatre in the Traditional Russian Culture http://www.portal-slovo.ru/rus/art/2898/8974/
This custom was suppressed during the anti-religious persecution of the communists in the 1920s. However, in the 1980s, enthusiasts revived the custom of the “Cave” performances. Since 1992, the Union of Theatrical Workers in Russia has held an annual “Christmas Family Evening” in Moscow. This event unites both theatrical professionals and amateur thespians. With each year, “Cave” performances attract more and more attention. Today, there is an Association of Vertepshchikov (“Cave Performers”), which does its best to spread this custom as widely as it can. “Cave” performances are held in churches, in schools, in orphanages, and in family homes all throughout the Christmas season (from Christmas to the Meeting of the Lord, 25 December/7 January to 2/15 February).
“Amateur family performers are more instinctual in their approach than professionals are. The ‘Cave’ is built, and the show is performed, from a motive of love, from a desire to celebrate the Christmas holiday. It is not done for applause from the public, it is not done for neutral spectators, rather, it is done for the sake of those near and dear to one. I would say that the ‘Cave’ is principally an amateur phenomenon. For this very reason, if professional producers reject the use of a naïve and ‘amateurish’ style, the play rings a false note. The ‘Cave’ performance is highly symbolic, it should be played in a ‘simple’ box with the ‘simplest’ puppets, so, we should forgive any crudities of setting. However, this does not pardon insincerity. Theatrical professionalism can never replace a true feeling from the heart”, said Aleksandr Gref, the organiser of the festival “Old New Year”.
At “Cave” festivals, one hears both academic experts and amateur enthusiasts decry the alarming number of instances of modern distortions of the genre. “Cave” performances are evolving into free adaptations of the events of Christmas. In all too many cases, things such as lighted backdrops and alternate methods of controlling the puppets are sneaking into the shows. There is even a “gloomy Cave”. In some instances, there are those who have changed the movements of the puppets, making them more mobile and rhythmic. Many feel that such things rob the “Cave” of its special expressiveness.
The “Cave” is a theatre that lives according to its own standards, there is nothing random or unnecessary within it. It is extremely heartfelt; therefore, it is the carrier of a special spirit. The action proceeds to the light of candles with a backdrop of lively singing and music. Characteristic of the “Cave” is the special technique used to control the puppets. They are fixed on a pintle and they are pushed through slots in the floor of the box. A traditional “Cave” performance has a minimum of movement, an absence of mimicry, and an economy of gesture. The puppets face the audience, not each other. The spectator is drawn into the action, and he becomes an active participant in the drama.
The method of the “Cave” is based on the earliest theatrical techniques, which have a minimum of action and a concentration of the dramatic tension. The birth of the Saviour, the flight into Egypt, the massacre of the innocent babies, the killing of the tyrant Herod, and the opened gates of Hades: all of this is portrayed in the “Cave” using meagre, yet expressive, means. The drama is based on the canonical subject; it announces the Christmas story with all of the action surrounding it: the magi, the shepherds, King Herod, and Rachel. Both performers and spectators are united in the unfolding story,. The “Cave” becomes a shared space… the space ofhappiness.
The festivals of “Cave” performances draw not only experts and enthusiasts, but also many from the general public. It is obvious that this art is becoming more popular. It was very gratifying to see that the majority of participants and spectators at the most recent “Cave” festival were our children. Their glad and involved faces, and their clean and sincere voices, naturally invoked in our mind these lines from the Russian poet Apollon Korinfsky from Khristoslavy (Christ’s Glory):
И в нестройном детском хоре
Так таинственно чиста,
Так отрадна весть святая
О рождении Христа!
The unpractised childish choir
With purity mysterious,
Bringing us the holy news
Of the birth of Christ!
21 January 2008