Radical, later blacklisted, puppeteer, pioneer of stop-motion animation, Louis Bunin pays tribute to his friend and comrade, the genius Yosl Cutler, founder of the Yiddish Puppet Theatre, multi-talented artist, and columnist for the Yiddish-language Communist daily Morgen Freiheit, who died tragically in a 1935 car accident. His New York funeral was attended by over 10,000 people. We need more revolutionary puppet theater.
‘The Pictures and Puppets of Yosl Cutler’ by Louis Bunin from Art Front. Vol. 2 No. 3. February, 1936.
THE recent exhibition of puppets, paintings and drawings by Yosl Cutler at the John Reed School of Art was something of a surprise to many who knew the enigmatic and popular Yiddish puppet master, but were not aware of his extraordinary versatility and talent as a cartoonist, painter and humorist writer. Cutler was staff artist and writer on the Jewish Morning Freiheit and contributed to many Jewish periodicals of poetry and prose.
Cutler was born in the Ukraine; he arrived in America in 1920; was an itinerant sign painter; studied painting and drawing at night. His first experience with puppets was in Morris Schwartz’s Yiddish theater on Second Avenue. Cutler was asked to make puppets for a small part in a play. The medium so enchanted him that it remained his greatest interest and became precisely the medium in which he could best express his many talents.
With Zuni Maud he formed a marionette group called the Modicots. Among professional puppeteers in America the productions of the Modicots set a standard not reached by any other group to this day. Although their performances were in the Yiddish language, their fame spread and reached non-Jewish speaking audiences who understood the plays because of the brilliant marionette conception and skill with which the Modicots presented their puppet plays.
More than any other group, the Modicots proved that, with pantomime and clever personality, projection in voice and mimicry, puppets spoke a universal language.
All those who have seen Yosl Cutler’s puppets know of the mischievous, imaginative and slashingly satirical comments he made on “types.” Yosl Cutler learned to make moving eyes, mouths and parts on the puppets to give them additional life in a caricaturish way.
Art of a Puppeteer
A puppeteer, to be a great puppet master, must have a caricaturist instinct, that will enable him to give precisely those movements to the puppet that the puppet “type” demands. Actually, the puppets'” range of movement is limited. Yosl Cutler knew how to hold in reserve the most exciting and delightfully surprising movements for emphasis at the right time. In his hands the puppets seemed to have unlimited possibilities and movements. But, further, the caricature of the puppet and the caricature of the voice of the puppeteer must be matched with a caricature language and use of voice. We puppeteers hold Yosl Cutler’s skits and playlets as a model of puppet language and ideas for the stage.
The fantastic puppet eye-view in Cutler’s play so well known in New York, “Simche” and his “Yiddena,” was presented last season at the Civic Repertory Theater on a New Theater night. The next day the Daily theater reviewer said that never in his experience had he seen a proscenium in a theater so completely removed. That means that the audience and the puppets seemed to be in one large room and the entire audience participated in the play.
Yosl Cutler, the great puppet master, knew how to do that. His audiences. shouted warnings to his puppets. They hissed and booed the villains; they taunted the cops, and shouted advice to the simple, ungainly, humorous, bearded puppet “Simche.”
“The Crisis Dybbuk”
One more illustration of a typical puppet idea from Yosl Cutler’s last play written shortly before he was killed in the tragic automobile accident. This play is called “The Crisis Dybbuk” based on the old Hebrew legend in which a spirit of a dead suitor lodges in the body of a living bride. In the original version, the rabbis in the synagogue drive the spirit out of the bride’s body by means of orthodox hocus-pocus. In Yosl Cutler’s satiric version of the play, the bride is Prosperity who looks disturbingly like Mae West. The spirit of Dybbuk is the Crisis who dives under her skirts. Then Rabbi Roosevelt and Rabbi Ku Klux Klan and Abe Kahn try to dislodge the Crisis Dybbuk from the amply proportioned Prosperity. Rab. Roosevelt tries it with a Blue Eagle while chanting the well-known alphabet combinations, R.F.C., C.C.C., P.W.A., etc. For this play twenty-eight puppets were completed. It was to have been presented this fall and would certainly have set a new standard. for a side-splitting pointed madness in political satire.
A Serious Humorist
Can you imagine a great artist like Daumier or Cruikshank making drawings purely for art’s sake? Preposterous, isn’t it? The vigor, life and purpose in their work were. rooted in the fact that they took sides in a social struggle. Yosl Cutler got his ammunition and inspiration from the revolutionary movement and gave it one of the most original of its satirical artists.
As for Yosl Cutler, the humorist writer, having worked daily for the largest part of the past year with Yosl Cutler, I know that there are among his great many friends certain misunderstandings of his character. By many he was considered an East Side mischievous gamin who never gave up. He carried fun and levity with him into public and private gatherings. I have seen Yosl Cutler work on these fantastic little features, poems and drawings that are so well known to the Jewish people in America. I have seen him weed and prune his articles with that craftsman like labor that only serious workers have, have heard him discuss the ideas and philosophic content of his articles and I have seen him weigh and dissect them before he used them in his cartoons and drawings and puppet plays. Despite the countless shop papers he illustrated, the numberless posters he painted, he still found time to make some drawings over as many as a dozen times before he achieved just the thing he wanted.
An interesting insight into the serious attitude toward his painting and drawing was seen in the few paintings on the walls of John Reed Club. There, despite the fact that he calls a bucket of water Prosperity, there are many who were amazed at the painstaking care in the execution of this study.
Among the Jewish critics and writers who did know him best you will hear that Yosl Cutler was killed precisely at the time when he seemed to have reached a full maturity in his work and on the basis of studies, and experimenting, and learning, he was launched as a distinguished and important artist. It is impossible to say now whether there is enough of his work left to give him immortality in the art world, though no one will doubt it in the field of puppetry.
Art Front was published by the Artists Union in New York between November 1934 and December 1937. Its roots were with the Artists Committee of Action formed to defend Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural soon to be destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller. Herman Baron, director of the American Contemporary Art gallery, was managing editor in collaboration with the Artists Union in a project largely politically aligned with the Communist Party USA.. An editorial committee of sixteen with eight from each group serving. Those from the Artists Committee of Action were Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Zoltan Hecht, Lionel S. Reiss, Hilda Abel, Harold Baumbach, Abraham Harriton, Rosa Pringle and Jennings Tofel, while those from the Artists Union were Boris Gorelick, Katherine Gridley, Ethel Olenikov, Robert Jonas, Kruckman, Michael Loew, C. Mactarian and Max Spivak.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/parties/cpusa/art-front/v2n03-feb-1936-Art-Front-orig.pdf