Object of the Week: The Clown from the Prisoner of War Camp

by | Mar 11, 2021 | A look in the depot, time of remembrance 2020

The Clown, Marionette by Ernst Hummel, played by Walter Büttner, Aliceville ca. 1944

Our object of the week today has a very special story: the man in elegant tailcoat and striped trousers is dressed up as a clown. Despite the “make-up”, you can see that the head is very expressively carved and well proportioned as are the hands. It is one of the marionettes that came to our collection from the estate of Walter Büttner, the Heidekasper (the Heath Kasper). Büttner (born 1907) is actually known as a hand puppeteer who learned the old fairground Punch and Judy style from his father enchanting small and large audiences alike with his plays in Maschen, in his Punch and Judy house until 1990. 

The puppet of the clown comes from Büttner’s time as a prisoner of war in Camp Aliceville in Alabama (USA). Under the Nazis, Büttner had initially been banned from working because of his contacts with the “Red Hawks” and was sentenced to forced labour. In 1940 he was drafted into the marines (cf. Technau 1997, p. 144) and became an American prisoner of war in 1944.  

Gallery in Aliceville, Photography, 1944

Camp Aliceville was very generously run and the prisoners had every opportunity to engage in artistic activities. There was an orchestra, a writers’ circle, a theatre, a newspaper and a puppet theatre. The figures for these performances were mainly designed by the artist Ernst Hummel; but what is also remarkable about our puppet is the incredibly carefully crafted costume – such was their luck that a journeyman tailor was also incarcerated there and was part of the puppet theatre troupe! Büttner later described his time in Aliceville as his real artistic school; so deeply had the close creative exchange with the artists, musicians, actors and authors there influenced him. He performed many of the plays with hand puppets; we also have some impressive examples of these in the collection. The exact play in which the puppet was used is unknown however, the diaries of Büttner and Hummel give nonetheless and interesting impression. During their time in the camp until the war ended in 1945, they played 15 performances in front of 2300 visitors. 

After the end of the war, the camp was reorganised; after the discovery of the concentration camps in Europe, the camp management became more restrictive and the prisoners were made to do hard labour such as tree felling. In 1945, the puppets and marionettes were packed and sent to Geneva via the Red Cross; Walter Büttner was in 1947 able to retrieve them.

 Further reading:

 Frontpuppentheater. Puppenspieler im Kriegsgeschehen, hg. Dorothea Kolland und Puppentheater-Museum Berlin, Ausstellungskatalog, Berlin 1997Front Puppet Theatre. Puppeteers in the War, ed. Dorothea Kolland and Puppentheater-Museum Berlin, exhibition catalogue, Berlin 1997. Büttner, Walter: Das Bühnenporträt – Der Heidekasper. In: Information, hg. Verband deutsche Puppentheater e.V., Wuppertal 1976, S. 29-31 Büttner, Walter: The Stage Portrait – The Heath Punch In: Information, published by the Association of German Puppet Theatres, Wuppertal 1976, pp. 29-31. Hummel, Ernst: Chronik des Puppentheaters in Aliceville. Mit Nachträgen bis 1952, Originalmanuskript in der Puppentheatersammlung München Hummel, Ernst: Chronicle of the Puppet Theatre in Aliceville. With addenda up to 1952, original manuscript in the Puppet Theatre Collection Munich  Kipsch, Walter: Walter Büttner. In: Meister des Puppenspiels, H.36, Bochum o.J. Kipsch, Walter: Walter Büttner. In: Master of Puppet Plays, H.36, Bochum o.J. Technau, Silke: Nachrichten vom Berufspuppenspiel in Schlesien (1900-1944). In: Bärbel Rudin: Funde und Befunde zur schlesischen Theatergeschichte. Dortmund 1983, S. 268-322 Technau, Silke: News from Professional Puppetry in Silesia (1900-1944). In: Bärbel Rudin: Funde und Befunde zur schlesischen Theatergeschichte. Dortmund 1983, pp. 268-322 Technau, Silke: Zu Besuch in der Kasperbude. Streifzüge über den Jahrmarkt in das Figurentheater. Frankfurt a.M. 1992 

Technau, Silke: Zu Besuch in der Kasperbude. A foray into puppet theatre via the fairground. Frankfurt a.M. 1992   Technau, Silke: “To Wihnachten sinn wi wedder dohus! Puppentheater im Kriegsgefangenenlager Aliceville/Alabama, in: Frontpuppentheater. Puppenspieler im Kriegsgeschehen, hg. Dorothea Kolland und Puppentheater-Museum Berlin, Ausstellungskatalog, Berlin 1997, S. 142-151

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