Director’s Notes: Popeye, The David Glass Mime Ensemble

Feature in Issue 1-3 | Autumn 1989

Popeye’s real age is 60, though he claims only to be 40. E.C. Seger, Popeye’s maker, was just over 40 when he died of leukemia in 1938. If Seger had lived a year longer he would have seen the world transformed beyond anything he could have conceived of – beyond even the wild, dangerous and fugitive world of Popeye. However, Seger did live through one of the most startling periods of world history.

My father was born in New Jersey, 1921. He was first generation American. His brothers and sisters were all born somewhere on the Polish/Russian border, they came with the tide of Immigrants that emerged from Europe between 1905 and 1915, over 10 million of them. They were fleeing poverty, war and starvation. Like many millions before them, they arrived through Ellis Island. They had a skill, ‘shmatta’, the clothing business. Patterson New Jersey was a short boat and trolley trip from Ellis Island

My Opa on my mother’s side was an ‘orphink’ at the age of ten on the streets of Berlin. He was keen on drawing and entered the U.P.A. film studios in Berlin as a tea boy. He worked his way up, and if family mythology is true was on set for Hitchcock’s early silent films. (I always like this to be true as Hitchcock has always been one of the greatest influences on me.) In Dinosaur of Weltsmertz the Dinosaur/Father figure was crudely based on my Grandfather.

In 1936, two years after the seminal encounter between the Sea Hag and Popeye, my Grandfather fled to Zurich where he established the Swiss animation industry and, despite their neutrality, awaited the invasion of Hitler. Meanwhile back in New Jersey my father avidly read the Hurst syndicated Thimble Theatre whose star Popeye had appeared merely as a bit player in 1929 but soon rose to fame leading the stalwart troupe through melodramatic adventures that kept America smiling through the Depression years and beyond.

It does not surprise me then, that I should be so drawn to the work of Seger. The historical influences found in the rootlessness of Seger’s characters permeate my own family’s history as it does many millions of others. For it is the story of the twentieth century. I feel that all the great living theatrical traditions have come in times of upheaval. The great commedia families were forced on the road because of war, sickness and hunger. The Thimble Theatre was a commedia troupe with low overheads. Yet as Seger perfected his style all the ingredients of the Commedia were found. The greed, the fighting, the tricks and even the romance. The stories were endless yet the elements remained constant. For what is the Commedia but a family and theatre that always returns to our first vivid experiences of life, the family and childhood.

Therefore what will Popeye in Exile ultimately be about? Though it is early days yet, it is about innocence and the loss of innocence. It is about our childhood and the discovery that we die. It is about the beginning and the end of the twentieth century. Well, it’s not asking much is it?

Referenced Artists

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Issue 1-3
p. 9