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Storytelling with Pictures. Heinrich von Kleist.

"The Earthquake in Chile"


Paper cutouts and Performance: Patricia O’Donovan

Text: Adapted by Patricia O’Donovan based on the story "The Earthquake in Chile" by Heinrich von Kleist

Box and lights: Mario Keizman

Production: AMBULO theater

Storytelling with Pictures. For adults.

The earthquake strikes. A hole in the prison wall lets Jerónimo free.

Ever since I studied wayang golek, the traditional puppet theater of West Java with my teacher Prof. Kathy Foley ( see my post "Hanuman's Jump") and learned that an older form of telling stories with painted scrolls existed in Indonesia ( wayang beber) I am looking at traditions from all over the world, where stories are told with pictures.

If the image is complex, full of characters and scenarios in one long scroll, either the narrator points at the image referred to in the story with a pointer, or there exist iconographic and vocal codes shared between the narrator and the audience, that enable the audience to follow without the need of pointing, as in wayang beber.

Here are a few examples:

My show:

As in wayang beber and Kamishibai, I have separate pictures for the story, not one long continuous scroll. I sit or stand close to the pictures narrating and playing out the characters. Here the comparison ends.

My pictures are not painted but are cutout from black Bristol paper and glued onto semi transparent paper, to be lit from behind as in Shadow Theater. Some of the pictures are just one scene, others are more complex. I sit behind the box that supports the pictures, narrating, playing out the characters and illuminating the part of the picture I want the audience to look at, as the story unfolds. Next to me I have various small musical instruments, whistles and rattles, easy to play single handedly.

Kleist's story:

Kleist's story, written in 1805, takes place in Santiago, the capital of the Kingdom of Chile. It was based on real events: on the 13th of May, 1647 Santiago was hit by a 8.5 Richter scale earthquake which devastated the city. At that time the Chile was part of the Spanish empire, and a Colonial Church operated a court responsible for judging all actions that allegedly threatened the Christian faith: the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

The story opens with a young man, Jerónimo Rugera, a Spaniard and lover of Josefa, about to hang himself in prison. Josefa Asterón, daughter of a rich nobleman of Santiago, is condemned to death for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, and is about to be beheaded. Just then the earthquake strikes. A hole in the prison wall frees Jerónimo, and those who are about to hang Josefa run for their lives. Jeronimo and Josefa reunite, the people around them forget all about beheadings, sex out of wedlock and trials and just want to survive. Poor and rich suddenly become equal, everybody shares what they have and help each other without caring about social status. Not only the city of Santiago is destroyed and its buildings torn down, but social conventions as well.

The disaster opens up a chance for reconstruction and change. Jerónimo, Josefa and their little child dream of a new future, their sins forgiven.

But that chance soon fades.

As soon as the earth's shaking ends, the old codes of behavior, customs and inflexible moral and religious beliefs reemerge. All hands point towards Jerónimo and Josefa as the culprits for the disaster, and they are brutally murdered in a terrible scene of mob violence and chaos. A couple's baby is torn from their arms and killed by the furious mob that mistake it for Josefa's child, who must die because it was born out of sin.

But Kleist ends the story giving us hope: the bereaved couple adopt the orphaned child of Jerónimo and Josefa. It is here, in the healing power of love and forgiveness that we find our real salvation.

Kleist uses the earthquake as a metaphor for the times of crisis where social and cultural barriers break down and like buildings, come crumbling down. The reconstruction that follows once the rubble is cleared, could bring about change, but no Kleist says, our old ways of thinking and living are so deeply rooted in us that they are very, very hard to change.

So now, in times of corona, I find this story more relevant than ever.


  • Israel: OFF International Festival of Puppet Theater, Jerusalem. August 2014

  • Israel: "BaBait" Festival. Jerusalem Season of Culture. July 2012

  • Israel: International Festival of Puppet Theater, Jerusalem. August 2011

Click here for a teaser video

Click here to see another work of mine, also storytelling with pictures.

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