Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Theatre and Incarnation

from chapter 4 of Theatre and Incarnation, by Max Harris, published by Eerdmans 2005 (new edition) –

Dramatic text is not a ‘poem’ but a score for performance in which the audience play an integral part. Consider, by way of lively illustration, the Dada soiree in Zurich, in 1919, directed by Tristan Tzara and attended by an audience expecting to take offense at the Dadaists’ anarchist politics and avant-garde art. A speech on abstract art, a dancer wearing a Cubist-style African mask, and some free-association poems began the evening. The latter drew laughter and a few catcalls. Then, in the words of Hans Richter, ‘all hell broke loose.’ The 20 Dadaists on stage began speaking, singing, whistling, crowing, sighing, stuttering and yodelling, simultaneously and not always in time, the 20 texts that together formed a poeme simultane. The audience responded with ‘shouts, whistles, chanting in unison, laughter…all of which mingled more or less anti-harmoniously with the bellowing of the twenty on the platform.’ Order was temporarily restored by a convenient interval.

The program resumed with an actor cursing both audience and performers, with ‘anti-tunes’ and with dances set to the atonal music of Schoenberg. Then Walter Serner, dressed immaculately as if for a wedding, offered a bouquet of artificial flowers to a headless tailor’s dummy to smell and, sitting astride a chair with his back to the audience, began to read from his own anarchistic credo, "Final Dissolution." ‘The tension in the hall became unbearable. At first it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.’

Soon tense silence gave way to catcalls and then to angry invective. Finally, members of the audience ‘leaped on to the stage,’ brandishing pieces of the centuries-old gallery balustrade, ‘chased Serner into the wings and out of the building, smashed the tailor’s dummy and the chair, and stamped on the bouquet.’

Hans Richter remembers, in the ensuing uproar, a newspaper reporter grasping him by the tie and shouting ‘ten times over, without pausing for breath, "You’re a sensible man normally."’ The performance was stopped, the auditorium lights turned on, and ‘faces distorted by rage gradually returned to normal.’ Richter comments, ‘People were realising that not only Serner’s provocation, but also the rage of those provoked, had something inhuman…and that this had been the reason for Serner’s performance in the first place.’

After a 20-minute interval, the show resumed. The final third included a ballet, in which the ‘pretty faces’ and ‘slender figures’ of the dancers were hidden behind ‘savage Negro masks’ and ‘abstract costumes,’ poems by Serner, and some anti-music ‘which left no tone unturned.’ All was allowed to pass without incident, and this too was part of the intended effect.

Richter boasts, ‘Tzara had organised the whole thing with the magnificent precision of a ring-master marshalling his menagerie of lions, elephants, snakes and crocodiles…the public was tamed. To isolate the performance, in this instance, from its effect on the audience, would mean that the theatrical event itself, ‘as an object of specifically critical judgement,’ would ‘disappear!’
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