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The Effects of World War I on Western Theatre

How the horrors of World War I led to new forms of expression in art, drama and dance. Created as an introduction for MYP year 5 drama students to Dada, Artaud and Triadic Ballet.
by

Chris Champion

on 24 January 2014

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Transcript of The Effects of World War I on Western Theatre

The Effects of World War I on Western Theatre
WORLD WAR I (1914-1918)
This was the first truly mechanized war. Weapons, many used for the first time, included machine guns, gas, tanks, airplanes and heavy long range artillery.

Soldiers and civilians could be killed and maimed (both physically and psychologically) on a massive industrial scale.

The war stagnated with soldiers facing each other in trenches that hardly advanced
more than a few kilometers throughout the war.

Total Casualties: 35 million of which 15 million were killed and 20 million wounded.
A War that Changed Art Forever
'Along with millions of idealistic young men who were cut to pieces by machine guns and obliterated by artillery shells, there was another major casualty of World War I: traditional ideas about Western art.' (Reed Johnson: LA Times)

The terrible realities of industrial warfare led people to reject the propaganda and nationalistic policies that had caused it. Artists were disgusted with the ruling classes and the war planners. They invented art forms that were honest and direct rather than full of flowery language, rhetoric and euphemism. As the writer Earnest Hemingway noted, abstract words like 'honour', 'courage' and 'duty' had little meaning when laid alongside the concrete names of the soldiers who had died and the villages that had been obliterated.

Belief in industrial progress, the established order, reason and even language were shattered. This was reflected in two new art forms: Surrealism and Dada.
Dada
'
Who wants to act now, or even see acting?'
(Hugo Ball 1915)

Dada was an international art movement that began around 1915, as a reaction to the horrors of World War I. Dada rejected reason and logic and replaced it with irrationality, nonsense and intuition.

Although it is primarily associated with the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Dada spread worldwide and covered all art disciplines including poetry, painting, music, dance, drama and performing arts.

Dada gatherings and performances were random, unstructured and deliberately unaesthetic. The shows were designed to shock and outrage the audience. One commonly recurring act was 'Chance Poetry' where words and phrases were randomly pulled out of a hat.

Hugo Ball specialized in performing sound poetry consisting of nonsense words of his own invention. see: http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2006/dada/techniques/sound.shtm
Dada Performances
Walter Serner came to the stage next. He was dressed as a groom would be for a wedding, and carried a headless tailor's dummy. He offered a smell of artificial flowers to the dummy, then lay the bouquet at its feet. He then brought a chair onto stage and began to read from his anarchistic credo, "Final Dissolution", with his back to the audience.

The tension in the hall became unbearable. At first it was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. Then the catcalls began, scornful at first, then furious. "Rat, bastard, you've got nerve!" until the noise almost drowned Serner's voice. Young men leaped onto the stage, chasing Serner into the wings and out of the building, smashing the tailor's dummy and the chair, and stamped on the bouquet. The whole place was in an uproar.

Tzara was delighted. The "cretinization of the public" had been achieved. The performance was stopped and the lights went out. During the twenty minute intermission, the audience "gained in self-awareness", the rage subsided, and a calm ensued that ruled the final part of the programme. Tzara would later proclaim,

'The public was tamed. Dada had succeeded in establishing the circuit of absolute unconsciousness in the audience which forgot the frontiers of education, of prejudices, experienced the commotion of the NEW. Final victory of Dada.'

A victory, when the audience riots? Certainly this cannot be a performance as we understand it in a theatrical sense!

Quoted and edited from Dada Theatre by John Stevenson http://www.tranquileye.com/theatre/dada_theatre.html
Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) & Theatre of Cruelty
Originally Theatre of Cruelty applied to the actor - stretching the imagination and body to breaking point so that actor enters a trance like state and awakens own double (dream self or psyche). Audience too should be jolted into emotional or spiritual response that awakens their double.

In Artaudian theatre everything must be done in extremes. Huge acting space, elaborate lights, sound, costumes, giant masks and puppets. Actor must be like trained athlete - able to make huge gestures and work in choreographed groups using ritual, religion, chanting, drumming and rhythm.

Artaud wanted to get rid of words as vehicles of meaning and replace them with a symbolic language of gestures, sound, images and movement. He was not interested in the drama of everyday life but in large global narratives which effect us all.

Total Theatre - the audience in the middle of the space being bombarded by effects and actors from all sides. Barrier between theatre and real life is broken down. The stunned audience can no longer act rationally but is forced into emotional response.
In Conclusion...
The horrors and senseless mechanised brutality of World War I shocked artists into new forms of art and theatre.

The irrational, unaesthetic and nonsensical Dada performances created furious reactions in the audience.

Artaud imagined a Total Theatre in which the audience would be bombarded from all sides into an emotional response.

Triadic Ballet reflected an increasingly organised and mechanical society.

But what was their lasting influence? Dada had virtually died out by the mid-1920's; none of Artaud's plays was performed during his lifetime (although his ideas were influential on later theatre practitioners such as Grotowski and Peter Brook) and Triadic ballet was a flop.
‘War: a massacre of people who
don’t know each other for the profit
of people who know each other
but don’t massacre each other.’ – Paul Valery

"Fountain" Marcel Duchamp
"Metamorphosis of Narcissus" Salvador Dali
Hugo Ball 1915
1928 Dada film directed by Hams Richter
Submitted by R. Mutt to the exhibition
organised by the Society of Independent
Artists, New York 1917
Dance - Triadic Ballet
While many artists and theatre practitioners re-acted to the horrors of World War I by creating art that was chaotic and irrational, there was a movement in dance that sought to do the opposite - it tried to create order and precision in an increasingly fragmented and seemingly illogical world.

Triadic Ballet was a dance form developed by Oskar Schlemmer and premiered in Stuttgart in 1922.

The idea of the ballet was based on the principle of the trinity. It has 3 acts, 3 participants, 12 dances and 18 costumes. Each act had a different colour. The first act is set against a lemon yellow background; the second on a pink stage and the final act on black. The colours were meant to suggest different moods.

The choreography is geometric. The dancers wear masks and puppet like costumes and this, combined with their stylised movements, give them the appearance of being mechanical.

Schlemmer claimed that this was what was happening on the factory production lines, in bureaucracy and mass society in any case.
"Life has become so mechanized, thanks to machines and a technology which our senses cannot possibly ignore, that we are intensely aware of man as a machine and the body as a mechanism."
(Oskar Schlemmer)
"If today's arts love the machine, technology and organization, if they aspire to precision and reject anything vague and dreamy, this implies an instinctive repudiation of chaos and a longing to find the form appropriate to our times."
(Oskar Schlemmer)


In Russia a new form of political theatre was emerging: Agitprop. It became an international movement which influenced Baoul, Brecht, TIE and Docu-theatre. It is still being performed by groups today. See the following Prezi: 'Agitprop'
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