DADA, theatre



Imagine Zurich, Switzerland, in the Spring of 1919.

It had been more then a year since the last major Dada manifestation in the city, and almost two since the Dada Gallery, with its Kandinsky Room for performance, had been closed by debt.  With the war over and many exiled artists leaving Switzerland, the self-proclaimed leader of Dada, Tristan Tzara, organized one last  performance before he himself left for Paris.

This was the "Greatest-Ever-DADA-Show", held at the Saal zur Kaufleuten on April 9. Sets were designed by artists Hans Arp and Hans Richter. Masks for the show were made by architect and painter Marcel Janco, and music by composer Hans Heusser. Dance by Laban dancer Suzanne Perottet and Arp's wife, Sophie Taeuber. The "cast" of the show was made up of the usual artists of the Cabaret Voltaire.

Eggling appeared first... and delivered a very serious speech about elementary "Gestalung" and abstract art. This only disturbed the audience insofar as they wanted to be disturbed but weren't. Then followed Susanne Perrottet's dances to compositions by Schonberg, Satie and others. She wore a Negroid mask by Janco, but they let that pass. Some poems by Huelsenbeck and Kandisky, recited by Kathe Wulff, were greeted with laughter and catcalls by a few members of the audience. Then all hell broke loose. A "PoŽme simultanŽ" by Tristan Tzara, performed by twenty people who did not always keep in time with each other. This was what the audience and especially its younger members, had been waiting for . Shouts, whistles, chanting in unison, laughter... all of which mingled more or less anti-harmoniously with the bellowing of the twenty on the platform.

Tzara had set an intermission of sorts after the poem. If he had not done so, the crowd would have made continuing the performance nearly impossible. In the second half, Richter gave an address called "Against, Without, For Dada", in which he cursed the audience. Music, or "anti-tunes" by Hans Heusser followed, more dances from Perrottet and a piece by Arp called "Cloud Pump." The audience greeted this with cries of "Rubbish."

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, which could be heard, during a momentary lull, saying the words "Napoleon was a big, strong oaf, after all."

That really did it. What Napoleon had to do with it, I don't know. He wasn't Swiss. But the young men, most of whom were in the gallery, leaped onto the stage, brandishing pieces of balustrade...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. The Leban dancers returned to the stage to perform the ballet "Noir Kakadu", and Serner himself returned to recite poetry. Tzara spoke briefly, and the evening concluded with more of Heusser's atonal music. 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. Or is it? Was Dada performance theatrical, "anti-theatrical" in some way, or something else entirley?

Dada performance began in Switzerland with the opening of the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. Zurich had become a haven for artists and political dissenters trying to escape the horrors of the First World War. Among the displaced artists, the future followers of dada formed a distinct group, made up of Hugo Ball, a failed actor and stage manager, painter Marcel Janco, actress Emmy Hennings, artist Hans Arp, expressionist Ferdinand Hardekop, and Tristan Tzara, a young poet. The Cabaret began with conventional enough fare; art exhibits, readings, music.  Soon, however, the founders of the Cabaret began to concentrate on phonic poetry, then on dances and skits and simultaneous works. "The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust."

Probably the most important artistic force in the group at this time was Hugo Ball, in his late 20s and somewhat  older then his colleagues. Ball had worked with, and been heavily influenced by, Oskar Kokoschka, a Russian painter and art theorist.  Kandinsky  was concerned with uniting the arts, to approach the abstract consciousness within the audience. His great work for performance, The Yellow Sound, was essentially non-verbal, relying on

   1. The musical sound and its movement
  2. The physical -psychial sound and its movement, expressed through people and objects
   3. The coloured tone and its movements...

to create an overall synthetic experience. The idea of this kind of unified art was strong in Ball's mind when he began the Cabaret.

The other, more forceful power in the Zurich group was Tristan Tzara:

The theatre. Since it still remains attached to a romantic imitation of life, to an illogical fiction, let us give it all the natural vigour it had to begin with - let it be amusement and poetry.

His, and Dada's, first simultaneous poem, "L'Amiral cherche une maison ˆ louer", was performed on  March 30th, 1916.  "Three or more voices speak, sing, whistle, etc., simultaneously in such a way that the resulting combinations account for total effect of the work, elegiac, funny or bizarre." Reading of the earliest dada performance, one gets the sense that these are people who are discovering performance (and theatre) for the first time, without allowing their notions of "proper" theatre to interfere.  Even Ball, experienced as both an actor, playwright and stage manager, was delighted by the power of the first masks Janco made.  Constructed of  cardboard, stuck with wire and cloth, and blood red, they incited certain movement in the wearer. Wrote Ball in his diary, "The masks simply demanded that their wearers start to move in a tragic-absurd dance."  These improvised dances were short, without develop­ment, and impossible to sustain.  Jacques Baron called theses Dada performances "cabaret material". One should not take this comment too negatively. It indicates that dada performance was creating an experience more akin to the vitality of a nightclub act then the conservatism of the theatre.

A conflict would exist between the various parts of the poetic reading, and this conflict was the desired result of the performance. The result would create a direct, irrational effect in the audience member. Only this irrational response is valid. According to Tzara, logic is a lie that doesn't work. He wrote,

Does anyone think he has found a psychic base common to all mankind? The attempts of Jesus and the Bible cover with their broad benevolent wings: shit, animals, days. How can one expect to put order into chaos that constitutes the infinite and shapeless variation: man?

What was a dada performer? Was he simply a reader? An "anti-actor"? Hugo Ball described a performance of Oskar Kokoschka's play Sphinx and Strawman, in which Ball played the strawman,

The play was performed in two adjoining rooms; the actors wore body masks. Mine was so big that I could read my script inside it quite comfortably...Tzara was in the back room, and his job was to take care of the "thunder and lightning" as well as to say "Anima, sweet Anima!" parrot fashion. But he was taking care of the entrances and exits at the same time, thundered and lightning in the wrong place, and gave the absolute impression that this was a special effect of the production...

The performances, then, were of an improvised nature. Ball read his script inside his mask, Tzara made frequent mistakes; these are good indications of the amount of rehearsal time the Dadaists spent. The unplanned was essential to the Dada performance. The Dada actor was therefore not a skilled, trained actor who relied on technique. Rather, he depended on his own inner creative force. Hugo Ball describes a poetry reading at the Cabaret Voltaire in which

The heavy  vowel  sequences and the plodding rhythm of the elephants had given me one last crescendo...I noticed that my voice had no choice but to take on the ancient cadence of priestly lamentation, that style of liturgical singing that wails in all the catholic churches of East and West...I do not know what gave me the idea of this music, but I began to chant my vowel sequences in a church style like a recitative...

Ball left the stage in a kind of euphoric anxiety. He had connected with something he considered very old within himself, something magical. The words he recited had no logical meaning. Rather, they each became  "a magical complex of images." Though for the audience, the Dada performance may experience of fear, confusion and loathing; for the Dada performer, it is largely an artistic experience.  The Dada actor, after all, acts for himself.

Is this Dada actor an "anti-actor"? Only to the extent that Ball was not a traditional, "skilled" actor, and was not playing a part other then himself. Though not strictly traditional, the Dada actor is still an actor, or more properly, a performer.

Richter describes the situation at the Cabaret:

The Cabaret Voltaire was a six-piece band. Each played his instrument, i.e., himself, passionately and with his soul.  Each of them, different as he was from all the others, was his own music, his own words, his own rhythm.

The Dadaists would costume themselves in geometric shapes of cardboard, looking like brightly coloured robots or harlequins. The costumes of the Dada performance often looked as if a child had designed them; huge conflicting shapes and colours, with  joints that would not move properly. The costumes were designed to have the same effect as the discord which existed among the actors; to create an effect which is disturbing to the viewer.

It was this disturbing effect which most interested the young Tristan Tzara. After Ball left Dada in 1917, Tzara became the movement's unquestioned spokesman.  "There is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean."

Tzara's Dada was against everything: art, movements, theories, creation, order... even Dada itself. The word itself meant nothing, and at the same time, everything.

It means the tail of a holy cow to the Kru Negroes, a cube to the Italians, mother to the Rumanians, a hobbyhorse to the French, a nurse to the Russians, father to the Americans, and everything else...

Dada was opposed to anything which was traditional in the arts and literature.  Said Tzara, "Art is going to sleep for a new world to be born. 'ART' - parrot word - replaced by DADA." Art  and aesthetics are replaced with a "style of life", a new way of living.

The Dadaist should be a man who has fully understood that one is entitled to have ideas only if one can transform them into life - the completely active type, who lives only through action, because it holds the possibility of his achieving knowledge.

Dada sought to be something with no history and no future. The Dadaists relied upon forces within themselves to create - forces with no allegiance to a movement or a history, with no existence save for the present. Dada depended on absolute spontaneity, upon wonderful and mysterious forces which could control the individual. The Dadaists valued the process of creation more then the final product from it.

Tzara came to Paris in 1920 and soon gathered around him artists and writers who had heard of his work in Zurich, among them Andre Breton, Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon. The first  Dadaist soirŽe  in Paris was considered a success. The audience was properly goaded into anger by Tzara's reading of a speech by a French deputy, accompanied by the ringing of bells.

Tzara did not organize this first Dada event in Paris, but soon he was leading the young artists in the manifestations. These events took a form very similar to the Zurich performances, but with a somewhat more aggressive tone. At one event (March 27, 1920) AndrŽ Breton read

You are all defendants, rise...stand up before DADA, which represents life and which accuses you of liking everything from snobbism, just as long as it's expensive...What are you doing, parked there like serious oysters-for you are serious, aren't you...Hoot, laugh, beat me up, and then? and then? I'll still tell you that you're all idiots...

The Paris press was alternatively horrified and bewildered by Dada. Crowds became more and more violent in their reaction. The Dadaists themselves became drained of ideas and energy. Dada lost its most important element, its spontaneity, and there was a growing rift between Tzara and Breton. Breton, and many other sympathetic artists, could no longer do Dada, because to them it lead nowhere, creating chaos. Breton wanted "a new art, an art which would move in a constructive direction." What Breton worked towards in the early 1920s was  Surrealisme , an art that would use much of Dada's method. In his own writing,

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express-verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner - the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

Dada, though influential, could not maintain a vitality. The post-war world could embrace Dada's method to some extent, but not its desire for destruction.

Dada is the bare bones of performance, rather unstructured, probably only effective in a particular environment. Dada could work in the middle of the First World War, in a time of  some madness, in the same way that absurdist theatre could thrive in the late-1950s. The extremes of Dada are acceptable in their place. But even in post-war Paris, Dada become too bleak and hopeless to work.

Yes, Dada was "anti-theatre", in the sense that it pushed against the tired, wooden theatre of the time which could not contain the horror of war. Yet there were certainly theatrical elements in Dada - the spontaneity of improvisation, the summoning forth of "magical" forces within the individual, the desire to move and change the audience - all these things are what the theatre should attempt to be. There is so much of what Peter Brook called "dead theatre" that many do not know of anything else. Maybe we should do what the Dadaists did, and go beyond the label of "theatre" to rid ourselves of its rot.

~ John Stevenson
    November, 1986


Ball, Hugo, Flight Out Of Time, A Dada Diary, John Elderfield, ed. (New York: Viking, 1974)

Behar, Henri, Le thŽ‰tre Dada et surrŽaliste (Paris: Gallimard, 1979)

The Blaue Reiter Almanac, ed. Wassily Kandinsky and Frank Marc, New Documentry Edition, ed. Klaus Lankheit, trans. Henning Falkenstein (New York: Viking, 1974)

Kristiansen, Donna M., "What Is Dada?",  Educational Theatre Journal,  Vol. XX,  1968, p. 457-462.

Matthews, J.H., Theatre in Dada and Surrealism (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1974)

Melzer, Annabelle, Latest Rage the Big Drum: Dada and Surrealist Performance (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1976)

Motherwell, Robert, ed. The Dada Painters and Poets (New York: Wittenborn, 1951)

Richter, Hans, Dada: Art and Anti-Art  (New York: McGraw Hill, n.d.)

Rubin, William S., Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1967)

 Melzer, p. 83.

  Richter, p. 77-78

 Melzer, p. 84.

  Richter, p. 78-79.

 Motherwell, p. 237.


 From Motherwell, p. 242.

 Melzer, p. 29.

 Melzer, p.31.

 Tzara quoted in Rubin, p.12.

 Melzer, p.16.

 Kandinsky, The Blaue Reiter, p. 20

 Melzer, p.59.

 Tzara quoted in Matthews, p. 18.

 Melzer, p. 35.

 Hugo Ball in Richter, p. 30.

 Melzer, p. 32.

 Melzer, p. 32.

 Ball, 24/V/1916.

 Melzer, p. 32.

 Quoted in Matthews, p. 19.

 Melzer, p. 35.

 Motherwell,  p. 78.

 Hugo Ball, 14.IV.1917.

 Kristiansen, p. 459.

 Hugo Ball, 23.VI.1916.

 Motherwell, p. 52.

 Melzer, p. 65.

 Kristensen, p. 458

 Melzer, p. 60-61.

 Richter quoted in Melzer, p. 67.

 Illustrations in Melzer, and others.

 Melzer, p. 83.

 Quoted in Kristiansen, p. 459.

 Kristiansen, p. 457.

 Tzara quoted in Melzer, p. 58.

 Richard Huelsenbeck, in Motherwell, p.28.

 Melzer, p. 140.

 Melzer, p. 140.

 Quoted from Picabia's Manifeste Cannibale.

 Matthews, p. 27 and others.

 Melzer, p. 158.

 Breton, First Manifesto of Surrealism, quoted in Melzer, p. 163.