Review: ‘Theater of the Avant-Garde, 1890-1950, A Critical Anthology’

A shock to the system is difficult to teach. When art truly subverts norms, bends genres and flouts mores, it doesn’t usually earn a place in the canon. What does fill university curricula and the public sphere is a more palatable version of shock — laudable in its own way, perhaps, but removed from the radioactive revolutionary core. This pattern is especially true in the theater, where standard-bearers like Brecht, Beckett, Pirandello and especially Ibsen are common shorthand for a century of dramatic progress. It is impressive, then, that “Theater of the Avant-Garde” manages to cast a proper spotlight on more than a dozen lesser-known playwrights while charting the influence on ideological successors from Pinter to Albee. Lovers of groundbreaking drama will devour the book as Eric Clapton fans would a new CD of Robert Johnson playing the blues.

Professors Bert Cardullo (U. of Michigan) and Robert Knopf (Connecticut College) feature many playwrights rarely published in English alongside a few better-known ones like August Strindberg and Maurice Maeterlinck. Artists known for other forms such as Wassily Kandinsky and Gertrude Stein also add dimension to the enterprise.

In an adept introduction, Cardullo sets up the entire collection by weaving together its disparate elements such as Futurism, Expressionism and Surrealism. Chronicling outside forces such as Jungian psychology and the world wars, he concludes, “Avant-gardists embodied the relativity, subjectivity or tumult of their age — not the fragmentation, flattening and solipsism of the one to follow.”

The plays are often revelatory on their own, but accompanying them are helpful historical background from the editors and critical essays, usually by the playwrights themselves.

These commentaries crackle with defiance, as in the case of Alfred Jarry, whose scabrously witty “King Ubu” is reprinted here. “I intended that when the curtain went up, the scene should confront the public like the exaggerated mirror,” Jarry writes, “in which the depraved saw themselves with dragons’ bodies, or bulls’ horns, or whatever corresponded with their particular vice. It is not surprising that the public should have been aghast at the sight of its ignoble other self.”

Antonin Artaud, however, defended the public’s integrity. He urged playwrights to stop perpetuating outdated forms and instead “shake the organism to its foundations and leave an ineffaceable scar.” Thus was born Artaud’s “theater of cruelty” and his stomach-churning “Spurt of Blood.” Written in 1924 but not performed until Peter Brook mounted it 40 years later, the play offers an array of searing images: human limbs raining down from the sky and “a multitude of scorpions” crawling from the most unlikely places.

In today’s culture, such willfully confrontational content might simply be dismissed as silly, but Artaud (who was also a poet, actor, director and theorist) displays such purity of intent that his work gains an affecting force. In an impassioned essay, “No More Masterpieces,” he rails against the period’s reflexive naturalism and intellectual idolatry. “We are not free,” he affirms. “And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theater has been created to teach us that first of all.”

Theater of the Avant-Garde, 1890-1950, A Critical Anthology

Yale U. Press; 523 pgs.; $21.95


Edited by Bert Cardullo and Robert Knopf
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