How about something crazy. How about a collection of the Dada plays of Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes? The Emperor of China, The Mute Canary & The Executioner of Peru (Wakefield Press, tr. Christopher Butterfield) is the book. 1921, 1920, and 1926 are the years of the first productions, respectively. Horrifying and preposterous nonsense, Ubu Roi with more Grand Guignol gore and the red haze of a terrible war floating over everything.
IRONIC: Oh, Equinox, there’s a war on.
IRONIC: Over there, over there. I’ve just come back from it. What did I see?
[list of horrors]
There’s no more enemy. All our soldiers are dead. (Emperor, p. 81)
Ironic and Equinox were portrayed by puppets in the original performance. Much of Dada was not a response to World War I – the movement contained many kinds of artists doing many kinds of things, but Ribemont-Dessaignes seems more direct to me. Perhaps it is just the violence, the beatings and stranglings and corpses dragged around the stage.
The Executioner of Peru prefigures the Latin American dictator novel, even in its setting. The leaders of Peru set off to catch butterflies (“a nocturnal butterfly which carries on its front right wing a little mark shaped like an eye, without a doubt the image of the creator,” 139), leaving the executioner in charge. He proceeds on a murderous reign of terror, goaded by his Mephistophelean assistant, Love, who carries a typewriter everywhere he goes, “that bloody writing machine,” the Executioner complains, that is
worse than a blinding spotlight. It pierces the pupils and shamelessly chops up the horizon’s little secrets for which no one is responsible… it’s treacherous and gives life a rotten taste such as one finds only at the bottom of a well or in the wake of truth. (207)
But the dictator is in error to worry that the truth about his terror will be exposed. Love, prefiguring later totalitarian states, wields the typewriter like a weapon, as if he had “built a little machine gun into his typewriter so that certain letters fired bullets.”
The Executioner of Peru, the latest play of this group, is if anything too coherent. The early plays are more Dada, more playful, more nonsensical. The Emperor of China begins with typewriters, too (“Typists typing extremely quickly”), but they appear to be banging out random words:
TYPIST 1: Small-town brains.
TYPIST 2: Turnover.
TYPIST 3: Counter calculator.
TYPIST 4: Mail delivery. Postman. (7)
Character named Ironic and Equinox babble at each other like broken Beckett tramps. “The penguin throws itself to the ground and shatters” is a typical stage direction. As one character shouts, “This is all idiotic. I’m furious” (94).
These plays are an expression of chaos, with only the faintest attempt to organize them into coherence. The absence of order is felt, though, as in the symbol of the mute canary, at the center of that little play:
OCHRE: It’s a mute canary that someone gave me.
I whistled all my tunes to it and it learned them by heart.
BARATE: If it can’t sing, how do you know it knows them by heart?
OCHRE: That’s the way it is. Even though it’s mute, by now I know that it knows all my music.
A mute canary is very rare. It’s an amazing, shy creature, a true friend. (118-9)
Is this an expression of faith or despair?