Tuesday, January 10, 2017

“This is all idiotic. I’m furious.” - the Dada plays of Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes

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.
EQUINOX:  Where?
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?


  1. "Is this an expression of faith or despair?" Well, I cannot judge based on such a small snippet, but your question provokes me to ask a question in response: "Is faith a protection against despair, or is despair the absence of faith?" I would further note that we all need a "true friend," and even a mute canary might be sufficient for some people; I've known moments in my life wherein such a feathered friend would have been most helpful as a protection against despair. But, back to the subject of your posting, isn't that at the heart of Dadaism: a protection (expression) against despair?

  2. I think different Dadaists would have quite different answers to that question.

    Later a character murders these two and confiscates the mute canary, in his delusions mistaking it for something else entirely.

  3. Faith is the final consummation of despair.
    Despair is an appendix to faith.
    I have great faith in despair.
    ...Otherwise I'm ambiguous.

  4. I take Ribemont-Dessaignes as a kind of nihilist. Meaning in whatever form has been shattered, or revealed as a lie. The canary is just an expression of the illusions others find useful. Faith and despair are antiquated categories.

    That's my stab, to the extent that "meaning" has any meaning with these works.

    This is hardly general to Dada. Kurt Schwitters had no problem finding meaning in his art.

  5. I recently read Ribemont-Dessaignes's memoir "Déjà Jadis"; he points out that much of Dada (including "The Emperor of China") was actually written before Dada. It does seem to me to have more to do with his reaction to the war (and possibly Jarry) than with Dada. "Déjà Jadis" is a lively book; although he remembers Dada with some nostalgia, he does ultimately dismiss it as bourgeois artists shocking bourgeois audiences by acting like idiots.

    I'm now working my way through "Bifur," a journal he edited in 1929-1930. It's in some ways a reaction against Surrealism, emphasizing diversity and plurality over Breton's obsession with ideology, including not only renegade Dadaists and Surrealists (Tzara, Picabia, Arp), but Americans (Langston Hughes, W. C. Williams, Jean Toomer), Russians (Isaac Babel). There's even an interview with Buster Keaton. Not too many women, but Ribemont-Dessaignes is still clearly trying to open up the Parisian scene of the time. Not much despair, more engagement.

  6. That is more like Schwitters, then - they did not need Dada but were ready for it.

    Very interesting to hear how Ribemont-Dessaignes continued after these plays. "Bifur" sounds terrific.

  7. A lot of Dadaists knew each other beforehand. Ribemont-Dessaignes was already friends with Duchamp and Picabia. Then Tzara came along, and they all did Dada for a while.

    Ribemont-Dessaignes later wrote novels, and did a lot of journalism and radio. I'm curious about those novels.

    "Bifur" is indeed terrific; I should have added that he also included many writers from Asia and South America, and had a knack for picking some heavy hitters at the start of their careers: Heidegger, Prévert, Sartre.

  8. Maybe Wakefield Press can publish a Ribemont-Dessaignes novel alongside these plays. 100% their kind of thing.