Tristan Tzara (1896-1963)
Born in Romania under the name Samuel Rosenstock, Tristan Tzara was introduced to the Symbolist art movement by poet Adrian Maniu. Symbolism stood in opposition to realistic art, emphasizing emotions, feelings, and ideas, and often featuring mystic or religious imagery. Together with poet Ion Vinea and painter Marcel Janco, Tzara founded the magazine Simbolul shortly prior to the First World War, when he was just 16 years old. It was during the War that he moved to Zurich, co-founding the Cabaret Voltaire, which became known as the “cradle of Dada.” Featuring experimental forms of performance, poetry, art, and more, the Cabaret Voltaire was where early Dadaist manifestos were read, many of which were written by Tzara, who could often be spotted sporting a monocle and suit, or even with “DADA” written on his forehead.
In 1919, after the War and the closing of Cabaret Voltaire, Tzara moved to Paris, where he joined the staff of Littérature magazine. Tzara and one of the magazine’s editors, André Breton, often clashed over their shared desire to lead, with Breton eventually breaking away from Dada and speaking out against Tzara in public. In 1923, a production of Tzara’s play Gas Heart provoked fights among those in support and those against Dadaism. Meanwhile, Breton had begun to write manifestos about a new artistic movement: Surrealism. An evolution of Dada that focused on the power of the subconscious mind and dreams, Surrealism grew in popularity, overtaking Dada and eventually winning over Tzara. By the beginning of the Second World War, however, Tzara had decided that being an artist was not an effective way to fight the Nazis. He joined the Communist Party, lived in hiding in France for much of the War, and remained a passionate anti-war advocate until his death in 1963.
With its first manifestos written towards the end of the First World War, Dada is an artistic movement that is often called “anti-art.” Tristan Tzara, one of its founders, famously declared that “art is a private affair, the artist produces it for himself; an intelligible work is the product of a journalist.” Dada sought to defy and destroy artistic conventions by freeing itself from logic, and by using techniques such as simultaneous action and an antagonistic relationship with the audience.
A perfect example of what Dada stood for artistically and politically was the inaugural performance at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. For the occasion, Tzara and fellow poets Richard Huelsenbeck and Marcel Janco each read poems they had written…at the same time. The cacophony created was meant to “annihilate the language by which the war was justified,” which was key to the movement’s philosophy. If language is what structures our lives and allows us to perpetuate violence against each other, then art needs to undermine language.
Dadaists aimed to derail audience expectations and undermine the meaning of words so that the world could be looked at with fresh eyes. Chance operations, such as cutting up newspapers to create a poem (as seen in the opening of Travesties) were often used to create work towards this end, forcing creators to free themselves from their intentions and ego.
Despite their often-aggressive performances, Dada’s founders were pacifists and believed that the best way to avoid future wars was to destroy pre-existing structures and start anew. While the movement eventually lost momentum to Surrealism, it remains an important example of the intersection of art and politics in a tumultuous era.
Travesties is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through June 17, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2017-2018 Season, Travesties, Uncategorized