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Picasso the Playwright

by Jillian Steinhauer on August 20, 2012

Photograph by Brassaï showing artists gathered in 1944 in Paris after the first private production of Picasso's "Desire Caught by the Tail"

Photograph by Brassaï showing artists gathered in 1944 in Paris after the first private production of Picasso’s “Desire Caught by the Tail” (photo courtesy the Guggenheim Museum)

Picasso is renowned and celebrated for his paintings, prints, sculptures, ceramics and even stage designs. But it turns out that Picasso also wrote — two plays and hundreds of poems, to be exact, mostly during the 1940s and ’50s.

One of those plays, Desire Caught by the Tail, will be reprised at the Guggenheim Museum this fall, as part of the museum’s Works & Process series. Picasso wrote Desire, which weighs in at about 40 pages, in four days in January 1941, while living in Nazi-occupied Paris. It’s a nonsensical, Surrealist endeavor without any overt political content — or a plot, really, although that in itself was a semi-political means of avoiding the scrutiny of the Nazis. As Works & Process producer Mary Sharp Cronson told Hyperalleric, “It was probably done deliberately to put off the chance that the Germans would think that it was anything subversive.”

“The thing is,” she continued, “it was written at a time when everybody was very, very hungry, so the play is mainly in one way or the other about food. The characters are all just hungry. They mainly talk about food.”

Those characters have names like The Onion, The Curatins, Big Foot, Silence, Fat Anxiety and Thin Anxiety. And to give you just a small sense of how out there the play is, here is a synopsis of Act 2, Scene 1 (the play is originally in French; English translation text provided by the Guggenheim): five pairs of feet in front of hotel-room doors say “My chilblains, my chilblains, my chilblains,” one after the other. Then these stage directions:

The transparent doors light up and the dancing shadows of five monkeys eating carrots appear. Complete darkness.

That’s it.

The play had its first reading three years after Picasso wrote it, in March 1944, at the home of writer Michel Leiris. Directed by Albert Camus, it starred Simone de Beauvoir, Dora Maar, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Georges Braque and Jacques Lacan were among those in attendance. Cronson explained that much of the value of the play is its historical appeal, in capturing a moment in time:

There was fear, there was hunger, there was cold, which is something we don’t experience anymore. These very bright, intellectual people got together, and they wrote something to try and cheer themselves up. It was a moment in time that if you’ve never experienced it, I don’t know how anybody would understand. So perhaps that’s the underlying thing about this play — the fear, even for these great people. It’s almost like they were saying, OK, you’re going to attack us for meaning, so we’re going to give you something without any meaning!

Cronson helped produce a reading of Desire Caught by the Tail in 1984, also at the Guggenheim, which starred its own set of art celebrities, including Louise Bourgeois, Red Grooms and David Hockney. She said the museum is still working on casting the upcoming version, so the artists involved are yet-to-be-announced. But Guggenheim Director Richard Armstrong has signed up to read one of the parts. One can only wonder which: Round Piece? The Curtains? The Tart?

Desire Caught by the Tail will play at the Guggenheim Museum on October 14 and 15, at 7:30 pm. Tickets ($35 for non–museum members) can be purchased online.

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