Theaters

Surrealism’s Fistfights and Adversarial Culture

by Mostafa Heddaya on November 25, 2013

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Shana Lutker’s “The Nose, The Cane, The Broken Left Arm” (2013) (© Paula Court, courtesy of Performa)

An evening Dada revue organized by Tristan Tzara, July 6, 1923’s Soirée du Coeur à Barbe (Night of the Bearded Heart) was the site of an infamous altercation between Tzara’s associates and Surrealist don André Breton at the Théâtre Michel in Paris. Intended as a re-staging of Tristan Tzara’s 1921 play Le Coeur à Gaz (The Gas Heart), it instead became the scene of a violent showdown in which Breton leapt onto the stage and beat one of Tzara’s actors, Pierre de Massot, with his cane, breaking the man’s arm.

This incident was the subject of Shana Lutker’s playfully researched dramatization for Performa 13, The Nose, The Cane, The Broken Left Arm, staged at the historic Theater 80 on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village last week. Lutker is something of an expert in the history of inter- (or intra-) Surrealist boxing, having dedicated three years to researching and writing an essay on this very incident. (This essay, which is also the first chapter of a forthcoming project, is available in an “unlimited edition” from Lutker’s gallery, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, for $25.)

There is quite a bit of allure to nerd boxing. What use is a sound mind in a sound body if not to forcibly render unsound another’s mind or body? The pillars of modern intellectual violence are manifold, and the stories familiar. At Edinburgh’s boozy 18th-century Poker Club, to which David Hume and Adam Smith belonged, membership was at times decided by fisticuffs, and meetings degenerated to brawls. In 1936 Key West, Wallace Stevens shattered his hand in two places when he punched Ernest Hemingway in the jaw. The recent Woody Allen nostalgia-schlock flick Midnight in Paris played extensively on the theme of intellectual-physical bravado in 1920s Paris.

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“André Breton” (Adrian Jevicki) wields his cane

As far as manufactured machismos go, that of the Parisian interwar intelligentsia was steeped in the fate it had avoided — Verdun‘s piled corpses cast an interminably long shadow over this frothy bohemia. In the wreckage of World War I, none were innocent — least of all those left parsing the misbegotten scraps of Western civilization. Dada dealt with this beggared and brutalized legacy with non-sense, returning to the infantile origin of language: “da, da.” For André Breton and the Surrealists, Dada was worse than puerile chicanery — it was unforgivably solipsistic. This position understandably resulted in a personally aggressive relationship between Breton and Dada’s most public proponent, Tristan Tzara.

Lutker’s dramatization, narrated by Joey Frank, who plays an affably tweedy emcee, begins with Pierre de Massot’s monotonous monologue that inaugurated Tzara’s play:  “…André Gide, dead on the field of honor. Pablo Picasso, dead on the field of honor. Francis Picabia, dead…” Upon hearing Picasso (who was also in the audience) so besmirched, Breton leapt to the stage. His associates, the poets Robert Desnos and Benjamin Péret, held Massot as he refused their friend’s command to rescind the insult, consequently receiving Breton’s cane on his arm (for more on Desnos — a fascinating character in his own right — see my old professor Katharine Conley’s biography). Massot, cradling his broken limb, continued the monologue as Breton and company were arrested and escorted out by the police to cheers from the crowd.

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Joey Frank, narrator (left) and actor Jennifer Kraus (right) (© Paula Court, courtesy of Performa)

Lutker’s performance is preoccupied with many things, and retells the story with a great degree of fidelity and nuance. And because the artist is, in her own words, interested in “gaps between language and object,” the stage was littered with historically-attuned artifacts: the titular papier-mâché nose costume, geometric lip-blocks, sundry geometric props and semi-costumes, a billowing screen upon which Man Ray’s short film The Return to Reason was projected. The narrative was punctuated throughout by the choreographed antics of her cast of three actors and live piano accompaniment; Joey Frank, the intertextual emcee, read occasional French passages in a sardonically butchered, intentionally incoherent patois. Completing the panorama with a measure of authenticity, an impeccable reproduction of Tzara’s original program for the Soirée du Coeur à Barbe was tucked into the audience’s Performa pamphlets.

“I can push aside my post-millenial upper-middle-class distaste for violence, and be motivated and inspired by these zealous, strategic interventions by struggling artists, who believed that art was transformative, that surrealism was revolutionary, and knew that change was volatile and necessarily adversarial,” writes Lutker in the essay that inspired the performance, offering a perspective altogether more incisive than the choreographed narrative enjoyed on stage at Theater 80. After all, the theatricality of violence, especially among such flamboyant intellectuals as Breton and Tzara, lends itself easily to the terrain of humor.

But if these two sentiments — the mordant slapstick of Lutker’s play and the sober reflection of her essay — were cut from the same cloth, as the program accompanying the show suggests, that connection is not entirely clear. But as a work of clever dramatization, The Nose, The Cane, The Broken Left Arm is an enjoyable diversion, a whimsical but historically precise take on an episode of violence among two key figures of twentieth century art. Should we believe, as Lutker argues in the essay, that there is something vital and redeeming about their adversarial culture, mere nostalgia — no matter how carefully assembled — defers the importance of this violence.

Shana Lutker’s The Nose, The Cane, The Broken Left Arm took place November 19 & 20 at Theater 80 (80 St. Mark’s Place, East Village, Manhattan) as part of Performa 13.

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