Saturday, September 7, 2019

STANISLAW WITKIEWICZ’S THE CUTTLEFISH


Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939) was an artist of many talents.  He was a playwright, painter, novelist and prose author.  He belonged to no movement, ism or group.  When World War One started in 1914, Witkiewicz went to St. Petersburg, Russia and enrolled in officer’s training school. During the war he served as an officer in the renown Pavlovsky Regiment. In 1918 Witkiewicz returned to Poland, his country of birth, to continue his work as an artist and playwright/author.

It was at this time that he began to use the name Witkacy to distinguish himself from his famous father, who had the identical name. His father was an author and a renown painter, who died in 1915. Witkacy is a composite of Stanislaw’s last and middle names.

Witkacy focused on writing plays upon his return to Poland.  Over the next twenty years he was highly productive as a playwright and a painter.   It was in 1922 that he wrote The Cuttlefish, or the Hyrcanian Worldview.  Beneath the title of the play is printed “Motto: Don’t give in even to yourself.” This one-act drama was published the following year. Its premier performance was staged in Cracow, Poland in 1933 at the avant-garde artists’ Cricot theatre. This production was created primarily by painters and musicians, who interpreted the character of Hyrcan IV to look and act like Hitler.  Hyrcan, a self-created dictator, whose style of leadership is to be in complete control. The Cricot interpretation made the script and production timely.

The Cuttlefish depicts the plight of an artist in the contemporary world who is buffeted between the conflicting demands of his art and his country. He does not have confidence in either because he has lost faith in himself. The setting is an artist studio “with black walls with narrow emerald green designs.” There is a black pedestal on the left and Alice d’Or, a twenty-eight year old blonde dressed in an alligator printed tight-fitting sheath, lies on her stomach on the pedestal; she is referred to in the script as Statue. When the scene commences, artist Paul Rockoffer is pacing back and forth, clutching his head in his hands. He is a nonrealistic painter as was Witkacy. This drama has a cast of ten persons: five major characters, two minor and three incidental ones.

Paul Rockoffer is 46 years old.  His fiancĂ©e named Ella, is a pretty eighteen-year old, who is the play’s cuttlefish.  “A cuttlefish is any soft and insidious predator that, once having attached itself with sucking tentacles, will not let go.” Obviously, she is an overly possessive person. Rockoffer is in deep mourning and very disturbed since on the previous day every one of his paintings were burned and his ideas scorned by the government. Paul feels he has lost his identity.

Pope Julius II, a sixteenth century Pope, pays a visit to Rockoffer’s studio. This historic character represents past aristocrats, warriors, papal power and patron of the arts. This first section of the play is devoted to problems relating to art. Eventually Ella arrives and tries to cheer up Rockoffer. She is overflowing with plans and new items for their future home and life.

Later Hyrcan IV arrives.  He attended school with Rockoffer and he has proclaimed himself the ruler of an imaginary kingdom named Hyrcania. He is attired in a purple cloak and sports a golden garment beneath it. On his head is a helmet with a red plume.  He carries a large sword in one hand.

Eventually Hyrcan suggests that Rockoffer should accompany him to Hyrcania. Rockoffer is briefly tempted. Eventually Hyrcan is stripped of his physical pretensions and loses his sense of control/power. He kills Ella with one blow from his sword and leaves the scene muttering threats to everyone. Rockoffer proclaims he will prove that the artist is qualified to rule this world and he imagines a new life for himself as the ruler of Hyrcania.

This latter section of the play with the would-be dictator and his idea of totalitarianism was Witkacy’s vision of Europe’s future. I have simplified the plot and barely suggested the fabric of several major characters while totally omitting the minor and incidental ones. The Cuttlefish presents a complex group of characters, philosophies and surprising events that I have not addressed. 
 
Due to the rise of Hitler and his policies, the Cricot’s production of The Cuttlefish was the last professional production of Witkacy’s plays in the playwright’s lifetime. In 1939, Witkacy committed suicide immediately following the invasions of Poland by the German and Soviet regimes.

In 1956, when the liberation of the arts in Poland from Stalinist control commenced, the “Cricot 2” theatre company opened in Cracow with a new production of The Cuttlefish. Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990) founded Cricot 2 with a group of visual artists, who were interested in creating an experimental theatre group.  Cricot 2 performed in many theatres throughout Poland as well as abroad. Kantor, who was a visual artist as well as a theatre director, found several of Witkacy’s thirty remaining plays to be the appropriate material for his revolutionary theatrical style. It was Kantor who introduced Witkacy’s dramas to a new generation of Polish audiences and he assured Witkacy’s work would have a significant influence in the evolving avant-garde Polish theatre.

In 1970 The Cuttlefish was translated and published in English. Daniel Gerould’s book titled Witkacy was published in 1981 and it generated more interest in this playwright. I have found mention of two productions of The Cuttlefish.  The Ensemble Studios Rep. Theatre located in Sydney, Australia presented in October, 1984 a production of The Cuttlefish.  It played every Friday night throughout the month.

In April, 2019 LA MAMA Theater in New York City presented COFFEEHOUSE CHRONICLES #153 WITKACY. This event also celebrated not only some of the works by Witkacy, but also the newly published four volumes of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s collected plays including The Cuttlefish. This event and the publication recognize that The Cuttlefish and its playwright continue to be meaningful in today’s world.

Monday, July 22, 2019

CANGIULLO’S TWO MINUTE FUTURIST PLAY


Francesco Cangiullo (1884-1977) was an Italian author, playwright and painter who after he met the movement’s founder, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), became actively engaged in the development of Futurism.  The year when this initial meeting took place in Naples was 1910, but Cangiullo’s official entry into Futurism is recorded in 1913.

It was 1915 when Cangiullo wrote his play Detonation (Detonazione). The entire script for this

play appears below:
   
______________________________________________________________________________                                                                        
DETONATION
                                                Synthesis of All Modern Theater

                                                            CHARACTER
A BULLET

Road at night, cold, deserted.
A minute of silence. –A gunshot.    
                                                               CURTAIN
______________________________________________________________________________

I believe Detonation was written to provide an example of the criterion for the perfect Futurist Synthetic Theatre drama.  In 1915 the manifesto titled THE FUTURIST SYNTHETIC THEATRE was written by Marinetti, Emilio Settimelli (1891-1954) and Bruno Corra (1892-1976).  The manifesto stressed modernity through sensations, speed, movement and industrial development. The idea was to compress the entire drama into a few minutes while the play created for the viewer multiple situations, sensations, ideas, symbols and facts. The Futurists wanted to destroy the theater inherited from Ancient Greece and replace it with “creating synthetic expressions of cerebral energy that have THE ABSOLUTE VALUE OF NOVELTY.”  The Futurists also wanted their theatre to excite audiences who were to forget the monotony of daily life by being swept through a labyrinth of sensations that were combined in unpredictable ways.

The Futurists also had a political agenda for their dramatic presentations. Their aim across all their artistic endeavors was to express themes of war and conflict.  These broad themes were to urge Italy to immediately enter the war since Futurists, like the Expressionists, believed war would provide a social cleansing.

Detonation not only fulfills the philosophic and artistic requirements of the Futurists, but it expresses several of the basic impulses the Futurists wanted audience members to experience. Did hearing a single gunshot during the night in 1915, signal the start of war for Italy? Did it mean war had entered one’s city? Did it make some individuals want to join the battle? Did it make audience members want to hide or flee? This moment of theatre had the potential for audience members to generate many individual reactions.

The Futurists held their theatrical events in large regional cities (Naples, Rome, Venice, Florence, etc.) and the performances were widely publicized. The plays and speeches were held outdoors in large public spaces. Martinetti believed that in 1915 ninety percent of the Italian population attended theatrical performances while only the remaining ten percent read books. He wanted audiences to forget the monotony of their lives and become swept away with the novelty, energy and ideas that Synthetic Theater provided.
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Since Detonation appears to possess all the elements desired for successful Synthetic Theatre and the timing for its creation being 1915, I imagine it as the perfect piece to present during the year that Italy entered the conflict one step at a time. Italy was a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but on May 3, 1915 it revoked its membership. On May 23, 1915 the Italian government declared war on Austria-Hungary but deferred any declaration regarding Germany; August 20, 1915 declared war on Turkey; October 15, 1915 declared war on Bulgaria and August 28, 1916 declared war on Germany. It was this slow pace of inching in to the major war fronts that frustrated the Futurists and prompted them to keep pushing their agenda to the Italian citizenry.

Were these plays successful in their time? Obviously, the Futurists were never able to destroy conventional theatre as they desired.  I have not read any reviews about these Futurist performances, however, John H. Muse in his book titled Microdramas: Crucibles For The Theater and Time states: “Professional theater critics rarely took the Futurists seriously enough to bother attending their events, so responses come primarily from other newspaper staff.” 

Apparently, the Futurists’ evenings provided curious, thought-provoking free entertainment to keep attracting audiences throughout Italy. However, Professor Muse comments: “audiences complained that performances of the sintesi were too slow.”  This refers to the entire evening of these plays since “the plays were very short and the intervals very long.”  It is hard to hold an audience when the total length of ten plays during an evening was approximately thirty minutes while the length of the entire program was two hours.

This structure for an evening of plays may have occurred from time to time; however, I am under the impression that other Futurist events such as political speeches, visual art presentations, etc. filled the time that it took to set-up the next short play.  It is also possible that the programing for the Futurist evenings may have varied from one city to the next.

The initial movement of Futurism was concluded by the end of World War One. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

REINHARD SORGE’S THE BEGGAR (DER BETTLER)




In 1911, Reinhard Johannes Sorge (1892-1916) wrote The Beggar. Its subtitle is “A Dramatic Mission.”  It is the first full-length Expressionist drama to be published. This occurred in 1912 when S. Fischrt Publisher, located in Berlin, released the first edition. The Beggar received the Kleist Prize in the same year as its publication. 

The Beggar dramatizes several early expressionist elements. During the initial period of expressionism’s development, events in a drama relating to real life experiences are generalized even though they may reflect occurrences from the playwright’s actual life. Sorge’s drama illustrates how the revolutionary expressionists were envisioning the initial step to improve life for humankind. This was believed to be through the demise of the parental generation and eventually through war. The initial group of expressionists believed war was necessary in order to cleanse the world.

During World War One many young expressionists realized that war was not going to help accomplish their ideal society.  Sorge, who was a soldier in the German army, may have changed his original thinking on this issue prior to his death in France on July 20, 1916.  He was mortally wounded during the battle at Albaincourt.

The Beggar is a five-act play; however, the playwright recommended that Act Five not be performed since the action of this drama is contained in the first three acts. When Walter Sokel (1917-2014) and his wife, Jacqueline Sokel, translated the play into English (c.1963), they omitted both Acts Four and Five since these sections of the play consist primarily of lyrical monologues delivered by the protagonist and reportedly are concerned with his spiritual development.
  
The Beggar is set in Berlin. Act One concerns The Poet and how he envisions advancing his career as a playwright. There are scenes that take place in different locations, however Sorge envisioned the change of location to be accomplished almost instantly through lighting changes and utilization of different parts of the stage.  There is a flow from one scene to another that is similar to contemporary theatre.

Throughout Act One successful characters who desire to assist The Poet build his career as a playwright are introduced, but he refuses all their generous offers. He has his own set of ideals which may well have matched Sorge’s personal wishes making this segment of the play appear to be autobiographical.

Act Two is devoted to introducing The Poet’s father as well as his mother and sister.  The insane Father believes he is currently well enough to dismiss his attendant, but later in the act The Father requests The Poet (who is now called The Son) to give him poison. There is also The Girl who appears briefly in each act. She becomes the protagonist’s beloved in just a few short glimpses.

                                    ONE OF STERN'S RENDERINGS FOR THE BEGGAR
 
Act Three is set in the family’s garden. The Son and his mother enjoy the birch tree during this Spring moment. The birch tree is the symbol of new beginnings, regeneration and hope for the future.  When the Father returns home, he has completed his work and is ready to die. The poison business is dragged out a bit, but it is finally successful.  The surprise is that The Mother also knowingly drinks the poison and following her death, Son speaks of her love for him.  Since I read Sokel’s English translation of this play, I cannot address in more detail Acts Four and Five other than what I have mentioned above.

The question in one’s mind at this point may be who is The Beggar? Is it The Father who repeatedly asks his son to give him poison? This seems a logical first guess. However, I do not know of any other play where the protagonist’s name changes in the script the way this one does—The Poet (Der Dichter), The Son (Der Sohn) and The Young Man (Der Jungling) is his name in the last two acts.  Is the protagonist of the play the character to whom the title is referencing? Does The Poet/Son/Young Man continually need to seek his identity and place in life from those who may have a degree of control over him? 

Despite the play’s literary reputation, it was not performed until December 23,1917. It was produced and directed by Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater and starred the expressionist actor Ernst Deutsch (1890-1969) as The Poet/Son. Reinhardt had purchased the rights to stage The Beggar in 1913, but he waited until political conditions in Germany had begun to change. Gusti Adler, Reinhardt’s secretary for twenty years, wrote in his biography,  But do not forget the Chinese Nightengales: Memories of Max Reinhardt, that Reinhardt produced this play when Germany “was in flux, as in a bubbling volcano.”  Adler also mentions that Reinhardt waited to stage The Beggar until he found a method of presenting expressionistic ideas on stage. This is a significant consideration since the acting, scenic/lighting elements, make-up and costume design all required a new style of presentation. The scenery for The Beggar was designed by Ernst Stern (1876-1954) who had been working with Reinhardt since 1906. Stern was one of Reinhardt’s leading collaborators and innovators. As a result, Stern was at the forefront of developing the scenic style for expressionistic theatre productions.

The Beggar became even more famous after Reinhardt’s production.  It was staged in major German cities including Cologne in 1919. The early expressionist plays were not performed outside of Germany until 1922 when The Theatre Guild in New York City undertook a production of From Morn to Midnight by Georg Kaiser (1878-1975).

Although The Beggar was not presented on stage in the United States and England, it was mentioned in numerous newspapers and books published after the war ended. German language newspaper articles in the United States touted the play due to its popularity in Germany on stage as well as its mention in many publications.

The Beggar was not meant to be a conventional theater piece by any stretch of the imagination. It was meant to serve as a communal experience that could begin to bring about changes in how individuals thought about society. Sorge believed it was the artist’s task to change the world and save all suffering human-beings.

PHOTO: J.L. Styan. Max Reinhardt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.