Dada is a style of theatre and performance that emphasizes chaos in lieu of order and civility. The irrational is king; Dadaists believe that colonialism and capitalism are the reasons that people go to war, using ‘logic’ and ‘reason’ to allow these terrible things to happen. With this in mind, Dadaist plays and playwrights sought to emphasize the silly, the abstract and the idiotic. This is indicative in several plays and works of the early 20th century, and Dadaist works that continue to this day. In this essay, we will examine the history of Dada, the ways in which it changed theatre and commented upon societal issues at the time, and how it relates to artists working now. What’s more, the elements of Dada in our performance of the play The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan will also be examined.
Dada started in 1916 in Zurich, Germany (Richter, 1965). World War I was raging – the most destructive and widely-reaching war to date, leading to millions dead and a world that had changed forever. Groups of artists, including Sophie Tauber, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara and more began to express how disgusted they were with the conflict, and discussed what elements led to the war in general. Deciding that society focused too much on conformity, and issues of colonialism and intellectual ubiquity, they opted to reject these senses of order and civility to the world. If those facets of life led to such horrible destruction, then the clear answer was to reject them, emphasizing an irrational world full of chaos (Richter, 1965).
As it pertains to theatre, Dadaism joined Surrealism and Existentialism as a school of theatre known as the “theatre of the absurd”; these plays would focus on irrational and illogical worlds which contained no meaning at all, and characters that aimlessly wandered through them. Dada is considered to be “anti-art” by Hans Richter, one of the premier Dadaist artists of the time. Everything that art strove to be – in terms of aesthetics, sophistication and order – Dada sought to undo. If art was a religion, Dada strove to perform sacrilege by doing effectively the opposite of what plays and art were supposed to do.
Theatre was radicalized greatly in the early 20th century as a result of the Dada movement. In Dada and Surrealist plays, there would often be nonsensical plots and characters. Staging would be extremely abstract, and events would happen for seemingly no reason at all. The effect would be intellectual and artistic chaos (Melzer, 1976).
These elements of Dada are very much present in our production of scenes from The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Three scenes were performed, taking elements from the important parts of the play and adding Dadaist elements to the staging. Our overall staging throughout the three scenes was uniquely absurd and ridiculous; for the audience there was just one chair and a selection of tables around it. This was meant to foolishly contradict the normal notion of having multiple chairs surround a table. The audience were forced to sit on the tables around a chair, each chair holding different high art pictures (e.g. the Mona Lisa and A Girl with a Pearl Earring). However, the Mona Lisa was repainted to look bald, and the face of the Girl with a Pearl Earring was constructed entirely of pieces of fruit.
This general setting was meant to indicate a decided hatred and rejection of art and society. Instead of chairs around a table, we had tables around a chair. By making the audience sit uncomfortably, we wanted to point out the absurdity and discomfort of Dada. We also made dramatic and foolish changes to famous paintings, demonstrating Dada’s absolute rejection of art by making fun of these works. Making the Mona Lisa bald and giving the Girl with a Pearl Earring a fruit face were meant to be mocking, humorous and degrading to the paintings. We wanted to turn the idea of what art and performance spaces are on its head, just as the Dadaists did.
In the first scene, one man gave another man an elaborate umbrella. Reaching the umbrella out to the other man, a woman comes along and snatches it from them before the other man can grab it. This creates a duel, or war between the three people. Everyone involved in the production then runs to the other side of the stage; in pairs, they write a name that was featured on the Dada Manifesto and cover themselves in paint, starting a war of their own. Suddenly, the cast stops, and then turn to look at the rest of the cast. Each member of the cast retrieves a black photo frame, puts on a fake beard, and holds the frame up to another cast member’s body. They then admire and look over the “art” that has been created in the picture frame.
The first scene was meant to create a unique version of the scene in The Rivals where “Beverley” and Acres have to duel. Instead of using swords, we used umbrellas – something innocuous and silly, but which reminds one of swords. The woman taking the umbrella creates a three-way duel, while the rest of the cast suddenly appears. In duel scenes, the focus is normally on the other characters; by bringing the whole cast out to gather attention through paint throwing. that is subverted. Writing the names of the Dada Manifesto turns the duel into a political statement, and makes the intention of the entire enterprise clear. The war of paint created is symbolic of World War I, which is what started the Dada Movement in the first place. After the war is over, the cast becomes art critics; they start to hold up their own artworks to themselves and examine and analyze them. This is meant to make fun of those people who read too much into Dada art; having the frames be used to just look at each other implies the masturbatory and self-congratulatory nature of art. Dadaist art was not meant to be emptily celebrated or admired, it was meant to be understood and used to change things.
The second scene involves bubble wrap being laid down on the stage as an aisle; bundles of tissue are also laid down on the sides of the aisle, a member of the cast standing near them. Once that is set up, the cast then begins to play with the tissue; the Wedding March begins to play, and a vicar appears, holding a pen and a newspaper. Marching down the aisle, he is followed by the bride (an umbrella) and the man who wanted it. The groom is popping the bubble wrap with his feet as they come down the aisle. While this happens, the tissue is thrown (along with cutlery) at the bride and groom. One more cast member sets down a plate (for a Greek wedding), a cup (for a Jewish wedding) and a broom (for an African Wedding). Upon getting married, the happy couple stamp on the cup, break the plate and jump over the broom as they walk back offstage.
The second scene is indicative of the wedding of Jack and Lydia in The Rivals, and makes fun of the institution of marriage, and the pomp and circumstance that goes with it. Making the aisle and seats out of modern materials (especially silly noisemakers like bubble wrap) provides an absurd element to the staging. Calling back to the duel, the groom is holding an umbrella instead of a bride, showing that the man simply wants an object or a status symbol, not necessarily another human being to care for. The wedding itself is almost framed like a dinner, since the use of tissue and cutlery thrown at the bride and groom is indicative of that. Not only that, but the combination of several old wedding traditions from around the world are used for comedic effect when used all together – two of these are the use of a plate and cup, more dinner traditions. Dada was about shining a light on how silly some institutions were; the institution of marriage and the procedure of weddings were what we wanted to lampoon here.
The third scene is heavily inspired by the anti-parties held by the Cabaret Voltaire in 1917. The entire atmosphere is gloomy and dull, with people crying and admonishing the party and its attendants. Cupcakes are not allowed to be eaten, and there is a woman in a bathtub filled with water. The overall picture is depressing and sad. We wished to turn the atmosphere in the end into a Dada performance, and see what the Dadaists would think of this kind of party.
This final scene is meant to reflect the final scene of The Rivals, in which Acres holds a party after everyone is meant to have their plotlines resolved. Everyone is supposed to be happy in the play, but we wanted to reverse that. Instead of a happy ending, we wanted to hold a sad party where everyone was depressed. The entire atmosphere of the piece is supposed to lend itself to being the complete opposite of the intended effect Sheridan had in his 1776 play. By depriving people of treats, and showing everyone else around being miserable, it shows that no one is having fun at the party, even after all the conflict is resolve. This was meant to state that, even though the immediate problem is resolved, there are still substantial problems with these character’s lives – they are still miserable. By the end of the play, everyone hates themselves – since Dada is anti-art, we thought we would directly oppose what the playwrights intended. Even though the characters still put on a party, they are not happy about it.
Dada’s legacy to artists today is the ability for artists to look within themselves and their culture, and completely reject it in order to find new ideas. Instead of working within the familiar structures of family, society and culture, one can chuck it all out of the window and come up with new ideas. By rejecting the very idea of what most people think art is supposed to be, one can make fantastic art by themselves. Dadaist theatre turns on its stomach everything that plays are supposed to be, and that in and of itself is a powerful statement to make, even today.
Melzer, Annabelle. 1976. Dada and Surrealist Performance. PAJ Books ser. Baltimore and
London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.
Richter, Hans. Dada: Art and Anti-art, Oxford Univ Press, 1965. Print.
Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. The Rivals. New Mermaids, 1979. Print.