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Jiří Frejka, Notes towards a dada theatre (Prague Dada Miscellany – Part Six)

JIŘÍ FREJKA (1904-1952) was a theatre director and theorist, who made his debut in 1923 with his own parodic variety show Kithairon. In early 1925, he co-founded (with Jindřich Honzl and E.F. Burian) the Theatre of the Youth (Divadlo mladých), which in October that year became the Liberated Theatre (on Karel Tiege’s advice, after Alexander Tairov’s project in the USSR), the official theatrical platform for the Devětsil avant-garde. Two years later, in 1927, following a breakup within the Liberated Theatre, Frejka founded Dada Theatre, which remained active till 1929. In the 1930s Frejka was active at the National Theatre, where he managed to evade the worst of the Nazi occupation and WW2. After the 1948 communist putsch, Frejka’s work came under increasing criticism from the ranks of the official party hardliners for his experimentalism and lack of commitment to socialist realism. Expelled from the Vinohrady theatre in 1950, he was demoted to director of the Karlin Opereta Theatre. Once again threatened with dismissal from there, in October 1952, Frejka chose to commit suicide. 

Dada Theatre opened on 9 Apr 1927 with Jean Cocteau’s Les mariès de la tour Eiffel, adapted for stage by Frejka, who over the next two years also similarly adapted Kurt Schwitters’ Schattenspiel, Guillaume Apollinaire’s Mamelles de Tiresias, and ten more productions. Within the Czech avant-garde scene, Frejka closely collaborated with Dadaist writer and poet Václav Lacina, actor and playwright Jiří Voskovec, and musicians and composers E. F. Burian and Jaroslav Ježek. In February 1927, economic reasons coerced Frejka to shut down Dada Thatre and found a new scene, the Modern Studio. In the two pieces translated below, published in 1926 and 1928, Frejka details his own understanding of dadaism as practiced in his Dada Theatre. Their first translation into English is the work of David Vichnar.

LABYRINTH OF THE WORLD AND PARADISE OF THE HEART: AT THE CABARET

(published in Signál [Vol. I No. 3, 1928]: 74-75)

 

Founding Dada, we founded—to the horror of the young artistic philistines—a cabaret. We were thinking of tendentious theatre, for the cabaret cannot be otherwise, and put art into work rather than words.

Clearly there needs to be here formal work and discipline of the actor’s performance, moulded by the director’s hands as if going through a filter. But one also has to use the other side of the cabaret: the journalistic. The journal means a story. Any story. Logarithmics and their variations will do just as well as a political pamphlet, a caricature of a sensational story, latest sporting news of interest to anyone, just as poetry, just as anything in the world.

The cabaret is a caricaturing journal. A distorted mirror in which your face grimaces however dotingly you aim to look. A kind of a botfly to whom everyone and everything in the world is a horsefly. A job somewhat merry and somewhat sad: merry because drowning its sadness at evil people in laughter.

The cabaret is a week, or even better, a day. Does it appear petty to you to clothe art in a jacket it wears everyday? If you love well enough the life seeping through the trellis of theatre work, then surely you won’t leave either. You’ll love the chameleon-like stream, the impossible work tension, the tempo.

You’ll advance through a new labyrinth of the world.

You’ll observe politicians intoxicated with their importance and sick with fear and permanent expectancy of some higher power. You’ll laugh at their many tricks and nonsense as you know them.

You’ll observe political parties, filled with the awareness of their power and still swayed by whoever has the talent and feels like it. You’ll feel sorry for these colossuses whose eyes, antennae, arms and legs are composed of throngs of parasites eating them alive.

You’ll see blood hostility, for ridiculousness hurts the most.

You’ll see a lot of ridiculousness. Especially the bourgeois dada will, the teary-eyed, sobbing child crawling out of a beer glass and beating its fist against a soaked table and playing drinking games with factory owners and their whores.

You’ll observe the blasé youth of uninventive people, a blasé youth bland and tasteless like all sterilisers, the youth of if-then teddies.

You’ll observe yuppies of all sorts, speculating à la baisse or à la hausse, on human hearts, barrels of pickled herring, revolutionary movements or national feelings.

You’ll laugh at them and feel bitter about their laughter at you, for a part of them is inside you. That’s why you’re the spectators, capturing humanity by means of human errors. More bile, more bile!

Beyond this labyrinth of the heart lies the paradise of the actors. It’s the work itself. Work feverish, tense, and arduous. They find ever-new movement forms, ever-new sound shapes. Exactly the sort of thing the audience cares so little about and yet complains if it isn’t included in the play. It’s the very own way of turning a newspaper reader (and a spectator at this cabaret would be nothing else) into a live co-actor, waxing tender at the soubrette’s lyricism, bitten by the MCs’ sarcasms, thrown high up during the acrobats’ somersaults.

The gist of the magic of the actor’s work lies in the immediacy of the stage, in the close and intimate contact with the everyday represented by the spectator. In the applause that follows after every idea. It’s up to the director for the effect not to be banally literary, everyday, suburban. He may drown neither in politics nor in literature. He must be ready for the thanklessness and single-dayness of his work steeped in the collective. He remains in his backstage cabin – akin to a pilot indirectly watching the flight of the entire machine through his actors’ periscope, its record-breaking or subpar performance, its victories and debacles. He alone bears responsibility to the audience – and to the actors.

He puts masks on actors’ faces. Out of their fates he fashions standard and all-human sets. In this commedia dell’arte, he holds up the most grotesque mirror up to life, its most poignant caricature, the most melancholic film of fates, foibles and manias. Maniacally, he leads the contemporary human to see.

Here billows and shivers the colportage life, purged of the ambiguity of a particular case, worked out into a standard. It is here that the immense contemporaneity springs, constantly filtered by the human brain and served on a silver platter in the form of the most sundry sandwiches. The more lively its bite, the more pungent its taste. Oh yes, to ridicule the human. Everything is a gas, but ah a little bitter, especially if you love humanity. […]

 

PSYCHOLOGY, PSYCHOLOGY, HEHE

(published in Demokratický střed [Vol. IV No. 24, 8 Apr 1927]: non-paginated)

 

1/ The Double Actor

The chief transformation in considering the theatrical task of the actor, a transformation of a more or less mimetic actor into a lively machine emanating emotions and strange energies, could be described as acting specialisation and deflexion away from literature. This change in worldview, which refines and to some extent alters the actor’s task, presents our generation’s clearest break from e.g. the Čapek generation. Let us abstract from the social base, which is the precondition of this change, which must mock every attempt at consolidating (i.e. conserving) the society by means of today’s theatre, and let us observe only how the entire process is reflected in the actor’s work. […] 

2/ Psychology, Psychology, Hehe

“Writers teaching morality, analysing or improving the psychological basis, have a laughable knowledge of the life they’ve classified, divided up, canalised; they’ve taken it upon themselves to watch categories dance to their drumbeats. Their readers smiled impishly and asked: wherefore?”

“DADA represents nothing.”

It’s a function. Not one randomly “chosen”, but a necessary play of artistic as well as acting intelligence.

Dada is a protest against dragging private trains of thought into art. Dada is more than an idea in an unexpected place, surprising us like a pipe without a shank, amusing merely through its absurdity.

Dada is the necessity with which the bird sings.

It is absurd, and yet indispensible. It wouldn’t be worth the while for him to endeavour on account of his mate. It endeavours the way it eats – it cannot live outside itself, outside its own work, which soothes, satisfies, which is an eruption of liveliness, absurd from the outside, but useful and necessary on the inside. Other people would say it’s an eruption of nonsense, which is lively. And both parties are right perhaps.

“Dada is neither foolishness – nor wisdom – nor irony.”

And finally: dada is a protest against the lawless plundering and hawking of non-artistic categories within art.

Translated by David Vichnar

 

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