"Theatre of the Future": The Question of Art Movements
November 5, 2009

In her recent post on Italian futurism, Marjorie Perloff invites us to interrogate how we define the bounds of artistic movements. Arguing that critics mistakenly label Futurism as fascist because of Marinetti's late work—work that arguably exceeds the project of Futurism per se—Perloff poses this question: "How long does ANY movement last?"

The question prompts me to reconsider two figures I've paired in the past under the heading of avant-garde theatre: e.e. cummings and Frederick Kiesler. Less well known than cummings, Kiesler was an Austrian architect and set designer who participated, albeit tangentially, in the de Stijl and Bauhaus movements. His early conceptual projects reflect the paradoxical brevity and durability of both architectural schools. (The life span of de Stijl was roughly a decade, and yet it persisted, as did Bauhaus, in what became the international modern style.)

After designing the set for a 1923 production of Karel Čapek's science fiction play R.U.R. and showcasing his Raumbühne (or railway "space stage") in Vienna, Kiesler expatriated to New York. (You can view some of his projects on the Frederick Kiesler Foundation website.) Kiesler attracted the attention of cummings in 1926, when cummings covered, for The Dial, Kiesler's 1926 address at the International Theatre Exposition. The address calls for avant-garde drama to dispense with the proscenium arch stage and to create a tactile, participatory, kinesthetic theater. Kiesler's vision anticipates that of Antonin Artaud, except that Kiesler drew his inspiration for this "theatre of the future" from Europe's circus sideshows. I have argued elsewhere that Kiesler's program for an avant-garde circus-theatre profoundly informs cummings's experimental play Him, which integrates existential dialogue with variety show acts and circus acrobatics. Although it appeared on the exceedingly small stage of the Provincetown Players, Him calls for an enormous cast, frequent set changes, and a culminating sideshow of "freaks" involving the audience. This melding of experimental theatre with circus acts (and kindred performance forms like burlesque) proves to be a wider interest among modernists, one shared, for example, by T.S. Eliot, Djuna Barnes, and Provincetown Players director James Light.

I would hazard that the interest constitutes a movement within the New York avant-garde of the late 1920s and early 1930s, defined not simply by the attention to popular culture but rather by sustained experiments with the particular, working-class subcultures of circus and burlesque. Yet to the extent that Kiesler's and cummings's theatrical projects do comprise a movement, it is one without an official name or leading figure; it is a movement that lurks under the surface of and overlaps with well-known avant-gardes of the period; and it is a movement, to Marjorie Perloff's point, that did not last long.

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