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Filed under: Art
Tags: noise, Dada, futurists

Café Chantant

The book The Bad Bohemian has a long subtitle: The extraordinary life of Jaroslav Hašek, author of the good soldier Švejk. The book is written by Sir Cecil Parrott. It was published in 1978.

This sole information, and the fact that Parrott was British Ambassador in Prague in the years 1960-1966 were two convincing arguments to read the book. It was a good decision, because it was very entertaining. One of the most fascinating parts is the description of life in Prague in the years before the Great War started. Prague was part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire.

“They want to tie a Clerical teacher by the leg to a chair and force him under the threat of a beating to recite the prayer ‘Our Father’ and ‘Ave Maria’ for six hours. Let’s hope he’ll be utterly sickened by it.”
..he stood on the podium and, when the audience was looking forward expectantly to his jokes, sat down, slowly and deliberately took off his boots and undid his dirty ragged foot wraps.

The first quote made me think of Wiener actionists. I could envision a bearded man in his mid thirties, naked, and tied to a chair. On the table a reel to reel recorder plays unpleasant noises over a single loudspeaker of crappy nature. The Wiener actionist, maybe bald, maybe half bald, but the hairs growing on his head are long and greasy, shouts the prayers at the top of his voice for six long hours. And because this is Wiener actionism he will piss, shit and vomit too, and maybe there is some blood involved as well.

The second quote made me think of a performer in a small space where-ever in the world, who is ready to play some contemporary avant-garde music before an audience of 13 people. He or she wouldn’t leave a big impression by sitting down first and then taking off the shoes.

Those years before the first world war were full of events and people who wanted to put an end to a tradition or to a life. Every week thousands of poor people embarked on ocean steamers and travelled to an other continent to start a new life. New newspapers saw the light almost every month. Painters broke with tradition; musicians broke with tradition; writers broke with tradition; architects broke with tradition; philosophers broke with tradition.

In and around the ticking time bomb of the Austrian-Hungarian empire the young and the old visited café-chantants or music halls to shout and insult or laugh at the artists. Political parties assembled in bars or were founded in bars. Opposed to this life of getting drunk and shout, laugh and fight was the life of literary salons and spiritual seances with dancing tables and the voices from the after-life. And all this was set to a background of political powers whose men liked to dress up in operettesque uniforms.

Did the Dadaists invent a new art-form, or were they mocking the mediums who started to talk gibberish when they got in contact with the spirits. A woman or man caught in all his seriousness while declaiming verses, what better way to make a fool of them than going ‘Brzz méééé wo fatta fattea Goosssh’ while wearing a funny hat? And the naughtiest among them ridiculed bishops, generals and politicians. Authority was questioned and attacked in every form. And this happened everywhere in Europe.

Point 11 of Marinetti’s manifesto hints at the reasons that caused the public uproar in the 1900s and in the first years of the 1910s. Cars, planes and trains added a new sense of speed to life. The crowds and the factories gave cities a different dynamism. Everything was in movement. Big ocean steamers made people understand that the world was shrinking. Distances were easier to cover. This was not the only thing that affected mind and matter. The people witnessed that the old empires were coming to an end. Germany was a young nation, and so was Italy. The big void to be filled was that of political consciousness. The old lawmakers were bound to disappear. New lawmakers were getting ready to take over. It is of little wonder that the composers wanted to change the music as well.