Even today, many of those interested in the painter Kandinsky (d. 1944) are still surprised that he wrote plays for the stage. From the texts of his theatre pieces, we can see clearly how daring and innovative they were. Indeed, in the field of theatre, this great artist was far ahead of his own time—and he also remains ahead of our time.
In Kandinsky’s day, plans for various productions of his stage texts never came to fruition. From 1914 on, obstacles and interruptions to the plans included World Wars I and II, his forced emigrations, and more. Ultimately—although he came extremely close to production more than once—none of his stage texts were performed during his lifetime.
Since then, there have been challenges even to knowing what some of the texts say. For example, it is a pleasure to see the earliest, draft versions of his stage works, where Kandinsky wrote the majority of his notes by hand, in Russian and German, as if for his own use or a close colleague’s. But they are difficult to decipher—that is, the handwriting of this “founder of abstract painting” tends toward abstraction! We offer glimpses, though, simply for their graphic appeal. Of the play fragments that follow, one brief section is published here for the first time, and the rest published for the first time in English re-translations achieved collaboratively by your co-authors.
These very early outlines for his stage experiments are important to scholars, of course, but they also serve interested readers as wonderful, brief introductions to the tone and flavor of the works. As a case in point, Kandinsky’s best-known work for the stage is Yellow Sound. It is a full length piece; the only one of all his theatre texts that he published himself, in its entirety; and the only one much published, translated, and available online. And yet, there continues to be much interest in the first, short version of Yellow Sound, originally called Riesen [Giants], from 1908/9. That version is preserved in Kandinsky’s archives in Munich, but only published in 1998, in 脺ber das Theater, Du th茅芒tre, O teatre. There, the texts appear in German, with translations into French and Russian, but not into English.
Naturally, the original draft of Giants is considerably shorter than its better-known final version, Yellow Sound. And like the early draft versions of all his stage pieces, it contains many abbreviations, corrections and deletions critical for scholarly inquiry. But your co-authors have chosen not to include these. For the three fragments below, our goal has been to create an inviting, English-language reading experience that evokes the extraordinary, utterly singular world of Kandinsky’s theatre.
Kandinsky’s Theatre of Abstraction: Three Play Fragments
About our first fragment: We know that Kandinsky wrote this short draft for himself and for his composer, Thomas von Hartmann, with whom he cooperated very closely. There are several published musical staffs Kandinsky notated in German and in Russian—the originals preserved in his Munich and Paris archives—on which instead of musical notes, each line is labeled “Color,” “Movement,” “Music,” and in some cases, "Voice."
Play Fragment #1
Blue background. Singing (mechanical) from backstage.
A bright green ship with yellow giants. Rocking [“high shoulders, low shoulders”]; slow movements towards each other and sideways. Music. The giants stand up, sit down. Red birds with human faces. Singing of the giants (ppp). In the ship, music: high notes, later mixed with the singing backstage.
The stage becomes dark. Singing continues for a long time.
Against a violet background, a bright green hill with flowers. From the right come people (light-colored [formless] clothing, many flowers).
The flowers of poetry
Are strewn across the world
Gather them into an everlasting wreath
In prison you will be free
In the desert you will not be alone.
At the same time, small indistinct figures walk across the hill, looking straight ahead. The people flee off the hill. Giants whisper together.
Music gradually becomes softer, then gradually becomes shriller.
Later, a bright procession.
Darkness, and a hermit. Music.
Grey sky with a large blackcloud. A bell.
Music. Against the blue background, a giant takes the shape of a cross covering the entire stage. Arms up and growing. Light yellow. Face white and indistinct.
The ending of that Giants text is essentially the ending Kandinsky used for the final version of his later, full-length Yellow Sound. Note that even though the giant makes the shape of a “cross,” we shouldn’t overemphasize an association with the Christian cross. In fact, Kandinsky meant for Yellow Sound to be one of three related stage plays, the third one ending with a phoenix-like, blue bird.
Here is an early fragment of that third play, later called Black and White. Kandinsky wrote this first version by hand, in German, and left it untitled.
BLACK AND WHITE (1908/9)
Play Fragment #2
I. Movement [of clouds? – ed.]
II. The walking of black and white. Many walking (rhythmically). Then from the left they freeze mid-stride. Slowly turn around. Arms hanging, arms stretched out. Women walking (white) at the back, from left to right. The same again: standing still. (Sound of a horn, very brief). Stillness, only movement of the clouds.
Black is growing. Falling asleep. Voice.
III. [Sketch only; no text]
IV. [Sketch, with colors marked: lemon—yellowish—white—vermillion + green—greenish—black]
A black rider on a white (dappled) horse. Later wind in the trees. The clouds disappear.
(Sound of hoofs.) People enter and sit down in profile.
[Sketch] The sky turns white and blue.
It becomes dark. The people stand up. They suddenly carry torches and walk away making bizarre movements.
In the longer final version the ending is similar, except that the torches are "burning white.”“The people hurry away, looking back frequently. The trees move again. A ‘green-blue’ bird rises into the air and disappears above, turning more and more blue, and finally totally blue."
Kandinsky made his very first attempts at writing plays in 1908/9, even before the Giants and Black and White fragments above: one, based on Anderson’s fairy tale, Garden of Paradise; another, inspired by the 2nd century Greek romance by Longus, Daphnis and Chloe. But he moved on from these quickly, and all of his plays after those dealt symbolically with the creation of the world, and hinted at a movement toward what he described with the word “spiritual.” Today, we might get closer to his sense with a word less fraught, such as “transcendent” or “non-material.”
Our next fragment, Chronicle, is of special interest: a general outline, or the idea of a stage play. Part art theory, part dialogue, Kandinsky forges a completely new creation story. That is, his ambition is to transfer the creation of the world into the realm of art. To do that, he first gives us science’s version of the beginning of the world, then the religious version, and then he develops the structure of the latter into a kind of catechism that leads us to art.
A bit about what you are seeing: this text is in 脺ber das Theater, in German, French and Russian. There was one English translation provided for Kandinsky, the 1993 magnum opus of co-author, Dr. Jelena Hahl-Koch [now Hahl-Fontaine.] What you see here is a combination of brief text not published before, and longer text newly re-translated in tandem by your two authors.
Kandinsky wrote Chronicle very fast and changed things several times. There are things he had clearly not yet finalized, and the original text is not always coherent or consistent. In some sense, that brings us closer to his act of writing it. Although incomplete—or maybe because it is incomplete--the version here is enormously evocative, the beginning of something.
Play Fragment #3
The widely recognized and appealing problem, to investigate the interior kinship between musical tones and color tones, captivates the artist of today with new and particular force.
One approaches this inquiry, weighty with consequence, from two angles: from the the positive sciences—an exterior approach—and from feelings—an interior approach.
One also tries to make use of the consequences of that not-yet-clear kinship, in two ways—in the theoretical sense and in practical application.
A stage, on which no limits are imaginable.
On this stage, an action.
Today, called tragedy:
Movement. Sounds. Collision. A big bang. Explosion.
Disappearance. Appearance. No beginning. No end.
A whirlwind of dust—planets spinning at full speed.
On one planet—people.
One act of the action, consisting of three pictures:
1. Creation of the body—creation of the world—revelation of will—
God the Father.
2. Formation of the principle of harmony—revelation of love—Son of God.
3. Insufflation of the Spirit—movement—revelation of freedom—God the Holy Spirit.
Beforehand a question mark.
Afterwards a question mark.
On both sides—an immense silence.
All three visible pictures of the one act converging:
the body grows
the interior connections are forming
An invisible hand rips open the curtain.
From the infinite sun one can see the first ray—freedom.
What is freedom?
Freedom is not the possibility of walking simultaneously to the right and to the left, but the unlimited possibility of walking to the right or to the left... with joy.
What is joy?
Joy is the possibility of choosing the path that has an inner attraction.
What is the path to joy?
The path to joy is the path to knowledge.
What is knowledge?
Knowledge—experiences of the soul.
What is the way to experiences of the soul?
Thus art reflects and announces the way to knowledge.
Thus the art of today
What is necessary for art to reflect and prophecy?
Thus the art of today is showing the first ray of the limitless sun—
Art is the prophet
of what is to come.
This prophet stems from the realm of the whole act.
It also reflects the first two pictures:
the creation of the body—construction
the creation of the harmonious principle—artistic means
So art is a prophetic being which continues to grow
as an independent body and which, through freedom,
serves the spirit.
The most important and very obvious difference from version to version of all of Kandinsky’s stage plays is their progression towards abstraction. This progression is exactly parallel to the slow development of his painting towards abstraction. For the stage plays this means: abandoning a plot that can be “understood”; having the actors move in a stylized or puppet-like manner, rather than as individual characters; and employing them rather as "bearers of color." Along with the increasing abstraction of the visual worlds of Kandinsky’s theatre pieces, his abstraction of language was an especially original device—a precursor of Dada poetry, and one that he used powerfully in his own poetry.
We began this article with a fragment from Giants; in the Yellow Sound it evolved into, we hear a tenor voice cry out in nonsense syllables, “Kalasimunafakula!” We don’t know what it means, but we feel we should pay attention.
* * *
Jelena Hahl-Fontaine (formerly Hahl-Koch)
PhD, Art History and Slavic Studies, Heidelberg. Teaching: Universities of Erlangen-Nurnberg, Bern; State University of Texas, Austin; Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Curator: the Kandinsky-archive, Lenbachhaus, Munich. Publications: Kandinsky/Arnold Schoenberg letters; the monograph, Kandinsky; the Kandinsky Forum I-IV, etc.; also texts on Jawlensky, Sacharoff, Bechtejeff, Russian Avant-garde, etc. Lectured widely: Europe, America, Australia.
Lissa Tyler Renaud, lifelong actress, M.F.A. Directing, Ph.D. Dramatic Art (thesis [with Art History]: Kandinsky and the theatre), U.C. Berkeley, 1987; founded the Actors' Training Project studio for training based on Kandinsky's work. Since 2004, training actors, directors and scholars; lecturing, and publishing widely–as visiting professor, master teacher, invited speaker, actor-scholar, recitalist–around the U.S. and Asia; in England, Mexico, Sweden, Russia. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.