Lissa Tyler Renaud
Editor, KANDINSKY ANEW series
The stage play by the painter Kandinsky that is most often produced is The Yellow Sound (1909). This might be because he published the play in 1912 along with a theoretical essay containing explanation of his intention. There has also been some interest in the visual staging Kandinsky created for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1928), which offers Mussorgsky’s music as a helpful foundation or starting point.
But Kandinsky’s Violet (1914), even though it is his most realized and complex play, is hardly produced. So I was delighted to come across Marianne Ackerman’s review (Montreal Gazette) of a 1985 production entitled Violet. In fact, from the description, it was not a staging of Kandinsky’s text at all, but rather an event introducing and honoring him, and hoping to suggest the utterly new spirit he brought to the stage. This impulse to do a show “by” Kandinsky without reference to his actual texts is an exasperating one that has dogged recognition of his theatre work since his death in 1944. In this case, too, ironically, Kandinsky’s own Violet is far more rich and adventurous than this production seems to have been. Nevertheless, the review is a rarity and provides a glimpse of what the Canadian theatre did with their Kandinsky-inspired freedom:
In fact, down to the textually-specific three, five and 14-second pauses… the 80-minute performance is a taut series of tableaux. … [V]isually Violet succeeds in making the painter’s knowledge of color and form an indispensable part of the action, which is fortunate, because there is no action in the theatrical sense…
Kandinsky considered the theatre a total art form, at least potentially. By dropping all conventions, he hoped theatre could create a synthesis of all other arts and accomplish what he considered the aim of all art: the creation of material form to communicate “spiritual vibrations” between artist and audience.
On a bare white stage, stark circles of primary colors are beamed from several directions. (Colors are codes: yellow is a triangle, red a square, blue a circle and violet, the color of intellect.)
Lines and movement are epigrammatic. A boy in a wagon moans, “I can’t get up. I can’t be born.” A couple embraces, then falls to the ground. There is laughter offstage and applause from the cast. Some chant “poor fish, poor men.”
… There are slides of Kandinsky’s work… and a wide repertoire of music styles, each snippet ending abruptly, with no clear connections.
… Why is the theatre today so routinely cluttered with heavily furnished TV dramas, when the stage has so long ago been rediscovered as a forum for mind, spirit, color and movement, in short, for a journey inward?
Violet: Kandinsky’s Pre-Dada Masterwork
with first extracts in English
by Jelena Hahl-Fontaine and Lissa Tyler Renaud
Even a quick glance at the script for Kandinsky’s long stage play, Violet, begun in 1911, reveals at least two startling innovations. First, we see that Kandinsky intended colored shapes, most of them geometric, to move in completely abstract ways—ways that really couldn’t have been executed until later, perhaps by means of film.
A second innovation was stage scenes so illogical or incongruous that they can be considered, in the broadest sense, abstract.
It is remarkable that Kandinsky’s theatrical breakthroughs were earlier even than the Dada movement, which emerged only in 1916. The connection between Kandinsky and Dada was no coincidence, and hinged on Dada’s founder, German stage director Hugo Ball. In 1914, Ball had planned to direct productions of Kandinsky’s Yellow Sound and Violet in Munich. That became impossible when WWI began, and with Kandinsky hunkering down in Moscow, Ball instead opened the Cabaret Voltaire in neutral Z眉rich. There, Ball and his Dada cohorts honored Kandinsky in various ways, among them reading his experimental prose poems in their performance evenings. As Dada evolved, the highly original texts of Kandinsky’s pre-Dada plays were obvious inspirations for Dada performances, which came to feature beyond-sense texts made up of invented words.
[Note: The three following play extracts here appear for the first time in English. Translations from the German by Rolf Tutschek, from the French by Geza Polony, revised and edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud.]
Violet, TABLEAU I, extract from final section
The Lady… her eyes lowered. She looks slowly around the audience, and says slowly and very distinctly, as if she were dictating:
The ramparts crumbled yesterday.
Little by little the light fades, and as the stage darkens, we hear the sounds of the city increasingly clearly: car horns, marching soldiers, noisy but incomprehensible conversations, a scream of horror, a clock ringing, sobbing, the sound of an organ grinder which ceases suddenly, and the strident military commands:
Eyes front! Head erect!
The strident voice of a child, imitating the cries of a newspaper vendor, little by little drowns out the other sounds.
The ramparts! The ramparts—five kopeks! The ramparts tumbled yesterday!
A child’s voice very high, singing from backstage, is if in a church hymn.
Came tummmbllinnng dowwnnn….
Even in his native Russia, there was nothing in the theatre as revolutionary as Kandinsky’s plays. The closest was Victory over the Sun, the landmark 1913 Cubo-Futurist opera, with “antilyrical” libretto by sound poet Kruchenykh and dissonant music by painter-composer Matiushin, but best-known for the geometrical, blocky sets and costumes designed by painter Malevich. We might also look at Leonid Andreyev, the follower of Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (d. 1949), but what’s modern about their theatre is its stripped down quality, and its focus on mood rather than plot—a mystical melancholy, nebulous hopelessness, intimations of doom. There were also Russian poets, such as Kamensky and Khlebnikov, experimenting with a range of approaches to the disruption and liberation of words.
Kandinsky’s rendering for Violet, Tableau III, 1914
About Violet, TABLEAU III
Kandinsky wrote of this: At the extreme left, near the footlights, there is a large, white, swollen [bloated] stone, on top of which stands a very large, bright red cow (vermillion) executed artlessly [simply], the neck outstretched and mouth wide open. Her large udder is bluish. The cow’s plaintive mooing alternates with the lines spoken by the chorus during the scene.
The 1914 Violet was Kandinsky’s longest play, and he had worked on it extensively over several years. There are almost identical German and Russian versions—it’s hard to say which was written first, but both of them were handwritten, corrected and translated by him. Plans for the Hugo Ball production were interrupted by WWI, and plans in the 1920s for an Oscar Schlemmer production at the Bauhaus were quashed by the school’s ongoing internal and external turmoil. Kandinsky’s plays were always “almost” about to be staged, until 1928, when he had the chance to stage Mussorgsky's 1874 Pictures at an Exhibition with his own play of changing, geometric colored forms.
TABLEAU VI, extract from the beginning
women: (very quickly) don’t look at the man, but at his legs, or rather at his feet—how each foot bends in its own way, flies into the air, strikes the ground with its heel, supports itself upon the ground. and again bends in its own way, flies into the air.
bass voices: don’t look at the trunks.
children’s voices: but rather at what is between the trunks,
alto voices: what is under the table,
soprano: on top of the roof,
tenor: beneath the ant,
child: look behind the zeppelin,
bass: look under the tongue in your mouth,
soprano: into the bell—whether it be large or small—
child: (very high) behind the curtain
bass: (very low) and… in… the… midst… of… its tassels.
In 1926, Kandinsky had taken up that 1914 Violet again, making the new text shorter—17 pages typed—but leaving intact the incongruous and comical parts. He added more of the illogical dialogue, and a new ending reminiscent of his earliest stage fragments and pre-Dada prose poems. It is tempting to associate some of the resulting text with Surrealism, an outgrowth of Dada founded in 1924. But although by chance it may share some of Surrealism’s qualities, Kandinsky himself vociferously distanced himself from the Surrealist movement. Indeed, for the section of Violet that follows, it is perhaps more apt to think of him as a pre-cursor of playwrights Ionesco and Beckett, both of whom wrote their most important works in the 1950s and continued to write decades longer. Ultimately, though, Kandinsky’s Violet is like no one else’s work; it is completely unique in theatre history.
This very first English translation of the closing scene from Violet has been achieved collaboratively by your two co-authors. The scene gives us a delightful view of Kandinsky’s well-known sense of humor. We see him making fun of himself trying helplessly to cue his baffled lighting technicians and crew, who have never had cues quite like these before!
Violet, TABLEAU VII, extract from the final section
Background white. At center stage a large black triangle. In front of the triangle a long red bench. Sitting on the bench: two completely gray figures.
Figure 1: … and it continues endlessly like that.
Figure 2: Yes! It continues endlessly like that.
Fig. 1: What do you mean?
Fig. 2: I mean it continues endlessly like that.
Fig. 1: What does that mean—"endlessly like that”?
Fig. 2: But! Let’s see… you’re the one who said: it continues endlessly like that.
Fig. 1: Is that so. Yes! I did say: it continues endlessly like that.
Fig. 2: And I also said: it continues endlessly like that.
Fig. 1: Is that so!
Fig. 2: Precisely...
Fig. 1: I don't understand ... On “precisely,” the light should have turned greenish.
Fig. 2: Not everyone knows yet that “precisely” is greenish.
They whisper something, stand and turn together to the audience.
Together: "Precisely" is greenish.
The light becomes greenish.
Fig. 1: Today I had a shock. Do you know that now, even in informal circles, one is suspposed to wear a stiff collar with sharp points?
Fig. 2: But the points are much more sharp now than 14 years ago.
Fig. 1: Is that so-o!
They whisper, stand and:
Together: "Sharp" is yellow.
A large triangle in the shape of an arrow descends from above, stays suspended above the figure on the left, and turns bright yellow.
Fig. 1: That works well.
Fig. 2: What works well?
Fig. 1: Sharp yellow came down on cue.
Fig. 2: Oh, OK! ...But as one can still wear at home a soft collar, there should also be blue.
Fig. 1: Because "soft" is blue?
A vertical blue oval descends from above, stays suspended above the figure on the right.
Together: There! It works perfectly.
Fig. 2: (very satisfied) Now I begin to understand you! That was well said: and that continues endlessly like that.
Both lights out.
Fig. 1: From yellow.
Yellow light on triangle.
Fig. 2: To blue.
Yellow light out, blue light on oval.
This is repeated 3 times: from yellow to blue,
from blue to yellow,
from yellow to blue.
Together: Sometimes they also mix.
Yellow and blue out. From the front, bright green.
Together: Tedious is green.