Riotous Hearts: Tristan Tzara’s Le Cœur à Gaz
The year following modernism’s annus mirabilis was bound to be a disappointment in the annals of literary history, for what works could surpass Ulysses or The Waste Land?
For Tristan Tzara, 1923 found him in the literary doldrums. Dada, the movement he had helped establish in Zurich and had brought to fame in Paris, was done and dusted. He had abandoned, after only a few chapters, his ‘interminable’ novel Faites vos jeux (Place your bets) and was more likely to be spotted in fashionable nightclubs ‘cultivating his vices’ (money and love) than in the literary pages. But writers do not easily let go, and a writer like Tzara was not going to fade into the literary night without a fight.
A fight is what erupted when the great theatrical spectacle of the Paris season took place on 6 July 1923 at the Théâtre Michel. Rather than novelty, the soirée presented old Dada hits, new films by Man Ray and Hans Richter, and a re-staging of Tzara’s three-act play Le Cœur à gaz (The Gas Heart), whose characters are the human face broken into its component parts: EYE, EAR, MOUTH, NOSE, NECK, and EYEBROW.
If the shattering of the human face was a very real post-war reality, Tzara’s theatrical staging of the human face laid waste to the theatre. The play opens with EYE dividing the world into ‘statues jewels meats’ (the bourgeoisie) and ‘cigar button nose’ (the masses), but any social message is quickly overwhelmed by an all-encompassing chaos, the undifferentiated characters speaking senselessly, at cross purposes, unable to agree on anything. This is very much Ionesco and Beckett avant la lettre.
But the great fight that broke out at the Théâtre Michel was not the result of the play’s avant-garde form. The mere fact that Tzara was putting on a soirée, an entertainment, enraged the artistic purity demanded by the former Dadaists who now coalesced around André Breton. The inclusion of poetry by Jean Cocteau, who was particularly detested by that group, got everyone hot and bothered. The fact that Picasso, the undisputed Olympus of the arts in Paris, was mentioned in desultory terms led to the stage being stormed, choice words being exchanged, and André Breton using the quaint bourgeois prop of a walking stick to break someone’s arm.
Was this part of the performance, a return to notorious Dada shows in which the line between the staged and the spontaneous was always in doubt? The audience soon found out, though, that the police coming in to restore order were not marionettes but real-life flics who escorted Breton, a fils d’un flic himself, out of the building. After a prolonged intermission, just before midnight, the curtain was ready to go up for the staging of Le Cœur à gaz, but before the actors could show their respect for the faux-pompous stage directions (the actors should give ‘to this piece the attention given to a masterpiece of the power of Macbeth’), Breton’s friend, the poet Paul Éluard, demanded an accounting from Tzara. The police intervened again, and when Tzara went on stage to apologise for all the disturbances, Éluard was joined by some friends in rushing the stage. The bitterness and hatred dividing the world of letters in Paris was so deep and intense that the audience was now taking sides with more than yelps. As riotous fighting broke out in all four corners of the hall and spilled out into the streets by the Gare Saint-Lazare, the owner of the theatre could be heard whimpering ‘My nice little house, my nice little house’.
Marius Hentea is the author of Henry Green at the Limits of Modernism (Sussex Academic Press, 2014) and TaTa Dada: The Real Life and Celestial Adventures of Tristan Tzara (MIT Press, 2014), which has been translated into German and Romanian. His essays have appeared in MLQ, Modernism/Modernity, Modernist Cultures, Narrative and PMLA. Image: L-R: Jane Heap, John Rodker, Martha Dennison, Tristan Tzara, Margaret Anderson, ca. 1920s. Janet Flanner-Solita Solano Collection, via Wikimedia Commons (cc).