General 1-15-2003

Hugo Ball, Part II: Cabaret Voltaire

We sometimes run excerpts from historical sources relevant to the site's current focus. This is a series of short excerpts from the diary of the Dada impresario Hugo Ball. See the "Features" listing for Part I: Flight Out of Time.

Hugo Ball was a German philosophy student, playwright, dramaturg, and vaudevillian who was one of the founders of the Dada movement in Zurich in 1916. With Emmy Hennings, a cabaret performer and risk-taker whom he met in 1913 at the Cafe Simplizissimus in Munich, and others, Ball set up in Zurich the Cabaret Voltaire, the natal spot for the Dada revolution that spread after World War One to influence avant-gardes around the world.

Nov. 2, 1915
At night I am Stephen being stoned. Rocks rain down, and I feel the ecstasy of one who is being mercilessly beaten and crushed by stones for the sake of a little rough pyramid colored by his blood.

Feb. 2, 1916
A press release: “Cabaret Voltaire. Under this name a group of young artists and writers has been formed whose aim is to create a center for artistic enertainment. The idea of the cabaret will be that guest artists will come and give musical performances and readings at the daily meetings. The young artists of Zurich, whatever their orientation, are invited to come along with suggestions and contributions of all kinds.”

Feb. 5, 1916
The place was jammed; many people could not find a seat. At about six in the evening, while we were still busy hammering and putting up futuristic posters, an Oriental-looking deputation of four little men arrived, with portfolios and pictures under their arms; repeatedly they bowed politely. They introduced themselves: Marcel Janco the painter, Tristan Tzara, Georges Janco, and a fourth gentleman whose name I did not quite catch. Arp happened to be there also, and we were able to communicate without too many words. Soon Janco’s sumptuous Archangels was hanging with the other beautiful objects, and on that same evening Tzara read some traditional-style poems, which he fished out of his various coat pockets in a rather charming way.

Feb. 6, 1916
Poems by Kandinsky and Else Lasker. The “Thundersong” by Wedekind:

In the early splendor of youth
She entered, by thunder!
Filled with vanity,
But with an empty heart, by thunder!

The “Dance of Death” with the assistance of the revolutionary chorus. “To Villette” by Aristide Bruant . . . There were a lot of Russians there. They organized a balalaika orchestra of about twenty people and want to be regular customers.

Feb. 28, 1916
Tzara gives a lot of readings from “The Coast” by Max Jacob. When he says, with tender melancholy, “Goodbye my mother, goodbye my father,” the syllables sound so moving and resolute that everyone falls in love with him. He stands on the little stage looking sturdy and helpless, well-armed with black pince-nez, and it is easy to think that cake and ham from his mother and father did not do him any harm.

March 2, 1916
. . . . Our attempt to entertain the audience with artistic things forces us in an exciting and instructive way to be incessantly lively, new, and naïve. It is a race with the expectations of the audience, and this race calls on all our forces of invention and debate. One cannot exactly say that the art of the last twenty years has been joyful and that the modern poets are very entertaining and popular. Nowhere are the weaknesses of a poem revealed as much as in a public reading. One thing is certain: art is joyful only as long as it has richness and life. Reciting aloud has become the touchstone of the quality of a poem for me, and I have learned (from the stage) to what extent today’s literature is worked out as a problem at the desk and is made for the spectacles of the collector instead of for the ears of living human beings.
“Linguistic theory is the dynamic of the spiritual world” (Novalis).
The artist as the organ of the outlandish threatens and soothes at the same time. The threat produces a defense. But since it turns out to be harmless, the spectator begins to laugh at himself about his fear.

April 18, 1916
. . . . Tzara keeps worrying about the periodical. My proposal to call it “Dada” is accepted. We could take turns at editing, and a general editorial staff could assign one member the job of selection and layout for each issue. Dada is “yes, yes” in Rumanian, “rocking horse” and “hobbyhorse” in French. For Germans it is a sign of foolish naivete, joy in procreation,, and preoccupation with the baby carriage.

May 24, 1916
There are five of us, and the remarkable thing is that we are actually never in complete or simultaneous agreement, although we agree on the main issues. The constellations change. Now Arp and Huelsenbeck agree and seem inseparable, now Arp and Janco join forces against H., then H. and Tzara against Arp. There is a constantly changing attraction and repulsion. An idea, a gesture, some nervousness is enough to make the constellation change without seriously upsetting the little group. . . . At present I am especially close to Janco.

To come: the influence of the war on the Dada group, performances at the cabaret, the group opens a gallery.

As Ball noted in the first line of his Prologue to the published version of his diaries, “The world in 1913 looked like this: life is completely bound and shackled. A kind of economic fatalism prevails; each individual, whether he resists or not, is assigned a specific role and with it his interests and his character . . . . The most burning question day and night is this: Is there anywhere a force that is strong enough and above all vital enough to put an end to this state of affairs?” He devoted his life to this question.

Quotes taken from Flight Out of Time by Hugo Ball, ed. John Elderfield, trans. Ann Raimes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.