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The Modernist Review #40: Modernist and Avant-Garde Performance

2 June 2022

In Modernism and Performance (2007), Olga Taxidou observed that ‘the concept of performance [has] remained stubbornly connected to the critical legacies of the historical avant-garde and stubbornly ignored in canonical readings of literary Modernism’ (8). Indeed the concept of ‘performance’ still presents significant challenges to the theorization, categorization, and periodization of modernist artworks. Yet this provides us with a fertile opportunity to critically reflect upon the ways in which artists and theorists responded to modernity in the early twentieth century, revising our theoretical understanding of the culture and politics of this period by deploying the concept of ‘performance’. The debate concerning how a performative aesthetics or theory accords with or troubles our understanding of the relations between modernism and the avant-garde is thus a question that still warrants critical scrutiny. This is a provocation that animates the short articles published in this issue, with four writers responding in their own way to this question. 

In her essay ‘Putting Performance Centre-Stage: Theoretical Tools for an Inclusive Modernism’, Alexandra Chiriac outlines the theoretical bias against performance in the works of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, whose ideas still ‘permeate the construction of modernist narratives’. In contrast, Chiriac argues for a theoretical approach that challenges these established narratives by focusing on the values of collaboration and transformation, reframing artistic production and reception through the concept of ‘autopoiesis’ introduced by performance scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte. This instead orientates analysis towards practices that disrupt aesthetic autonomy, asking us to consider artistic forms that challenge ‘the values of canonical modernism’. Ultimately, Chiriac proposes the concept of ‘performance’ as a tool with which scholars can question the received historical narratives and aesthetic categories of modernism, focusing attention on marginalised voices and practices that do not fit neatly within received frameworks. 

In ‘John Cage’s Avant-Garde Piano Theatre of the Early 1950s’, Alexandra Huang-Kokina utilizes this concept of ‘performance’ to argue that the experimental pianism of Cage embodies sonic discontinuities and corporeal rhythms in its response to modernity. Huang-Kokina notes that modern composers moved away from ‘classical musical narrative to sustain continuity in their works’, instead engaging with the cacophony of sounds permeating modernity’s urban spaces. She goes on to argue that Cage’s performances engage the body in a rhythmic choreography that bears a resemblance to the theoretical writings of Antonin Artaud, integrating both contingency and autonomy within the artwork. This leads into a consideration of Cage’s notational practice, which, Huang-Kokina argues, creates ‘theatrical effects’ in performance through inscribing ‘multi-variant dynamics and rhythmic variations’ as well as ‘non-pianistic’ sounds into the work. She concludes that Cage’s piano compositions combine theatrical and musical aesthetics in their exploration of rhythm, the body, and affect, creating a work that merges modernist aesthetics with avant-garde music. 

In a shift to more familiar ground, Annie Williams considers a revisionist study of the theatrical engagement of six modernist writers, referred to as the ‘1922 core’: W.B Yeats, Ezra Pound, D.H Lawrence, James Joyce, T.S Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. In her review of James Moran’s Modernists and the Theatre (2022), Williams notes that modernist scholarship tends to focus on the poetry and prose of these six writers rather than their plays. She provides a detailed summary of the contents and arguments presented in Moran’s book, highlighting in particular the modernist contradiction between attempts to influence mass audiences and the desires for a more exclusive aesthetics. Despite suggesting that ‘Moran’s specificity wanes slightly regarding “marginalised voices” in modernist theatre’, Williams concludes that this study offers a ‘clear, informative, and rigorously researched’ study into the relation between high modernism and the theatre.      

In my own contribution to this issue, I try to articulate several meanings that reside in the performing body of Samuel Beckett’s play Footfalls (1976). I begin with a brief etymological definition of the word ‘articulate’ to think through bodily expressivity. I then explore the significance of tempo and temporality in performing Footfalls, before considering the importance of posture in the play. Finally, I briefly sketch a key principle of Beckett’s performance practice to demonstrate the significance of formalism to his theatre. The aim of this short essay is to outline the peculiar significance and practices that pertain to the Beckettian body, while critically illustrating Gilles Deleuze’s notion that ‘a way of walking is no less a refrain than a song or a little coloured vision’.   

Lastly, I would like to use this occasion to thank the editors of The Modernist Review for allowing me to put this issue together. It has been a wonderful opportunity to reach out to and collaborate with other postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars working on modernism and performance. I hope you find the issue of interest, and that it provokes questions and thoughts you may not otherwise have considered. 

Best wishes,

Jonny McAllister (Guest Editor)

Image Credit: Edouard Vuillard, Une répétition à L’Oeuvre (1903), National Gallery of Art. Public domain.

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