Avant Garde Theatre, 1892-1992

By Christopher Innes | Go to book overview
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The identifying signature of avant garde art, all the way back to Bakunin and his anarchist journal L’Avant-Garde in 1878, has been an unremitting hostility to contemporary civilization. Its most obvious aspect has been negative: the rejection of social organization and artistic conventions, aesthetic values and materialistic ideals, syntactical structure and logic, as well as everything associated with the bourgeoisie. But this apparent nihilism always implied a utopian alternative to the status quo, which has three aspects. Broadly speaking these can be called the philosophical, the populist and the primitive—although such avant garde categories are often inseparable, equally political and tend to be expressed in psychological terms.

As a philosophy, the avant garde corresponds to anarchism, which also has its nihilistic side. Although its public image became misleadingly associated with bearded, bomb-throwing terrorists, the basic principle of the turn-of-the-century anarchist movement could be best described as extreme individualism. For Bakunin and his followers, personal rights totally superseded those of the state, which by definition were coercive; egalitarian communes would be the only valid form of social organization; and all set rules that prescribed behaviour (‘being’) had to be discarded for a fluid sense of individual fulfilment (‘becoming’). In general terms these remain the ideals of the avant garde, even if their source frequently went unrecognized, while translating them into theatrical practice tended to disguise the link with Bakunin’s ideas. Thus the anarchist battle against political hierarchies turned into an attack on the cultural hegemony of the establishment (which was sometimes little more than épater les bourgeois). Personal liberation came to be conceived psychologically or even spiritually, rather than as an external condition, although the route to its achievement was frequently physical—freeing the mind through assaulting the senses—and had strong political overtones. The commune was identified with the acting group: again, in a sense, an internalization of the


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