The Great Parade: Cocteau, Picasso, Satie, Massine, Diaghilev - and T.S. Eliot

By Hargrove, Nancy D. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 1998 | Go to article overview

The Great Parade: Cocteau, Picasso, Satie, Massine, Diaghilev - and T.S. Eliot


Hargrove, Nancy D., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The early decades of the 20th century witnessed an explosion of experimentation, innovation, and interpenetration in the arts throughout Europe. The battle-cry "Make it new!" reverberated across all the arts, enriching every individual field - painting, sculpture, music, dance, drama, and literature. As Roger Shattuck perceptively notes in The Banquet Years, "To a greater extent than at any time since the Renaissance, painters, writers, and musicians lived and worked together and tried their hands at each other's arts in an atmosphere of perpetual collaboration" (23). In this extremely fertile period for the arts, the air was thick with new beliefs, subjects, and techniques which were discussed, experimented with, and ultimately adopted, altered, or rejected. Rather than suffering "The Anxiety of Influence," artists at this time experienced what might be called "The Synergism of Influence." While Paris was the undisputed center of such artistic collaboration, this phenomenon occurred as well in London and other major European cities. For example, from 1918 onward, London's Bloomsbury group passionately attended performances of the newest and most avant-garde productions of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, seeing in their Modernist elements "the design, rhythm, and texture [they] sought in literature no less than painting" (Garafola 334-35).

In the midst of this creative ferment, there occurred an event which could be said to have revolutionized the notion of the avant-garde itself. One night in 1912 while crossing the Place de la Concorde in Paris after a performance of the Ballets Russes, its director Sergei Diaghilev commanded the young Jean Cocteau, "Astonish me!" Five years later, he astonished not only Diaghilev but the entire artistic world. On 18 May 1917 at the Theatre du Chatelet, the Ballets Russes presented the premiere of the ballet Parade, a collaborative creation with scenario by Cocteau, music by Erik Satie, set, curtain, and costumes by Pablo Picasso, choreography by Leonide Massine, and programme notes by Guillaume Apollinaire [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Innovative and shocking in a multiplicity of ways - various labels included electroshock, a revolution, a comet, an earthquake (Kahane 96-97) - it caused a furor; indeed, the first-night audience responded with an uproar, some cheering, but most booing and hissing. Because of its notoriety, the performance of Parade for the first time in England during the 1919 autumn season of the Ballets Russes at London's Empire Theatre, with the premiere taking place on November 14, was a major cultural event, as were its Paris revivals in December 1920 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees and in May 1921 at the Gaite-Lyrique. In these instances, the response, while sometimes bewildered, was excited rather than outraged.

Among those excited by the ballet, I wish to argue, was T.S. Eliot; more specifically, I wish to demonstrate the extent to which the revolutionary aspects of his own masterpiece of this time - The Waste Land - owe much to the inspiration of this avant-garde ballet. For if the hallmarks of Eliot's poem are its fusion of tradition and experimentation, the everyday and the extraordinary, these too are the features of Parade, which in itself demonstrated the interpenetration of contemporary developments in the arts to a far greater extent than earlier productions of the Ballets Russes. Critics have, of course, long recognized a connection between The Waste Land and the Ballets Russes' 1921 revival of Le Sacre du Printemps, but the impact of Parade on the poem has been totally overlooked. Although a possible reason for this neglect may be the absence of direct leads - i.e., concrete evidence that Eliot attended a performance of this ballet - the more likely explanation may have to do with the way that this once infamous work has tended generally to be forgotten, its significance at the time paling perhaps as a result of the subsequent brilliant careers of its various collaborators. …

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