Tristan Tzara, The Gas Heart

Eye, Kao Ra Zen
Mouth, Arlene Malinowski
Nose, Andy Slater
Ear, Deirdre Harrison
Neck, Kyle Price
Eyebrow, Enama
The Gas Heart/Gentleman Dancer, Michelle Kranicke

Original Score, Christophe Preissing
Madeleine, Madeleine, Kyle Price
Musicians: Owen Ruff, violin; Oli Harris, cello; Jennifer Woodrum, clarinet; Chris Misch, trombone; Steve Butters, percussion

If you are my age, you may have been to a midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show complete with audience participation, costumes, and toast; if you are too young to remember or have never been, you may not get the absurdity and seriousness of The Gas Heart. In post World War I Europe the absurdity of Le Coeur a Gaz masked the horrors of war—but just barely. The playful and poetic language exposed the ruin of the upper classes and their bourgeoisie values; artists reacting to the hopelessness in the only way they knew—if we don’t laugh, we will cry… or die! English translations of The Gas Heart lack the playful alliteration and cannot convey the double entendres of sound and meaning in the original French.

Though posited as a revolt against the conventions of the theater, The Gas Heart, is in some ways rather straightforward. The six facial “characters”, though distinct in style and discourse, together form a complete reconstructed head of a single physical character. Mouth is the main purveyor of banal chit-chat, a sentimentality that recalls the past, while Nose and Neck confront the audience with inanities, alternative facts, outright lies, and love songs to Madeleine. Characters have emotions, expressing anger and joy with one another, and there is a love affair between Mouth and Eye. Justice and love are nervous tics, or worse yet, religion; their regular and predictable operation have lulled us into a somnambulant sense of security. Vacant chit-chit and senseless speech contribute to an unwillingness to face the truth and an abdication of responsibility. Audience members are admonished to wake up from the torpor of indifference that has been foisted upon them by the great lie, by fake news, and by alternative facts. With the other body parts either asleep or enthrall to their masters, it is left to Eye to point out the obvious—“The Eye is weak, but it isn’t yet in the miser’s wrinkled purse.”—and that truth has been taken over by religion and fanaticism—”Mr. My-God is an excellent journalist.”

Tristan Tzara’s 1921 Dada classic The Gas Heart (Le Coeur a Gaz), was not merely a revolt against art and the conventions of the theater, it was a resistance against the language and structures that supported the bankrupt culture and society in post-war Europe. Dada was born, in part, as a reaction to the brutality and irrationality of World War I. Technology had broken down the traditional rationale about how to conduct and win a war, with catastrophic effects felt not only in warfare but also in social life, music, physics, politics and even in fashion. In addition, Jung and Freud’s theories about the unconscious motivations of human beings had cast doubt on the received wisdom of the enlightenment concept of human rationality. With youthful rejection of tradition, Dada was anti-rational, anti-formal limitations of art and indeed anti-art.

Today, conservative, wealthy, and white America is engaged in a war against its own, a war against the working classes and the poor, a war against Blacks, the disabled, the LGBTQ+ communities, a war against immigrants, a war against all outsiders and interlopers who would dare question and expose the white power structure as a fraud. The indifference and vanity of the leisure class belies a decaying class structure that requires a more and more militarized police state to keep outsiders from storming the ramparts and impinging upon their utopian paradise. The purveyors of this rot and dreck race faster and faster to distance themselves from a new reality and to accumulate more and more for themselves, even as the poor suffer, more and more, and have less and less.

While Tzara’s gas heart “walks slowly around, circulating widely”, Eye, Ear, Mouth, Nose, Neck, and Eyebrow, constituting a body—both physical and politic—move against each other and against their oppressive masters. In 1921 Paris, their costumes and masks created an anonymity, from which the actors hurled provocations, grievances, and insults against the class and political systems of post-war Europe. Today, masks have different meanings—health, safety, righteousness, signals of party affiliation—and have themselves become provocations. With the rot and decay of the American experiment on full display, and the failures of our political, economic, and social systems to adequately address the pandemic and the systemic inequalities and abject racism upon which our society and culture are based, physical bodies and the body politic have taken to the streets. Our government, to the dismay of its citizens, is not protecting our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. It is, on the contrary, preserving the rights of the powerful to take life, suppress liberty, and impose suffering on its people.

Where do we go from here? Tzara stated that The Gas Heart is “the only and greatest three-act hoax of the century.” It is, however, the government and its enablers who are the hoax, and it is our responsibility to point out absurdity, to identify the lies, to hasten the current powers’ demise, and to create new systems that serve all Americans. The Gas Heart closes with the repeated lines “This will end in a lovely marriage” and “Go to sleep”, their repetition a signal of the irony with which Tzara seeks to awaken us. But all is not doom and gloom dressed up in a party outfit with noisemakers. There is time yet, if we can wake from our sleep.