7 Futurist Theatre Concepts and Synthetic Plays
The author of The Futurist Synthetic Theatre Manifesto (1909) Filippo Marinetti compared the traditional theatre with “The slow agony of a horse who has collapsed on the pavement”. Synthetic Theatre was created by Italian Futurists to break the existing traditions and forms of the performing arts and serve the Futurism's vision in celebrating new technology and rhythm and beauty of urban life of the time. Futurists strived for artwork that would represent modern life experience they lived and rejected following any existing genres or styles.
The core idea of the Synthetic Theatre was in compressing a large spectrum of situations, symbols, concepts and sensibilities into a few minutes, with a minimal number of words and gestures. The manifesto condemned traditional theatre and called it “passeist” for its attempts to present space and time realistically. For futurists, action had to present the convergence in time and space.
In the book “Modern Art From Futurism to the Present” art historian RoseLee Goldberg talks about the most prominent works of the Italian Futurists in theatre that were created in the accordance with the manifesto.
1. Bare Minimum Settings - “Feet”
As an opposition to such passeist theatre traditions, as "stuffing many city squares, landscapes, streets into the sausage of a single room" one of the synthetic theatre works Marinetti’s “Feet” consisted of the feet of the performers only.
"A curtain edged in black should be raised to about the height of a man’s stomach", the script explained. "The public sees only legs in action”. The actors had to try to give the greatest expression to the attitudes and movements of their lower extremeties".
“Seven unrelated scenes revolved around the feet of objects, including two armchairs, a couch, a table and a pedal-operated sewing machine, The brief sequence ended with a foot kicking the shin of another disembodied figure.
2. Simultaneity - “Waiting”
Another prominent concept of the futurist artists' performances was the idea of simultaneity. There was a section in the Synthetic Theatre Manifesto explaining it: "Simultaneity“ is born of improvisation, lightning-like intuition, from suggestive and revealing actuality”.
"Futurists believed a work was valuable only “to extent that it was improvised (hours, minutes, seconds), not extensively prepared (months, years, centuries) as this was the only way to capture the confused “fragments of interconnected events” from everyday life, which to them were far superior to any attempts to realistic theatre".
"The logic of simultaneity led to scripts written in two columns, as with Mario Dessy’s “Waiting” printed in his book “Your husband doesn’t work?... Change Him! Each column described the scene of a young man pacing nervously back and forth, keeping a close eye on their various clocks. Both were awaiting the arrival of their lovers. Both were disappointed.
3. Play-as-Image - “There is No Dog”, “Madness”, “Negative Act”
The futurists claimed: “We want to destroy the Technique that from the Greeks until now, instead of simplifying itself, has become more and more dogmatic, stupid, logical, meticulous, pedantic, strangling.
THEREFORE: “It's stupid to write one hundred pages where one would do...”. Following this idea in one way or another, some syntheses could be described as “play as-image”.
"For instance, in the play “There is No Dog", the only “image” was the brief walk of a dog across the stage.
In “Madness” futurist Mario Dessy attempted to instil that very sensation in the audience. The protagonist goes mad, the public becomes uneasy, and other characters go mad”. As the script explained “little by little everyone is disturbed, obsessed by the idea of madness that overcomes them all. Suddenly the (planted) spectators get up screaming...fleeing...confusion...MADNESS”".
4. A Few Seconds-Long Acts - "Negative Act"
"Negative Act" was precisely that "negative". A man enters the stage : he is busy, preoccupied…and walks furiously”. Taking off his overcoat he notices the audience “I have absolutely nothing to tell you…Bring down the curtain!”, he shouts"
5. Props Can Become Characters - "They are coming"
"Everything of any value is theatrical" the manifesto insisted and in Marinetti’s synthesis of 1915 the props themselves became main characters. "In a luxurious room lit by a large chandelier, a majordomo simply announced: "They are coming". At this point two servants hurriedly arranged eight chairs in a horseshoe beside the armchair. The majordomo ran through the room, crying “Briccatirakamekame”, and exited. He repeated this curious action a second time. Then the servants rearranged the furniture, turned off the lights of the chandelier, and the set remained faintly lit “by moonlight coming through the French window”. Then the servants “wedged into a corner, wait trembling with evident agony, while the chairs leave the room".
6. Unclear and Illogical Actions - " Genious and Culture"
“It's stupid to act out a contest between two persons always in an orderly, clear, and logical way” states the manifesto.
“Genius and Culture” by Boccioni is a great example of that notion. It was "a short story of a despairing artist. clumsily committing suicide while the ever-present critic, who “for twenty years had profoundly studied this marvelous phenomenon (“the artist”), watched over his quick death”. At that point he exclaimed, “Good, now I’ll write a monograph. Then hovering over the artist's body like a raven near the dead he began writing, thinking out loud : “Toward 1915, a marvelous artist blossomed…like all great ones. He was 1.68 meters tall and his width…”. And the curtain fell.
7. No Explanation
Futurists experimented with a variety of aspects of the performing arts and during their active years created “Noise Music”, “Plastic Dances”, “Mechanical Costumes” ballet, "Futurist Pantomime" and other branches of Futurism. They refused to explain any of their plays, claiming “It's stupid to want to explain with logical minuteness everything taking place on the stage, when even in life one never grasps an event entirely”.
A disturbing fact in Marinetti’s biography is that aside from, the novelty ideas in art and being the founder of the Futurism movement he became famous as the author of the Fascist Manifesto (1919) - the Manifest of the Italian Fascism. Shortly after it was issued he left the fascist party and withdrew from politics for three years, but he remained a notable contributor to developing the party’s philosophy up until the end of its existence. He was an active supporter of Mussolini and throughout his entire life encouraged the Italian participation in wars (you can find the reflections of this in the Futurism Manifesto).
Using his relationship with the party he even attempted to make Futurism the official state art of Italy but failed to do so as Mussolini personally was not that interested in art.
Read the full text of the The Futurist Synthetic Theatre Manifesto here. Would you be able to create a Synthetic Theatre Play? Post your ideas in comments.
Images are the illustrations of the “Modern Art From Futurism to the Present” book by RoseLee Goldberg.