What part do representations of family units perform in the assault on bourgeois attitudes articulated by French avant-garde playwrights?

“Every product of disgust that is capable of becoming a negation of the family is dada (Tristan Tzara).” What part do representations of family and family units perform in the assault on conservative (‘bourgeois’) attitudes articulated by the writers studied in this module? Answer with reference to at least two plays or practitioners.

In the dada manifesto of 1918, Tristan Tzara disclosed that the dada movement “was born of a need for independence, of a distrust toward unity.”[1] Perhaps the structure that enforces unity the most, and which one seemingly cannot escape from, is the family unit. Breaking away from the tight restrictions that come about when structures form, such as the expectations of the bourgeois nuclear family, avant-garde writers sought to free themselves of these restrictions by systematically breaking down and mocking ancestral relations through their works. When Tzara erotemically asked if “the aim of art [was] to make money and cajole the nice nice bourgeois,”[2] he attacked the monetisation of art in a world where family structures were drowned in economic pretence, and where these corrupt nuclear families ultimately inhibited true expression through art. Seen throughout the works on the module, writers such as Eugene Ionesco, Guillame Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau all engage in a discourse that manipulates the family, often through farce and vulgarisation, in order to expose them in all of their supposedly autocratic superficiality.

If we were first to look at a work of Tzara, a self-described dadaist and founding member of dada’s birthplace: the Cabaret Voltaire, we would find rejections of unity embedded into the words that try to free themselves of meaning in his discourse. In the part-musical production of Le Cœur à gaz, the mechanisation of the soul is coupled with disjunction onstage to reject unity and reinforce the singularity of the human condition. With the characters consisting of different facial features, unity is destroyed as they roam around with no clear links to one another. Indeed, when Mouth states “everyone does not know me. I am alone here in my wardrobe and the mirror is blank when I look at myself,” this existential outlook of being on one’s own with no reflection seems to be a metaphor of the human condition, with emphasis on the pretence of community and belonging in social structures. One of the first onstage utterances, “statues jewels roasts,” which is then repeated, involves “items which the cultured would recognise as things associated with the affluent bourgeois, those who parade expensive jewellery while discussing high art over dinner;”[3] these disjointed utterances of bourgeois relation seemingly reflect the banality of them and their lack of cohesion in a rational world. Later, when Eye wishes to go back to the “childish possibilities” of lust, this links the absurdity of bourgeois expectations and their consequent lack of unity to adulthood’s “unfair tempering of youthful exploitations and curiosity […] social persecution attempting to disguise natural, promiscuous, animal lust.”[4] Although not referring directly to the family, with Le Cœur à gaz, Tzara manages to repudiate any sort of structure that attempts to either control us or simply apply meaning, painting this as a cruel act that inhibits its subject’s creativity. When repeatedly including the word “Clytemnestra,” we immediately hark back to the Greek myth whereby this Spartan daughter murdered her husband Agamemnon, thereby anarchising and violently destroying the family structure; the play’s final repetitions of “this will end with a lovely marriage” mocks marriage structure’s supposedly benevolent effects. Moreover, when Eyebrow suggests spectators should give “abortive birth to our obscurities,”[5] this directly refers to the arguably violent disruption of reproduction that avant-garde writers pursue in their attacks on bourgeois attitudes towards the family and ‘breeding.’

A play which directly and repeatedly uses the family unit as a means to mock bourgeois attitudes and expectations as well as repudiating the notion of family as a means of unity is Ionesco’s Jacques, ou la soumission, which reflects “tensions wrought from the triple disparity between the setting (bourgeois domesticity), the tone of voice (sentimental family love), and the action (sado-masochistic cruelty);”[6] all of which combine to heighten the farce. In the play, Jacques is being forced by his family to marry; this immediately is an actualisation of the capitalist bourgeois notion of what the nuclear family is, and Ionesco here is mocking these familial expectations, which were often preoccupied with obsessions with breeding and children. This is achieved through the usage of tropes such as obligation between parent and child, where these expectations are rendered farcical to emphasise their cruelty; Jacques’s mother says that Jacques should obey her as she taught him “how to rub nettles on [his] knees, whenever [he] wanted to be stung.” These statements, clearly not making much sense, directly reflect their own absurdity; indeed, “[l]es déformations lexicales […] [sont] une variante de ce procédé d’association absurde […] les propos de Jacques-mère montrent fréquemment cette technique […] ces phénomènes – lexiques de néologismes comiques, association absurde et contradiction – ont une même fonction : ils réduisent à néant le sens de ce qui est éconcé, et mettent plus clairement en relief à la fois l’absurdité des personnages et la banalité de leur situation.”[7] This absurdity and banality is perhaps best epitomised by the family mantra which Jacques is forced to utter – “I love stuffed potatoes” – which exacerbates the insignificance and triviality of family tradition. Ionesco here is reinforcing that tradition is something that is arbitrarily put together, having no intrinsic value, and therefore being an absurd part of the bourgeois family unit, as, metaphorically, “the acceptance of the bourgeois creed by the rebellious exbohemian son is, according to the French tradition, the signal for settling down and marriage;” a symbolic beating-down of the individualist rebel.

Numerous conventional bourgeois values are dismantled in Jacques, ou la soumission; notably, the paramountcy of marriage. Ionesco, for example, mocks the notion of the wealthy or fertile bride; Peyre suggests that the play is a “hilarious satire of the French marriage market, of the well-endowed bride (she is richly endowed with three noses).”[8] By subverting something held in such esteem amongst bourgeois social circles into something so farcical, Ionesco demolishes the attitudes prevalent in France concerning marriage. In fact, Ionesco demolishes all kinds of ‘real’ or ‘meaningful’ relations in Jacques, particularly family-oriented relations. In an interview with Richard Schechner, Ionesco stated that “members of the family are also Others […] Others are everywhere and oneself is also in others. I abandon the couple, I take it up again, I abandon it, and so on.”[9] The farcical unravelling of familial otherness that happens onstage in Jacques, creating an unclosable space between Jacques and his family, is no mistake; by reducing ties between parent or sibling into a non-biological state, the obligations pursued from parent to son truly seem nonsensical.  Perhaps the way in which all characters have the same name reflects this nonsensicality; the uniformity of the family structure reinforces the “farcical yet uncanny anonymity of group behaviour.”[10] The borrowing of Vaudeville stock plots, such as parodying the rise and fall of the improvident son, and marrying merely to suit ones needs, further devalues the tenets of the bourgeois family through the medium of art and theatre; the vaudeville musical Ionescopade later paid homage to Ionesco’s vaudevillian inclusions.

The dream sequence in Jacques, ou la soumission is also important when thinking about Ionesco’s attitudes towards family life. The dream, (had by Ionesco himself) whereby a guinea pig grotesquely mutates like “cancer,” producing two more guinea pigs out of its forehead, perhaps induces ideas about reproduction, the view of it being a “cancer” in the realm of the bourgeois family, reproducing unnaturally and for unnatural causes. This links directly with the main plot thread in Apollinare’s Les mamelles de Tirésias, where unnatural reproduction is present in the form of Tiresias’ husband having “40049 children in a single day.” In the prologue to the 1945 play, Apollinaire writes: “Je vous apporte une pièce dont le but est de réformer les mœurs. Il s’agit des enfants dans la famille. C’est un sujet domestique. Et c’est pourquoi il est traité sur un ton familier.” It is interesting here that Apollinaire wishes to “reformer les mœurs”, with “mœurs” meaning ‘tradition’ yet also ‘morals;’ analysing the established practises within the family unit but simultaneously whether these practices are just. Apollinaire, with the prologue, gives us an insight into his intentions in writing the play – how he wishes to subvert the typified attitudes associated with the bourgeois family, and that “capitalism is now seizing the means of reproduction, the family.”[11] The unnatural act of having thousands of children in a day is justified through links to an economic transaction – a typical bourgeois articulation. This is reflected in the husband’s statement: “Ah yes it’s as simple as a periscope. The more children I have the richer I will be and the better I’ll be fed […] isn’t it marvellous to have a large family, so who are these idiotic economists who would have us believe that children must mean poverty.” The clear admission that “reproduction is profitable production here”[12] translates absurdity into bourgeois economic belief systems, thus dismissing them; just like Ionesco, Apollinaire inextricably links ridiculousness with bourgeois understanding.  The artificiality of bourgeois constructions is evident in the way in which the husband “fabricates [the children] out of ink, paper and glue;”[13] and the displeasure in bourgeois practices is further clear when “one female child immediately marries a rich man in order to divorce him and collect alimony.”[14] Ultimately, with Les mamelles de Tirésias, Apollinare sabotages the family structure, notably in the transsexualization of Thérèse which disrupts the nuclear family structure, in order to expose its frailty when relying on bourgeois expectations.

In Cocteau’s Les mariés de la tour Eiffel, we also see the frailty of the bourgeois family structure. The performativity ascribed to the bourgeois family as they enter the wedding as described by the narrating Gramophones exposes this; the way in which the mother in law is “false as a ten-bob note” and the father in law is “as rich as Croesus” (an ancient Greek king renowned for his wealth) reflects an obsession with wealth and pretence; the trope of disliking one’s inlaws and referring to them unfavourably is exploited here to reinforce the unnaturality of family obligation, particularly when it is not cemented by a blood relation. Furthermore, the guilt-evoking rhetoric found in the play: “When I think of all we’ve been through to bring you up […] all the sacrifices we made” is made by parent to son, and just like in Ionesco’s Jacques the obligation is made farcical, in this instance, as it is uttered by a talking gramophone. When in the dada manifesto Tzara wrote that “every bourgeois is a little dramatist, he invents all sorts of speeches,”[15] he reinforced the pretence of bourgeois displays; in Cocteau’s drama, however, the bourgeoisie are seemingly silenced and spoken for by the Gramophones, reflecting their superficiality, and their obsession with appearances. The ‘human’ gramophones reflect the mechanisation of the nuclear family and their rigid, unchanging structures, in a similar manner to Tzara’s Le Cœur à gaz which suggests that the heart runs on gas and is therefore industrialized, and Les mamelles de tirésias’ human newspaper kiosk, strengthening the satirized role of the industrial family.

To conclude, when analysing avant-garde texts of the period, the role of the family is made disparagingly evident. If it was not made conspicuous enough within avant-garde texts, one only need refer to the dada manifesto itself, which used ideas of corrupt families and reproduction as a means to negatively express its desires; Tzara wrote that “married to logic, art would live in incest, swallowing, engulfing its own tail, still part of its own body, fornicating within itself.”[16] Through the vulgarisation of reproduction and family relations, the dada polemic was able to be articulated in its shockingly eristic form; Ionesco’s grotesquely deformed guinea pig perhaps epitomizes this vulgarisation of procreation and familial extension. Ultimately, the theatrical family structure is one of the avant-garde writer’s most coveted tools; it is a widespread and ineradicable example of a forced sense of unity, one that directly contradicts writers’ pursuit of individual expression.

[1] Tzara, T, Theater of the Avant-garde, 1890-1950: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Knopf, R (London: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 259.

[2] ibid.

[3] Tzara, T, Theater of the Avant-garde, 1890-1950: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Knopf, R (London: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 242.

[4] Theater of the Avant-garde, 1890-1950: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Knopf, R (London: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 256.

[5] Tzara, T, Theater of the Avant-garde, 1890-1950: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Knopf, R (London: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 243

[6] Schechner, R, ‘The Inner and the Outer Reality’, The Tulane Drama Review, 7.3, (1963), 187-217 (p. 188).

[7] Issacharoff, M, ‘Métaphore et métamorphose dans Jacques ou la soumission’, The French Review, 48.1, (1974), 108-118 (p. 110).

[8] Peyre, H, Contemporary French Literature, a Critical Anthology (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 339.

[9] Ionesco, E and Richard Schechner, Leonard Pronko, ‘An Interview with Ionesco’, The Tulane Drama Review, 7.3, (1963), 161-168 (p. 165).

[10] Stokes, W, A comedy of anguish : a study of the plays of Eugene Ionesco, (1978) Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/10176/ p.59

[11] Tilly, C and Louise A. Tilly, ‘Stalking the Bourgeois Family’, Social Science History, 4.2, (Spring, 1980), 251-260 (p. 254).

[12] Flynn, C, ‘“Circe” and Surrealism: Joyce and the Avant-Garde’, Journal of Modern Literature, 34.2, (Winter 2011), 121-138 (p. 123).

[13] Bermel, A, ‘Apollinaire’s Male Heroine’, Twentieth Century Literature, 20.3, (1974), 172-182 (p. 174).

[14] ibid.

[15] Tzara, T, Theater of the Avant-garde, 1890-1950: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Knopf, R (London: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 258.

[16] Tzara, T, Theater of the Avant-garde, 1890-1950: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Knopf, R (London: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 262.


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