A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Did avant-garde arts events of a century ago really inspire riots?

March 27, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Critics frequently mention that certain artistic works (Impressionist painting, The Rite of Spring, and The Playboy of the Western World are a few that I can recall off the top of my head) were so controversial in their early days that riots broke out at their debuts. I've always thought that this sounded a little bit suspect, since museum-goers, lovers of orchestral music, etc. seem unlikely types to be going around enciting mayhem, no matter worked up they get. Any truth here?

SDStaff Ian replies:

Man, you don't know the half of it. You think Woodstock '99 was screwed up? Well, it was. But don't go discounting the capabilities of fine art lovers.

It's tough to say why people freaked out over J.M. Synge's 1907 play about Irish villagers, The Playboy of the Western World.  Modern critics look on it as "a savage depiction of Irish life," and explain that the riots were politically motivated, but according to several people who were there at the time, the initial reaction was over one word: "shift." At the time, this was the word for a woman's undergarment, what we now call a "slip."

No, seriously. Lady Gregory, patroness of the Abbey theater in Dublin, where the play was first performed, cabled W.B. Yeats and told him, "Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift." She may have been predisposed to think that all the hullabaloo was about the language, having edited and censored the play when it was in rehearsal. Anyway, the play met with hostile reaction pretty much every time it was performed at the Abbey, with "right-thinking" rioters motivated more by the play's political content than by naughty language.

A Dublin newspaper reported on the play's second performance: "the performance had not proceeded for more than ten minutes when it was obvious that the house was not disposed to a favourable reception of the piece … before [the first act's] close Mr. W.G. Fay came to the footlights and announced that it was the opinion of those concerned in the production of the comedy that anyone who did not like it would be well advised to leave the building … Hisses and boos greeted the uprising of the curtain, and the disorder of the gallery and pit prevented anyone in the other parts of the house from hearing what was said on the stage." Eventually, the police were called, but even after they evicted some troublemakers, and left some of their force to watch over the rest of the play, "there was no cessation of noise and the next act was commenced amid scenes of greater disorder … The final act was then proceeded with, but no one in the house heard a word of it owing to the din created by the audience, many of whom cried 'Sinn Fein', 'Sinn Fein Amhain', and 'Kill the author!'"

Throughout the play's week-long production, the performers were greeted with increasing disorder. Theatergoers attempted to storm the stage, and vegetables were lobbed at the actors. Andrew Malone wrote, "Every night there were fights in the theatre, and when the police removed the belligerents the fights were continued in the neighbouring streets. There was what amounted to a riot, and by the end of the week nearly five hundred police were required to keep order in the theatre and in its precincts."

After a week of performances, no one had really heard much of the play. Well, that's not true. All of Dublin had heard of the play, but no one had ever been able to hear what the actors were saying. Even a debate about the play, featuring Yeats himself, was greeted with catcalls and derision, although the Evening Mail reported that it was "not so much tinged with rowdyism as with boisterous tomfoolery." Just the reaction they were going for, I bet.

Four years later, the Abbey company decided to do an American tour. Thinking they would be playing to friends in the Irish-American populations in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, they programmed a couple plays by T.C. Murray, and Synge's Playboy. The word was sent, however, that Playboy had to be shouted down. Audiences in Boston and New York, not entirely familiar with the political situation in Ireland, didn't know exactly when to get mad, but they sure did shout, along with throwing watches and potatoes and cigarette boxes. In Philly, however, it got worse. The entire cast was arrested for performing "immoral or indecent plays." Witnesses quoted lines and words that they never could have heard over the din, and other lines and words that never appeared in the play. The performers, out on bail, were allowed to finish the production run, and the tour. Later productions in 1913 and 1914 were met with decreasing amounts of opposition, and after World War I, Americans who watched the play had no idea what the fuss was about.

So, what was in the play to spark such hostile nationalistic feelings? Well, it's actually not much more than a Three's Company plot writ large. Basically, Christy Mahon becomes a hero in a small town by telling them how he killed his own father and buried him in his potato patch. Pegeen Flaherty, daughter of an innkeeper, agrees to stash him away while the cops are looking for him, but the story gets out and his popularity grows, especially with the young women of the town. Eventually, his father comes around to the inn, and reveals that he was just knocked out by Christy, who then ran away in fright. In the meantime, Christy's got engaged to Pegeen. Anyway, when the town finds out Christy's not really a murderer, they turn on him, and he gets pissed at dad, and appears to actually kill him, so this time, they put him in a noose, until old Mahon rises once more to take Christy back to his potato patch. (The text of the play is available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1240/1240-h/1240-h.htm.)

It's a little hard to believe that the notion that poor folk could make a hero of a murderer, and come to hate him on finding he's not who he said he was, would inspire rioting. Still, I suppose I can believe it. But a ballet?

Stravinsky, in 1968, added a note to the last page of his score for Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring): "May whoever listens to this music never experience the mockery to which it was subjected and of which I was the witness in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, Spring 1913." What about this piece could inspire such a reaction? Well, it was pretty revolutionary for early 20th century Europe, anyway. The music is polyharmonic, polymodal, and polytonal, exploiting the maximum melodic and dynamic range of each instrument, and the rhythms change constantly: the climax has measures in a sequence of 9/8 - 5/8 - 3/8 - 2/4 - 7/4 - 3/4 - 7/4 - 3/8 - 2/4 -7/8 - 3/8 - 5/8. Common adjectives used to describe the piece are chaotic, brutal, and savage. Performers lovingly refer to it as Stravinsky's "rape of the orchestra." One music critic of the time wrote that Igor was an "iconoclast out to destroy all the most sacred canons of musical aesthetics and grammar." There's one section with 11 repetitions of one chord, where the people playing them count the beats by thinking each syllable of "I - gor - Stra - vin - sky - is - a - son -of - a - bitch."

In the context it was originally joined with, the music is actually pretty apt. The plot has nothing to with dinosaurs (Disney's Fantasia added that touch), but is about primitive tribes who gather to celebrate spring. There's a village witch who sees the future, a wedding, and gathering of the village council or something. Then, the virgins dance at the foot of the hill and choose a victim to be honored for sacrifice. The climax is the virgin sacrifice — she is forced to dance until she dies from exhaustion. Now, imagine you're in 1913 Paris, and this was, remember, a ballet.

What happened was, even before the curtain went up, people were murmuring at the orchestral intro. It's a bassoon solo, so high in the instrument's range that listeners debated what instrument was playing it. Camillle Saint-Saens walked out almost immediately, complaining (aloud) about Stravinsky's misuse of the instrument. But anyway. The curtain comes up, and the audience sees what Stravinsky describes as a bunch of "knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down," wearing, as far as I can tell, nothing but brown burlap costumes. Immediately, some of the audience starts yelling "what the hell?" And part of the audience yells back, "shut up, this is cool," and it escalated from there.

Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes, who had also commissioned the piece, had instructed the dancers, after over 100 rehearsals, to "keep calm and carry on" no matter what. Stravinsky wrote, "During the whole performance I was at [the choreographer] Nijinsky's side in the wings. He was standing on a chair, screaming 'sixteen, seventeen, eighteen' — they had their own method of counting to keep time. Naturally the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious, and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal. Diaghileff [sic] kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise. That is all I can remember about that first performance."

Some eyewitness accounts: Carl van Vechten: "a certain part of the audience was thrilled by what it considered to be a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art, and, swept away with wrath, began, very soon after the rise of the curtain, to make cat-calls and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. The orchestra played unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was labouring betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time."

Romola Pulsky (later Nijinsky's wife): "One beautifully dressed lady in an orchestra box stood up and slapped the face of a young man who was hissing in the next box. Her escort arose, and cards were exchanged between the men."

Towards the end of the ballet, just before the beginning of the "Sacrificial Dance," as the hitherto motionless figure of the Chosen Victim [a virgin] was seen to be seized by growing paroxysms of trembling, Marie Rambert heard the gallery call out "Un docteur … un dentiste … deux docteurs!" and so on.

I was taught in music history that the whole thing was probably Nijinsky's fault. James Lyons, editor of the American Record Guide wrote: "for the first performance (Nijinsky) provided a wretched scrap of choreography about which the less said the better." In his autobiography Stravinsky wrote: "I must say here and now that the idea of working with Nijinsky filled me with misgiving, notwithstanding our friendliness and my great admiration for his talent as a dancer and mime. His ignorance of the most elementary notions of music was flagrant. The poor boy knew nothing of music."

On the other hand, Diaghilev's biographer Richard Buckle advances the idea that this was all planned, at least in a loose sense. Sensing the "bejewelled Parisian public of the stalls and boxes" wouldn't really get this whole virgin sacrifice deal, Diaghilev gave out free passes to "artists, students, and 'fans' who were prepared to align themselves with Diaghilev on his boldest charges into battle against the old guard." One notable quote heard in the tumult was a chant from the free-ticket section to some grand dames wailing in the audience: "Shut up, bitches of the sixteenth!" Jean Cocteau wrote that "All the elements of a scandal were present. The smart audience with tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The latter would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes …  The audience played the role that was written for it."

After Part I of the ballet, the house lights were put on so the police could carry out the people making all the trouble, but as soon as Part II started, the clamor returned, and didn't abate until the end. In this case, the "riot" was confined to the theater, and did end with the close of the performance. Afterward, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and Nijinsky grabbed a cab to get some dinner, and although they were said to be weeping over dinner, Diaghilev's comment on the evening became famous: "It was just what I wanted."

The piece can be heard and viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=if-vQRAG-IA.

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