New York

“The Seven Deadly Elements”

Sound upon sound; layers of actions; snatches of dialogue repeated and repeated as conversation; these elements put together as dramatic vignettes transferred the sardonic and macabre images of Max Ernst’s collages from the printed page to the stage. Improvised and analyzed into loosely thematic sketches, Ernst’s “novel” was put into a form Ernst may have never intended—but the results prove that the creative risks involved were well worth taking. Despite production problems and questionable interpretations, the performance successfully captured a surreal atmosphere without compromising the artist’s original work.

An overwhelming number of choices had to be made to structure 182 collages into recognizable “play” form. To begin, Matthew Maguire, the director, edited the text into 39 source collages—images of Victorian men and women with weird animal heads, performing violent, funny and often inexplicable acts. Ernst’s “novel” had organized the collages into seven elements, assigned to the days of the week. Ranging from mud and water to blackness, the elements were “explained” by diverse texts as Ernst’s animals and humans acted out unexplained executions or Sunday strolls, pitted man against animal or nature.

To discover the themes involved in the collages, Maguire and his actors improvised supposed motives and reasons behind each scene. Eventually, a sense of narrative emerged from these improvisations, allowing the actors to construct and maintain characterizations and small plots. Linear narrative or storytelling was not attempted—Maguire’s intent was to illuminate each collage as the apex of an action, approaching and receding from each climactic moment.

Structurally The Seven Deadly Elements was meant as a collage in itself. Projected backdrops were collages of still photos and enlarged engravings, and recorded soundtracks introduced text and sound effects. Against this background of activity the actors mimed their scenes, using as dialogue only the few spare lines Ernst had incorporated into his novel—quotations from Dadaist and Surrealist poets.

Visually, the production was faithful to the flavor of Ernst’s book. Costumes were imaginative and accurate, props were handled deftly and incorporated into the action smoothly and logically—no mean feat when cages, guillotines, sprouting wings and macabre sculptures move on and offstage. The soundtrack was effective, especially the use of the text as dialogue. How perfectly disconcerting to have ambiguous phrases bantered back and forth by half humans casually strolling about the stage.

But the problem of interpretation looms larger than the success of the technical production. Who could possibly decide what true meaning Ernst had in mind for his novel? It has been psychoanalyzed along Freudian lines as well as documented by art historians. Parallels have been drawn to Ernst’s own experience and dreams. Ernst himself has offered clues to his animal death-related imagery. His connections and loyalties to Dada and Surrealism are well known. What remains for the translation of collage to theater is the necessity of creating and maintaining some basic attitude that at least preserves the tone of Ernst’s Surrealist efforts, if it can’t definitively explain them.

The essence of this collage is the shock of the unexpected. Starting with illustrations from sensationalistic French novels, Ernst superimposed his personal imagery onto scenes already reeking of exaggerated passions and lurid situations. With his additions, the cheap thrills pictured became moments of horror, of nightmarish quality so strange and bizarre as to be comical. Inventing black humor through Surreal/Dadaism, Ernst obliquely satirized society without any specific target. The most direct expression of his attitude may be contained in the text of Friday’s element of sight, a quote from Paul Eluard: “And I object to the love of readymade images in place of images to be made.”

Does this un-Duchampian sentiment extend to the use of original and free interpretation of Ernst’s own work? If it does, perhaps he would not object to a freer, creatively personal interpretation of his novel as theater. Assuming this authorization, Maguire’s production might benefit from a more directed point of view, relaxing strict reproduction of the source to allow concentration on overall effect. An effective, mood-provoking evocation of the bizarre/banal is more important than the particular fidelity to Ernst’s pictures.

Contrast and juxtaposition are the key to the collage atmosphere of black humor. Oppressiveness is not Ernst’s intent. Humor, however black, is a constant presence, a sense of the ridiculous always his last word. Maguire’s actors should be counseled to lighten up the act, to play with less grim seriousness and more awareness of the human tragi-comedy in Ernst’s work. A too rigid respect for the source was the main problem in the production. A commitment to accuracy restricted Maguire’s freedom to invent beyond Ernst’s structure. Irreverence may be the best response to the work, a clue as to the direction in which Ernst may have been looking.

As in collage, the casual coupling of the everyday with nonchalant perverseness is the catalyst for self-recognition, perhaps self-mockery, and lastly, self-knowledge. An integrated attitude of collaged emotions would bring any production of Ernst’s surreal work closer to his multilayered views of his society.

Deborah Perlberg