1. Futurist Performance

December 12, 1913

Spectators crowd into the Teatro Verdi in Florence, Italy, to witness an unprecedented event: a Futurist serata, or “evening.”

gif of restless crowd
static3.wikia.nocookie.net

The audience is restless. They’ve been anticipating the event, whipped into excitement by a storm of publicity spread around the city via posters, fliers, and newspapers. The instigators are Italian Futurists: Giovanni Papini, the self-proclaimed “ugliest man in Italy,” and F. T. Marinetti, possibly the loudest. Four years earlier in 1909, Marinetti’s thunderous “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” had blasted the Italian public, violently rejecting tradition, calling for the destruction of libraries and museums, glorifying war, and exalting speed and mechanization.1

serata
Reaction to a serata in Turin, 1910. Cartoon by Umberto Boccioni.

Now, in the theater, Marinetti ascends the stage and launches a barrage of insults at the audience. They erupt, hurling slurs, cheers, howls, and rotten vegetables. Deftly catching an egg as it vaults toward his head, Marinetti shouts, “Your frenzied behavior gives me pleasure. The only argument the passatisti have is a horde of dirty vegetables”.2

Papini appears and attacks the city of Florence for being “marked by the past as by a disease” and requiring “the fresh air of futurism” to rid it of the “disgusting passé-ists who make their home here” (Burke 156). The audience roars. Somewhere in its midst, a tall, striking woman “with grey-blue eyes,” “waved black hair,” and “strange, long earrings” sits smiling, lips closed and eyes wide open (Burke 173).

Three days later, the Futurist newspaper, Lacerba, declares the event a triumph, claiming victory over a crowd of 5,000 spectators, whose “overwhelming vulgarity, personal hates, posthumous resentments, drunken frenzy of being many against few, [and] raging stupidity” they had transformed into “a magnificent spectacle” (Burke 156).

Front page of Lacerba, 15 December 1913, featuring article on Grande Serata Futurista
“Grande Serata Futurista,” Lacerba Periodico Quindicinale, Florence, 15 December 1913. Vol. I, n. 24. pp. 281-296.

Mina Loy—the striking woman with the strange earrings—shares their sense of accomplishment, feeling as cleansed and exhilarated by the event “as if she had benefited by a fortnight at the seashore” (Burke 156). But she is not convinced that the Futurists control the crowd. She teases Marinetti, telling him he has no identity apart from the crowd: “Even there you are a spurious entity, drawing ‘something’ out of an audience to give back to them in your superb pretentiousness as yourself” (Burke 156). Far from having mastered the audience, he is utterly dependent upon it. Her taunt strikes a nerve, and he counters by forbidding her from attending any more Futurist seratas.

Loy’s Exile from Futurism

This end of this anecdote presages Mina Loy’s permanent exile from the Futurist movement. “I am in no way considered a Futurist by Futurists,”  she confided to Carl Van Vechten, her friend and literary agent in the mid-teens. Despite exhibiting three portraits at the First Free Futurist International Exhibition in Rome and publishing “Aphorisms on Futurism,” the first Futurist manifesto written in English, Loy remains marginal or absent in most histories and anthologies of Futurism, even when dedicated to the role of women.3 (Read more about Futurist art in Linda Kinnahan’s “Futurist Florence/Futurist Rome.”)

The anecdote also complicates the story of Loy’s artistic and erotic involvement with the Italian Futurists, which has become a touchstone of Loy studies, essential to the mythology of her avant-garde exceptionalism. Loy was powerfully attracted to the Futurists (so the story goes); she was awakened by their electric influence, but ultimately repelled by their corrosive misogyny—the infamous “contempt for woman” declaimed in their founding manifesto (Rainey 51, Burke 178-9, Arnold 84, Augustine 92, Schmid 1).

Loy became entangled in triangulated affairs with Marinetti and Papini between 1913 and 1916, while living in Florence, estranged from her husband, English artist Stephen Haweis. When her affairs with the Futurists fizzled, she left her children with their Italian nursemaid and moved to New York for a two-year residency, shifting affiliation to a proto-Dada set that included platonic cohorts, Marcel Duchamp, Pierre Roche, Louise Norton, and Beatrice Wood, and the love of her life, boxer-poet Arthur Cravan.

Although scholarship routinely attributes Loy’s disaffection from the Futurists to their misogyny, recent critics have begun to recognize that her critique of the movement was more complex and multi-faceted. It wasn’t just about sexism, though that was certainly part of it, since sexism permeated aesthetic values. As Jessica Burstein points out, Loy also diverged from the Futurists in her thinking about originality and habits of affiliation (155-6). In addition, Loy developed different views about artistic identity, Sarah Hayden argues, and “used the transatlantic loudspeaker thus granted her, in Rogue, Camera Work, and Others, to launch a complex critique of the [Futurist] movement—not for its problematic politics but for the flaws and fractures that trouble its template of avant-garde artisthood” (58). What has yet to be recognized in Loy’s multifaceted critique of Futurism is her resistance to their attitudes toward audience. This chapter puts the spotlight on Loy’s evolving attitudes toward audience, as she as she sought to court them in a series of early plays.

Italian Futurism & Audience

We futurists teach contempt for the audience.

– F. T. Marinetti, “The Pleasure of Being Booed” (1911, Rainey 96)

The Futurist serata reconfigured the artist “as a performer within a public space” and “art-making became a form of theater” (Hayden 16-17). As the Futurist artist’s role shifted “from creator to innovator, inventor, and visionary,” as he assumed the role of instigator intent on shattering traditions and conventions, his attitude toward audience became more oppositional and contemptuous: “the Futurist artist was remade as a relentless, often obstreperous vocal performer—a voice interrupting and disrupting public discourse” (16). The audience was reconfigured in the process, transformed into the target, object, and conquest of the Futurist performance artist.

According to Christina Poggi, Futurist discourse represents the audience in the figure of la folla, or the crowd—a phantasm of fear and fascination (711). The Futurists wanted to exploit the unruly energy of the crowd, yet remain superior, autonomous, and in control. They “understood the crowd to be ‘feminine’ in its malleability, its incapacity to reason, its susceptibility to flattery and hysteria, and its secret desire to be seduced and dominated.”4

In his 1916 “Dynamic and Synoptic Declamation,” Marinetti boasts of his “experience of the femininity of crowds and weakness of their collective virginity in the course of forcing futurist free verse upon them” (Rainey 220). He characterizes his approach as an erotic seduction:

I have amused myself with seducing and moving them better and more reliably than all the other declaimers of Europe, insinuating into their obtuse brains the most astonishing images, caressing them with the most refined vocal sensations, with velvety softnesses and brutalities until, mastered by my look or entranced by my smile, they feel a feminine need to applaud something they neither understand nor love. (Rainey 220)

Marinetti contrasts his masculine supremacy and autonomy with the feminine pliability and dependency of the crowd. Fatuous female audiences receive a new and disturbing form of stimulation that “they neither understand nor love.” The male Futurist is utterly in control, superior in knowledge, and free from any bonds of affection. A similarly chauvinistic bravado animates the “Futurist Synthetic Theater” of 1915, with a list of stupidities including: “It’s stupid to pander to the primitivism of the crowd” (207).5

The Folly of La Folla

Not surprisingly, this approach to audience did not satisfy Loy, not just because of its sexism. She saw the folly in the Futurist fascination with la folla. Instead of imagining the crowd as a mindless, primitive mass susceptible to artistic mastery, she recognized the artist’s dependence on an audience. She understood the relationship between performer and audience to be a reciprocal, co-dependent, mutually sustaining one—an interpersonal exchange that plays out in both private and public life, on both intimate and grand scales.

Departing from the pugilistic attitude toward the public typical of the historical avant-garde, Loy turned outward in a way more characteristic of the en dehors garde, courting an audience rather than assaulting them. As a white, middle-class woman, Loy could not appear in public—in person, writing, or art—with the same power, freedom, or authority exercised by her white male counterparts in the Futurist movement. Instead she worked strategically to analyze and transform the gender conventions that constrained her public and private performances.

To scrutinize the relationship between performers and audiences, Loy turned to the theater, writing four plays between 1914 and 1920:

  • The micro-plays “Collision” and “Cittàbapini” are parodies of Futurist performance, poking fun at how Futurist men see themselves;
  • The Sacred Prostitute is a burlesque of love and sex, ridiculing how men see women;
  • The Pamperers is satire of the avant-garde, investigating how the public views the artist.

These plays may be classified as what Sarah Bay-Cheng defines as “poetic dramas,” operating simultaneously as entertainment and explorations of language: “poetic drama balances the theatrical engagement of the audience against the audience’s ability to see through the physical performance to the structure of language underneath.”6 Asserting that “the concept of audience participation and collective engagement was once the essential aim of poetic drama,” Bay-Cheng quotes editor, poet, and playwright Alfred Kreymborg:

If there ever was a common art—an art in which authors, interpreter, and audience meet at the same performance—it is the drama, and especially the poetic drama.”7

Loy was clearly sympatico with Kreymborg, who edited Others, the little magazine that provided the most substantial American outlet Loy’s poetry, and wrote Lima Beans, a one-act play Loy co-starred in with William Carlos Williams in 1917 in the Provincetown Playhouse. Loy adopts a variety of traditions and techniques to court, amuse, and involve her audience in the action of her dramas. Rather than orchestrating the audiences from above to produce a “magnificent spectacle,” she scripts plays in which spectators join artist-cum-celebrities in staging performances that seduce and absorb them all.

 

I would like to thank Nancy Selleck for reading Loy’s plays, drawing attention to her use of allegory, and helping me think about direction and staging. Her agile mind, original ideas, and generous spirit inform much of my own scholarship. Grateful appreciation also goes to Vivien Dietz, Suzanne Guasco, Annie Merrill, and Anne Wills for their insightful comments on an early draft of this essay, and to Gabriel Ford, Ann Fox, Randy Ingram, and Ben Mangrum for their comments on its initial online incarnation.

 

  1. Lawrence Rainey et al., editors, Futurism: An Anthology, p.49-53, Yale University Press, 2009, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1nq4q3.
  2. Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, p.156, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
  3. See Carolyn Burke’s biography Becoming Modern for information about Loy’s contributions to the Futurist Exhibition (166). Barry Katz’s 1989 article, “The Women of Futurism,” which compiles the biographies of eight “serious, professional women artists” who contributed to Futurism, includes only European artists and writers. The more comprehensive Futurism: An Anthology, edited by Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), does not include any work by Loy.
  4. Christine Poggi, “’Folla/Follia’: Futurism and the Crowd,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Spring 2002), p.712.
  5. The “Conclusions” of “Futurist Synthetic Theater” likewise depict the audience as a passive, feminine target of the Futurist artist/performer’s sensory assault: “Symphonize the audience’s sensibility by exploring it, by reawakening its most somnolent layers with every possible means; eliminate the preconception of the stage-apron by throwing nets of sensations between the stage and the audience; the stage action will invade the orchestra seats, the spectators” (Rainey 208).
  6. Bay-Cheng. “Modernist Poetic Drama: A Critical Introduction.” Poets at Play: An Anthology of Modernist Drama. Ed. by Barbara Cole. Susequehana University Press. 21.
  7. Bay-Cheng 26; Kreymborg, Poetic Drama: An Anthology of Plays in Verse from the Ancient Greek to the Modern American. Modern Age, 1941. 726.