Is the Variety Theater an (anti-)archive? I had this thought reading over Marinetti’s manifesto. I can’t quite put my finger on either side of this divide—in some ways it feels archival, and in many ways it seems to try to destroy some of the ideas behind an archive. At the very least, in doing both, it gets to be a little Dada. So there’s that.
“Futurism,” Marinetti claims, “wants to transform the variety theater into a theater of amazement, record-setting, and body-madness.” Record-setting suggest that his variety theater is trying to make sense of something. For all its claims for disposing the original logic of the theater—perhaps introducing a new logic is a better way to put it—there is a desire to retain the old works, albeit in new ways: “Systematically prostitute all of classic art on the stage, performing for example all the Greek, French, and Italian tragedies, condensed and comically mixed up.”
In this hypothetical performance, the classic (western!) tragedies would be juxtaposed, remixed, interrupted by one another. They wouldn’t, I assume, be played chronologically. The effects of this would be to show the similarities and differences between these works. They’d be performing a kind of archaeology on stage. It wouldn’t be a narrative of progress—Greek tragedies influencing the Italian then influencing the French. Having them played simultaneously condenses time and space into one room, changing the audience’s experience of history and tradition.
The manifesto’s second goal, “Prevent a set of traditions from establishing itself in the Variety Theater,” is an attempt to escape a prevailing ideology. It wants to create a new logic out of cultural mainstays. I find it curious that Marinetti wants to disrupt, but is always using terms like “system” and “logic” and “type.” His method is not random, not entirely. (And what is a manifesto if not a declaration of an ideology?)
In the aforementioned hypothetical performance, the archive would be made up of western tragedies. We have parameters to work with. We have selected works to think about. No matter how random it may appear to the audience, someone must direct it. But eventually we hit the problem of the Futurist’s tinkering: at what point does reconfiguring and restructuring these plays create a new piece of art? When does the archive stop collecting and start creating? Is it an archive of the moment? These are performances, after all, so they would only exist for one night. No matter how closely the next night’s performance came, it would be a new experience for the audience, for the actors. It’s couldn’t be a permanent archive. Can such a thing exist?
If we take the claim that the archive is actually interested in us, what do we make of all the pranks played on the audience? It’s a little on the nose, but the audience becomes part of the performance, part of the archive. The variety theater isn’t so much concerned with what’s happening on stage, but with how it challenges, prods, pokes, scratches, and frustrates its audience.
At the very least, the variety theater presents one view of what an archive could accomplish, if it were allowed complete freedom over its subjects. It may not be academically productive, but it opens up new avenues for consideration.