This sparse little story of the origins of the Cabaret Voltaire in a back room in Zurich in 1916 was written by Hugo Ball, German poet, dramaturg, intellectual, and occasional pianist. Inset into the editorial text, like manuscript illuminations, are two small, angular line drawings by Marcel Janco, vignette portraits of Ball and his partner, the poet and performer Emmy Hennings. The other “young people” Ball found to join him were the Romanians Tristan Tzara and Janco, the Alsatian Hans Arp, his fellow German Richard Huelsenbeck, and a handful of other international exiles in neutral Switzerland during World War I. The passage opens Ball’s editorial, which in turn prefaces the eponymous “propaganda magazine,” Cabaret Voltaire. Published in a French and a German version in May 1916, this slim anthology sought to “document” the cabaret, though comparison of its contents with what we know of the nightly performances of the cabaret show that the publication presented a distinct and judicious selection of particular elements only.
The first published appearance of the word “Dada” is also in Ball’s text. He closes with a declaration that “The next aim of the artists brought together here is the publication of an International Review.” The final sentence shifts into the future tense. It changes, in the German version, into French: “The review will come out in Zurich and will carry the name ‘DADA’ (‘Dada’) Dada Dada Dada Dada” (Ball 1916, 5).
The narrative set a tone for many creation stories of Dada in Zurich. That mythology emphasizes personal connections, humble beginnings in a provisional home with basic materials, donated work, and loaned facilities. Ambitions are formulated with the benevolent aid of an obliging local press. And on the fifth day (of February) there was a cabaret. From a man so attuned to the languages of drama and of religion, the story’s semantic and symbolic echoes of that of God’s creation of the world from nothing, over a few days, in the Old Testament book of Genesis can be no coincidence. The irony of such associations is consistent with Ball’s own stance in relation to the cabaret in the context of World War I. Claire Goll reported that Ball was once asked, by her husband Yvan Goll, “whether a cabaret could really be a laboratory for thought and a solid podium from which to address a Europe devastated by war” to which Ball replied: “I need a little irony to be able to tolerate life and even more, to be able to bear my times” (Goll in Echte 1999, 122).
Images of birth, biblical and bodily, are abundant in other witnesses’ accounts. Huelsenbeck, who came to Zurich from Berlin to join Ball there, retrospectively hailed the cabaret “the Nazareth, the birthplace of artistic developments,” from which “warnings dressed up in nonsense” were transmitted to the “so-called civilised Western world” (Huelsenbeck 1965). Arp spoke playfully of the group’s parental joy “when in 1916 we engendered our Dada and it was born” (Arp 1958, 13). In his Zurich Chronicle of 1920, Tzara evoked the new arrival, in breathless, loosely simultaneist prose, stuttering between the visceral and material, the sexual and cerebral:
From the start, then, the Cabaret Voltaire was productively stylized by its own protagonists as a place of origin separate from and resistant to the habitual transactions of the cultural marketplace. It was implicated, rather, in a more provisional and personal economy or in one tantalizingly shady, illicit, and nocturnal. And in its mythologies its genesis was if not by miraculous, then at least by mysterious means.
The creation of “Dada” and subsequently of “Dadaism” as a working enterprise, however, was a more focused and purposive process. Involving radical eclecticism and encompassing an extraordinary range of concerns and perspectives, it nonetheless provided effective means to overcome the limitations of a local cabaret and enter, with a distinct identity, into the European marketplace for modern art and literature and into the wider public sphere. Martin Puchner discusses this aspect of Dada and his succinct conclusion is apt: “You do not need an ism to open a cabaret but you do need one to compete in the international avant-garde circuit” (Puchner 2006, 150). “Dada” served well the stylized topos of a radical break with the past inherent to the cultural politics and “propaganda” (as the dadaists themselves called it) of the wider avant-garde. Such claims, however, should be measured against Dada’s interrelations with and dependence on other groups, networks, institutions, economies, and material contexts. There is tension between a working theoretical model for the historical avant-garde, such as that proposed by Peter Bürger in 1974 (Bürger 1974) and the danger, as Hal Foster has argued with regard to Bürger, of taking the “romantic rhetoric of the avant-garde, of rupture and revolution, at its own word” (Foster 1996, 10). As Hubert van den Berg has remarked: “Before 1918 one will search in vain, at least among the Zurich dadaists, for the term ‘world revolution’” (van den Berg 1999, 159). The wider point is that in the rush to advance the revolutionary dada, sometimes lost is an accurate picture of its connectedness with, and indebtedness to the theory and practice of wider prewar and contemporary avant-gardes, to particular intellectual and spiritual traditions, and even to the institutions that were the very object of its critique.
Part of this connectedness had to do with individual biography. For all the poets, artists, and performers involved in what became Dada in Zurich, this was but one stage in careers that had taken in Paris, Munich, Berlin, Bucharest, and beyond. For all its radical challenges, Dada also meant a continuum of activity begun in other milieux. Before Dada or the Cabaret Voltaire was founded, its protagonists were active within a cosmopolitan avant-garde that increasingly countered aesthetic conservatism with a mixture of eclectic primitivism, abstraction, and internationalism. Tzara and Janco were working on the symbolist journal Simbolul in Bucharest, Ball, Hennings, and Arp on the peripheries of the Blaue Reiter in Munich, Der Sturm and Die Aktion in Berlin. All were reading and publishing in progressive literary and artistic periodicals. Most were keeping a keen eye on Futurism and on the expansion of Cubism from Paris. By 1916, wartime conditions made international communication difficult and sometimes perilous. Nevertheless, such connections significantly informed the live performances and experiments of the cabaret and beyond (Berghaus 1985).
The Cabaret Voltaire was intended and experienced from the outset as an international creative forum. Humorously deploying the imagery of the battlefield, one of its earliest reviewers, writing in the Zürcher Post, described entering to find:
The review underscores not only the emphatic international and heteroglossic character of the cabaret, but also its intermediality – the paintings in this intimate little theatre of war take on a sonic and polemic quality (the “painted trumpet-blasts and speeches”). One is also reminded of Walter Benjamin’s well-known later description of the (later) dadaist artwork as “an instrument of ballistics,” that “hit the spectator like a bullet, it happened to him, thus acquiring a tactile quality” (Benjamin 1992, 231).
Beyond the name of Heinrich Wabel (this was Henry Wabel, a local artist and well-respected teacher of painting), we know little more about the “young Zurichers” among the visual artists. The cabaret had an overwhelmingly exilic cha...