Enemy of the Stars

This is a play, written by Wyndham Lewis, included in BLAST 1. On a page entitled “ADVERTISEMENT” we have the following laid out in Grotesque No 9, the fount of the Manifesto pages, using the ‘blocky’ layouts already found there:

THE SCENE. SOME BLEAK CIRCUS, UNCOVERED,
CAREFULLY-CHOSEN, VIVID NIGHT.
IT IS PACKED WITH POSTERITY,
 SILENT AND EXPECTANT.
POSTERITY IS SILENT, LIKE THE
DEAD, AND MORE PATHETIC

We know from this introduction that we are in for no ‘normal’ play. After the characters are introduced (“two heathen clowns, grave booth animals, cynical athletes”), Lewis writes:

VERY WELL ACTED BY YOU AND ME.

After the stage arrangements (“…RED OF STAINED COPPER PREDOMINANT COLOUR. OVERTURNED CASES AND OTHER IMPEDIMENTA…”) the first character, Argol, is introduced. Further details of “Yard” and the “Super” are given. There is a further section called “The Night”, then Hanp, the other character is introduced. The rest of the play is written as if it were a short story or a novel. There is no conventional dialogue; the speech is all reported in the narrative. This makes the play rather difficult to act out. Other parts of the ‘play’ are going to be impossible to stage, as some of the narrative is what the characters are thinking. How would this be communicated in a theatre? Other parts of the narrative is a report of what is happening elsewhere (presumably off-stage), or at different periods. For example:

Beyond the canal, brute-lands, shuttered with stoney clouds, lay in heavy angels of sand. They were squirted in by twenty ragged streams; legions of quails hopped parasitically in the miniature cliffs.

Arghol’s uncle was a wheelwright on the edge of the town.

Descriptions abound regarding the character’s perceptions:

Arghol could see only ponderous arabesques of red cloud…

As we read the text, multiple questions form in the reader’s mind. How will this translate to the stage? How can this be acted? Beyond these rather fundamental problems with accepting the text as a play, there are also multiple typographical errors. Arghol’s name changes from, Argol to Arghol. The quote above mentioning ‘heavy angels of sand’ would make more sense as ‘heavy angles of sand’ though use of the word sense in this context may add to the complexity: the very concepts of ‘sense’ and ‘meaning’ are being challenged.

Elsewhere in BLAST, the Vorticists state that “the Art-Instinct is permanently primitive. In a chaos of imperfection, discord, etc, it finds the same stimulus as in Nature” (Manifesto II page 33). In other words, the Vorticists could find inspiration in the unbeautiful. Discord was something to be positively celebrated.

Following this central tenet of Vorticism, Lewis intended this play to be full of contradictions, clashing colours, and annoying internal inconsistencies. The play is undoubtedly difficult and complex to visualize, not only as a play, but as a text. The Vorticists’ Manifestos, paintings, woodcuts and sculpture are often confrontational. They were all designed not only to stand on their own merits as individual works of art, but also as agents of provocation, to confront contemporary taste. The Vorticists wanted society to abandon its long love affair with the idealistic but highly suspect Victorian linear narrative and discover an artistic experience more in harmony as it were, with modern discord: something jagged and unbeautiful, a reflection of the times, an artistic response more attuned to the realities of the moment. The society of the summer of 1914 was uncompromisingly combative. Confrontation and aggression was about to become brutal and deadly as Europe was to erupt into war only seven weeks later. The restless energy of the characters of Hanp and Arghol are surely the same restless energy that were at work in political and diplomatic circles at this same time.

The Enemy of the Stars was an attempt by Lewis to present an uncompromising alternative vision, in yet another medium, the medium of the theatre. The play was written as an example of what could be achieved using the Vorticist toolkit. Lewis succeeds in having produced the first truly Modernist play written in the English language.

Paul Edwards has already pointed out that Samuel Beckett’s expressionist works like Krapps’ Last Tape and Waiting for Godot seem to be logical progressions of this particular genre, where a sparse caste of characters explore the meaning of life in a post-apocalyptic, blasted landscape. This is rather ironic, as Lewis was writing this on the eve before the first modern apocalypse was about to start.

Lewis’s play is being produced at BLAST at 100 and at BLAST IN 2014. It will be interesting to see how the depth and breadth of Lewis’ rather difficult work will be handled on a real stage. Good luck to all!. It is understood that these will be the very first stage adaptations of his play.

There was a recital (rather than a staging) of the play at the Imperial War Museum by Adrian Henri and others – possibly to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of BLAST in 1984? Adrian Henri was a 1960′s Liverpool Poet, famous as the author of such pieces as ‘The New, Fully Automatic Daffodils’ and ‘The Entry of Christ into Liverpool’. The occasion was organised by the Wyndham Lewis Society.