Cabaret Voltaire

from the "Dada Dictionary" in Dada: Monograph of a Movement

During the First World War, Switzerland, and more especially Zürich, became a place of retreat for refugees from all the countries of Europe. It was the ideal breeding ground for their manifestations against war, jingoism and outmoded aesthetical traditions. It was at Zürich that Lenin and his friends laid the plans for the Russian Revolution, and there lived pacifist poets such as Schickele, Leonhard Frank, and Franz Werfel. A special group was formed by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings (German poets), Hans Arp (an Alsatian painter, sculptor and poet), and two Roumanians: Marcel Janco, a painter, and Tristan Tzara, a poet.
Hugo Ball had at one time been stage director at the Munich "Kammerspiele." Later, at Zürich, he became a pianist in a group of actors providing cheap entertainment in popular music halls. At the beginning of 1916 Ball rented an empty hall belonging to Ephraim Jan, an elderly Dutch sailor who was running a "Dutch Room" at the "Meierei" ("Dairy Inn"), at Nr. 1 Spiegelgasse, Zurich. There Ball planned to open his own cabaret together with his wife Emmy Hennings, at once poetess, recitationist, and vocalist. For a name, they chose the somewhat suspicious-sounding epithet "Cabaret Voltaire." They asked Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara, members of their circle, to collaborate, and the cabaret was opened on February 5th, 1916.
Its dark premises were artists' club, exhibition room, pub, and theater, all rolled into one. The artists' performances consisted of the oddest works which had never before been seen or heard. Noise music, simultaneous poems recited by 4 to 7 voices speaking all at once, bizarre dances in grotesque masks and fancy costumes, interrupted by readings of German and French sound verses sounding like nothing on Earth, and solemn incantations of texts by the mystic Jacob Böhme and of Lao-Tse. On the walls had been hung pictures by artists whose names had been unknown until then: Arp, Paolo Buzzi, Cangiullo, Janco, Kisling, Macke, Marinetti, Modigliani, Mopp, Picasso, van Rees, Slodki, Segal, Wabel, and others.
On May 15th, 1916, Ball published a pamphlet entitled "Cabaret Voltaire," a collection of artistic and literary contributions (by Apollinaire, Arp, Ball, Cangiullo, Cendrars, Hennings, van Hoddis, Huelsenbeck, Janco, Kandinsky, Marinetti, Modigliani, Oppenheimer, Picasso, van Rees, Slodki, and Tzara). In his introduction, Ball wrote these programmatic words: "When I founded the Cabaret Voltaire, I was of the opinion that there ought to be a few young people in Switzerland who not only laid stress, as I did, on enjoying their independence, but also wished to proclaim it. I went to Mr. Ephraim, the owner of the "Meierei" restaurant and said, 'Please, Mr. Ephraim, let me have your hall. I want to make a cabaret.' Mr. Ephraim agreed. So I went to some friends of mine and asked them, 'Please, let me have a picture, a drawing, an engraving. I want to have an exhibition to go with my cabaret.' And I went to the friendly press of Zürich and said, 'Write a few notes. It shall be an international cabaret. We want to do some beautiful things.' And they gave me pictures, and they wrote the notes. So, on February 5th, we had our cabaret. Mrs. Hennings and Mrs. Leconte sang French and Danish songs. Mr. Tristan Tzara recited Roumanian verses. A balalaika band played some charming Russian folk-songs and dances. Much support and sympathy came to me from Mr. Slodki, who designed the poster for the Cabaret; and from Mr. Hans Arp, who placed at my disposal a few works by Picasso, in addition to his own works, and who also got me some pictures from his friends: O. van Rees and Arthur Segal. There was also much assistance from Messrs. Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, and Max Oppenheimer, who willingly experssed their readiness to appear at the cabaret. We organized a Russian soirée, and soon after a French one as well (with works by Apollinaire, Max Jacob, André Salmon, A. Jarry, Laforgue, and Rimbaud). On February 26th, Richard Huelsenbeck came from Berlin, and on March 30th we performed fabulous Negro music (always with the big drum, boom, boom, boom-drabatja mo gere drabatja mo boonooo...). Mr. Laban was present at the performance and was quite enthusiastic. Thanks to the initiative of Mr. Tristan Tzara, who along with Huelsenbeck and Janco, performed for the first time in Zürich and, indeed, in the whole world, simultaneous verses by Messrs. Henri Barzun and Fernand Divoire, as well as a simultaneous poem of their own composition. For the little pamphlet we are publishing today, we have to thank our own initiative and the assistance of our friends in France, Italy, and Russia. It is to exemplify the activities and the interests of the cabaret, whose whole endeavour is directed at reminding the world, across the war and various fatherlands, of those few independent spirits that live for other ideals. The next aim of the artists united here is to publish an international periodical. This will appear at Zürich and will be called 'DADA Dada Dada Dada Dada.'" (- Hugo Ball, Zürich, 15 May 1916)
In this declaration the name of "Dada" is documented for the first time, and from here it was carried into the world. On July 14th, 1916, the first Dada Soirée took place at the "Waage" hall; and in the same month the series of books, "Collection Dada," began to appear. Tzara's "The First Heavenly Adventure of Mr. Febrifuge," with illustrations by Marcel Janco, was the first to be published, then Huelsenbeck's "Fantastic Prayers" and "Schalaben Schalomai Schalamezomai," and Tzara's "25 Poems," all illustrated by Arp.
On March 17th, 1917, the "Galerie Dada" was opened at No. 19 Bahnhofstraße, and activities transferred there from the "Cabaret Voltaire," which had been closed in the meantime. "Sturm-Soirées" were given, among them a performance of Kokoschka's play "Sphinx and Man-of-Straw," an "Evening of New Art," exhibitions of ancient and modern art, etc. From July 1917, to May 1919, four issues of the new periodical "Dada" were published with Tzara as editor.
In February 1919, Picabia published No. 8 of his 'vagabond periodical' "391" with collaboration of the Zürich dadaists. October 1919 saw the publication of the last Zürich dada periodical "Der Zeltweg," edited by Otto Flake, Walter Serner, and Tristan Tzara. After the borders between the countries of Europe had been opened once more, links with Berlin, Cologne and Paris were re-established. Huelsenbeck founded a dada-group in Berlin, Arp and Max Ernst founded one in Cologne. On Tzara's initiative a particularly active group sprang up in Paris. Dada extended to Holland (van Doesburg), and Schwitters founded "Merz," his own version of DaDa, in Hannover. And the influence of DaDa extended to Italy, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Spain, Russia, and the United States.
- Hans Bolliger and Willy Verkauf