Isn’t it the way? What the French called scandalous barely caused the Brits to wiggle and waggle their stiff upper lips. We are talking about Vaclav Nijinsky’s famous, legendary, incendiary, monumental ballet choreographed to Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary and seminal 20th-century music – The Rite of Spring. Everybody and their uncle knows of the “riot” that occurred opening night in Paris on May 29, 1913. Whether or not there really was a riot is a different story, and it has been told many a time from many an angle.
“Lydia Sokolova, one of the dancers on the stage that night, said the audience came prepared,” the BBC reports. ‘They had got themselves all ready. They didn’t even let the music be played for the overture. As soon as it was known that the conductor was there, the uproar began,’ she said in an interview recorded in 1965.”
Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, which put on the performance, is said to have been hankering for a scandal. What impresario isn’t? The BBC again: “‘He knew there was going to be trouble,’ said Lydia Sokolova, and there are some signs that he was hoping for a scandal. Announcing the Rite of Spring in the Parisian press, Diaghilev had suggested it would cause ‘impassioned debate.’ In so doing, Esteban Buch suggests, he was setting the scene ‘for maybe not a riot, but at least a controversy.’ He certainly got one.”
Stravinsky is on record as having said that the storm only broke after the overture, “when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down.”
According to a piece in The Arts Desk, “the newspapers dubbed it ‘Le Massacre du printemps.’ Diaghilev’s satisfied comment was, ‘Exactly what I wanted.’”
Whether or not 40 people were arrested that night will probably remain a point of contention at least until someone decides to research the police records for that night in the Champs Elysees precinct.
But let’s now leave Paris to Paris, for today, in fact, we wander the streets of the City of Westminster, where, a month later, the scandalous Rite of Spring was offered to the judgment of London’s theatergoers at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Following the six-day run in Paris in May-June 1913, the four-day London run opened July 11.
Today the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, like so many London houses, hosts one of those abominable, endlessly-running musicals. In this case, it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, about which we couldn’t possibly care less. Do your best, when perusing the photos, to blot the Charlie marquees out in your mind. It will be easier, and more pleasant, to imagine Diaghilev, Sokolova, Nijinsky and company perhaps nervously arriving at the theater and furtively entering by way of the stage door on Russell Street. Imagine crowds of excited ticket holders gathering outside the front of the theater, waiting for the doors to open so that they could take their seats and get a glimpse for themselves of this dastardly ballet…
Except that it appears London didn’t see anything dastardly at all. Here, as quoted in a book called Confronting Stravinsky: Man, Musician and Modernist, is what Henry Cope Colles, the music critic for The Times of London, had to say:
“The functions of the composer and the producer are so balanced that it is possible to see every movement on the stage and at the same time to hear every note of the music. But the fusion goes deeper than this. The combination of the two elements of music and dancing does actually produce a new compound result, expressible in terms of rhythm – much as the combination of oxygen and hydrogen produces a totally different compound, water.”
Damn! “Balanced!” “Fusion!” “New compound result!”
Where are the flying tomatoes? The razzes? The fights and the arrests?
I would like to point out, by the way, that this review appeared in the Times the next morning after the London premiere. That is, Colles winged this – he hurried from the theater to wherever he was wont to write, and he filed this story on short deadline in order to make the morning’s papers. And look at that clarity of thought, the insight, the ability to make sense of what we now know was something absolutely, entirely new. Folks, I’m impressed. My hat’s off to Henry Cope Colles, my new hero.
On the occasion of the work’s 100th anniversary in 2013, James S. Murphy, seeking to debunk the old tale about a riotous premiere, discussed the London premiere in the Paris Review:
“When the Times of London reviewed the British premier (sic), it declared in the first sentence, ‘London takes both its pleasures and its pains more quietly than Paris.’ The review notes that ‘the applause was measured, but so were the cries of disapproval.’ The Rite went off without any major incident, as it had done in the four subsequent performances in Paris after the premiere. This is worth remembering, particularly since the anniversary has provided the occasion for several critics to indulge a nostalgia for the good old days of repression, when art could still shock. An essay in the New York Times this year by the eminent Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin captured this consternation perfectly in its headline: ‘Shocker Cools into a Rite of Passage.’ While several people have pointed to Walt Disney’s cooptation of Stravinsky’s music for Fantasia in 1940 as the moment when the work officially lost its edge, reports on the subsequent performances in Paris and the reviews of the London premiere show that it did not take three decades—or even three years—for audiences to see past the shock and find the beauty in The Rite. It took a few weeks.”
Murphy goes on:
“…The extent to which this [Paris first-night] disturbance counts as a riot really is beside the point, as is the question of what actually happened that night. What matters most is that whatever it was, it never happened again. Not once. Some small disturbances were reported at the second performance four days later, but nothing of note occurred at the final two performances of the ballet in Paris. A report on the third performance in London speculated that the English audience ‘is either surprisingly quick or surprisingly careless in accommodating ourselves to new forms of art. The first performance of [The Rite] evoked something like a hostile demonstration from a section of the audience. The third and last performance [my understanding is that there were four] was received with scarcely a sign of opposition.’ That the scandal of France could be accommodated so quickly by an English audience bewildered the reviewer and has continues (sic) to bedevil many lovers of the work.”
Fascinating stuff, I say. If you’re interested in the reasons for, and the background of, this story, start your search with the sources I have quoted. There is good information to be had. But my purpose is not to dot the last “i” in this tale, but rather, simply, to take the time to walk around the walls of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and to take the time to think about what it might have been like that opening night in London in the summer of 1913. How might it have felt, how might it have looked and sounded. Apart from the vile Charlie marquees (and that moronic quote of some critic who shall never deserve to share his profession with H.C. Colles [“Dazzling Charlie is Choc-Full of Delights!!!!!!!”]) this structure affords us a nice opportunity to do that. It appears to have changed little in the 100+ years since Nijinsky, Diaghilev and Stravinsky stormed into London to play The Right of Spring.
One more tidbit: The four London performances were the last ever of the original Nijinsky choreography. Shortly thereafter, Nijinsky ran off and married Romola de Pulszky, infuriating, and breaking the heart of, Diaghilev beyond measure. As such, this theater here marks the end of the “scandalous” first performances of The Rite of Spring, as well as the end of the storied collaboration between Diaghilev and Nijinsky.