Sami Rosenstock

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Tristan Tzara, whose real name was Sami Rosenstock, was born on April 4, 1896, in Moinesti, a small town in the province of Băcău, in northeastern Romania. His parents were Jewish, his father a prosperous merchant. Tzara first attended school in Moinesti, where Romanian was spoken, but later, when he was sent to Bucharest for his secondary education, he attended schools where instruction was also given in French. In addition to languages, Tzara studied mathematics and music. Following his graduation in 1913, he attended the University of Bucharest for a year, taking courses in mathematics and philosophy.

It was during this adolescent period, between 1911 and 1915, that all Tzara’s Romanian poems were written. His first published poems appeared in 1912 in Simbolul, a short-lived Symbolist review that he helped to edit. These first four poems were signed with the pseudonym “S. Samyro.” The subsequent poems in Romanian that Tzara published during this period were often signed simply “Tristan” or “Tzara,” and it was not until near the end of this period, in 1915, that the first Romanian poem signed “Tristan Tzara” appeared.

In the fall of 1915, Tzara went to Zurich, in neutral Switzerland, where he became involved with a group of writers and artists—including Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Janco, and Hans Arp—who were in the process of forming an artistic movement soon to be called “Dada.” This period, between Tzara’s arrival in Zurich in the fall of 1915 and February of 1916, was the germinating period of the Dada movement. The Dadaists’ first public announcement of the birth of a new movement in the arts took place at the Cabaret Voltaire on the evening of February 5, 1916—the occasion of the first of many such Dada soirees. These entertainments included presentations such as “simultaneous poems,” which confronted the audience with a chaotic barrage of words made incomprehensible by the din; recitations of “pure sound-poems,” often made up of African-sounding nonsense syllables and recited by a chorus of masked dancers; satirical plays which accused and insulted the audience; and, always, the ceaseless manifestos promoting the Dada revolt against conformity. Tzara’s work during this period was written almost entirely in French, and from this time on he used that language exclusively for his literary productions.

As the activities of the Zurich Dadaists gradually attracted notice in other countries, especially Germany and France, Tzara’s own fame as an artist spread to an increasingly larger audience. The spread of Dada’s fame from Zurich to other centers of avant-garde activity in Europe was aided by the journal Dada, edited by Tzara and featuring many of his most provocative works. Although this journal lasted only through five issues, it did draw the attention of Guillaume Apollinaire in Paris, and through him the devoted admiration of André Breton, who was later to be one of the leaders of the Surrealist movement. At Breton’s urging, Tzara left Zurich shortly after the Armistice was declared, arriving in Paris in December of 1919.

For a short period between January of 1920, when the first public Dada performance in Paris was held, and May of 1921, when Breton broke his association with Tzara to assume the leadership of the developing Surrealist movement, Breton and Tzara organized an increasingly outrageous series of activities which frequently resulted in public spectacles. Following Breton’s break with the Dada group, Tzara continued to stage public performances in Paris for a time, collaborating with those who remained loyal to the Dada revolt. By July of 1923, however, when the performance of his play The Gas Heart was disrupted by a Surrealist counter demonstration, even Tzara regretfully admitted that Dada was effectively dead, a victim of its own destructive impulses. Tzara gave up the Dada ideal reluctantly and continued to oppose the Surrealists until 1929, when he...

(The entire section is 1,778 words.)