Tristan Tzara

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Although the largest part of Tristan Tzara’s work consists of a vast body of poetry—filling more than thirty volumes—he did experiment with drama, publishing three plays during his lifetime: Le Coeur à gaz (wr. 1921, pb. 1946; The Gas Heart, 1964), Mouchoir de nuages (1924; Handkerchief of Clouds, 1972), and La Fuite (1947; the flight). His important polemical writings appeared in two collections: Sept Manifestes Dada (1924; Seven Dada Manifestos, 1977) and Le Surréalisme et l’après-guerre (1947; Surrealism and the postwar period). Much of Tzara’s critical and occasional writing, which is substantial in volume, remains unpublished, including book-length works on François Rabelais and François Villon, while the published portion includes Lampisteries (1963; English translation, 1977), Picasso et la poésie (1953; Picasso and poetry), L’Art Océanien (1951; the art of Oceania), and L’Égypte face à face (1954).


Tristan Tzara’s importance as a literary figure of international reputation rests primarily upon his relationship to the Dada movement. Of all the avant-garde movements which challenged the traditional foundations of artistic value and judgment at the beginning of the present century, Dada was, by consensus, the most radical and disturbing. In retrospect, the Dada aesthetic, which was first formed and expressed in Zurich about 1916, seems to have been a fairly direct response to World War I; the Dadaists themselves suggest as much in many of their works during this period.

The harsh, confrontational nature of Dada is notorious, and Tzara was one of the most provocative of all the Dadaists. In his 1930 essay, “Memoirs of Dadaism,” Tzara describes one of his own contributions to the first Dada soiree in Paris, on January 23, 1920, in which he read a newspaper while a bell rang. This attitude of deliberate confrontation with the conventional, rational expectations of the audience—to which the Dadaists juxtaposed their illogical, satirical productions—is defended by Tzara in his most famous polemical work, “Manifeste Dada 1918” (“Dada Manifesto 1918”), in which he asserts the meaninglessness of Dada and its refusal to offer a road to truth.

To escape the machinery of human rationality, the Dadaists substituted a faith in spontaneity, incorporating the incongruous and accidental into their works. Even the name by which the Dadaists called themselves was chosen rather arbitrarily. According to most accounts (although this report is subject to intense difference of opinion among Dadaists), it was Tzara himself who chose the word dada, in February of 1916, by opening a French dictionary to a randomly selected entry.

Tzara’s achievements are not limited solely to his leadership in the Dada movement. Until recently, Tzara’s later work—which is more optimistic in tone and more controlled in technique—has been overshadowed by his more violent and sensational work from the Dada period. It is now becoming apparent to many readers and critics that the Surrealist phase of Tzara’s work, the little-known work of his post-Surrealist phase, and his early pre-Dada work in Romanian, are equally important in considering his contribution to modern literature. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, largely through the work of editors and translators such as Mary Ann Caws, Henrí Behar, and Sasa Pană, this work became more readily available.


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 joined the Paris Surrealist group, accepting Breton’s leadership. Tzara’s resumption of activities with Breton’s group was also accompanied by an increasing move toward political engagement.

The same year that he joined the Surrealists, Tzara visited the Soviet Union, and the following year, in 1930, the Surrealists indicated their dedication to the Communist International by changing the name of their own journal, La Révolution surréaliste, to Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. For Tzara, this political commitment seemed to be a natural outgrowth of his initial revolt, for, as he wrote later in Le Surréalisme et l’après-guerre: “Dada was born . . . from the deep feeling that man . . . must affirm his supremacy over notions emptied of all human substance, over dead objects and ill-gotten gains.”

In 1935, Tzara broke with the Surrealists in order to devote himself entirely to the work of the Communist Party, which he officially joined at this time. From 1935 to 1937, he was involved in assisting the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, salvaging art treasures and serving on the Committee for the Defense of Culture. This political engagement continued during World War II, with Tzara serving in the French Resistance, all the time continuing to publish his work, despite widespread censorship, under the pseudonym “T. Tristan.” In 1946 and 1947, he delivered the lectures that make up Le Surréalisme et l’après-guerre, in which he made his controversial assessment of Surrealism’s failure to influence Europe effectively between the wars. In 1955, Tzara published À haute flamme (at full flame), a long poetic reminiscence in which he reviewed the stages of his lifelong revolt and reaffirmed his revolutionary aesthetic....

(The entire section is 3857 words.)