PIET MONDRIAN designing for the stage? Piet Mondrian of lines and rectangles, of passionless space; Piet Mondrian whose studio was devoid of the human element. Piet Mondrian who once said, "If it were up to me, I would place the actors behind the scenery in such a way that they could not be seen while making their lines heard."
It would have been a unique conjunction in the history of art. The arid precision of the de Stijl movement providing the backdrop for the lively art, the theater. In 1926, Michel Seuphor, friend and biographer of Mondrian, wrote a play called "The Ephemeral Is Eternal." He happened to show it to the Dutchman, and much to his surprise three days later Mondrian had designed a model for the set.
The play was to have been performed in Lyons but, as often happens in the theater, the money for the production fell through. The play was not performed. History marched on.
Today through Sunday, as part of its de Stijl exhibition, the Hirshhorn Museum is presenting the American premiere of "The Ephemeral Is Eternal" on the set designed by Mondrian.
Mondrian's involvement with the theater was part of his attempt to involve the utopian ideals of de Stijl in as many areas as possible. Still, one is not sure how well he understood the medium in which he was working. In a newspaper interview in 1926 he said that the actors "don't concern me. They'll be dressed like modern men, like Americans. They might just as well not appear."
Mondrian designed three different sets for the play's three "acts." If you are familiar with his work, the designs will not surprise you. There are the usual lines and rectangles of color. There are some minor problems in the set design--no way to enter or exit. The current production takes the liberty of adding some doors. The set is also intentionally shallow.
"The Ephemeral Is Eternal," according to Judith Zilzcer, historian at the Hirshhorn, "is the embodiment of the interaction between de Stijl and Dada." Both movements, she points out, were responses to the carnage of World War I. De Stijl had its pure simple visual language. Dada was a "cynical response of people to war and a rejection of politics." Donn B. Murphy, director, points out that Seuphor's play was intended to shock. "The audience of the time was used to Ibsen in box sets with bric-a-brac all over the place." The spare set was certainly different.
And the play itself was unique. It is not about anything, like any true piece of Dada. Murphy says it seemed like "arbitrary nonsense at first." Subtitled "Theatrical Demonstrations in Three Performances and Two Interludes with Choruses and Ballets," the play is awash in word games and surreal nonsense.
Seuphor's world view is described in this interchange: Character 1: "Let's talk about something serious . . . politics." Character 2: "German cooking is disgusting, English cooking is excellent." Even the name Seuphor is part of the joke. It is a pseudonym, an anagram for Orpheus.
At one point in "Ephemeral," the company charges into the house chanting "down with Seuphor," no doubt what the playwright hoped a bourgeois audience would think to itself midway through the play.
If all this sounds like the theater of the '60s, it is. This is a play of hysterical outrage. It is a happening. With its blend of political satire and surreal interludes, it is very much like the kind of work one saw performed by the Living Theater.
The production is not simply a historical recreation but an attempt to create something for the first time. Ideas have had to be added, gaps filled. Murphy is trying to reconstruct a play that was four decades ahead of its time on a set designed with the ideal that the actors be heard and not seen. To begin, he had to install doors in the side of the set. Because there is no curtain, the director came up with the idea of having four mimes work their way across the set to signal the end of each "performance" or act.
But solving the problems in this piece has led Murphy to a new respect for Mondrian's work. "As a casual observer of Mondrian's work in the past, I found it interesting but limited," he confesses. "I didn't see where it was headed. Now I understand more his search for simplicity. To escape the complex in design."
For information on performance times, call the Hirshhorn at 357-1300.