The forgotten world of Czech Dada at the Prague Writers' Festival

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When Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings launched the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in February 1916, they set into motion a process that was to cause a revolution in European art, writing and theatre. This was the beginning of Dada. The Dadaists described their work as 'anti-art', defying the prevailing artistic conventions of the time and passionately opposing the First World War. Several of Dada's founding proponents had roots in Romania, but what is less well known is that Dada also had a number of intriguing Czech connections. This is to be one of the focal points of the 17th Prague Writers' Festival that starts this Sunday, bringing together an impressive list of world-renowned writers and academics, including two of the grand old men of American letters, E. L. Doctorow and Gary Snyder. David Vaughan spoke to the festival director, Michael March.

"The festival is looking at Dada East - with a question mark - the Romanians of the Cabaret Voltaire, also attached to the concept of the lost art of Czech Dada."

The Czech Republic is a country that is not usually associated with Dada at all...

"Dada was here. Prague was actually the turnstile to the east, to the centre of Europe. When Dada came to Prague it was part of the student movement."

And one thing that really surprised me when I was looking through the publicity material for the festival was that one of the founding fathers of Dada, Walter Serner, who is often mentioned in connection with the movement, was himself from this country.

"He was a Czech Jew, who everyone believed was either Austrian or German, but he was Czech. He wrote in German. He was quite a figure - he worked in Zurich, he had a magazine called Sirius, he created the first "happenings". Hitler burned the books, he came back to Prague on September 2nd 1937. He was taken, deported to the Terezin ghetto on August 10th 1942 and disappeared from Terezin ten days later."

And so in what way is this forming part of the festival?

"We are opening an exhibition [at the Gallery Smecky] that we have brought from Zurich, called Dada East - the Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire. It is a wonderful and startling exhibition. We are hoping that on the 3rd June that we proceed from there to the Theatre Minor to talk about non-violence versus terrorism with the very great writers E. L. Doctorow, Gary Snyder, Aleksandar Hemon and A. B. Yehoshua. Why...? Because it is exactly a point on which we need to speak again and secondly because it was an idea that came from the Dadaists. The Dadaists were non-violent. They were anti-war."

The festival will also be bringing much more besides, with other guests including the Romanian poet Elena Stefoi and the Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg. You can find more details by following the link from our website to the festival's own site which is packed with information and background articles.