This year marked the centenary of the publication of BLAST 1, the infamous first issue of an assemblage of Modernist prose, poetry, drama and visual art. The magazine was to initiate the Vorticist movement, and subsequently shock, move, and bewilder its contemporary audience. Published on the eve of the First World War – the first fully mechanised war – BLAST, like many Modernist works such as The Waste Land or Hugh Selwyn Mauberley¸ dealt with issues of ensuing modernity that both excited and threatened people in light of their comfortably Realist conventions.
BLAST sadly only lasted two issues before it was itself “blasted” by the narrow-minded and convention-ridden reading public. However, as the symposium’s first speaker, Andrzej Gasiorek (University of Birmingham), pointed out, there was and is no “stock reaction” to BLAST. As a whole, then, the symposium was attempting, in its celebration of BLAST, to look at the magazine in all the variety of its receptions; in all its complexity and inconsistencies; its profound influence on other writing, visual arts and publications to follow; and, ultimately, to find out whether our present, almost totally mechanised civilisation is now ready to digest this magenta-enveloped mass of madness, or whether Wyndham Lewis and his colleagues had perpetually “set too sharp a pace.”
The day saw a host of speakers who gave presentations on specific contributors or pieces in BLAST, as well as on the magazine more broadly and its function, influence and status in the literary and art worlds. Kathryn Laing (Mary Immaculate College, Limerick) spoke about Rebecca West’s short story, Indissoluble Matrimony; Alex Runchman (TCD) about the poet Ezra Pound; and Chris Lewis (Bath Spa University) about Wyndham Lewis’ famously ‘unperformable’ play, Enemy of the Stars – to name but a few.
Runchman, as part of his talk on Pound, interestingly referred to the magazine not so much as “a collection,” but rather as “one great, collaborative, explosive poem.”
Regarding BLAST’s influences, talks were also given on the magazine’s relationship to Irish Art (Nathan O’ Donnell [TCD]), W.B. Yeats (Tom Walker [TCD]), and what has followed by way of more recent visual art and magazine publications (Angela Griffith [TCD], Simon Cutts [Coracle Press]).
The day’s presentations closed with a discussion between Philip Coleman (TCD) and five Sophister English students who had taken his BLAST module last year. This discussion, in keeping with the question of whether we are ready for BLAST today, sought to decipher whether or not BLAST is suitable for the classroom. The outcome proved the magazine a thoroughly engaging and exciting piece of literature to study – albeit one that is, at times, utterly inaccessible.
Throughout the day, despite the continuously stressed point of the magazine’s hybridity as a collaborative piece, more attention was given to the magazine’s editor, manifesto writer and contributor, Wyndham Lewis, than to any other. Gasiorek, in his opening plenary, asserted that Lewis saw Vorticism as “the expression of the new order and will.” For Lewis, Vorticism championed ambitious creation, rather than Realist imitation, and dealt directly with what it means to be human, acting as an example of what art must do when confronted with that humanity. Despite the copious examples of such throughout the day, no better realisation of this concept could be found than in what was the first-ever performance of Lewis’ ‘unperformable’ play, Enemy of the Stars, adapted and directed by Nicholas Johnson (TCD) and Colm Summers (TCD).
The performance commenced with group elevator rides up to the top floor of the Long Room Hub, orchestrated by none other than Mr. Wyndham Lewis himself (Hugo Lau). Despite this being remarkably uncomfortable, with Lewis’ occasional muttering being the only thing breaking the silence, it worked excellently to break the fourth wall straight away, and was a perfect introduction to the world of the play in performance. Having placed the audience on the top floor of the building, we viewed the action by staring down the building’s central shaft. On the ground floor, we saw the play’s protagonists, Arghol (Matthew Malone) and Hanp (Colm Gleeson), and we saw Mr. Lewis narrating behind a large, glazed glass panel on the second floor. The action of the play could therefore unfold on all three levels of the building simultaneously, and, in this respect, the incredibly fortunate choice of venue allowed for the makings of an actual vortex, teeming with life in every dimension.
Although still painfully incomprehensible at every point, the directors and actors proved that the play could in fact be staged, and act, through the help of the design team, as modern art often does, in mysterious yet powerfully evocative ways. In particular, Malone and Gleeson’s choreographed interpretations of what some of the more obscure stage directions demanded touched poignantly upon this recurring notion of Vorticism as a response to modern life, and also served to echo the sculptures of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (‘Wrestlers,’ 1913, see right) – coincidently talked about earlier in the day by Sarah Victoria Turner (Yale University) – while, similarly again to Brzeska’s sculptures, slowly blurring the lines between the violent act of combat and that of erotic intimacy.
The play acted as the perfect end to the symposium, embodying the essence of BLAST in its entirety: its humour; its frequently unintelligible abstraction and diversity of content; its reaction to and representation of modern times and the modern human condition; but most of all, its outstanding beauty. If Johnson and Summers’ Enemy of the Stars is ever put on again on a larger scale, as it undoubtedly should be, I would strongly encourage you to see it.