Enemy of the Stars

In June 1914 the writer Wyndham Lewis published the magazine BLAST, with the help of the illustrious modernist Ezra Pound, and notable others. Its intention: to be the sounding board of the great English vortex; that is, the art movement Vorticism, which was this country’s wing of the modernist movement in art and culture that spawned the likes of futurism and cubism. Its cover was (like our first book’s) bright pink, with the word ‘BLAST’ block-printed diagonally across it. To call it ‘bold’ is a drastic understatement.

What a challenge it must have presented to the audience of its day, and what a radical challenge it can still blast us with today! (on holding up a facsimile copy in a lesson and asking students to guess at its publication date the very rational answers fell between the 1970s – the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks cover was no doubt inspired by it (as, of course, was the cover of Holly Johnson’s Blast) – and the 1990s. The propagandist basis for our belief that the time of WWI was completely stiff upper-lipped and in black and white is indeed met head on by BLAST today).

And inside its pages is Lewis’ play, Enemy of the Stars. It is a tour de force; seemingly written against performance (as can perhaps be seen from Lewis’ painting Enemy of the Stars, below), it has been deemed (however unconsciously) so unperformable by the theatre that it is only this year – the hundredth anniversary of BLAST 1 – that it has (in its original entirety) received its first productions, the premier in Dublin in July, and the second, only two weeks later, in Bath, at Burdall’s Yard. 

In Colin Edwards’ astonishing rendering of the play, put on to coincide with the Vorticism centenary conference held at Bath Spa University College, its two central characters Arghol and Hamp were brought to life mesmerisingly. With such a claustrophobic dramatis personæ there’s always the possibility, or perhaps even risk, of staging a Beckett-tinged production (risk, especially as Enemy of the Stars predates Beckett’s work), but Edwards’ truly Vorticist staging encompassed the specificity of the movement’s ethos so well, as well as showcasing all the Europeanness that the English vortex was so steeped in at the time, and more besides, with flourishes reminiscent of Luigi Pirandello, or the carnival atmosphere of Federico Fellini films.

Thus, written against performance, this play, almost miraculously, certainly wasn’t performed against its writing. With Enemy of the Stars’ appearance in theatre this year, however limited, we have borne witness to an avant garde, too avant garde even for its own time, given full rein; if it can be taken on the road it surely should be. With this play, within the pink covers of BLAST, we might recognise that that which can blast us out of our uncritical slumber in 1914 still contains that which can blast us out not only of our uncritical slumber now but also out of the uncritical dreams of the past that that slumber contains.

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