How Edith Sitwell’s Jazz Age experiment scandalized London

A century ago, on January 24, 1922, in a parlor in Chelsea, the premiere of a startling entertainment took place that baffled almost everyone present. On the other side of the room, a large curtain had been hung. It was a painted canvas, with the disturbing image of a face in the form of a mask in its center. His eyes were closed, his mouth a huge hole through which a papier-mâché megaphone protruded. Behind the tablecloth, out of sight, four musicians were squatting. A poet grabbed the megaphone, a composer raised his wand. The white light of the snow in the London square outside cast an eerie glow over the gaping mouth.

The typed programs offered were: “Miss Edith Sitwell on her Sengerphone, with accompaniment, overture and interlude by WT Walton.” The eldest of Baronet Sir George Sitwell’s three eccentric children, Edith was 34 and, like her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, unmarried. For five years she had edited an anthology of modernist poetry called Wheels.

Composer William Walton, then 22, had yet to make a name for himself. A friend of Sacheverell, known as “Sachie”, the beneficiary of relaxed patronage from the artist brothers, he lived in their attic. That night, in the brothers’ living room painted in purple, pink and blue, in front of an audience warmed by a rum punch enriched with green tea and sherry, Edith initiates the best known of what Osbert would later call the siblings. patrician. “series of skirmishes and hand-to-hand combat against the Philistine”.

The entertainment was Facade. In its first version, 18 of Edith’s poems were set to music for trumpet, clarinet, flute, cello and drums, by Walton. Did anyone understand what he heard? “The long steely grass – The white soldiers pass – The light brays like a donkey”, Edith intoned with sly humor: more than anything she wrote, Façade provided reasons for the opinion of Leonard Woolf that Edith Sitwell was “up to her neck in modernity”. ”.

In the short term, this earned him more opprobrium than admiration. The Tatler judged a performance the following month: “Almost weird, actually. A huge, grotesque face, behind which sat Edith Sitwell shouting her poems into a megaphone! It’s a novel idea anyway, but no one seemed quite able to decide whether it was clever or just crazy! A year later, the critics at Façade’s first public performance – at the Aeolian Hall on June 12, 1923 – made up their minds. The Daily Graphic called it “drool they paid to hear”. ‘Surely,’ Mr London’s gossip column suggested, ‘it’s time this sort of thing was stopped.’

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