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Anti-War Performance, Part Two

The figure of Death in The Green Table, 1932, choreographed by Kurt Jooss. This photo is from a recent performance in Salt Lake City by Ballet West. Image courtesy of Ballet West

Historically, in religious protests and in traditional arts such as Japanese Noh theater, Buddhism has been associated with a disavowal of war and an emphasis on peace. Buddhist monks have so overused the phrase “world peace” as to render it a trope. However, throughout Asia, the construction of mandalas—and their ultimate destruction—have been offered for centuries as peace rituals. The 1970s saw high-profile monastic self-immolation as an act of anti-war protest. But where are the Buddhist anti-war performance statements now, in our current age of violence and conflict?

Lysistrata reprimands a warrior. Drawing by Norman Lindsay. From

The larger history of anti-war performance is revealing. In this short survey, I will let the artworks speak for themselves as I take the opportunity to introduce and share some important works of anti-war performance. Dating as far back 411 BCE, Aristophanes’ famous comedy Lysistrata is one of the earliest examples of anti-war performance. The plot is well-known and quite funny: the women of all the warring regions during the protracted Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta join together and refuse sex until the men stop fighting. Their weariness and frustration with constant war is the driving force of the play. Lysistrata is remarkable too for the power given to women to effect social change—the goal of all anti-war art.

A wonderful translation of Lysistrata is available online, offered by Project Gutenberg, illustrated with incredible line drawings by Norman Lindsay, an early 20th century artist whose work The End of War is probably his best known. The illustrations are reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, famous for illustrating tales of Oscar Wilde—indeed Beardsley produced his own illustrations for Lysistrata—an indication of the popularity of the play, read as a text. Lindsay’s drawings are bawdier, more to the point, erotic, and funny.

Lysistrata and the women confront the old men supporting the war. Drawing by Norman Lindsay. From

In the early 20th century, art movements such as Dada, particularly the work of Francis Picabia, used absurdism and satire to take aim at the futility and ineffectiveness of armed conflict. In Europe, Bertolt Brecht’s Tanztheatre incorporated dance elements to create effects of alienation and disillusionment, forcing audiences to confront the brutal realities of war. In American modern dance, Martha Graham’s iconic Lamentation (1930) expressed a deep sorrow that resonated with a world teetering on the brink. Photographs of this solo dance by Barbara Morgan are classic, regarded as some of the finest documentations of Graham dancing.

Martha Graham in Lamentation, 1930. Photo by Barbara Morgan

The Green Table, an anti-war expressionist ballet by the German choreographer Kurt Jooss, emerged during the interwar period—a time marked by widespread disillusionment in the aftermath of World War I as well as growing political tensions leading up to World War II. The Green Table reflects the influence of expressionist, symbolist, and modernist aesthetics, characterized by stylized movement, symbolic imagery, and emotional intensity. Jooss’ choreography and staging convey the psychological and emotional toll of war, depicting themes of conflict, death, and despair with indelible visual imagery and symbolism.

Politicians on the verge of declaring war, from The Green Table, 1932, choreographed by Kurt Jooss. This photo is from a recent performance in Salt Lake City by Ballet West. Image courtesy of Ballet West

The Green Table achieved international acclaim and continues to be performed and studied by dance companies around the world. Its stark portrayal of war’s brutality and its universal themes of suffering, loss, and reconciliation resonate with audiences across cultures and generations. The ballet’s enduring relevance underscores its significance as a timeless work of anti-war performance art.

Boy taking in Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937, at the Reina Sofia Museum

Pablo Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece Guernica was painted as a “peace statement”  by the artist in the direct aftermath of the bombing of Guernica. Picasso considered it an act of protest. Contemporary graffiti artist Banksy also makes performative protest art by the very nature of his transgressive aesthetic. The late great choreographer of German Tanztheatre, Pina Basuch—who is notably the protégé of Kurt Jooss, creator of The Green Table—created several operatic works of Tanztheater grappling with post-war European identity and rebuilding, in regard to individuals, relationships, and the fabric of society itself. Bausch’s Café Mueller, 1978, captures the remnant disillusionment and damaged loves of postwar Europe.

Cafe Mueller by Pina Bausch, 1978

The enduring power of these works of art is palpable—from ancient Greek comedy performed in an amphitheater for all the citizenry, to graffiti art that has been preserved like some statement of sanity—each of  these examples of anti-war performance continues to be performed today in various mediums: pioneering modern dance solos, radical German expressionism, avant-garde performance from the 1970s and 1980s. Their longevity is tied to the timeless act of raising a cry against the inhumanity of war.

The Flower Thrower, 2003, stencil mural in Beit Sahour in the West Bank. Art by Banksy

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No One Important
No One Important
1 hour ago

Smendley Butler’s Book titled ‘War’s A Racket’ should be noted.


‘WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.’