The History of The Exquisite Corpse Art Form and How It Is Played
by Marilyn Ludolph, Ed.D
What in the world is an Exquisite Corpse?
Exquisite Corpse was a game invented by writer Andre Breton, leader of Surrealism. (Surrealism was a cultural movement known for the art and writings of its members. Surrealist works offer the element of surprise). It has been reported that Breton said that this game all started in fun, became playful, and eventually enriching. The first sentence created by Surrealists playing this game was, The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine. (The sentence was written in French). And that is how the name of the game, Exquisite Corpse was derived.
How in the world do you play Exquisite Corpse?
The Exquisite Corpse game is similar to a parlour game called Consequences.
A parlour game is a group game that was played indoors. (The word parlour comes from the French word, parler which means to speak). The parlour was referred to as the formal sitting room in a large house, and would be the living room in a home today. Parlours were popular during the Victorian era (that refers to the time of Queen Victoria of Great Britain’s reign during the late 1800’s).
The way the game (Exquisite Corpse/Consequences) is played is that players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to hide part of the writing was then pass it to the next player for their contribution.
The game has also, over time, been referred to as Cliffhangers. A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction that leaves a main character or characters in difficult dilemmas. It is hoped that the audience will continue to read (or watch) to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.
There are variations on the Exquisite Corpse. The game, adapted visually, is called picture consequences, so that instead of sentences, portions of a person were drawn. This produced a product similar to children’s books in which the pages were cut into thirds, the top third of the pages showing the head of a person or animal, the middle third the body, and the bottom third the legs, with children having the ability to “mix and match” by turning the pages. The game has also been played by mailing a drawing or collage, in progressive stages of completion, to players. This is known as the “exquisite corpse by mail” or “mail art.”
The Exquisite Corpse has also taken form in multi-arts performances, in film and in music.
Today, one form of an Exquisite Corpse can be a cumulative tale, a story that is “added upon” as the telling of the story unfolds. These stories are often called “chain tales” because each part of the story is linked to the next. Chain tales are as much games as they are narratives. WHAT happens is not as important as HOW the storyteller enacts it. The initial incident reveals both the central character and the problem, with the next scene building on the previous one, continuing to climax and then unraveling in reverse order or stopping with an abrupt surprise ending. Chain tales often have repetitive phrases like “Run, run as fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the Gingerbread man” from “The Gingerbread Boy” and its variants “Johnny Cake”, “The Pancake” and “The Bun.”
© 2009 Marilyn Ludolph; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance