During the early 1930s, the French dramatist and actor Antonin Artaud put forth a theory for a Surrealist theatre called the Theatre of Cruelty. Based on ritual and dream, this form of theatre launches an attack on the spectators’ subconscious in an attempt to release deep-rooted fears and anxieties that are normally suppressed, forcing people to view themselves and their natures without the shield of civilization. Artaud envisioned the breakdown of the barriers between spectator and performer to heighten the theatre going experience. These theories have acted as a catapult for many subsequent avant garde theatre practitioners (Innes. P. 61).
In 1938, Artaud published The Theatre and Its Double, the most important of his works. This book contained the two manifestos of the Theater of Cruelty, essential texts in understanding his artistic project. The Theatre of Cruelty minimizes the text by emphasizing screams, inarticulate cries, and symbolic gestures. Graphically portraying the extremes of human nature on stage in order to shock the audience and thus evoke the necessary response, transcending the performance above simple entertainment. Artaud hoped that his Theatre of Cruelty would leave the audience with some kind of revelation within themselves, disturbing their tranquility of mind, and liberating their subconscious. He intended that “all that is dark buried, buried deep, unrevealed in the mind, should be manifested in a sort of physical projection as real” (Innes. P. 70). This was to be achieved through the ‘cruelty’ of the spectacle. However, we should not take cruelty to mean violence, it must be taken in its broadest sense. The cruelty is not exclusively sadistic or bloody (Artaud in, Shumacher, 2001. P. 119). Artaud thought of it as an agent to heighten response by magnification “the spectatorâ€¦ will be shaken and set on edge by the internal dynamism of the spectacle” (Innes. P. 65). He wanted to show humanity in its raw state before it was changed by society. It was this idea of the ‘raw state’ that was central to his vision, to go back to the ‘uncivilized’ roots that the likes of Balinese Theater came from.
Artaud expressed his admiration for Eastern forms of theatre, particularly the Balinese Theatre, in his book The Theatre and Its Double. It was at the Colonial Exposition of 1931, where he saw the Balinese Theatre, that he was struck by the tremendous difference between those plays and our traditional Western play. He was impressed by the “instinctive survival of magic” (Innes. P. 59) in Balinese Theatre and was taken in that it gave little emphasis to words. Artaud was convinced that words are incapable of expressing certain attitudes and feelings, and that by rediscovering universal physical signs, or hieroglyphs, they would be revealed, while verbal expression became incantation.
“Every show will contain physical, objective elements perceptible to us all. Shouts, groans, apparitions, surprise, dramatic movements of all kinds, the magic beauty of the costumes modeled on certain ritualistic patterns, brilliant lighting, vocal, incantational beauty, attractive harmonies, rare musical notes, colours of objects, the physical rhythm of moves whose build and fall will be wedded to the beat of moves familiar to all, the tangible appearance of new, surprising objects, masks, puppets many feet high, abrupt lighting changes, the physical action of lighting stimulating heat and cold, and so on.” (Artaud in, Shumacher, 2001. P. 113)
All of these elements made up Artaud’s stage language, creating ‘scenic rhythms’ (Innes. P. 66) where words spoken on the stage will then have the power they possess in dreams. Action will remain the center of the play, but its purpose is to reveal the presence of extraordinary forces in man. Artaud wanted his stage to take shape as it would in a dream, seemingly random and chaotic but symbolic. He wanted the action to look improvised to seem chaotic; however, the movements were meticulously directed. For The Cenci Artaud broke down actions into mathematical sequences. Mass movements were based on geometric forms, in particular the circle, that would be instantly recognisable to the audience (Innes. Pp. 67-68).
Artaud was the first to search for theatrical forms that were specifically uncivilized and non-European. He anticipated the search for spirituality in theatre that has had such a presence since his time. All evidence of his Theatre of Cruelty has been drawn from his writings; his work on the stage has been almost entirely dismissed. “Artaud’s name elicits a formula: Primitivism – Ritual – Cruelty – Spectacle” (Innes. P. 60) and although he has been attacked on various grounds his theory is also credited with a total reinvention of theatre. Although a highly influential figure in avant garde theatre Artaud did not gain to recognition until the 1964 Theatre of Cruelty experiment by Peter Brook and Charles Marowitz at London Amateur Dramatic Association (LAMDA).
Peter Brook became a convert to avant garde at a relatively late point in his career. Looking to Anouilh and Cocteau Brook came to a concept of non-verbal poetry of the theatre, but it was Genet’s play The Screens that lead to his exploration of Artaud in 1964, and consequently the Theatre of Cruelty experiment with Marowitz. Their Theatre of Cruelty experiment was designed as a training for actors, and culminated in a series of demonstration performances that included the first staging of Artaud’s surrealist playlet The Spurt of Blood. The results were incorporated into a production of Genet’s The Screens and Brooks striking interpretation of Marat Sade. This attempt to translate Artaud’s theories to the stage lead Brook to his search for a ritualistic theatre. Brook and Marowitz described their aims for the Theatre of Cruelty experiment in an incredibly inflated way:
“to create “the poetic state, a transcendent experience of life” through shock effects, cries, incantation, masks, effigies, and ritual costumes; to use changes of light to “arouse sensations of heat and cold”; to present different actions in separated areas “all flooding one’s subconscious simultaneously”; and to create discontinuous physical rhythms “whose crescendo will accord exactly with the pulsation of movements familiar to everyone”, corresponding to “the broken and fragmentary way in which most people experience contemporary reality.”” (Innes. P. 127)
This statement very much reflects how Artaud himself had talked about his staging. The workshop, however, had a different aim than Artaud and more successful in the demonstration of this concept. Brook was not as spiritual as Artaud who believed that his theatre could lead to spiritual awakening and act as a guide for enlightenment. Brook was simpler, looking instead to reinvigorate theatre through a theatrical vocabulary not tied to language. Brook used all aspects of theatre to stage Artaud’s ideas including lighting, set, props, costumes and, most importantly, action. All served to present the audience with a real, raw, emotional experience.
Some of the exercises Brook practised included an actor attempting to portray a certain state without using any physicality at all, while those watching tried to guess the state he was in. This was of course impossible, which was the point of the exercise, to show that physicality was incredibly important on the stage. He built on this exercise when training actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company for his performance of The Screens. Where the actor attempted to “communicate an internal state through thought transfer, adding vocal sound and physical rhythms “to discover what was the very least he needed before understanding could be reached.”” (Innes. P. 127). These exercises embody Brook’s understanding of the Theatre of Cruelty. Through the physical the truth of human nature and emotions are reached. We sympathise more with the crying woman whose body is wrenching in sobs than the woman who stands still struggling to produce a tear.
It was Brook’s production of Weiss’ Marat/Sade that brought great recognition to Artaud’s theories. Artaud had been quoted that Sade was his definition of ‘cruelty’ so Brook decided to focus solely on the Artaudian side of the play (Innes. P. 130). The acting consisted largely of pathological symptoms, graphically displaying the physical state of spastics, catatonics etc. Actors were shown videos of Nigerian native rituals to prepare for their parts, in which participants reached extreme states of savage madness. This mirrored the positive value placed on insanity by many avant garde artists and related to Artaud’s vision through its grotesque exoticism. This shows the beginnings of Brook’s interest with primitivism.
Brook used the same shock and awe techniques as Artaud, but unlike Artaud he was able to make the concept clear on stage. Artaud intended to make a new theatre, of something that resembled dreams or nightmares. He wanted to take theatre back to the uncivilized and ritualistic side of society. There was a contradiction with the theories he wrote and what he presented on stage but it is his writing that continue to be referenced. It is his idea of the ritualistic that has been mirrored in contemporary avant garde practises. Brooks work on ritualistic theatre, and primitivism, influences modern theatre practitioners just as the works of Artaud influenced him.
Ed. Schumacher, C. & Brian Singleton. 2001. Artaud on Theatre. (Methuen Publishing Limited: London)
Innes, C. 1993. Avant Garde Theatre 1892-1992. (Routledge: London)