From Modernism Lab Essays
Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) was in fact the author of only a few plays, but he exerted a great influence on theater after the second world through his theoretical writings, which took up a position sharing some intellectual concerns with Bertolt Brecht but proposing a “theater of cruelty” that sharply contrasted with Brecht’s epic theater. An admirer of Alfred Jarry, Artaud was briefly involved with surrealism in the 1920s. Like Brecht and Gordon Craig, he became fascinated with Asian performance art; in Artaud’s case the inspiration came from the trance-inducing Balinese ritual dance, which he first saw in 1931. He decided that the western theatrical tradition had focused exclusively on conscious experience and that a new type of theater was needed that would “reveal the hypocrisy of the world.” Whereas Brecht tried to fight hypocrisy by having his actors maintain a distance from their parts, Artaud promoted total immersion in the theater as a ritual. He thus sought to reconnect the theater with its religious roots; the Greek tragedies were originally staged as part of the Festival of Dionysus. Like other anti-theatricalists, Artaud complained that, since the Renaissance, the theater had been “falsehood and illusion.” He proposed to overcome this condition, however, not by an appeal to the intellect but by a more complete dedication to spectacle, an aspect of the theater that had been downplayed by Aristotle. In particular, he objected to the primacy of texts in theater, and announced that “we intend to base the theater upon spectacle before everything else.”
Emphasizing loud sounds and bright lights, Artaud wanted to “abolish the stage and auditorium,” and have spectators sit in the middle of a large room, while watching the action around them. He planned also to do away with sets and partitions. As in Craig’s imagined theater of super-puppets, actors would be trained to be “passive and neutral” and their faces would be replaced by large puppets and masks. A theater in which the actors gave everything to their performance would in fact be more than mere spectacle, more than Aristotle’s pity and terror; this theater would inflict psychic pain on the audience. The term “theater of cruelty” did not necessarily imply violence. Rather, Artaud’s theater, an extension and radicalization of Aristotelian catharsis, demanded the full involvement of audience and spectator and submission to the unconscious mind. Having experienced this total theater, Artaud said, “I defy the spectator to give himself up, once outside the theater, to ideas of war, riot, and blatant murder.” Artaud’s vision was realized most effectively in the post-war plays of Jean Genet, which featured ritualized murders and the enactment of oppression as a means of criticizing oppressive political systems like colonialism. In Artaud’s theater of cruelty, the attack on Aristotelian representation reaches its apogee. The philosopher Jacques Derrida later wrote of Artaud, “The theater of cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable.” Artaud and Brecht, both critics of Aristotle and of the traditional theater, present two radically different versions of the non-naturalistic theater. For Brecht, all is detachment and reason; for Artaud, all is spectacle and catharsis.