Theatre of Cruelty

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The Theatre of Cruelty (French: Théâtre de la Cruauté) is a surrealist form of theatre theorised by Antonin Artaud in his book The Theatre and its Double. "Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle," he writes, "the theatre is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds." By "cruelty," Artaud referred not to sadism or causing pain, but rather a violent, austere, physical determination to shatter the false reality that, he wrote, "lies like a shroud over our perceptions."


Artaud BNF

Antonin Artaud spoke of cruelty (French: cruauté) not in the sense of violent behaviour, but rather the cruelty it takes for actors to show an audience a truth that they do not wish to see. He believed that text had been a tyrant over meaning, and advocated, instead, for a theatre made up of a unique language that lay halfway between thought and gesture. Artaud described the spiritual in physical terms, and believed that all expression is physical expression in space.

Artaud thought that society and the world of theatre had become an empty shell. In the Theatre of Cruelty, he was trying to revolutionize theatre – figuratively burn it to the ground so that it could start again. He was trying to connect people with something more primal, honest and true within themselves that had been lost for most people.

Stephen Barber explains that "the Theatre of Cruelty has often been called an impossible theatre--vital for the purity of inspiration which it generated, but hopelessly vague and metaphorical in its concrete detail." This impossibility has not prevented others from articulating a version of his principles as the basis for explorations of their own. "Though many of those theatre-artists proclaimed an Artaudian lineage (Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Richard Schechner among them)," Susie Tharu argues, "the Artaud they invoke is marked by a commitment as ahistorical and transcendent as their own." There is, she suggests, another 'Artaud' and "the tradition he was midwife to." 1

The German dramatist Heiner Müller, who along with Caryl Churchill and Pina Bausch has been identified as having produced a fusion or critical dialogue between Artaudian and Brechtian performance in their work (which is one characteristic of the postmodern in theatre), argues that we have yet to feel or to appreciate fully Artaud's contribution to theatrical culture; his ideas are, Müller implies, 'untimely' (in Nietzsche's sense):2

"ARTAUD THE LANGUAGE OF CRUELTY Writing from the experience that masterpieces are accomplices of power. Thought at the end of the Enlightenment, which began with the death of God; the Enlightenment is the coffin in which he is buried, rotting with the corpse. Life is locked up in this coffin. THOUGHT IS AMONG THE GREATEST PLEASURES OF THE HUMAN RACE Brecht has Galilei say, before he is shown the instruments. The lightning that split Artaud's consciousness was Nietzsche's experience, it could be the last. The emergency is Artaud. He tore literature away from the police, theater away from medicine. Under the sun of torture, which shines equally on all the continents of this planet, his texts blossom. Read on the ruins of Europe, they will be classics."3

Productions and staging

Artaud wanted to “abolish the stage and auditorium,” and to do away with sets and props. He envisioned the performance space as an empty room with the audience seated in the center and the actors performing all around them. The stage effects included overwhelming sounds and bright lights in order to stun the audience's sensibilities and completely immerse them in the theatrical experience.4 In his lifetime, Artaud only produced one play that put the theories of the Theatre of Cruelty into practice. He staged and directed Les Censi, adapted from the dramatic work of the same title by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in 1935 at the Théâtre des Folies-Wagram in Paris.5 The play was neither a commercial or critical success and ran for only 17 performances. Artaud, however, believed that, while he was forced to limit the scope of his vision due to financial constraints, Les Censi succeeded in exemplifying the tenants of the Theatre of Cruetly.5

According to scholar Pericles Lewis, the influences of the Theatre of Cruelty can most clearly be seen in the works of Jean Genet, a post World War II playwright. His plays featured ritualized murder and systemic oppression in order to show the negative consequences and suffering caused by political subjugation.4 In the 1960s, a number of directors began to incorporate Artaud's theories and staging practices in their work, including Jerzy Grotowski at the Theater Laboratory in Poland. In England, famed theatre director Peter Brook experimented with the Theatre of Cruelty in a series of workshops at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). These experiments are reflected in his direction and staging of RSC's lauded 1966 production of Marat/Sade, a play with music by Peter Weiss.6 Marat/Sade uses dramatic devices developed by both Artaud and Brecht to depict class struggle and human suffering in the midst of changing social structures.

Modern philosophical application

In 2011, a group of geography and sociology professors used the Theatre of Cruelty as a conceptual heuristic to explicate agrarian struggle and deforestation in the Amazon Basin. These professors: “…suggest that theater, more generally, provides structure for cruel performance, and that violent land conflict, together with forest destruction, constitutes a predictable tragedy of theatrical events. In other words, violent land conflict in Amazonia, with all its terrible implication for people and environment, can be grasped as a theatrical structure with philosophic and material consequences for mind and body.”7

See also

External links


  • Antonin Artaud, Mary C. Richard (translator), The Theater and Its Double. Grove Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8021-5030-6
  • Barber, Stephen. 1993. Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs. London: Faber. ISBN 0-571-17252-0.
  • Howe Kritzer, Amelia. 1991. The Plays of Caryl Churchill: Theatre of Empowerment. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-52248-6.
  • Jamieson, Lee. 2007. Antonin Artaud: From Theory to Practice London: Greenwich Exchange. ISBN 978-1-871551-98-3.
  • Müller, Heiner. 1977. "Artaud The Language of Cruelty." In Germania. Trans. Bernard Schütze and Caroline Schütze. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Ser. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990. ISBN 0-936756-63-2. p. 175.
  • Price, David W. 1990. "The Politics of the Body: Pina Bausch's Tanztheater". Theatre Journal 42.3 (Oct). 322-331.
  • Tharu, Susie J. 1984. The Sense of Performance: Post-Artaud Theatre. New Delhi : Arnold-Heinemann. ISBN 0-391-03050-7.
  • Walker, Robert, Simmons, Cynthia, Aldrich, Stephen, Perz, Stephen, Arima, Eugenio and Caldas, Marcellus. 2011. The Amazonian Theater of Cruelty. The Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Volume 101: 1156-1170.


  1. ^ See Tharu (1984).
  2. ^ For the Brecht-Artaud dialogue in postmodern theatre, see Wright (1989), Price (1990), and Howe Kritzer (1991).
  3. ^ Müller (1977), p. 175.
  4. ^ a b Lewis, Pericles (2007). The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 200. 
  5. ^ a b Vork, Robert (March 13, 2013). "Things That No One Can Say: The Unspeakable Act in Artaud's Les Cenci". Modern Drama 56 (3): 1. 
  6. ^ "Theater of Cruelty". Styles of Performance – Theater of Cruelty. Abilene Christian University. Retrieved March 28, 2013. 
  7. ^ Walker (2011)

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