More than just a Terry Pratchett short story, the Theatre of Cruelty is a type of experimental theater, a philosophy, and a discipline. The Theatre of Cruelty uses sensory details such as expressions, gestures, sounds, and lights to shock audiences.
Courtesy Encyclopaedia Britannica
Antonin Artaud was many things—actor, poet, dramatist, theorist—but he is most famously known for founding the concept of the deeply influential Theatre of Cruelty. Artaud is said to have been inspired by the movement and gestures of Balinese dancers in the 1930s, and his theories on theater are said to be a direct result of his own dislike for standard theater that relied on text and straightforward plays. Instead, Artaud pushed back on the traditional theater of his time.
His ideas date back to his manifestos and collected essays, “The Theater and Its Double,” where he wrote, “The theater, which is in no thing, but makes use of everything—gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness—rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations....”
While this may seem familiar to modern audiences, Artaud was the first to encourage theater beyond text. Although his theories never gained much traction during his lifetime, they went on to inspire theater for years, and even spilled off the stage and into music and literature.
As Natasha Tripney wrote for the British Library, Artaud sought “to disrupt the relationship between audience and performer…to go beyond words and connect with the emotions: to wake up the nerves and the heart.”
For Artaud, text and dialogue were not the only means of communication. Instead, he emphasized the physical—expressions, gestures, sounds, lights—to enhance text and bring the audience into the performance.
Artaud joined the surrealist movement in fall of 1924, often writing articles and editing for La Révolution Surréaliste. Similar to surrealists, Artaud challenged western rationale. He also went one step further, believing that “civilization had turned humans into sick and repressed creatures and that the true function of the theatre was to rid humankind of these repressions and liberate each individual’s instinctual energy.”
In this way, he believed that assaulting an audience’s senses helped separate them from their repressions. Confronting the grotesque could liberate a person from the clutches of the strict influence of the civilized.
- Open expression: The Theatre of Cruelty leans on actors openly showing emotions using facial expressions. This was a distinct change in theater compared to Bertolt Brecht’s “epic theater,” which wanted the audience to watch with critical detachment.
- Audience engagement: Not only should the audience be engaged, they should be central to the performance. Actors should invite the audience in through interaction, while the play should use lights and sounds to draw the audience in.
- Gestures and movement: Artaud wanted actors to engage the audience with physical movements and gestures, which were often used to replace text and words. Artaud believed that assaulting one’s senses with movements and gestures (and other aspects) allowed for a greater emotional experience. In this way, combining facial expressions, lights, and sounds helps bring the audience into an experience they can get lost in.
- Less emphasis on text: Although text is still important, the Theatre of Cruelty focuses on a combined assault on the senses to immerse the audience in a way that would not be possible using solely text. It was not, as the name might suggest, about violence or acts of cruelty. Instead, the name refers to a “cruelty to language: to concepts, to ideas, to representation,” as Ros Murray stated.
- Spatial awareness: To further enhance the actor and audience relationship, the Theatre of Cruelty experiments with space. Artaud wanted to eliminate the separation of the audience by removing the stage, thus literally putting the actors in the same space as the audience.
Although Artaud’s own plays never truly took off, his theory shows up in ongoing theatrical techniques.
- Signs: With text playing a less important role, Artaud stressed the use of signs, or facial expressions and movement. Essentially, Artaud emphasized nonverbal communication techniques, which we now know play a crucial role in delivering and receiving information.
- Central audience: To further bring the audience into the performance, Theatre of Cruelty shows often placed the audience in the center of the theater. Actors then performed around them, quite literally putting the audience in the center of the play.
“The Balcony” Courtesy The Boston Conservatory
So why is Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty so important? Even though his own plays didn’t receive much recognition, Artaud’s theory has lived on well beyond his lifetime.
Part of the avant-garde movement like Artaud, Genet used Artaud’s theory when writing the play “The Balcony.” Genet similarly explores themes of societal evils and madness through a theatrical lens.
Peter Weiss’ “The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade” (or “Marat/Sade” for short) helped catapult the Theatre of Cruelty to the forefront of theater. Some of the key elements from the play that pulled from Artaud’s theory included a discordant soundtrack, no props, and buckets of blood. There were also “lunatics” on the stage to further disorient the audience.
Immersive or sensory theater
More and more, the theater includes immersive experiences that can be linked back to Artaud’s theories. For example, some immersive theater today focuses on sensory deprivation (think a pitch black room and only hearing the play through headphones), creating a new way to place the audience in the center of the theater. With spatial audio mimicking surround sound, performers may be able to connect with audiences even through podcasts or radio plays.
The immersive theatrical experience Punchdrunk creates multi-room, multi-sensory experiences where audiences watch live performances that are mixed and layered with a variety of other art forms that play with light, sound, and other details.
Even escape rooms, where actors take viewers on a journey from which they must escape, have an element of breaking the barrier between audience and actor, forcing the audience to play an active part in the drama unfolding.
This type of theater is even taking on virtual reality, such as in “The Gunpowder Plot,” where a mix of live actors and VR headsets allow viewers to accompany Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Artaud’s theory has maintained a heavy influence even beyond the theatrical realm.
- Music: The band Bauhaus named a song “Antonin Artaud,” and Jim Morrison from the Doors tried to get his audiences to experience music in a way that Artaud would approve of. Morrison was also known to have enrolled in an Artaud course at UCLA.
- Poetry: Poets such as Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg are said to have been influenced by Artaud.
- Performance art: The performance artist Marina Abramović focuses on audience-performer relationships in her work. She is known for using her own body as a medium, pushing it to its limits and letting an audience witness—and maybe even feel—what she feels. Artaud believes theater should speak with an audience through more than just language. In a similar fashion, Abramović seems to articulate through gestures and sometimes even with absolute silence. In “The Artist Is Present,” Abramovic sat in silence for the entire period of her own retrospective. Museum attendees could sit across from her for any amount of time, during which she would maintain eye contact with them. Attendees are then literally pulled into the theater, becoming part of the art. They simultaneously experience viewing a performance and being viewed as part of the performance. Abramović centers her audience by inviting them to interact with her.
- Film: Perhaps even more common than literature or music are movies that have taken on Artaud’s theories, pushing boundaries and appealing to the body. Dubbed “New French Extremism,” most of these movies are horror films that push an audience’s comfort levels, often with “visceral scenes of explicit sex, gore, torture, uncomfortable topics, and a myriad of disorienting techniques,” according to ScreenRant.
“The whole thing about trying to get away from language is an attempt to directly express bodily experience; not the body as it is seen from the outside but the body as it is lived,” said Murray. “The overriding thing is the body but it is also the whole question of expression and representation. How do you represent experience without diminishing it?”
Artaud questioned how to make performances visceral and encompass an audience his whole life. That exploration has left behind a legacy that lives on in artists, performers, and writers who are still talking about Antonin Artaud and how his theories have shaped today’s culture.