Notes from Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty

Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty by Albert Bermel.
Published by Bloomsbury, in London 1997.


page 21

“Artaud’s yearning to impose a unity on each performance by making the director into a manager marks a culmination of the third phase of western theatre. In the earliest phase the playwright was the manager – in, say, the Athenian theatre, the Elizabethan and in Moliere’s troupe the company existed to realize his text. In the second phase the actor became a manager and his company came into being primarily to serve as a foil for the actin gof his leading lady and himself. Third, the director was to the the center and unifer and yet to remain outside of the actual performance. He was a creater-god. Artaud, however, would claim to be swinging at the wheel full circle; not lending impetus to a third phase, but restoring a preliminary phase, on that antedates [comes before] the Greek playwrights. He hopes to revive an Orphic or Eleusinian idea of sacred theatre, a communal experience to dwarf a mondern drama that consists of little more than the psychological histories of individuals.”

page 22

It helps us to see that Artaud’s word cruelty means having to be cruel to be kind. It throws light on his view of masterpeices as a theatrical plauge, a curse, and the plague itself as a warning, a blessing in disguise, an inchoate [ – the beginnings of an -] attempt by implacable natural forces to drain away accumulated violence and antisocial behavior. Finally, healing as purification, as social necssity and as alchemy gives the director-priest an added function: he becomes a medicine man, possibly a doctor. As for the spectator who has experienced an Artaudian performance, witnessed the repressed ‘movements of his thought’, and seen them theatrically ‘illuminated in extraordinary deeds’ – with the violence and bloodshed subordinated to the thought – ‘I defy that spectator,’ writes Artaud, ‘to give himself up, once outside the theatre, to ideas of war, riot and blatant murder.’ The cast and director join forces and turn themselves into a collective scapegoat, a revival of the poor man who volunteered to absorb all the evils in a community and then to be exiled or killed. Sir James Frazer tells us in The Golden Bough that such a scapegoating took place in antiquity in Artaud’s hometown of Mareille, ‘one of the busiest and most brilliant Greek colonies, whenever the plague came’.

page 24

“[…] he was torn between three objectives: he had no regular income and hoped to pay his way by doing temporary chores in films and theatre; he wanted to be a poet, critic and fount of manifestoes – a force in the literary world; and he dreamed of becoming an artistic mastermind, and independent producer-writer-director-start. He was to touch this last ambition […] with his Theatre of Curelty production of The Cenci in 1935, and then to endure a crushing disappointment at its reception.

Artauds letters show us a frantic, penniless, ailing entrepreneur who soars from paranoia to childlike trustfulness, and slumps from determination to be a winner into reluctance to cast his pearls before swine.

page 42

The Theatre of Cruelty is no isolated phenomenon. In its ramifications it brushes against the contributions of many other modern playwrights, designers and directors. Richard Wagner dreamed of a total artwork, the Gesamtsunstwerk, in which music, scenery, legend and human performance would conspire to create an overwhelming theatrical experience. The Wagnerian opera and the Theatre of Cruelty have that overwhyelming in common. Adolphe Appia prefigured Artaud in the deployment of light on stage. He applied a detailed lighting plan – at first to Wagner’s operas, subsequently to plays – in order to bring inert sets into a plastic, or organic, relationship with the living performer. Vsevolod Meyerhold exploited the cubic volume of the acting area with the aid of ‘constructivist’ sets. Gorden Craig and Gaston Baty made their own attempts to subordinate the actor’s and playwright’s will to the director’s. The definition of the director’s role ahd been expanded as a resultl of Stanislavsky […]. Whether or not Artuad knew of the theories and work of these people, there are marked resemblances between their ideas and his.

page 54
It is often said that Artaud wishes to destroy dialogue, or at least to tame it and subordinate it to his theatrical business. This notion is refuted by two of his plays, The Fountain of Blood and The Cenci, in which the quantity of dialogue outweighs the quantity of stage directions. Spoken lines are not merely important in Artaud: because he is frugal with them they take on an unusual significance. […] He wants his spken material to be explosive in sound, equivocal in meaning, and unnatural in its delivery – that is, as theatrical as the physical activities – and he often specifies these requirements.

page 84

[…] Artaud’s theatre standsat the opposite pole from Brecht’s. In an ideal Brechtian performance the spectator receives intellectual signals that keep him alert. He enjoys the emotional conflicts, and may even take sides, but the author’s ‘alienation effects’ continually break the emotinal spell and remind him not to get too caught up in the action. Brecht means him to aplly what he is learning from the play to conditions he knows about outside the playhouse in life. This didactic theatre does not openly rescribe remedies for social ills and inqueities, but it does foster a critical attitide. In The good Woman of Setzuan Brecht urges the specftator to think about the desirability of change.

Brecht’s theater is reformist, if not revoltuionary, in intent. Artaud’s is antireformist; it puts on theatre a burden it cannot sustain. By pretending to purge its audiences of their potentially violent ‘ideas of war, riot, and blantant murder’, by first arousing that violence and then appeasing it, cancelling it out, it substitutes itself for political activity. The Artaudian transfiguration leaves itself open to Brecht’s hcarge against hte Aristotelian catharist: it militates against [prevents] active social change by inducing a spirit of acquiescence [accepting without protest].