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The very phrase, 'Theatre of Cruelty', has passed into such common currency that few of us bother much to give a lot of consideration to what its creator Antonin Artaud, who died in 1948, was really (literally, sometimes) banging on about. Artaud, an actor, director, playwright and poet, was tangentially linked to the surrealists although what he admired most in drama, and what he strove for, was a kind of ultra-realism. Susan Sontag has said that ‘the course of all recent serious theatre in Western Europe and the Americas can be said to divide into two periods - before Artaud and after Artaud’.
The breadth of Artaud’s thinking allowed him to sweep across arguments and counter-arguments while he studied the theatre and pragmatically looked for the Great Answer to its then stagnation. This revised translation of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty Manifestos and related essays can be read two ways: first, from beginning to end, and second, to be thrown on the floor so that parts of it will surface randomly like I-Ching advice.
“We must believe in life’s meaning renewed by theatre, where man fearlessly makes himself master of the unborn, gives birth to it. And everything unborn can still be brought to life, provided we are not satisfied with remaining simple recording instruments.”
In his essay, Theatre and the Plague, Artaud refers to The City of God, where St Augustine points to the similarity between the plague, which kills without destroying any organs, and theatre, “which, without killing, induces the most mysterious changes not only in the minds of indviduals but in a whole nation... The mind believes what it sees and does what it believes, that is the secret of fascination. And in his book, St Augustine does not doubt the reality of this fascination for one moment. Yet conditions must be found to give birth to a spectacle that can fascinate the mind. It is not just a matter of art... And finally from a human point of view we can see that the effect of theatre is as beneficial as the plague, impelling us to see ourselves as we are, making the masks fall and divulging our world’s lies, aimlessness, meanness and even two-facedness.”
In Production and Metaphysics, the beginnings of a seeking after a non-verbal theatre and a look towards Symbolism and the metaphorical world, Artaud points to what he saw as over-literalised drama: “Given theatre as we see it here, one would imagine there was nothing more to know than whether we will have a good f*ck, whether we will go to war or be cowardly enough to sue for peace”
He admired Balinese theatre for the “absolute superiority of theproducer whose creative ability does away with words.” -and wondered, in Oriental and Western Theatre, if we could strip theatre away from The Words, as everything in theatre outside the script appeared to be subservient to it or merely part of the staging.
Artaud writes like a poet, although he picks at the meaning of meaning like a scientist splitting airs. He felt that current theatre was in decline because it had lost any feeling for seriousness and on the other hand, for laughter. It had “broken away from solemnity, from direct, harmful effectiveness - in a word, from Danger.”
Underlying his dissatisfaction and iconoclastic attitude was a romantic belief in “the profoundly anarchic spirit at the basis of all poetry.” For all his desire to do away with stilted old speech-driven and subjective drama, he yearned after a new kind of grandiosity. Why not? It’s all about spectacle, in the end taking us out of ourselves.
In No More Masterpieces, Artaud looks back at the sources of the Old Grandiosity, to Shakespeare and his ‘followers’. Guilty of instilling a concept of art for art’s sake, art on the one hand and life on the other. “We might rely on this lazy, ineffective idea as long as life outside held good, but there are too many signs that everything which used to sustain our lives no longer does so and we