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Antonin Artaud: Theatre of Cruelty Essay

Antonin Artaud’s most profound piece of work was not a poem, not a play, not an acting role, but a theory: Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. He began to form his Theatre of Cruelty theory after learning of the Balinese theatre that seemed, to him, to share qualities with his ideas about theatre. Artaud held a great respect for Balinese theatre which revolves around dance and actions to convey meaning (Encyclopedia Britannica). More traditional theatre revolves around words to convey meaning.

Artaud believed that the specificity of verbal interpretations got in the way of true meaning and that using physical gestures to express thoughts was more effective (Encyclopedia Britannica). He looked at drama as more of a physical act than a recitation of a script. The entire form of theatre, in his view, needed to be different to suit his new idea that the purpose of theatre was to express the cruelty of human beings (Encyclopedia Britannica). Artaud was very liberal in his ideas for this new theatre. He was specific in what he wanted out of the new theatre.

He had many plans for how it would function and many dreams of the effect it would bring to it’s audiences as well as the art form as a whole. Antonin Marie Artaud was born in 1846 in Marseille France to his Greek parents, Euphrasie Nalpas and Antoine-Roi Artaud. He was one of the two surviving children out of nine, but he was very ill. Many of his problems can be attributed to his early childhood illnesses and the way they were treated. As a child, Artaud suffered from meningitis of the brain, neuraligia, and clinical depression. Since he was an unhealthy child, he was treated with opium which began his life-long addiction.

As a young man Artaud was smart, handsome, and capable. He wrote poetry, but his main focus was theatre. He also acted in plays and directed theatre. While he was never well-known, he gave his life up to writing and excelled at it. His aptitude for writing strange-yet-interesting pieces was a result of his demented mind. He had strange ideas that were both brilliant and misunderstood. The opium and mental illness that brought Artaud his skill in writing took a toll on his body and were his eventual downfall.

Artaud spent some years of his life going in and out of mental hospitals. He lived a fast, short life nd he died at the young age of 52 in a psychatric clinic. People may never definitely know whether Artaud was really intellectually inspired by the drugs he was so addicted to, but one might hope that the drugs that took his life away from him at such an early age served some sort of useful purpose. Such an odd man would seem to be more well-known, when in fact Artaud and his theories are so obscure that little can be found on them in any reliable resources. To fully understand Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty completely, one must first understand the meaning Artaud puts into the word cruelty.

He used the words in many different ways to express his own philosophies. Artaud, according to Lee Jamison, used the word cruelty to apply to many differerent philosophies and views of his. More specifically, she defines four different ways Artaud included the concept of cruelty in his theories. The first of Artaud’s conceptual definitions of cruelty is the “essense of human existence” (Jamison). This definition of cruelty is that human life has no meaning, which is a cruel thought indeed. This definition shows Artaud’s jaded persepctive of life.

He believed that life had no meaning and that theatre should show everyone else the cruel fact that he knew to be true. The second definition is cruelty as a practice, the practice of cruelty being breaking away from “false reality” (Jamison). He believed that everyone was living a lie and should just accept reality rather than ignoring the truth. Artaud’s third cruelty concept is that he believed that the audience should be exposed to cruelty by means of the theatre experience. He did not just want the audience to see cruelty up on the stage; he wanted to put them in the middle of it all and to experience it themselves.

He wanted all barriers to be erased and for the audience to become part of the action in drama (Jamison). In this way the audience could have a better understanding of the concept Artaud was so eager to put on display in the theatre. The fourth and last interpretation of cruelty is Artaud’s own personal views. He considered everything imaginable to be reality (Jamison). If it could be thought up, it was real. This ties in with the willing suspension of disbelief which means what the audience is experiencing in the theatre is real in a way. The characters become people that the audience cares about.

Understanding the many meanings Artaud put on one word, cruelty, is vital to understanding his meaning in his theory of Theatre of Cruelty. Artaud’s theories could very well be the work of a misuderstood genious carrying a jem of precious intellect. He makes many valid points in his writing. Perhaps life is just a cruel, meaningless existence. One could never know without blind faith. There is no science to prove that life has a deeper meaning other than to live and reproduce. If facing the truth is cruel then Artaud believed that all people should stand up to cruelty and look it in the face.

Artaud could be right in saying that people should not live a lie. Putting an audience in a dramiatic situation is a marvelous idea if not taken too far. His theories may have been the beginnings of improvisational theatre or may have even spawned the modern day house of horrors. Artaud could be right about saying that even things that exist only in the mind are real. Reality is merely perception. Whether one can think of something or tangibly experience it, it is real in their perception. Artaud had many excellent ideas and theories that carry on with humanity through today.

Artaud’s theories very well may be the jumbled-up imaginations and creations of a drug-addicted mad man. Perhaps his mental instability made him look at life through a distorted looking glass. What he saw was there, he was merely twisting it. Life itself being cruel sounds exactly like an exaggeration a depressed person would make. Life can be wonderful in so many ways. Existence itself is no cruelty to mankind. Existence merely forces the living to eat and breath, nothing more. Society may be a cruelty to mankind, but then again civilization is not innate. That people tend to avoid the truth is a terribly large generalization to make.

It sounds like it was just made up. There is no evidence put behind it at all. Putting an audience through cruelty by making them part of a play is very cruel indeed. It may be so cruel that it serves no purpose at all, except to drive people away from the theatre. Looking at it reasonably and scientifically, if something cannot be seen, smelled, heard, touched, or tasted, one can never know if it is actually there. It almost sounds like something that would come out of the mouth of someone mentally ill. The main problem with no one adopting Artaud’s theatre was that immense changes would have to be made to the art in itself.

Buildings would have to be changed so that the audience could be part of the action in plays. Writers would have write in a way that demonstrated Artaud’s theories. His precise and thought-out ideas for the theatre were too specific to be conformed to easily. If the changes had not been so drastic, theatres very well may have adapted and become Theatres of Cruelty. Artaud was very particular in his theories. All of Artaud’s theories tied in very closely to one another. To conform to one of Artaud’s ideas without conforming to any other would be an immense challenge.


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