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Theatre of Cruelty

Categories: CrueltyTheatre


The theatre of cruelty is a form of theatre invented by Antonin Artaud, a very well known theatre practitioner. The theatre of cruelty is defined as, by the dictionary, “a type of theatre advocated by Antonin Artaud in Le Théâtre et son double that seeks to communicate to its audience a sense of pain, suffering, and evil, using gesture, movement, sound, and symbolism rather than language”. To break it down even further, the theatre of cruelty is one of many forms of theatre that incorporates the use of surrealism, juxtapositions and lots and lots of symbolism, rather than in usual forms of theatre where words and storylines are the so-called norm or the framework of the plays.

As you might have foretold by the name of this form of theatre, the theatre of cruelty is often seen as a way to portray the very dark or, in a sense, evil types of theatre. This form of theatre isn’t one that is usually widely practiced all over the world, as it is known to be extremely, excruciatingly cruel on the actor.

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It is, therefore, named to be, the Theatre Of Cruelty.

Development and why he founded it:

Antonin Artaud invented the theater of cruelty partly because of the surrealist movement. he founded the theater of cruelty in 1935 in which terror and pain were the most vital and crucial parts of the concept of theater of cruelty. The most important part of the production, to Artaud, was the audience. He needed to make sure that the audience would be captivated and shocked with the performance at all times, which, if they were, would prove a success to making a theatre of cruelty.

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Antonin Artaud

Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud was born on 4th September 1896 in Marseille, France. He was diagnosed with meningitis when he was five and was believed to be a cause of his psychological problems later in life. Antonin Artaud very strongly believed that theatre could put people back in touch with natural instincts lost through suppression of the subconscious and over-reliance on reason and intellect. With this belief, he created the Theatre of Cruelty. In his essay, ‘No More Masterpieces’ he wrote perhaps the clearest description of why he decided to use the name “Theatre of Cruelty”.

“ With this media we all have today for belittling everything, as soon as I said ‘cruelty’ everyone took it to mean ‘blood’. But a ‘theatre of cruelty’ means theatre that is difficult and cruel for myself first of all. And on a performing level, it has nothing to do with the cruelty we practice on one another… but the far more terrible, essential cruelty objects can practice on us. We are not free and the sky can still fall on our heads. And above all else, theatre is made to teach us this.” Many of you would probably be freaked out be this and would immediately put this book down after reading that, probably in fear of getting your soul sucked away by some evil spirit or something, but true and passionate theatre practitioners, be it a director, script-writer, actor or even a teacher, would truly understand and relate with this.

If one such as myself were to further zoom in and focus on what Antonin said on the description of the theatre of cruelty and why he named it that, we would find that, indeed, this form of theatre wasn’t being cruel to the audience or certain characters on the play, but the cruelty that some certain objects could do to us. What he means by this is probably that it is cruel on the actor of the piece both physically and mentally. That is why, if one wishes to put themselves in the treacherous task of putting up a proper play or piece of theatre that very clearly portrays the true purpose of ‘theatre of cruelty”, he or she MUST practice beforehand to get used to the very demanding conditions.

The Purpose of Theatre of Cruelty

Antonin Artaud created the theatre if cruelty as he wanted this form of theatre to attack as well as release deep rooted fears and anxieties that are usually suppressed and hidden deep in our subconscious. With his various beliefs, he wanted to force people to view themselves and their natures and actions without the shield or so- called protection of the level of peer pressure in society. Basically, he wanted the audience to see and understand certain things that they wouldn’t be able to comprehend because of the level of peer pressure in society. He wanted the audience to forget everything about society’s expectations and completely be drawn in to that certain theatre performance or productions Antonin proposed on mystifying or spooking the audience with various gestures, movements, screams or groans in hope that would captivate them and that they would be drawn into the production such so that they would forget the expectations of society.

Various elements of drama

The theatre of cruelty, as we unraveled, has been said to rely heavily on the elements of Drama and various theatrical techniques. For example, the theatre of cruelty uses lots of symbolism, which is regarded as one of the six elements of drama. Most of the other elements of drama are also used in plays classified under the theatre of cruelty. The other elements of Drama, which almost every theatre practitioner should know like the back of their hands, include language, mood, dramatic tension, dramatic meaning, time.

After reading some of this some of you may ask still “what does make theatre of cruelty so much more different from the normal, average everyday theatre?” First of all the theatre of cruelty uses various writings sound set design and staging so that the audience would very clearly be captivated by the performance at all times. The lighting stage sound and everything else were normally in very vibrant colours that represented the themes of the piece. The walls of the space aren’t usually decorated with fancy decorations.

Instead, scenery, props, costumes and various objects around the space were used to fill the space and give it more symbolism. Antonin Artaud was also very fond of lighting in all of his theatre productions. Nowadays lighting is merely used to brighten up the stage whereas Artaud often used intelligent lighting that was usually developed for concerts, to create more effects far beyond the norm. His lighting ideas were able to create particular facts not designed simply for spectacle. Sounds also play a large part in the theatre of cruelty. Firstly there are the various voices of the actors. Artaud often described theatre of cruelty as using various groans, screams and chanting from the actors in the piece. This helps to contribute to the overall dramatic tension in the piece.

Practices, Warm Ups:

Many young, skillful actors and actresses have considered taking up the cruel task of performing a theater of cruelty. These actors and actresses have been wanting to know if there were specific kinds of training or exercise that could help them improve their skills to be a better actor and actress for the theater of cruelty. I personally have to say, the exercises that have been described by Antonin Artaud requires a lot of physicality from the actor. One could first start by warming up your vocal chords is there it really is a lot of physical and vocal demands in the theater of cruelty. As you may know my now, theater of cruelty often uses screams and groans to mesmerize the audience. These screams and groans aren’t played by tape-recorded backstage but are actually screamed by the actor in real time on stage. That is why one really needs practice beforehand if they wish to engage in this theater of cruelty. For theatre, lets just say this,” If one wants to give a good performance than one must simply practice.”


“Antonin Artaud and the âTheatre of Crueltyâ.” Antonin Artaud and the âTheatre of Crueltyâ. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.

“Antonin Artaud.” : The Poetry Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

The Free Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

“The Theatre of Cruelty.” Squidoo. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

“Theatre of Cruelty, Notes on.” Theatre of Cruelty, Notes on. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

“Antonin Artaud and the âTheatre of Crueltyâ.” Antonin Artaud and the âTheatre of Crueltyâ. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

Chadderton, David. “Antonin Artaud.” The Theatre Makers: How Seven Great Artists Shaped the Modern Theatre. Abergele, U.K.: Studymates, 2008. N. pag. Print.

Cite this page

Theatre of Cruelty. (2017, Jan 08). Retrieved from

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