theater of cruelty

Theatre of Cruelty

This article is about the style of drama. For the short story, see: Theatre of Cruelty (Discworld)
The Theatre of Cruelty is a concept in Antonin Artaud's book The Theatre and its Double. “Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds” (Artaud, The Theatre and its Double). By cruelty, he meant not sadism or causing pain, but rather a violent, physical determination to shatter the false reality which, he said, "lies like a shroud over our perceptions."


Antonin Artaud spoke of cruelty (french: cruauté) not in the sense of being violent, but the cruelty it takes for actors to completely strip away their masks and show an audience a truth that they do not want to see. He believed that text had been a tyrant over meaning, and advocated, instead, for a theatre made up of a unique language that lay halfway between thought and gesture. Artaud described the spiritual in physical terms, and believed that all expression is physical expression in space.

In the Theatre of Cruelty, Artaud was attempting a few things: he had believed that the world, including the society, and the world of theatre had become an empty shell of itself. In the theatre of cruelty, he was trying partly to revolutionise theatre - figuritively burn it to the ground so that it can start again. On another level he was trying to connect people with something more primal, honest and true within themselves, that has been lost for most people. This has, it is believed, partly stemmed from Artaud's mental instability - he was attempting to purge himself through expression.

Stephen Barber explains that "the Theatre of Cruelty has often been called an impossible theatre--vital for the purity of inspiration which it generated, but hopelessly vague and metaphorical in its concrete detail." This impossibility has not prevented others from articulating a version of his principles as the basis for explorations of their own. "Though many of those theatre-artists proclaimed an Artaudian lineage (Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Richard Schechner among them)," Susie Tharu argues, "the Artaud they invoke is marked by a commitment as ahistorical and transcendent as their own." There is, she suggests, another 'Artaud' and "the tradition he was midwife to."

The German dramatist Heiner Müller, who along with Caryl Churchill and Pina Bausch has been identified as having produced a fusion or critical dialogue between Artaudian and Brechtian performance in their work (which is one characteristic of the postmodern in theatre), argues that we have yet to feel or to appreciate fully Artaud's contribution to theatrical culture; his ideas are, Müller implies, 'untimely' (in Nietzsche's sense):

"ARTAUD THE LANGUAGE OF CRUELTY Writing from the experience that masterpieces are accomplices of power. Thought at the end of the Enlightenment, which began with the death of God; the Enlightenment is the coffin in which he is buried, rotting with the corpse. Life is locked up in this coffin. THOUGHT IS AMONG THE GREATEST PLEASURES OF THE HUMAN RACE Brecht has Galilei say, before he is shown the instruments. The lightning that split Artaud's consciousness was Nietzsche's experience, it could be the last. The emergency is Artaud. He tore literature away from the police, theater away from medicine. Under the sun of torture, which shines equally on all the continents of this planet, his texts blossom. Read on the ruins of Europe, they will be classics.

See also


  • Barber, Stephen. 1993. Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs. London: Faber. ISBN 0571172520.
  • Howe Kritzer, Amelia. 1991. The Plays of Caryl Churchill: Theatre of Empowerment. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0333522486.
  • Jamieson, Lee. 2007. Antonin Artaud: From Theory to Practice London: Greenwich Exchange. ISBN 9781871551983.
  • Müller, Heiner. 1977. "Artaud The Language of Cruelty." In Germania. Trans. Bernard Schütze and Caroline Schütze. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Ser. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990. ISBN 0936756632. p.175.
  • Price, David W. 1990. "The Politics of the Body: Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater". Theatre Journal 42.3 (Oct). 322-331.
  • Tharu, Susie J. 1984. The Sense of Performance: Post-Artaud Theatre. New Delhi : Arnold-Heinemann. ISBN 0391030507.


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