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Theatre of Cruelty

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Title: Theatre of Cruelty  
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Subject: Antonin Artaud, Avant-garde, Epic theatre, Caryl Churchill, Surrealism
Collection: Modernist Theatre, Surrealist Techniques, Theatrical Genres
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Theatre of Cruelty

The Theatre of Cruelty (French: Théâtre de la Cruauté) is a form of theatre developed by avant-garde playwright, actor, essayist, and theorist, Antonin Artaud, in The Theatre and its Double. Originally a member of the surrealist movement, Artaud eventually began to develop his own theatrical theories. The Theatre of Cruelty can be seen as break with traditional Western theatre, and a means by which artists assault the senses of the audience, and allow them to feel the unexpressed emotions of the subconscious. While Artaud was only able to produce one play in his lifetime that reflected the tenets of the Theatre of Cruelty, the works of many theatre artists reflect his theories. These artists include Jean Genet, Jerzy Grotowski, and Peter Brook.


  • History 1
  • Theory 2
  • Productions and staging 3
  • Legacy 4
  • Modern activist application 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8
  • Sources 9


Antonin Artaud was a member of the surrealist movement in Paris in the 1920s, and was well known as an actor, playwright, and essayist of avant-garde theatre.[1] Much of the avant-garde theatre developed in France from 1914-1939, can be seen as a revolt against tradition. Deeply affected by the events of World War I, the artists of the movement felt increasing skepticism of the existing societal structures that had allowed for global warfare.[2]

While Artaud would eventually break away from surrealism, the movement helped to shape his later theories on the Theatre of Cruelty. Led by Andre Breton, surrealist theatre reflected a belief that the unconscious mind is a source of artistic truth. In his manifesto on surrealism, Breton writes, “pure psychic automatism, by which is intended to express, verbally, in writing, or by other means, the real process of thought. Thought’s dictation, in absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all esthetic or moral preoccupation.”[2]

In 1926, in association with surrealist playwright Roger Vitrac, Artaud founded the Theatre Alfred Jarry, which only produced non-realistic drama. The theatre lasted only two years.[2] After his work in surrealist theatre, Artaud would go on to develop his theories on the Theatre of Cruelty after he was inspired by a Balinese dance troupe performance that he viewed at the Paris Colonial Exhibit in 1931. The performance conventions of Balinese dance were different than any Artaud had previously experienced, and he was struck by the intense physicality of the dancers.[3] Artaud would go on to publish his major work on the Theatre of Cruelty, The Theatre and Its Double, seven years later in 1938.[2]


Antonin Artaud

Defining Artaud’s “theatre” and “cruelty”

In his writings on the Theatre of Cruelty, Artaud points to definitions of both “theatre” and “cruelty” that are separate from their colloquial meanings. For Artaud, theatre does not merely refer to a staged performance before a passive audience. The theatre is a practice, which “wakes us up. Nerves and heart,” and through which we experience, “immediate violent action,” that “inspires us with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten.”[4]

Similarly, cruelty does not refer to an act of emotional or physical violence. According to scholar Nathan Gorelick, “Cruelty is, more profoundly, the unrelenting agitation of a life that has become unnecessary, lazy, or removed from a compelling force. The Theatre of Cruelty gives expression to everything that is ‘crime, love, war, or madness’ in order to ‘unforgettably root within us the ideas of perpetual conflict, a spasm in which life is continually lacerated, in which everything in creation rises up and asserts itself against our appointed rank.’”[4]

Break with Western theatre

Artaud felt that the focus of theatre in the west had become far too narrow—primarily examining the psychological suffering of individuals or the societal struggles of specific groups of people. He wanted to delve into the aspects of the subconscious that he believed were often the root cause of human being’s mistreatment of one another.[5] Through an assault on the audiences' senses, Artaud was convinced that a theatrical experience could help people purge destructive feelings and experience the joy that society forces them to repress. For Artaud, “the theatre has been created to drain abscesses collectively.” [2]

Insufficiency of language

Artaud believed that language was an entirely insufficient means to express trauma. Accordingly, he felt that words should be stripped of meaning and chosen for their phonic elements. According to scholar Robert Vork, “Speech on the Theatre of Cruelty’s stage is reduced to inarticulate sounds, cries, and gibbering screams, no longer inviting a subject into being but seeking to preclude its very existence.”[5] Somewhat paradoxically, Artaud claims that his characters are able to express things that others are unable to say. Vork claims, “Artaud seems to be suggesting that his play reveals emotions and experiences that we all attempt to proscribe and are unwilling to acknowledge, but which nevertheless occur."[5]

"Impossible theatre"

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," 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." [6]

Productions and staging

Artaud wanted to abolish the stage and auditorium, and to do away with sets and props and marks. He envisioned the performance space as an empty room with the audience seated in the center and the actors performing all around them. The stage effects included overwhelming sounds and bright lights in order to stun the audience's sensibilities and completely immerse them in the theatrical experience.[7] Artaud believed that he could erode an audience's resistance by using these methods, "addressed first of all to the senses rather than to the mind," because, "the public thinks first with all of its senses."[2]

In his lifetime, Artaud only produced one play that put the theories of the Theatre of Cruelty into practice. He staged and directed Les Censi, adapted from the dramatic work of the same title by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in 1935 at the Théâtre des Folies-Wagram in Paris.[8] The play was neither a commercial or critical success and ran for only 17 performances. Artaud, however, believed that, while he was forced to limit the scope of his vision due to financial constraints, Les Censi succeeded in exemplifying the tenets of the Theatre of Cruelty.[8]


According to scholar Pericles Lewis, the influences of the Theatre of Cruelty can most clearly be seen in the works of Jean Genet, a post World War II playwright. His plays featured ritualized murder and systemic oppression in order to show the negative consequences and suffering caused by political subjugation.[7] In the 1960s, a number of directors began to incorporate Artaud's theories and staging practices in their work, including Jerzy Grotowski at the Theater Laboratory in Poland. In England, famed theatre director Peter Brook experimented with the Theatre of Cruelty in a series of workshops at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). These experiments are reflected in his direction and staging of RSC's lauded 1966 production of Marat/Sade, a play with music by Peter Weiss.[9] Marat/Sade uses dramatic devices developed by both Artaud and Brecht to depict class struggle and human suffering in the midst of changing social structures.

The German dramatist Heiner Müller argues that we have yet to feel or to appreciate fully Artaud's contribution to theatrical culture; his ideas are, Müller implies, 'untimely' :[10]"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."[11]

Modern activist application

In 2011, a group of geography and sociology professors used the Theatre of Cruelty as a conceptual, experience based technique to explore the agrarian struggle and deforestation in the Amazon Basin. These professors: “…suggest that theater, more generally, provides structure for cruel performance, and that violent land conflict, together with forest destruction, constitutes a predictable tragedy of theatrical events. In other words, violent land conflict in Amazonia, with all its terrible implication for people and environment, can be grasped as a theatrical structure with philosophic and material consequences for mind and body.”[12]

See also


  • Antonin Artaud, Mary C. Richard (translator), The Theater and Its Double. Grove Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8021-5030-6
  • Barber, Stephen. 1993. Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs. London: Faber. ISBN 0-571-17252-0.
  • Howe Kritzer, Amelia. 1991. The Plays of Caryl Churchill: Theatre of Empowerment. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-52248-6.
  • Jamieson, Lee. 2007. Antonin Artaud: From Theory to Practice London: Greenwich Exchange. ISBN 978-1-871551-98-3.
  • 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 0-936756-63-2. 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 0-391-03050-7.
  • Walker, Robert, Simmons, Cynthia, Aldrich, Stephen, Perz, Stephen, Arima, Eugenio and Caldas, Marcellus. 2011. The Amazonian Theater of Cruelty. The Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Volume 101: 1156-1170.

External links

  • Theater of Cruelty at the Art & Popular Culture Encyclopedia
  • Theater of Cruelty at Encyclopædia Britannica
  • Antonin Artaud at The Poetry Foundation


  1. ^ Wadsworth, W.B. (2007). The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth. p. 941.  
  2. ^ a b c d e f Brockett, Oscar G. (2007). History of Theatre. Boston, MA: Perason Education. pp. 420–421.  
  3. ^ "Artaud and the Balinese Theater" (PDF). Bali Purnati Center of the Arts. Retrieved April 25, 2014. 
  4. ^ a b Gorelick, Nathan (2011). "Life in Excess: Insurrection and Expenditure in Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty". Discourse 33 (2): 263. 
  5. ^ a b c Vork, Robert (2013). "The Things No One Can Say: The Unspeakable Act in Artaud's Les Cenci". Modern Drama 56 (3): 306–326.  
  6. ^ See Tharu (1984).
  7. ^ a b Lewis, Pericles (2007). The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 200. 
  8. ^ a b Vork, Robert (March 13, 2013). "Things That No One Can Say: The Unspeakable Act in Artaud's Les Cenci". Modern Drama 56 (3): 1.  
  9. ^ "Theater of Cruelty". Styles of Performance – Theater of Cruelty. Abilene Christian University. Retrieved March 28, 2013. 
  10. ^ For the Brecht-Artaud dialogue in postmodern theatre, see Wright (1989), Price (1990), and Howe Kritzer (1991).
  11. ^ Müller (1977), p. 175.
  12. ^ Walker (2011)
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