Theatre of Cruelty

27 February 2013

French theatre-practitioner and opium addict Antonin Artaud’s First and Second Manifestos on the Theatre Of Cruelty did not advocate the use of abuse or sadism on its audience, as its name might suggest. Rather, it was for a brutal honesty in its representation of life’s essence. His writings were marked by visceral and dark descriptions of life’s abstractions, likely prompted by personal suffering, and for him cruelty in art was not aiming to inspire pain as an authorial choice, but rather a conscious decision to ‘avoid the avoidance of the pain’. Cruelty means exposing the harsh truth.

The aim of ‘theatre of cruelty’ is to disturb its audience, affecting them as deeply as possible so as to shatter a false reality. It advocates the use of unusual, dark lighting; harsh sounds and improvised performance to jar the audience so that the theatrical exchange between performer and viewer approaches genuine subconscious experience. While Brecht sought alienation, Artaud sought immersion, even proposing that the audience should be seated in the centre of the performance space so as to be fully engulfed and ensnared by the experience.

Artaud’s manifestos focused on conceptual implications without providing concrete examples of what the art form should be, leading it to be described as “impossible theatre”. In this way, the theatre of cruelty is more a reaction against old art forms than a new theatrical code.

Artaud’s vision of a complete synthesis of life and art seems to many unfeasible because theatre always involves audiences deciding to view a play in the first place. However, it has served to influence modern art forms, from metal music to expressionist visual art and of course modern theatre. The closest realisation of the concept is probably Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade, well worth a read or viewing if one wants to experience the theatre of cruelty, save leaving the false reality of their own homes and chattering to a beggar in the streets.

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