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“Shakespeare himself is responsible for this aberration and decline, this disinterested idea of the theater which wishes a theatrical performance to leave the public intact, without setting off one image that will shake the organism to its foundations and leave an ineffaceable scar.” -Antonin Artaud
It would be a clear mistake to talk of Theatre of Cruelty as an established type of theater. The Theatre of Cruelty remains, as of today, a project. That is to say, apart from having not been practiced throughout the years, and being directionally ambiguous, it is almost as utopian as it escapes to be.
Artaud always expressed his disregard, if not contempt, for utopias of any kind, observing them all as inevitable dystopias; so, is it possible that he might be responsible for the utmost theatrical utopia — Theatre of Cruelty? Perhaps the same notion that departs Artaud from say, Brecht, is to be regarded as the reason that made him, in retrospect, bearer of the very same end. Anyone with the slightest understanding of what Artaud had in mind, for theater, would agree that his ideas were times more revolutionary than those of Brecht. Brecht also wanted to take literature — specifically: theater — back to an earlier, effective state, much like the two of his contemporaries, T.S. Eliot and Artaud, but was relatively limited in his philosophical scope — regardless of his longtime friendship with Benjamin — and much of his work, overshadowed by his political thinking.
However, Brecht was able to formulate his ideal in near-perfect form, and subsequently appear as the one carrying the flag, to the public eye. To Artaud, a great deal of the theater was to be delivered not through techniques or even language, and that alone formed a massive gap between what was possible and not. His fascination with the Balinese dance proved to be one of the origins of that thinking, which itself has been documented in “The Theatre and Its Double,” where the way he interpreted it as a mystical experience stands in direct opposition to what he, later in the same work, describes as the threat to the theater: the rational reasoning behind every single happening, as he saw in Shakespeare and Sophocles, and why the works of those playwrights cease to have any impact on the contemporary audience.
There is for sure a trace of the Surrealist way of thinking, the movement which Artaud was also partially involved with, in that claim. As a matter of fact, one could see the way Artaud must have thought of cruelty itself as an elevation of the Sadean form of atheistic naturalism to a highly spiritual way of perceiving the flesh world and its pleasures and pains. Because if we look close at what Artaud describes as mystery, in relation to sexuality, art, and pretty much everything beyond the ordinary life in his views, we see that he clearly opposes any attempt at unraveling the mysteries by the use of reason, including that of psychoanalysis — what Deleuze philosophized years after. And what might seem signally paradoxical, is knowing most of his Surrealist contemporaries were more or less influenced by the Freudian thinking.
That very same element — the Surrealist element — would allow one to read a (non-existent, except for “Jet of Blood”) work of Theatre of Cruelty, almost anyway one interprets, as long as one is interpreting it. After all, the Artaud was deeply concerned about entering the mental domain of the audience. And determined to shatter the very fundamentals of art and theater, for that purpose. The multiplicity of the interpretations of the work might also give us clue about Derrida’s fascination with Artaud.
A lot similar to Alfred Jarry, whose name later became the source for the name of Artaud’s short-lived theater — which he co-founded with Roger Vitrac, in 1926 — Artaud considered the real world not an ultimately true manifestation of reality, but merely as a consensus reality, declaring the dream-world as real as the world that we live in, if not more real. More real, since it wouldn’t be far from truth to claim he saw the consensus reality as shallow and empty of life, and his very attempt at theorizing a theater in which the flow of ideas/actions are set to (re)awaken the dead souls that are the audience, confirm that saying.
“It is in order to attack the spectator’s sensibility on all sides that we advocate a revolving spectacle which, instead of making the stage and auditorium two closed worlds, without possible communication, spreads its visual and sonorous outbursts over the entire mass of the spectators.
The theater will never find itself again–i.e., constitute a means of true illusion–except by furnishing the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsessions, his savagery, his chimeras, his utopian sense of life and matter, even his cannibalism, pour out, on a level not counterfeit and illusory, but interior.”
Written by Ari Wilson
Autoportrait // Antonin Artaud – ca. 1947