Critical Context

The Cenci is the only full-length drama that Artaud ever finished and produced. He had published, however, two important works, both of which were entitled “The Theater of Cruelty.” The first was called the “First Manifesto” and was published in 1932, while the “Second Manifesto” was published the following year. In these works he laid out the theoretical foundations for the plays that he was planning to write and produce during the next ten or so years. His heroin addiction and subsequent detoxifications for drugs consistently kept him from fulfilling his most ambitious plans. In spite of his continuing troubles with drugs and repeated hospitalizations for manic depression and psychotic breakdowns, he was able to write at length and with great brilliance on what the modern theater must become if it is to be an effective instrument for transporting audiences into the domain of the energies of the unconscious. He was, unquestionably, the most important spokesman for the poetics of the modern; without him, such avant-garde playwrights as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco could not have got their works produced or been accepted by French intellectuals. Indeed, Susan Sontag proclaims that Artaud’s impact on the course of all serious theater in both Europe and America was so profound that she divides the modern era into two periods: “before Artaud and after Artaud.” Artaud included everything in his theater and proposed it as the focus for a total art form. Words, then, take their place equally with settings, costumes, lights, music, and other physical objects that can be utilized to create the most effective mise en scene possible. The Cenci did not, however, become for Artaud the embodiment of all of his highly imaginative theories simply because the theater of that time was not equipped for such productions. Artaud remains, perhaps, the most brilliant spokesman for the poetics of the modern; but The Cenci, while highly imaginative and shocking for its time, seems rather tame in spite of its early attempts at innovation.