Les Cenci (The Cenci) is Artaud’s only known play based on the guidelines of the Theatre of Cruelty. The play relates Artaud’s version of the story of the late-sixteenth-century Roman nobleman, Francesco Cenci, and his daughter Beatrice. Written in a style meant to overwhelm the audience’s moral preconceptions, The Cenci dramatizes the torture that the cruel Count Cenci invoked upon his family; the family’s plot to have him murdered; and the family’s torture and execution by Catholic authorities. On stage, The Cenci involves a spectacle of light and sound. Artaud directed and starred as Cenci in the original production of the play in 1935. The play shocks the audience not only because of its cruelty, violence, incest, and rape, but because its characters seem to speak strangely and artificially. This is because the theory behind the play, which is influenced by the surrealist movement and by Balinese dance theatre, calls for the characters to represent universal forces instead of realistic individuals.
The Cenci begins with Cardinal Camillo talking with the powerful Count Cenci about a murder in which Cenci is implicated. Camillo threatens to publicly proclaim the crime unless Cenci gives a third of his possessions to the Pope, but Cenci refuses, jeers at the Church, and stresses his desire to “practice evil.” When Camillo leaves, Cenci expands on his desires, suggesting that he wants to kill his wife and two of his sons, as well as rape his daughter Beatrice.
In the next scene, Beatrice is with her lover Orsino in a moonlit garden in the Cenci palace. Beatrice laments that her father is keeping them apart, but when Orsino vows to overcome all obstacles for their love, Beatrice tells him that their love is doomed because of her duty to her family. She then expresses her loathing for her father and departs for dinner.
At the dinner, Cenci frightens his guests by telling them that two of his “rebellious” sons have been killed and that he wishes his entire family doom and destruction. Beatrice begs the guests not to leave, and Cenci threatens to kill anyone’s offspring who says anything about what has happened at dinner. Cenci orders everyone away except Beatrice, whom he approaches and tells that he knows the “charm” to make her “meek and tame.” Beatrice flees and Cenci says that now she cannot escape him.
The second act begins with Lucretia telling Bernardo that she loves him, at which time Beatrice enters and asks for help in escaping from Cenci. Beatrice describes how Cenci is torturing her and her brother. Cenci enters and seizes Beatrice by the arm, but Lucretia steps between them and Bernardo drags his sister out of the room. Cenci tells his wife that his family is a wound, that they have “corrupted everything,” and that they are plotting against him. Lucretia protests, but Cenci tells her he is taking the family to a silent fortress.
In act 2, scene 2, Camillo attempts to persuade Giacomo Cenci to plot against his father, but Giacomo retorts with criticism of the Church. Camillo then urges him to listen to Orsino, who reveals to the audience that he has abandoned his hopes to marry Beatrice and that he desires to see the Cenci family destroyed. Orsino describes Cenci’s tyranny to Giacomo and persuades him to plot a scheme against the count.
Act 3 begins with Beatrice rushing onstage to tell Lucretia that her father has raped her. Lucretia attempts to return her to her senses, and Beatrice describes a recurring dream from her childhood in which she is lying naked and hungry in a room until a wild animal appears and chases her through the cellars. Lucretia says that the dream signifies that “no one can escape his fate,” and she appeals to Orsino for help when he enters with Giacomo. Orsino suggests that they appeal to secular justice, or justice outside of papal authority, but Beatrice says that she can believe only in the justice that she chooses....
(The entire section is 1,019 words.)