The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Cenci begins, in keeping with the epic scale of both plot and theme, in medias res, in the middle of a major conflict between the Pope and the play’s main character, Count Cenci. A Cardinal, Camillo, is attempting to tell Cenci how fortunate he is that the Pope has agreed to take a bribe to cover up a murder that he has committed. The price, however, is high: one-third of Cenci’s possessions. Furious at the price, Cenci fumes that he would go to war with the Papacy if he did not have more important projects brewing. Camillo tells him that the Pope is tired of fighting with him and wants a truce. Though still smarting from the loss of so much property, Cenci agrees to an amnesty; he decides to celebrate it, along with a few other events, at an orgy he has planned for that night. Cenci insists that it be in the tradition of the ancient Roman orgies, so that he will be able to display and glorify his vices. He clearly wants to shock the Pope with his proposition.

By this time, the audience is beginning to understand that act 1 is intended to set forth the epic dimensions of Cenci’s wickedness. His evil rivals that of both Dante’s and John Milton’s Satans. Artaud establishes Cenci’s evil on a heroic level. The principal function of the orgy is to give him as large an audience as possible in which “to fashion subtler crimes.” As the horror of his intention begins to register with Camillo, Cenci makes further monstrous claims for himself by identifying himself with nature and, as a result, becoming a law unto himself. He intends to use the night’s occasion to “seek out and practice evil,” since he is unable to resist the violent forces within him. After Camillo’s horrified departure, Cenci’s soliloquy enumerates both the crimes he has already perpetrated and those he will soon commit, including the announcement of the eradication of his two sons, to be made during the orgy, his plan to murder his present wife, and his proposal to violate Beatrice, his daughter, sexually and then kill her, thus sending her soul to Hell (all victims of incest went to Hell in sixteenth century Italy). He will spare his youngest son, Bernardo, only so that he may mourn his dead brothers and sister. Artaud’s Cenci appears as a fully developed Satanic character, with no explanation given as to how he became that way. Artaud is not interested in drawing subtle psychological character studies. For him, evil despots are born, not made, and are part of nature.

Scene 2 shows Cenci’s daughter, Beatrice, making prophetic statements to the prelate Orsino, an old admirer, that horrible events will take place at the banquet that night. She identifies her father as Fate.

The final scene in act 1 rivals the most violent revenge tragedies of the sixteenth century and the blood dramas of the Roman tragedian, Seneca. While there is no actual bloodshed, the emotional and psychological violence which Cenci inflicts on the assembly has few counterparts in any drama anywhere. Artaud insists that the mise en scene resemble both Veronese’s “Marriage Feast at Cana” and a Roman orgy, thus transforming the Veronese work into something akin to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” Slightly drunk, Cenci dramatically informs the guests that the Cenci myth is becoming, before their very eyes, the Cenci legend. He forces Beatrice to read the letter which verifies the deaths of her two brothers (obviously at the instigation of their father); Cenci then toasts their deaths while comparing the wine in his guests’ cups to his sons’ blood. He compares his power to the priest’s power to transubstantiate wine into the blood of Christ. Horrified at Cenci’s behavior, the assembly freezes into a terrified tableau. As voices begin to protest their outrage, the Count threatens their entire...

(The entire section is 1565 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Artaud announced in his many manifestos on the modern theater that he harbored an innate distrust of words, and his whole theatrical enterprise can be seen as a consistent attack on the inadequacy of language. He never was able to write the drama that successfully did away with words and their traditional associations, but he begins, in The Cenci, to emphasize the importance of the metaverbal devices that do not serve to underscore the verbal messages solely, but take on a life of their own. Artaud always preferred the visual, the auditory, and, most important, the gestural to the verbal, since he saw drama primarily as a ritual spectacle. All the elements of the drama, such as character, theme, and even plot, should be subordinated to the mise en scene, the setting or spectacle. Sounds, too, are important, not so much for their discursive content as for their incantational and evocative powers.

The dramatic effect of The Cenci derives mostly from the spectacular settings which the famous painter and designer Balthus created for the play and the ultramodernistic musical score which the distinguished French composer and conductor Roger Desormiere tailored for it. Desormiere used a recently created quasi-musical instrument, the Ondes-Martenot, to create exotic, otherworldly sounds at moments of great tension. He also helped Artaud strategically place speakers in the audience for stereophonic effect, and he pre-recorded much of the music....

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

French Culture in the 1920s and 1930s

French literary and artistic culture went through dramatic and marked changes...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Myth and the Superhuman

Although it may not appear to be much like what is commonly thought of as myth, The...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1590s: The Roman Catholic Church operates under the ordinates established at the Council of Trent. It is one of the most influential...

(The entire section is 243 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Discuss The Cenci in terms of the emotional response of its audience. In what ways is the play shocking? How do you think Artaud...

(The entire section is 342 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Cenci (1819), Percy Bysshe Shelley’s dramatization of the tragic fate of the Cenci family, is a masterful romantic play in blank...

(The entire section is 140 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)


Artaud, Antonin, “What the Tragedy The Cenci at the Folies-Wagram Will Be About,” in The Cenci,...

(The entire section is 247 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bermel, Albert. Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, 1977.

Brustein, Robert. “Antonin Artaud and Jean Genet: The Theater of Cruelty,” in his The Theater of Revolt, 1964.

Esslin, Martin. Antonin Artaud, 1976.

Sellin, Eric. The Dramatic Concepts of Antonin Artaud, 1968.

Sontag, Susan, ed. Selected Writings of Antonin Artaud, 1976. Translated by Helen Weaver.