Themes and Meanings
The Cenci is about the cruelty of existence and man’s absolute subjection to a persistently malignant fate. Ostensibly, it is a historical drama of incest and murder in an infamous Italian Renaissance family. Both the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the French novelist Stendhal had previously used the story, and Artaud, borrowing heavily from them, fashioned his own much blunter version of the narrative. Artaud’s drama harks back, though, to other blood and revenge tragedies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from the Italian, French, and English theaters. The subject matter evokes the classical plays of Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille of French drama, and William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Kyd of English drama. More important, however, Artaud wishes to revive the shock value of the grandfather of all the Renaissance tragedians, the Roman, Seneca, whose plays had been renowned as the bloodiest and cruelest in theatrical history—until Artaud.
Beyond the historical level, the play explores in agonizing detail the inexhaustible evil of Count Cenci. Cenci’s existence establishes gratuitous cruelty as the primary truth of the human condition. Artaud makes no attempt to explain him; Cenci simply tells the audience that he is “part of nature.” He moves through the play as a walking plague, raping and murdering at will and offering no reason other than that he must express his deepest instincts. The savage...
(The entire section is 543 words.)