Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1137
Artaud saw the modern age as a time of great uncertainty in which all the old values had disintegrated. With the sense of a prophet who has an urgent mission to accomplish, Artaud vehemently attacked the culture of his day. For Artaud, art had become fossilized, detached, and elitist. It had become much more concerned with form and aesthetics than with the underlying mystery of being. The theater had become a slave to the written text, a subgenre of literature, and a showcase for tired old masterpieces written in a language that was dead and that failed to speak to the needs of the present generation. This outmoded theater probed into psychological problems and scrutinized the petty conflicts of particular individuals. It was concerned with analyzing and dissecting the human psyche in order to reduce the unknown to the known. Characters constantly used words to explain and jabber away about their feelings. By engaging in endless debates, the old dramas reduced theater to an intellectual exercise devoid of mystery. Furthermore, Artaud saw the audiences of his day as a group of voyeurs watching theater like Peeping Toms. He attacked this theater as a “digestive theatre,” where audiences merely absorbed performances but were not deeply affected by them. He wanted to replace this theater with a Theatre of Cruelty.
For Artaud, cruelty did not mean bloodshed, torture, or mere sensationalism. He believed that humanity’s fate is locked into a rigid determinism and is controlled by dark, sinister forces. This determinism creates a sense of cruelty that humanity must face. Thus, Artaud wanted to create a theater that would act like a magic rite of purification and would impinge on all the senses of the audience members, assaulting their nervous systems in order to reach deep down into their unconscious minds and bring to the surface of their consciousness a new sense of self-awareness. Such shock therapy would evoke in the audience members a transcendent experience and would elicit from them a powerful upsurge of feelings.
For theater to have this effect, it had to be completely revolutionized. Thus, Artaud carefully delineated his plans for a new, revitalized theater. First, since verbal language was dead, sterile, and ineffectual, theater must end its attachment to the written text and create a visual, nonverbal language of sights, sounds, and gestures. Artaud was perceptive enough to realize that theater had the potential to go beyond staged dialogue. He wanted the theater to use its ability to create startling pictorial and kinetic images. Words would be transposed and used in unusual contexts. They would be reworked into incantations, chanted for their sound effects, or spoken with unusual inflections. Screams, shrieks, and singsong melodies would replace much of the traditional dialogue. The traditional author, divorced from the production, would be replaced by a director/creator. This director, acting like a divinely inspired shaman, would create his own theatrical work within the rehearsal process and would completely control all aspects of production. Artaud was ahead of his time in seeing the potential for the director to become the dominant creative artist in the nonrealistic theater. He also saw that directors did not have to be completely faithful to the text. The standard series of classical plays would be abandoned or would be adapted and stripped of their texts “using only accouterments of period, situations, characters, and action.” Performances would be created out of themes, events, or other sources, not from a written text.
Artaud realized that theater could go beyond the bourgeois concerns of love and money. He wanted his Theater of Cruelty to explore cosmic themes, focusing on wars, revolutions, and cataclysmic events. Theater would return to myths and sacred texts, to a world of ritual and exorcism. Artaud suggested that theater use such grandiose events as the fall of Jerusalem or the conquest of Mexico. The theater would not, however, simply mirror history. Characters would no longer be psychological types concerned with individual problems; instead, they would be raised to the stature of gods, heroes, and monsters, engaged in cosmic warfare. Performance would not center on conflicts between individuals but on conflicts between spiritual forces.
Such a theater would be based on a series of violent and sensual images. Gestures would become a part of a codified language of signs and symbols. Artaud realized that the true spiritual idea could be reached only through symbols. Even facial gestures needed to be codified into a series of meaningful symbolic types. For Artaud, “an image, an allegory, a figure that masks what it would reveal [has] more significance for the spirit than the lucidities of speech and analytics.”
Artaud also wanted to use all the elements of the theater to create a bombardment of vivid images. Musical instruments able to produce dissonant tones would accompany performances, creating piercing sounds. Costumes would be neither modern nor historical but would resemble ritual garb. Lighting would strain the range of the color spectrum and would be shot across the audience in waves and bands in order to create sensations of heat and cold. Artaud’s theater would not need a set. The characters would be walking hieroglyphs. Objects would be distorted in size and shape. Enormous manikins and puppets would populate the acting area, and actors would be masked.
Artaud realized that his new style of performance would call for a new acting space, and thus, he helped revolutionize the concept of theater architecture. Theater would abandon the traditional auditorium and take place in found spaces, such as barns or hangars. In order to establish direct contact between the spectator and the spectacle, the audience would be located in the center of a vacant area and would be seated in swivel chairs as they watched a performance surround them. The action would envelop the audience, taking place not only in all four corners of the theater space but on overhead galleries and catwalks. Scenes would pop up unannounced anywhere in the theater space, and actions would fluctuate from one area to another. Sometimes several actions would take place simultaneously. Lights would be focused on the audience as well as the performers. Such a performance area would allow for the maximum use of space.
Artaud’s book is a revolutionary document, indeed, for Artaud turned the realistic theater topsy-turvy. He foresaw a theater that would operate in a spatiotemporal dimension instead of a verbal one. He proposed a plan for making the audience an essential part of the spectacle, and he realized that theater could have a profound effect if it returned to its primitive origins. He clearly sums up his position in one of his oracular pronouncements, proclaiming that “a play disturbs the senses’ repose, frees the repressed unconscious, incites a virtual revolt . . . and imposes on the assembled collectivity an attitude that is both difficult and heroic.”