The Theater and Its Double Critical Essays

Antonin Artaud


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1137 words.)