What Antonin Artaud Really Meant by 'Cruelty', and his Concept of the 'Subjectile'
Language, magic and the uncooked in Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, and how his blend of surrealism and expressionism influenced contemporary theatre.
Antonin Artaud (source: Agence de presse Meurisse)
Antonin Artauds' 1931 manifesto for his Theatre of Cruelty claims a unique role for theatre amongst the arts, believing that 'it allows the sum total of the magical means in the arts and words to be organically active like renewed exorcisms' because it is living bodies moving through time on stage. In his Second Manifesto, Artaud clarifies that this cruelty will be bloody if need be but what is essential is a severe mental purity, keeping with cruelty's etymological root of uncooked, raw, not processed.
Influenced by Eastern forms of ritualised dance, particularly Balinese, Artaud wanted to use a physical language of gesture to distort realism and rouse in the audience and performers an awareness of our chaotic, chthonic inner state. Verbal language was to be freed from the Western constraints of logic, to turn words into incantations, restoring their magical origins.
Essential to Artaud's theatre was the shattering of naturalisms' fourth wall, so that the audience is encircled and furrowed by the action. Theatre architecture should be replaced by that of some churches, holy places, or certain Tibetan temples. Artaud's writings shows great eclecticism, drawing on diverse historical periods and cultural forms in his striving to disrupt the illusion of an unproblematic realism to produce spiritual encounters achieved through a visceral assault. Struggling with insanity himself, he could see how thin is the veneer of rationalism.
In Artaud's drawing, as in his theatre, he does not seek a neutral medium but for the medium to be in a visible and dynamic relationship with the subject. In his self-portraits, he has scoured, inscribed into, and burnt with a cigarette the paper, so that this medium becomes what he called the subjectile, combining the idea of substrate, subject and the dynamic energy of a projectile.
Artaud, and the combined form of expressionism and surrealism he brought to the theatre, has had an immense influence on theatre practitioners in, for example, a form of violence done to naturalist language, a dismantling or problematising of psychological realism, physical expression through hybrid forms of dance, the use of silence, disorienting stage effects, and in exploiting the possibilities of non-theatrical spaces, such as deserted bathhouses, factories and prisons.
Antonin Artaud's two manifestos were published in 1936 in his collection of articles The Theatre and its Double (Grove Weidenfeld, 1985).