Thursday, August 11, 2011

Antonin Artaud's The Theater and Its Double

Grove Press of New York releases a translation of Antonin Artaud’s work in 1958 called The Theater and Its Double. Mary Caroline Richards translates this work from the French text entitled Le Théâtre et son Double, published by Les Éditions Gallimard in 1938 as part of the Collection Métamorphoses, No. IV. The English translation also has a section entitled “In Memoriam: Antonin Artaud” by Maurice Saillet, written in 1948 and translated by Richard Howard. Artaud expostulates with his criticisms against mediocre theater and argues for a new type of art to be born. He contrasts the dualism of Occidental theater and the non-dualism of Oriental theater, especially Balinese theater and its gestures. After asking for metaphysical techniques and poetic gestures, he proposes a new type of theater called “The Theater of Cruelty,” a kind of theater that brazenly shatters the untrue reality of the audience and its society.

Admittedly, I do not consider myself an expert on theater, much less an aficionado of it. My experiences are few. One of my sisters played the leading role in Annie for a local high school production. Another sister belonged to the drama club and eventually earned a degree in drama or theater. Sometimes, I got the opportunity to see some plays at the Utah Shakespearean Festival. Even I performed as an extra in Oklahoma when I got to high school. However, theater was not my forte and I did not pursue it. I enjoyed a good play, but going to a play on a consistent basis seemed financially prohibitive to me. I reserved going to the theater on very special occasions and when I could afford to go. And with my bad eyesight, seeing the expressions on the actors’ faces was a difficult task. So I preferred the movie theater more than I did the stage.

Artaud has a flowery diction that can sometimes distract the reader. One wonders if he is meaning anything at all. But once a reader realizes that Artaud has had a difficult life with health problems, opium addiction, and the surrealist movement, then the reader can get past the prose and reach Artaud’s raison d’être. Artaud wants to revolutionize the theater and its experience. In many parts of the book, Artaud surprises me by ranting about the state of theater in his time, especially when it submits itself to the hegemony of literature: “For the Occidental theater the Word is everything, and there is no possibility of expression without it; the theater is a branch of literature, a kind of sonorous species of language, and even if we admit a difference between the text spoken on the stage and the text read by the eyes, if we restrict theater to what happens between cues, we have still not managed to separate it from the idea of a performed text” (68, emphasis in original). So, Artaud wants to distance theater from the printed word in order for theater to develop its own power. It may be this reason why I have not been terribly impressed with theater as a whole. Artaud writes, “Here is what seems to me an elementary truth that must precede any other: namely, that the theater, an independent and autonomous art, must, in order to revive or simply to live, realize what differentiates it from text, pure speech, literature, and all other fixed and written means” (106).

Artaud believes the main problem with Occidental theater is its use of mise en scène, or the way in which the director places the elements of the sets, lighting, and actors to tell a story. The mise en scène must have been really lacking because he writes, “a theater which subordinates the mise en scène and production, i.e., everything in itself that is specifically theatrical, to the text, is a theater of idiots, madmen, inverts, grammarians, grocers, antipoets, and positivists, i.e., Occidentals” (41).

How do we fix the Occident’s mise en scène problems? “First of all we must recognize that the theater, like the plague, is a delirium and is communicative” (27). I interpret this piece of advice as a displacement of Artaud’s own delirium and addictions. He encourages a Dionysian replacement to the Apollonian conformity of profit and escapism. Theater needs to disconcert the audience member into seeing his or her own place in the universe; or, as my theater appreciation professor repeats, “Theater needs to teach.”

Artaud uses the Balinese theater or dance as a point of reference to work from. Balinese dancers dress in exotic costumes and headdresses, move in jolting ways, and gesture with the faces and eyes to the rhythm of drums and dissonant chimes. Artaud concludes, “This spectacle offers us a marvelous complex of pure stage images, for the comprehension of which a whole new language seems to have been invented: the actors with their costumes constitute veritable living, moving hieroglyphs. And these three-dimensional hieroglyphs are in turn brocaded with a certain number of gestures—mysterious signs which correspond to some unknown, fabulous, and obscure reality which we here in the Occident have completely repressed” (61).

Artaud then prescribes the way in which theater can get back to its metaphysical roots. As stated before, he develops his “theater of cruelty” that places the audience within the spectacle and not outside of it. The spectacle will affect the audience and move them, not in a sadistic or abusive way. He proposes “to treat the spectators like the snakecharmer’s subjects and conduct them by means of their organisms to an apprehension of the subtlest notions. […] That is why in the ‘theater of cruelty’ the spectator is in the center and the spectacle surrounds him” (81, emphasis in original). The “theater of cruelty” certainly would revolutionize the way I would experience theater.

In my theater appreciation class, the professor became passionate one day as he described an event he attended called De La Guarda. Instead of sitting in a chair among other chairs arranged in rows and sections, he stood up with other audience members under a plastic canopy that started to weigh down with water, balls, and confetti. Acrobats strapped to bungee cords raced up and down the walls, jumped from side to side, and hung from the ceiling. The plastic canopy broke, allowing the reservoir to drench the audience with water and objects. Then suddenly the acrobats swung down, grabbed a person or two from the audience, and snatched them up into the rafters. The spectacle moved him so much that he could not wait to go see it again. He demanded, almost to exigency, that the class attend the performance. Of course, I could not go, but the memory of my professor's description has left an indelible impression on me.

Having read Artaud’s book, and remembering my professor’s stellar recommendation, I see how the Argentine troupe has taken Artaud’s “theater of cruelty” to heart and successfully achieved his dream. Currently, the name has changed to Fuerzabruta and the troupe runs an Off-Broadway show in New York. You can check out clips and photos on the official website by clicking here. From the few clips that I have seen, there is no traditional stage and no tyrannical text. The musical beat bumps with dissonance and the action takes place everywhere. The lighting and the actors work together to jar the audience’s equilibrium. It even has “a bleeding spurt of images” and a “little real blood […], right away, in order to manifest this cruelty” (82, 88). And because there is no traditional stage, the stagehands do not hide themselves as they move props and equipment, supporting Artaud’s idea that “In the theater, poetry and science must henceforth be identical” (140). If Artaud were alive today, he would worship this troupe on hands and knees.

This book is appropriate for the young adults studying drama and theater, and maybe even for high school students involved closely with playwriting and theater production.



  1. I think my theater professors failed to mention much about "theater of cruelty". I remember talking about "theater of the absurd", "Naturalism", "Realism", etc. It seems as if this author doesn't want to sit and be entertained but rather to be part of the show himself. Perhaps he would like the front row of a Blue Man concert. I think he could have thought of a better term than "cruelty", unless he meant cruelty as subjecting an audience to a harsh reality rather than offering an escape from the drudgery of daily living. I prefer the escape myself. And I like that Occidental theater is an extension of literature - theater "fleshes out" some of the drier aspects of literature - brings it to life as it were. The Ancient Greek theater was almost all words and little action with a chorus doing the exposition/commentary/philosophizing. The audience already knew the stories of the myths and legends being presented. The prizes were based on the poeticism of the words used to convey the stories.

  2. Hmm, interesting. And you're right that "cruelty" means subjecting the audience to a harsh reality. I wonder if spook alleys can be considered "theater of the cruel."


Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


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