He called it the “theater of cruelty.” For most of us, that means sitting through a bad production of something. For Antonin Artaud, it was a life-encompassing philosophy meant to revolutionize the way plays were written, directed, acted, and seen by audiences.
Artaud (1896-1948) had meningitis as a child, which caused a host of neural problems for the rest of his life, including sleepwalking, opiate addiction and depression. He most likely had undiagnosed schizophrenia. He was confined to asylums many times throughout his life.
He directed plays, acted in them (and movies), and wrote poetry, plays, and manifestos.
By “cruelty,” he did not mean causing pain, but rather the shattering of a false sense of reality. He felt that experience inside the black box of theater was uniquely able to induce this internal rearranging. The audience should be “exposed,” not “protected.” “A passionate and convulsing conception of life” as he called it.
He was fascinated by non-Western cultures such as Balinese dance theater and its rich vocabulary of ritualized movement. He even went to Mexico and lived with a “primitive” tribe for a year, smoking their potent peyote and having surrealist visions.
Theater should be used to accentuate the brutalities of life and reawaken the intensity of experience, something often covered over by humdrum daily life.
His views were extreme, and to many incomprehensible. “All true language is incomprehensible, like the chatter of beggars’ teeth.” However, his influence on the rest of the twentieth century’s approaches to theater and music is undeniable.
Too nihilistic? Check out the latest thinking on climate change!
Gomez, Mirabeau and I are being whisked away for the month of August, but we’ll be back in September with even more fact and opinion.
© 2012 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs