The Emergence Of The Theater Of Cruelty Ucsb Art 130 Essay

2685 words - 11 pages

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THE EMERGENCE OF THE THEATER OF CRUELTY
by Melinda Xu
Visual Arts as Culture
Professor Colin Gardner
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA
May 13, 2019
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Antonin Artaud is regarded as the father of the modern and avant garde theater due to
his profound influence on theater and art and . Contrary to the Occidental culture’s beliefs
and conventions of theater, he realizes the urgency to terminate restraining theater within the
frame of definitive texts by utilizing the power of gesture and movement, and creates the kind
of cinema that transcends the human psychology, the conscious mind, to the subconscious
thoughts and states (Artaud and Sontag, 1988). Artaud reconstructs the hierarchy between
theater and literature in the Theater of Cruelty, where creation coincides with destruction, the
imagined is interpreted within reality.
Artaud’s inspirations for the Theater of Cruelty originate from the Balinese dance,
Lucas van Leyden's biblical painting ​The Daughter of Lot​, and Marx Brothers films.
The Balinese performance at the Paris Colonial Exposition in 1931 was an enlightening
experience to Artaud that he suddenly becomes aware of what he has been searching for
along the way. As an avant garde theater enthusiast, his own theatrical endeavors are
repetitively met with rejection, as his countless attempts to find work in the theater solely for
survival (Savarese N., Fowler R., 1988, p.4). In this sense, his meeting with the Balinese
theater is not merely an accident or a coincidence of time and space, but it connects to his
deepest ambitions and dreams.
Unlike frustrated artists who take advantage of, exploit, use and abuse the latest art
trend of the Otherness, exoticism, and the Orient, Artaud’s attitude towards the Balinese
theater is purely an idea that has been present and awakened in him. This form of
anti-Occidental theater version of performance and the creation of the language of
metaphysics through ritual and spiritual gestures and signs have captivated Artaud’s
maximum respect, fondness, and enthusiasm, and inspired him to build his own theater to be
full of mystic, ritual and magical elements. As Artaud states, the Balinese theater is a pure
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theater where all senses “penetrate” simultaneously with no gaps and transitions between
each other, and where no Occidental conceptions of theatrical qualities are identified (1958,
p.58). In Artaud’s opinion, the Balinese theater filled with myths, “animated hieroglyphs”,
and metaphysics-in-action is a form of realization of pure theater (1958, p.54). It is a theater
where all creation is presented on the stage and every part of the space is utilized to its
maximum possible extent in every dimension. In this case of the theater, the conventional
playwrights are eliminated and the “director” emerges as the master of magic and “sacred
ceremonies” (Artaud, 1958, p.60).
Many scholars have argued that Artaud’s vision distorts Balinese performances with
misconceptions and misunderstandings, and that the birth of the Theater of Cruelty does not
portray the actual picture of the Balinese theater. Nevertheless, Artaud is essentially
interpreting and appreciating the Balinese and the Oriental theater in his own specific way by
selecting and filtering what inspirations he aspires to attain. His encounter with the Balinese
performance prompted him to seize “animated hieroglyphs” as means to fight against the
dominance of text-based and speech-centered theater. Through a combination of music,
dance, and pantomime in Balinese Theater, Artaud witnesses the emergence of a physical
language based completely on signs and gestures rather than words (1958, p.53,54).
“Abruptly abandoned attitudes”, “syncopated modulations” from the back of the throat,
sounds that resemble the randomness of nature, and dances of “animated manikins” have
sparked Artaud’s greatest interest in this new sense of theatrical language arisen from Asian
theater (1958, p.54).
To Artaud, the Balinese theater is an epiphany that seeks to become a destiny through
the creation of the Theater of Cruelty---a theater where entertainment, playwrights, words,
and psychology are eliminated. Artaud (1958, p.85) proposes the theater of cruelty to be
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everything revolving uttermost acts, a necessary amount of violence, terror and shock, to act
upon and revive the spectator’s sensibility and understanding of the real world. In this way,
vitality of life is reborn, regenerated, and restored to its essence. Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty
flips the role of traditional theater that is heavily dependent on written-texts to extend beyond
words, develop the use of space, and form action upon and attack viewers’ sensibility in all
directions (1958, p.89). In other terms, by refusing to be juxtaposed with the narrative
structure, the Theater of Cruelty is extended in every possible dimension to showcase not
only the objective exterior world, but the interior, intellectual, imaginary, and metaphysical
world. Through his own form of theater, the thoughts that are beneath the level of
consciousness are lifted and transformed through the collision of images and objects.
Another inspiration for the Theater of Cruelty comes from the medieval painting ​The
Daughter of Lot​ by a nonrepresentative painter Lucas van den Leyden. Artaud describes how
the painting actually possesses the magic of generating visual harmony and inducing the
harmony to influence the mind directly. In this painting, the nature is presented in a dramatic
way through bizarre lighting and clustered shapes, which enables the audience to discern the
mystic emotions and energy within one glance (Artaud, 1958, p.33). Through this painting,
Artaud gained an epiphany in how the theater should be. According to Artaud (1958), theater
should transcend the reach of spoken language, and be the carrier for subconscious thoughts
through the mise en scene. Stage is a tangible physical place that demands to be occupied by
exclusive theatrical language that is not written but physical. Furthermore, Artaud introduces
the concept of “poetry of space”: a physical space independent of written and spoken
language designed to provoke mindless thoughts (1958, p.39). This is a space where gestures,
postures, and intonations replace the text, which is opposite to the idea of dialogue-centered
Occidental cinema (1958, p.37).
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Artaud (1958) identifies the problem of Occidental cinema in how it imposes the
supremacy of speech over everything that happens on a theater stage and how this act
degrades the mis en scene to an inferior level of the art. Thus, to free art from depending on
text-based expression and restore the theater to its original form, roles need to be reversed.
According to Artaud (1958, p.68,70), the Occidental cinema exerts so much importance on
speech and verbal matter to the point where it has become merely a materialistic epitome of
the text. It lacks its own original theatrical language that the art seems to be castrated in the
verbal form, deprived of all other possible means of expression, such as mime, colors, noises,
movements, signs, and gestures. To restore the art of theater to its authentic form and
reestablish the direction, the theater must be connected to the metaphysical and ritual aspects.
Regardless, words can serve metaphysical purposes and religious guidance, just not in the
sphere of the Occidental theater. Artaud (1958, p.70) asserts that in the Occidental theater,
speech is exclusively designed to present psychological and moral struggles and conflicts in
daily life of men. Nevertheless, true emotions and feelings cannot be translated into words
and codes as they would deteriorate and deform during the process. They are masked rather
than revealed through the labyrinth of allusions of language. Instead, one should express
using images, gestures, and physical acts in concrete manners to capture what words are
incapable of grasping. Everyone on the stage ought to be actors to stimulate the spectators’
mind in the spectacle.
As claimed by Artaud (1958, p.71,73), contrasted to the Occidental theater’s
psychological themes, the Oriental cinema is metaphysics-based. Instead of interpreting
matters in one single, external aspect as the Occidental cinema does, the Oriental theater
reaches all levels of possibilities of expression by immersing itself in nature and
metaphysicalities.
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Artaud is influenced by a Marx Brothers’ film as well. In the film, a man who ought
to take a woman in his arms takes a cow instead and the cow is only capable of mooing.
Artaud is deeply fascinated by the humor presented in the fact that unlike the traditional route
of replacing the woman with a vivid, human-like mannequin or a monster that is equipped
with linguistic skills, the film director chooses a cow as the substitute for the woman (Artaud,
1958, p.43). Artaud asserts that the contemporary theater lacks a sense of real hilarity and that
it has aparted from anarchy (Artaud, 1958, p.42). To Artaud (1958, p.43), the appropriate
amount of anarchy should form the significant relationships among objects and leads humans
closer to chaos .
Finally, Artaud put his theories of the Theater of Cruelty into practice by writing the
screenplay of the first significant surrealist film ​The Seashell and the Clergyman​. In this film,
Artaud continues to carry on the nature of his theater and forces the spectator to see the
reality through the perspective of terror and shock, as stated by Naomi Greene. Artaud
redefines cinema by using surrealism to express the “real” while letting the cinema remain
conquest of reality.
Germaine Dulac, a film-maker and the director of ​The Seashell and the Clergyman​,
shares plenty of values and perspectives on the matter of the theatrical language with Artaud.
Just as Artaud, she is firmly convinced that this language demands to be nonverbal in order to
bring theater to its essence through “movement, rhythm, life” (Greene, 1984, p.33). Dulac
compares cinema to music out of the same effort of distinguishing the theater from literature
in a sense that she attributes rhythm to the shapes and forms generated by movements of
objects, light and colors, so that the sensations of “the unexpressed, the invisible, the
imponderable, the human soul” are created in cinema (Greene, 1984, p.33).
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However, the film was not accepted by Artaud, as he thinks it derails from his
intentions and motif for the film. Greene (1984, p.35) suggests that Artaud’s dissatisfaction
for the film stems from the fact that Dulac attributes certain dream-like qualities to it. Artaud
asserts that the meaning of invisible, dark truth of the soul can only unravel in the inner part
of the imagery and is prohibited to be simplified to situations resembling dreams. According
to Greene, Dulac contradicts Artaud’s theory of cinema by softening originally violent and
shocking scenes: the dismembered head resembles a flower; clergyman’s aggressive
behaviors are put in slow motion; repetitive shots of glistening water in resonance with poetic
effects and the existing in other Dulac’s films. Thus, Artaud’s dismay with the film is derived
from Dulac’s failure at capturing Artaud’s very flesh and blood of his thought. Another
contradictive point between Dulac and Artaud derives from the subjectivity of the vision of
cinema (Greene, 1984, p.34). As opposed to how other realist films produced at the time
portrait an imagined, transformed and objective “reality”, such as Dulac’s ​La souriante Mme​,
The Seashell and the Clergyman ​ is a film that depicts the reality seen through the priest’
subjective mind.
Regardless of all the possible unachieved intentions, ​The Seashell and the Clergyman
is still a significant surrealist film that causes grand controversies and extremely biased views
at the time. Artaud was an involved member of the surrealist group for a while and he shared
a plethora of surrealists’ interests, passion, and attitudes towards film and the emergence of
the new medium (Greene, 1984, p.28). He believes that the cinema has the ability to recreate
dreams and form new realities and ideas free of the constraints of verbal language. Paired
with Germaine Dulac’s avant garde style of editing, the general’s head is split into pieces,
which exceeds the spectator’s expectations and perceptions of the reality.
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This film’s central theme revolves around the idea of repression of lust that it exhibits
moments when desires are suppressed and released. To illustrate, the clergyman’s obsession
over the women are repressed as everytime he attempts to capture the woman, the director
intervenes to protect her from his touch by using superimposition and editing, which results
in him always chasing and running after the unapproachable woman. The woman resists
consumption by the priest, making the clergyman seem relatively too weak and less
masculine while attempting to capture her. The flip of the traditional gender dynamics
irritates the misogynist spectator and leads to great controversies in the audience(Greene,
1984).
The catholic priest, thus, becomes the reflection of the failed and forced attempt to
maintain pure and unadulterated by repressing primitive instincts. While the clergyman is
torn between the lust and hatred for the inscrutable woman, he is repressed by his identity as
a clergyman and is struggling between being a qualified priest and conforming to his fantasy
for the woman. The scene in which he repeatedly drinks the mysterious dark liquid out of the
seashell and breaks them indicates the unleashing of his desires for the woman. The seashell,
therefore, becomes a vehicle for repression.
The birth of the Theater of Cruelty is inevitable. According to C.W.E. Bigsby (1984,
p.1), one of the world’s best analysts of American drama, the theater offers the most public
occasion and opportunities for actors to express anxieties and fears born in the conflict
between “private needs” and “public values”. Furthermore, as stated by an established
scholar and professor of drama Martin Esslin (Esslin, 1978, p.104), “Theater of the Absurd”
is more accessible because “it required less concentration and also that its impact is far more
immediate, direct, and therefore powerful.” Indeed, theater ought to be a place where action
happening on the stage imposes an impact directly on the audience, which matches Artaud’s
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theory in theater: all theatre is physical expression in space (1958). Contrasted to the avant
garde cinema, traditional Occidental theater offers no sensations and is too limited to
definitive language, which restricts the spectator from interpreting the theatrical content in
more possible ways.
As one of the most impactful modern, avant garde theaters, Artaud’s theater offers an
interactive environment where the audience are utterly immersed in the sensations that are
easy to comprehend to the vast majority, as they immediately act upon their subconscious
mind without the verbal language translation process (1958). This space attacks the senses of
the audience, allows them to participate and engage intellectually and emotionally, and feel
the unexpressed and invisible emotions of the subconscious. Cruelty in Artaud’s dictionary
does not imply the physical, violent action that results in pain, damage, trauma, etc. For him,
cruelty is the necessary amount of concrete terror, shock and obstacle to shatter the false
reality, a violent impulse to fracture the perception of the boring and ordinary way that most
people conduct their daily lives. According to Artaud (1958), people need to heal and be
rescued from being complacent with the bourgeois illusion through sacred ritual and
ceremony, in order to realize how peculiar and brutal real life factually is.
With the emergence of the Theater of Cruelty, Artaud justifies the fact that the
contemporary Western theater is no longer feasible and capable of contributing to society,
that in order to bring it back the power, a new theatrical language that resides between
thought and action should be invented and a theatrical world that are inexpressible by means
of language should be created. Artaud proposes to abandon the psychology-based theater,
while placing emphasis on metaphysics. He believes and advocates for analyzing the chaos
and obstacles humans live in and constructs human existence in this theater of plastic
materialization.
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To be continued…...
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References
Artaud, A. and Sontag S. (1988)​ ​Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings​. Oakland, C.A. :
University of California Press
Artaud, A. (1958) ​The Theater and Its Double​. New York: Grove Press
Bigsby, C.W.E. (1984). ​A critical introduction to twentieth-century American drama. ​Vol. 2:
Williams, Miller, Albee. Cambridge University Press.
Esslin, M. (1978). ​An anatomy of drama​. ABACUS, London.
Greene, Naomi (1984) ‘Artaud and Film: A Reconsideration’​ Cinema Journal​ 23(4) pp.
28-40. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1225262
Savarese, Nicola and Fowler, Richard (1988) ​‘​1931: Antonin Artaud Sees Balinese Theatre at
the Paris Colonial Exposition’ ​TDR ​ 45(3) pp.51-77. Available at:
https://www.jstor.org/stable/1146912?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

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