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
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
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...