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Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty: Crash Course Theater #43


Hey there, I’m Mike Rugnetta, and this is
Crash Course Theater. Yorick, you are looking especially dead today. How fitting! Because today it’s the Theater of Cruelty,
a style developed by the French genius Antonin Artaud—a guy who believed that theater in
the West had become way too hung up on realism. He wanted theater to get out of the living
room and to return to its origins—magic, myth, and ritual. Today we’ll be looking at Artaud’s life,
and his influential book of essays and one of his plays—the show about scorpions crawling
out of a wet nurse’s vagina that you never knew you needed. Lights up! INTRO
Antonin Artaud was born in 1896 in Marseilles. When he was four, he came down with meningitis. He survived, but his health was seriously
weakened. Artaud was a depressed teenager. He had his first breakdown at sixteen, and
his parents arranged several sanitarium stays for him. In 1916, he was briefly conscripted into the
French army but soon discharged for sleepwalking. He went back to the sanitarium where his doctor
prescribed opium. Which is (A) not helpful for depression. And (B) a really bad idea BECAUSE IT’S OPIUM. He developed a lifelong addiction. In his twenties, Artaud moved to Paris and
hooked up with the Surrealists, acting in a couple of films and writing the scenario
for at least one other. But the Surrealists rejected him. Not cool, Surrealists! Artaud is Surreal as heck. Apparently they were miffed because Artaud
wouldn’t renounce theater as a bourgeois commercial art form. You tell ‘em Artaud! But if you consider Artaud’s theories and
subsequent theatrical career, this failure-to-renounce the commercialism of theater is legit hilarious. Because there’s uncommercial… And then there’s Artaud. From 1926 to 1928, he co-ran the Theater Alfred
Jarry, producing work by August Strindberg. In these years, he started to develop the
theories he would explain in “The Theater and Its Double”—more about
that in a minute. And he tried some of them out in his staging
of Percy Shelley’s incest-heavy verse drama, “The Cenci,” which did about as well with
critics and audiences as you would expect an incest-heavy verse drama staged to actively
unhinge the spectator to do. Then Artaud went to Mexico, took peyote, wrote
some memoirs, and detoxed from heroin (though he would later retox ). He returned to France,
went to Ireland, and was brought back to France … in a straitjacket, literally, because
he’d suffered a major psychotic break and tried to attack some people. He was diagnosed with “incurable paranoid
delirium” and underwent electroshock treatment. Eventually, he was released, and his friends
paid for him to stay in a private psychiatric clinic. He continued writing, including poems and
a script for a radio broadcast that French radio never aired, because it was strange
and rude. Diagnosed with cancer, Artaud died in 1948. Okay, so he may have had a dramatic life,
but why are we devoting a whole episode to a guy who did a little acting, a little directing,
took peyote, and wrote a play or two before confronting extreme mental, and eventually
physical illness? Because his theories are still a huge influence. Looking at the portrait we’ve painted over
the last number of episodes, you’ll maybe have noticed that modern theater had a nonstop
identity crisis about how to capture real life. Sometimes theater is like, we’re going to
make it as real as possible. Those toilets onstage are going to flush! And sometimes theater is like, heck no! The only way to capture real life is with
myth and magic, poetry and violence. Everything on stage is a metaphor for toilets! On the anti-realist side, Artaud is pretty
much king. In 1938, Artaud published “The Theater and
Its Double.” The book and its theories had a lot of important
influences: Surrealism, Symbolism, the works that he helped produce at the Theater Alfred
Jarry, as well as the works of Jarry himself—all super significant. But maybe the strongest influence was a performance
by a troupe of Balinese dancers that Artaud had seen at the Paris International Colonial
Exposition in 1931. The dance consisted, he wrote, “of everything
that occupies the stage, everything that can be manifested and expressed materially on
a stage and that is addressed first of all to the senses instead of being addressed primarily
to the mind as the language of words.” Now, to be accurate… Balinese dance does have words. And stories. And specific meanings. Artaud was doing the thing a lot of Western
artists did where they saw what they wanted to see in the art of Eastern cultures. In Artaud’s case, he wanted a performance
style that transcended psychological realism, which he called “psychological and human
stagnation.” Inspired by the dance, he imagined a style
that would “restore the theater to its original destiny,” a mix of dance, song, and pantomime,
“fused together in a perspective of hallucination and fear.” Real talk? Count me in. Artaud called this new form, the Theater of
Cruelty, a place “in which violent physical images crush
and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theatre as by a whirlwind of
higher forces.” Now, Artaud wasn’t talking about actual
physical violence—well, he wasn’t only talking about actual physical violence—but
rather a violent impulse that would rupture ordinary perception and the boring normcore
way that most people conduct their day-to-day lives. Society, he thought, had become sick, complacent,
lulled by bourgeois illusion. People needed ceremony and ritual—“a magic
exorcism”—to heal. Artaud believed that the theater had learned
all the wrong lessons from Aristotle, with his emphasis on plot and language, and his
meh attitude toward spectacle. The Theater of Cruelty was going to be all
spectacle, all the time! It would use music, dance, and certifiably
bananas lighting design that would wake up the audience to how bizarre and violent real
life actually is. He wanted a theater that would “leave an
ineffaceable scar.” In his words:
“The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theater a passionate
and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigor and extreme
condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood. This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary
but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is
not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid.” Catharsis! Let’s book a babysitter and go! Artaud called for a style of performance that
would emphasize the mise-en-scene—sound, lights, costumes, basically everything that
isn’t text. And yet, he didn’t really believe in sets
or props. He wanted actors who would operate not from
a place of psychological realism, but from a place of emotion, sensation, and pure physicality. He called these actors “Athletes of the
Heart.” He envisioned a theater in which the audience
would sit in the center, helpless, and the play would surround them in an act of “organized
anarchy.” Take that, proscenium arches! Oh, and what’s the Double after “Theatre
and its…”? That’s tricky and not completely articulated
in the essays, but the basic idea seems to be that it’s life, or what life could be
if we allow theater to work on our senses and awaken us to something better, truer,
stronger, and way more intense than life as we know it. To Artaud, good theater should actually be
more “real” than boring everyday life. Let’s put these theories into blood-spattered
practice by looking at Artaud’s early play “The Jet of Blood” or
“The Spurt of Blood.” I guess it all depends on how you like your
high-velocity blood flow. The play was written in 1925—maybe in a
single day. Help us out, ThoughtBubble:
A young man and a young girl, who may be brother and sister, are being all lovey-dovey. Then a hurricane arrives, and here’s a fun
stage direction: “Two stars are seen colliding, and from them fall a series of legs of living
flesh with feet, hands, scalps, masks, colonnades, porticos, temples, alembics, falling more
and more slowly, as if falling in a vacuum: then three scorpions one after another and
finally a frog and a beetle which come to rest with desperate slowness, nauseating slowness.” Then a knight comes in, pursued by a wet nurse
who is holding her swollen breasts. The knight eats some cheese and chokes. Night falls, the earth quakes, lightning flashes,
and an enormous hand comes out and grabs a prostitute by her hair and shouts, “…look
at your body.” The prostitute shouts, “Leave me alone,
God!” And she bites him. Cue enormous jet of blood. That title was not a metaphor! More lightning—because God does not like
to be nibbled upon!—and then everyone is dead except for the prostitute and the young
man. They fall into each other’s arms .
The wet nurse, who doesn’t have breasts anymore, re-enters, dragging the corpse of
the young girl. Scorpions crawl out from underneath the wet
nurse’s dress and here’s another fun stage direction: “Her vagina swells up, splits
and becomes transparent and glistening like a sun.” The young man and the prostitute run away,
at which point the young girl sits up and says, “The virgin! Ah that’s what he was looking for.” And scene. Thanks, Thought Bubble. A lot … going on there. And it all happened in about three pages of
text! The whole history of the universe, from the
Garden of Eden to the apocalypse, in three gonzo pages. I’m gonna go ahead and say, yup, that’s
the Theater of Cruelty. I don’t know about you… I definitely feel fused together in a perspective
of hallucination and fear. “The Jet of Blood” was scheduled for the
Theater Alfred Jarry season of 1926–1927. But it was never produced in Artaud’s lifetime. Artaud spent a lot of his life in various
institutions, and various states of mental discombobulation. His writing and art, especially in his later
years, is cryptic, strange, and sometimes gross. Still, he’s been a huge influence on theater-makers
and theater companies who feel let-down by realistic writing and Stanislavski-style acting. Jean Genet, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook,
the Living Theater—all big fans. Also John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and even
Jim Morrison. As legacies go, not too cruel. Thanks for watching! We’ll see you next time, when we explore
yet one more way to give the theatrical finger to realism. We’re going to meet the mostly Marxist,
totally dialectical, often smelly theatrical mastermind Bertolt Brecht. It’s going to be epic. But until then…Curtain.

32 Comments

  1. verdatum Author

    Can you point me to good resources that explain the significance of Artaud? I feel like this just scratches the surface, and I'm not quite able to make the connections beyond "it's surrealism, adapted to the theatre." and I'm pretty sure there is much more to it than that.

    Reply
  2. Brian Hutzell Author

    INEZ: He's smart. He's saving. Most stars spend and I smell like wet fudge much.

    GORGONS: I should be so lucky. I mean shake your groove thing be a star; I already spend and I smelready spend and smell like wetfudgemuch!

    IMOGENE: Lots of pale tasting bread's okay.

    ICABOD: Lots of pale tasting bread…

    SISTER: I have no lines in this play.
    [Several pigs fly by and the stage becomes fish.]
    Theodore Roosevelt: Why am I not in all-caps?
    ICABOD: Yeah, seems shake your groove my split.

    INEZ: Like lots of pale tasting bread.

    ICABOD: I'm lost fleebus; what does the soft gray basketball hoop have shake your groove thing do with your brotfleebus's success?

    EXEC 1: Help! The twilbnee!

    EXEC 2: Pass

    [Elmer removes his hat seductively and glances around the icehouse for signs of a struggle.]

    Reply
  3. Moondog Garvey Author

    Glad that you mentioned Jerzy Grotowski! Fantastic artist. Here's hoping he gets an episode dedicated to him and his influential ideas.

    Reply
  4. paul w Author

    theatre, film, painting, music…..etc….all of them went the wrong way in terms of life and their own capacities for representations of life

    Reply
  5. queerchoreography Author

    My favorite artist of all time. Thank you, this really was a crash course! Why is he a favorite? I love artists that truly take risks, and he was just that artist. Susan Sontag said, ‘there are two historic periods, before and after Artaud’ I love you Artaud🐲

    Reply
  6. queerchoreography Author

    Oh, and thank you for doing Artaud before Brecht. I got a C in theatre history when my professor refused to my submission on Artaud, she suggested Brecht instead. I did it anyway, after all, that’s what he would have done!

    Reply
  7. Amina Hadziomerovic Author

    HAHAHAHA MAN YOU ARE HILARIOUS WITH THE COMMENT! I thoroughly enjoyed this crash course. Man I wished you did the Economy crash course, it seems like you can 'fun up' everything. ''A lot going on there'' hahahahhaha greetings from Bosnia, keep it up, I 'll subscribe

    Reply
  8. theamazingladygeek Author

    I read the entirety of The Theater and its Double for my Graduate class and didn't get what the hell was going on until this video. So thank you!

    Reply
  9. Kevino Gracia Author

    I gave you a thumbs up for recognizing this innovative man of the theater.
    Yet, I'm concerned about your quick (and poor) history of of his life
    before you introduced his true insights.
    I know it's very hard to complete a full history as rich as Artaud in 11 minutes
    but at least get your timeline correct.
    For a good read, read "Antonin Artaud : Man Of Vision" by Bettina L. Knapp.
    Peace on Earth…

    Reply
  10. Samson Ezekiel Author

    Great work. Just one thing though. The presenter is clearly not a fan of Artaud and you don't have to be. Try to simply state the facts. Please don't lead the audience with what you think is strange or weird by showing it in your voice and facial expressions. Let people who watch your video decide that for themselves.

    Reply
  11. Amy El-B Author

    I love him, and his work. Truly unreal. We have focused in him and his drama forms a lot in A-level drama! Just watched this video before my written exam. it was a good help.

    Reply

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