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Accessing Artaud: Four Layers of Cruelty

Updated: May 19, 2022

This article first appeared in Scene magazine (ISTA, September 2021)

We live in a paradox in 2021: these are both strange times and familiar times. The pandemic has brought on many changes and conflicts of course, but on the other hand we are becoming familiar with new ways of living now. And of course, living through a pandemic is very familiar to humanity as a whole. Antonin Artaud talked of Theatre and the Plague, noting that in times of previous pandemic, humanity had been confronted with the fear of death - the fear of not being in control - and had been driven to create the most exceptional works of art, architecture and scientific progress.

Much is said of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty (the name given to his theory), but this can become misinterpreted as a blunt cruelty to the audience. It often gets superficially conflated with the Assault on the Senses that Artaud writes of - the intense, blinding, flashing light; the loud, distorted, screeching noises; the proximity of raw actor to bombarded spectator. It is often interpreted that the actor’s job is to be cruel to the spectator by making them as uncomfortable as possible. But of course it is more nuanced than this. Artaud means to confront spectators with “the brutalities of life.” He appears to be thinking of the cruelties of life itself in a similar way as Nietzsche, believing that modern life was too protective and hid these cruelties from the population. Such squidgy, comfortable existence, Artaud believed, would result in mediocrity from people and a reduction in the quality of art. So if the real cruelty is life itself, then the superficial cruelty of loud noises and bright lights is merely a tool to make the audience uncomfortable enough to take notice of what you are then to show them. The presentation you show is in itself another layer of cruelty.

We can therefore start to see Theatre of Cruelty as a Theatre of Layers. I identify four layers in this cruelty. I believe these four layers are a useful lens through which to scrutinise Artaud’s ideas in a safe, school-friendly way, and could form the structure for a unit of inquiry.

4 Layers of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty
Four Layers of Cruelty: Access Artaud by peeling these layers back.

  1. The core cruelty - life itself, masked by social niceties.

  2. Cruelty of the message or themes of the play: representing life’s core cruelty and highlighting the need to awaken the population.

  3. Cruelty to the spectator: exposing them in order to make them ready to absorb the inner layers of cruelty.

  4. Cruelty to self as an actor: to be in an exposed state that shocks the spectator and facilitates the next layer in.

There is a certain level of ethical and practical consideration we must bear in mind when working with young practitioners, and so the outer layer - cruelty inflicted on oneself - is a delicate one. Likewise, how much does the classroom teacher really want to drag students into the pit of despair that plagued Artaud’s drug-addled mind, by deeply exploring the essential misery of existence? But we can help our students by scaffolding them through smaller, isolated tasks and framing them in a way that presents Artaud’s theories as one possible external perspective, rather than the immersive method for creating work.

It is important to first help students understand what Artaud wanted to achieve with his theatre, before exploring some of his strategies for getting there. To understand why he approached theatre the way he did will enable us to not only interpret his ideas more faithfully, but to create our own original approaches to achieve the same aims. The Diary of Anais Nin (1966) is a wonderfully packaged way in. Nin was a contemporary of Artaud and a close friend, who experienced first hand how Artaud tried to awaken the public, “to force them into a poetic state.” I have abridged here her account of a lecture/demonstration Artaud gave in Paris. I dim the lights, set the atmosphere, and read out Nin’s words to my students before facilitating a discussion: why was Artaud frustrated? How did he want the audience to respond? One possibility for this facilitated discussion is to prepare a provocative or controvertible statement or question about Artaud’s ideas or overarching intentions, and then to run a Harkness Discussion with students, where they lead the discussion entirely, and the teacher sits outside of the circle and maps the conversation (literally: lines of engagement between individuals), noting down possible lines of inquiry to pursue later and staying silent throughout. The student agency from this method of exploring Artaud’s intentions can prove powerful for engagement in later explorative activities, and the mapping of contributions can be a really useful reflection tool for students more broadly. Of course, the teacher may identify a need or wish to add further activities that ensure understanding of Artaud’s genuine overarching intentions, rather than the superficial aims that students left alone often arrive at. Through this phase of exploration, we aim to uncover the core cruelty that Artaud wished to expose, and further literary review of Artaud’s ideas are more meaningful for students once they have understood the concept of cruelty that Artaud was struggling to express.

Artaud’s ideas by themselves can be really hard for students to grasp onto. They are often coherent in and of themselves, but can be incredibly abstract and lack structure or synthesis. Peter Brook was a great admirer of Artaud’s ideas and, being the magpie theorist that he is, was unafraid to experiment with applying these abstract ideas in conjunction with other inspirations from his travels and studies, for example with the ideas of other theorists. The combination approach is a good one - though for students approaching Artaud for the first time, consider scaffolding the conjunctions in more simple terms. Armed with an authentic understanding of what Artaud was trying to explain and achieve, the next level of scaffolding is to create a piece of theatre that presents or re-presents this cruel reality to spectators. By having a concrete text or starting point (stimulus) to latch onto, students will not become utterly lost in Artaud’s nebulous thoughts, and can drift in and out of being either more text or piece-oriented, and more Artaud-oriented as they grapple with what is hopefully an ever-changing zone of challenge. But Artaud’s own play text can be just as nebulous as his ideas. The Spurt of Blood is Artaud’s most famous piece of writing, with some amazingly impossible stage directions, but this can similarly leave students falling down rabbit holes. One task I have undertaken with students is to narrate them through a spontaneous kinaesthetic response. By describing in as much graphic detail as I feel that particular group can handle whilst still being ‘grossed out’, I ask them to act out what is essentially being consumed by the Plague, characterised by a Creature Inside, on fast-forward. There are direct links to The Theatre and the Plague lecture-performance that Artaud gave on that Thursday evening in the Sorbonne that Nin recalled. Indeed, this activity overlaps the layers of deepening our understanding of core cruelty itself, and also the text or piece of theatre that students can use to package this to an audience. Another text I have used with students in order for them to ‘hang’ the abstract ideas and intentions of Artaud is the pileta scene from Art of Silence by Jennifer Hartley. To take the awful experience of the real-life character that this play tells the story of, to ‘snapshot’ and distort it, and to use it as the vehicle for trying to assault the senses and inflict a cruelty upon oneself as an actor (albeit ethical and school-friendly), is to blend the layers of textual representation and use one form of cruelty to expose another, essential, cruelty. What texts or stimuli do you know that would similarly work in providing this crossover from one layer of cruelty to the next?

Young female actor performs Artaud inspired theatre
Cruelty of the text or Cruelty to self as actor? Image by K Burgess

To Assault the Senses means to overstimulate the senses of the spectator, to make them uncomfortable, to shock, and above all else, to expose them. In applying this superficial level of cruelty to spectators, Artaud intended that they be confronted with the base reality of life: to awaken them, and “force them into a poetic state” through their realisation that they were mortal; that they were not safe and protected; and that “the sky can fall in on them.” But executing this layer of cruelty is pointless and ineffective if there is no layer underneath. This is where Artaudian exploration can fall flat. Assault the senses, but do it in order to make the spectator feel - as authentically as is ethically possible - that this world is in fact not safe for them, and that their mortality is real and possibly imminent. The text or piece of theatre you choose or develop will further reinforce this essential intention. So how do we go about authentically, yet ethically, exposing spectators? The obvious approaches are with bright lights and loud sounds, and these are obvious for good reason. Play with angles, sources, directions, intensities. You don’t need expensive equipment to effectively irritate a spectator with sound or light - torches can be as useful as overhead moving lights, particularly where colour, angle or strobe are explored. But always remember why these assaults are taking place: not to be merely irritating or uncomfortable. Smell, taste and touch are much underused. Pungent smells, sometimes coupled with the sight of something equally unpleasant up close, are ripe for exploration, and often when a thing is smelled, it is also tasted. For example, a bucket of ‘vomit’ consisting of spoiled foods and thrust into the face of a spectator can be quite effective if coupled with a relevant passage of text. Touch requires more care in order to stay within the realms of ethical school-based practice. Person to person touch, for example in pushing or herding spectators, is not necessary to make full use of this sense. Creating a texture underfoot, such as broken glass or thick mud, or a texture on or around the seating, can help to place the spectator into an experience not previously encountered. By far the easiest ethical way to expose a spectator is to place them in a location where they feel watched by others. Audiences hate this more than we theatre makers remember. Artaud suggested that spectators be placed in the centre of the space, with actors performing all around them - including above on balconies. This inverted theatre in the round is very effective, and actors can explore this to a high extreme: how close can you get to a spectator without touching them? How many spectators does it take for any or all of them to feel exposed? Can other elements be used to heighten the feeling of being the centre of unwanted attention - e.g. lighting, gesture, characterising the spectator as the subject of an actor’s rage? However you go about assaulting the senses, ultimately you must identify what it is that the spectator feels is protecting them, and tear it down to expose the cruelty of life, through the text you present, to them. Do this, without breaking any laws or ethical considerations, and you’ve cracked this layer.

The outermost layer, the actor’s cruelty to themself, can be wrapped up in the exploration of the other layers and also distinctly examined in the classroom. Artaud spoke positively of his time as an apprentice with actor Charles Dullin, enduring exceptionally long days and physical intensity. Working from 9am to midnight daily, Artaud participated in regular “rhythmic gymnastics” which, in tandem with Dullin’s process of the actor’s inward looking “perception of himself” self-discovery, helps us understand why Artaud equated theatre with intensity and truthfulness within the actor. Physical training methods similar to those practiced by Suzuki or Grotowski can wear down the actor to a point where sheer exhaustion leaves them prone to exposing and being exposed to the truth within themselves. On a superficial level then, hard physical exertion is a form of cruelty to oneself. Of course, the training over time will also build up the actor to the point where they can endure much more intense physicality and for longer durations. In turn, this requires even more intense physical and vocal energy expenditure in order to wear oneself down and achieve the exposed state. Such intensity in performance is exposing for the audience. This sheer wall of extreme energy from an actor can easily be breathtaking for a spectator. Bringing in the intense primal sounds - groans, screams and guttural chokes, adds another layer of bombardment. In adding intense light, sound and smells to this, we can start to see how overwhelming a theatre experience should be for Artaud’s spectators. But Artaud meant much more with the cruelty he intended actors to inflict upon themselves. He asserted that cruelty was life itself - as an interface between reality and ‘the dark forces behind it.’ That to be confronted with the truth that the world can crumble around us at any moment is the cruelty that people had shielded themselves from, using social pleasantries, material wealth and fickle wants to mask the need for purity in art. So it is natural that actors will naturally encounter this cruelty of life before they can begin to confront their spectators with it. But how many teachers will want to confront their students with the dark forces behind the thin representation of reality that is a cruel life, before cheerfully sending them off to Geography? An objective exploration of cruelty to oneself can be sufficiently undertaken with the physically exhausting rehearsal room explorations. Cruelty to self as an actor can be extended with exploration of difficult spaces - squeezing the actor into a tiny space and expending as much energy as possible through the voice and body is superficially cruel, but it is all done in order to expose the actor to the true cruelty of life - the core cruelty. As a teacher and a facilitator of student exploration, how can you create a culture in your classroom where students feel comfortable to stretch the class comfort zone to access this core? What ensemble building activities can you lead that, over time, will allow all students to feel safe and comfortable in doing so? How do you know when students are ready to engage in a meaningful process of exhausting their energy reserves, screaming willingly and authentically, purging themselves of the barriers of social acceptability and being ready to place to one side their deep need to conform? Facilitating the unpacking of this layer for students is an exercise in leadership and management: of knowing your students well, knowing what motivates them, where their boundaries are and how far they can be stretched.

Young female actor performs Artaud inspired Theatre
Or Cruelty to the spectator? Image by K Burgess

Working with Artaud’s ideas and my interpretations and assumptions about what he was trying to overcome and achieve, has changed my theatre style and teaching practice over the years. I’ve been through a bit of a journey with him. My first encounter generated a perplexed reaction, before evolving into dismissing shows influenced by him as hackneyed, to now appreciating just how much we can learn from his deep frustrations at not being able to express through language precisely what he felt and thought. The beauty of Artaud is both the sheer volume of writing out there about him, and the loosely defined theories that allow each of us to latch onto different combinations of interpretations to make Artaud our own. Your students, too, will find their own corner of Artaud’s mind to explore further, and will benefit from melting it with other learning, other theorists, texts and experiences. By looking at Artaud through these four layers, I have begun to scratch through the surface of superficial and common misconceptions about what Artaudian theatre is, and I hope you can help your students do so too.

More Artaud resources available on my IB DP Solo Theatre Piece article here.

All text and images by Kieran Burgess.

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