Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture










SCREAM No. 54 : December 2011

Releasing Artaud from a
Theatre of Cruelty 

So much that is taught, written and assumed about the work and thoughts of Antonin Artaud is misleading and reliant on a very narrow understanding or conception as to what is made possible by his ideas. So much of Artaud seems only applicable to enthusiastic undergraduate students releasing their own angst through expressions of psychosis. So perhaps it is time to release Artaud from the binds of stereotypical theatres of cruelty.

Artaud's shunning of organized political association would seem to suggest that, unlike Brecht, he was psychological and not political in his theatrical leanings. This denies the fact of his extremely political and revolutionary sentiments expressed in his later work "To Have Done With The Judgement Of God". The standard mind-set of theatre practitioners today is that Artaud is a quaint relic of a short-lived theatrical experiment that has little bearing on life or the theatre today; something indulged by the 1960s and 70s avant garde! While his work is studied in some secondary school systems and an occasional university department, it is very rare for serious acting schools to bother with his thinking or suggested frameworks for advancing theatre. Even with the obvious links between Butoh and the work of outstanding directors like Peter Brook and more recently, Julie Taymor, Artaud is greeted with a patronising and condescending nod and a wink as if to say "whatever!"

But with the new media technologies easily available and with a general return to interest in areas of religion, spirituality and the subconscious mind, Artaud can provide a mythological basis for greater exponential depth in theatrical event making. And I choose the word "event" carefully! In Artaud's terms, our theatre needs a baptism or rite of some kind that gives power and authenticity to one's real experience of life. Like the painting-up ceremonies prior to the Aboriginal corroboree or the Easter liturgies of Christian churches or the call to prayer of the Islamic tradition or the secular weddings of the proclaimed atheists; the theatre inspired by Artaud is steeped in the emotional / physical / intellectual connection that breeds ritual. It forces consideration as to what gives rise to ritual, and by extension, theatre events. But it is more than this!

Artaud's meta-cultural / meta-textual thinking provides much more than a psychological need for shocking one out of complacency and blurring the demarcation between the stage and the audience. It certainly asks more than the exploration or creation of metaphorical insanity to throw some kind of light on the human condition. Since Brook's production of Marat Sade, the orthodoxy has been to associate Artaud's theatre with an asylum scenario. While liberating the theatre from the need for logical and linear based texts, such presentation severely underestimates the real power of Artaud and is limiting and misguided. Powerful as Marat Sade was, it owed as much to Brecht's concepts of epic and historical theatre as anything proposed by Artaud.

Gauging the interest in presenting Artaud, as indicated by postings on You Tube, we notice this focus on asylum theatre with its accompanying screaming and yelling and simulated violence. The fascination by final year high school students for donning the Artaud "crazy shit" is evident in so much that passes for Artaud; one going so far as to define their theatre offering as "crazy fucked up shit" and "a perfect example of theatre of cruelty".

Perhaps too much emphasis has been given to Artaud's short play "Spurt Of Blood"; as if to make it the defining moment for Artaud's thinking and inspiration. Much of Artaud's writing was not directly about theatre at all and provided critical and provocative challenges to the way society and art was viewed. In considering Artaud we need to consider that meta/cultural/textual analysis is as important as literal and objective meaning. Thus the use of impossible situations and instructions (as in The Spurt Of Blood) to force movement or direction that breaks through the standard package of information and accepted reality!

If we apply the notions of tendency and fluidity to Artaud's thinking, we come to very different conclusions about the nature of his legacy. Certainly it is not about presenting "crazy fucked up shit".

A challenging notion would be to view Terrence Malik's film The Tree Of Life as closer to the ideal of "Theatre Of Cruelty" than most of the 'shock' flicks and stage pieces one might imagine as being closer to fulfilling the definition.

"This film demands an incredible lot from you, as viewer. It demands that you be a different person after watching, that indeed you may change your generic approach to film- watching, or at least that you accommodate in you a new way to watch films. On a basic level it's about Malick's intuitions. On another level, it's about what you get on screen. But ultimately it's all about how you place yourself in the universe proposed." ruiresende84 (


Artaud and Malick might seem like strange bed-fellows. Yet what Malick is attempting is basically Artaud's concept of breaking through the false demarcations of reality. It is the "body without organs" which makes no sense unless viewed as a relational entity rather than as a solid or partitioned entity. The bind of story with its self contained universe of beginning / middle / end is split asunder rendering a fluid universe where time and space are interconnected and organized and altered by the viewer / participant.

The philosophical traditions giving rise to Artaud's position in the world of ideas are inspirational for Malik. He studied and lectured philosophy; having his own translation of Heidegger's Essence Of Reason published in 1969.

While Malick's The Tree Of Life is not a complete example of Artaud's theatre of cruelty, it provides a much better example of a direction or tendency within Artaud's paradigm of thinking than the "crazy fucked up shit" seen on You Tube. The concept of people as beings in reality existing relationally with the past, present and future is directly in the vein of Artaud. Memory and disconnection play as much part of reality as does objective observation and fact; thus providing the ground work on which artistic exploration can be based. The dissolving of barriers and partitions, including those between the stage and the audience, are achieved by also puncturing the enclosed system of the work itself. In other words the play is not conceived or presented as a self contained universe or closed story; rather it is a visceral magnet through which the audience will gravitate and interact in a most personal and subjective way.

The stage or platform for artistic enactment can be seen as a magnetic field through which contrived particles are drawn and pulled from pole to pole. At some point individual and collective audience members will be drawn also to the points of significance. In Artaud's terms, this gravitation and active movement can only be achieved by breaking through the walls of stereotypical vision.

This conception is at the heart of theatre of cruelty. But to some extent we need to release Antonin Artaud from the straight jacket of his historical incarceration. This can only be achieved by going more directly to the traditions where his thoughts are central and to apply our own subjectivity and willingness to engage from within our own historical, cultural and personal straight jackets. We need to become aware of our own neurosis and tunnel vision; along with our insane need to control others and our environment and our own need to be controlled by fixed systems of order (ie. dogmatic religions, belief systems, cultural and family controls).

It is no wonder that dogmatic philosophies of social order and control seek first to harness the inner workings of children's minds and adult insecurities to provide a semblance of an ordered and balanced universe. The artistic creations and the scientific models used to explore and challenge our understandings are the first victims of their attack. The perpetrated lie is that human kind can find a sort of happy ending to whatever intollerable situation. Whether it is heaven or utopia, it is most certainly a lie. Artaud's theatre of cruelty, if nothing else, provides a basis for which to confront this lie and to gain some insight into the shadows dancing on the caves of existence.

Joe Woodward

In the above video the character of Geese delivers his guttermouth speech from the play GEESE. It illustrates how words might best be used in the Artaud sense.



aren't I clear?


are the bindings of sludge

turning the waste products

of intelligence into 

ossified casings

little bricks stacked up 

into solidified walls

that encase our psyches

words binding 

the soul

all observations

all experience

all life 

into unyielding prisons

little prisons

solitary confinements 

high walls that 

stop the light of 

the world shining

into our conception


RODEZ howls.



I know you  . . .



of course you do

but you deny me

you only know the words

your words

their words



you destroy my words



am I overstating my case here?

words can also be







thought  . . .  

or thoughts

seemingly random thoughts

products of dream

and thus






                           (Stroking RODEZ)

best words 

point to what cannot be said

what cannot be ossified

what cannot be contained

in your miniscule mind

your desire to control 

your lust to destroy

best words

are tendencies






but never defining


RODEZ is agitated



do you love me

do you love

if you can speak it

then you cannot love

no love can be spoken

only deceit 

can be spoken


delusion spoken 

sincerely spoken



illusion spoken

illusions born of biological conceit

birthing one's desires


into feeling

transferred into 


without flesh

only delusion

soon to be discovered

and so we can say

"I once loved"



"I" once loved . . .

I was once deceived by my biological conceit

more likely . . .









how dare you?



deceive you?






armies waltzing upon your face

'haps they think you're the human race

what do you think?



there's geese astray upon my head



nightmare dreams have all but fled




it's not what's in your head that counts

the point is

that's not what defines you

that is simply going to die 

and disappear into nothing

what defines you

is what is in other's heads

what part of you 

what aspects of you 

are in others

the touch 

the shape

the sound 

of you 

your pain 






echoing in the lives of others

that is what defines you

that is what is real

that is what lives

you see


we become the myth of others

we become each other's mythic creature

for good or bad

and you have no control over that

your mythic status in others

no words to buffer

no shield

just as others live in you

more real than they know

more true than anything they can imagine

in you

so Simon

do you love?

have you ever loved?

it is rhetorical

because you cannot know

only others can know

only others can answer

that question . . .

now what do you want of me?

shall I eat through your innards

your liver

your heart



see also SCREAM January 2005 for the companion essay:




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