The Theater of Cruelty

Originally published in 1938, The Theater And Its Double, by Antonin Artaud, is a collection of essays, the most prominent of which put forward Artaud’s concept of the Theater of Cruelty.

“The poetic state, a transcendent experience of life, is what the public is fundamentally seeking through love, crime, drugs, war, or insurrection. The Theater of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theater a passionate and convulsive conception of life.” (p.122)

Artaud sees that theater has become a “servile copy of reality” (p.86), paving a similar path to cinema, where people’s small-scale interests, preferences, and psychologies have deteriorated our sensibilities. He calls for a “theater that wakes us up: nerves and heart”, (p.84) to reanimate the continuity between life and the theater. He advocates for a theater that “does not separate the mind from the body nor the senses from the intelligence, especially in a domain where the endlessly renewed fatigue of the organs requires intense and sudden shocks to revive our understanding”. (p.86) He calls for the theater to “to create a metaphysics of speech, gesture, and expression, in order to rescue it from its servitude to psychology and ‘human interest’.” (p.90)

On cruelty

The concept of cruelty is conceived as “rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination”. (p.101) Artaud claims that cruelty is “lucid, a kind of rigid control and submission to necessity” (p.102), and that there can be no cruelty without consciousness. He goes on, “I employ the word ‘cruelty’ in the sense of an appetite for life, a cosmic rigor and impeccable necessity”. (p.102)

The relation with Reflexive Computation?

Artaud’s conception of the Theater of Cruelty contains tactics that can be considered early precursors to reflexive practices in theater. “We abolish the stage and auditorium and replace them by a single site, without partition or barrier of any kind, which will become the theater of the action. A direct communication will be re-established between the spectator and the spectacle, between the actor and the spectator”. (p.96) His call to collapse the space between the audience and stage is mirrored in Bertolt Brecht’s breaking of the fourth wall, and conception of the theater’s alienation effect, ideas that were also intended to jolt audiences into a renewed relationship with the theater and their role as observers. Artaud argues, “it is in order to attack the spectator’s sensibility on all sides that we advocate a revolving spectacle which, instead of making the stage and auditorium two closed worlds, without possible communication, spreads its visual and sonorous outbursts over the entire mass of the spectators.” (p.86)

The field of Reflexive Computation analyses tactics of 20th century reflexivity in order to rethink them for the C21st century of computation. Can reflexivity in computation also be used to “wake us up: nerve and heart”?