Wrong Side Out

Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty is a vision for a parallel yet alternate avante-garde of the modernist theatre to that of the Brechtian Epic. The theatre of cruelty also seeks to do away with the intellectualism of the Renaissance theatre, yet unlike Brecht, Artaud seeks the pre-textual enchantment and magic of the Dionysiac festivity, inspired by the Balinese dancers he had witnessed at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale.[1] Artaud’s ‘Cruelty’ builds upon his history as a fringe member of the surrealists, whose cause he foreswore after they oriented themselves towards the communist party in 1926. Considering himself the only true surrealist, a movement which he believed to have been “never anything else but a new type of magic,”[2] Artuad’s magic was to be made manifest through theatre, which could not function ‘without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle.’[3] This cruelty is not that of ‘bloodshed, martyred flesh, crucified enemies,’[4] but ‘a cosmic rigor and implacable necessity…a living whirlwind that devours the darkness.’[5]

In his First Manifesto for a Theatre of Cruelty (1932), Artaud outlines the programme and nature of such a theatre, which will ‘put an end to the subjugation of the theater to the text, and…recover the notion of a kind of unique language half­way between gesture and thought.’[6] Its architecture will ‘do away with stage and auditorium, replacing them by a kind of single, undivided locale without any partitions of any kind and this will become the very scene of the action.’[7] Whilst Artaud calls for ‘No décor,’ this is not the minimalism of the Brechtian stage, but rather a call for a different form of designed space altogether, for which ‘objects of unknown form and purpose are enough to fulfil this function.’[8]

The audience member would be on the receiving end of a sensory overload, of ‘fiery projection of all the objective results of gestures, words, sounds, music or their combinations.’[9] Where Brecht had rejected the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, in whose synthesis and admixture ‘the three sister-arts unite their forces in one collective operation, in which the highest faculty of each comes to its highest unfolding,’[10] Artaud embraces such a vision, with all of the elements of staging becoming one encompassing whole – constituting a world and a universe. If the immersive shared universe fiction encourages it’s fans to fling themselves into the plot-river, it perhaps does so in the mode of just such a cruelty.

Whilst Artaud was not able to fully realise the proposal for the theatre of cruelty in his lifetime, achieving only one production that approximated the tenets of the manifesto (the 1935 staging of Les Cenci), its intentions echo down through the deconstructive impulses of the 20th century avant-garde. Artaud anticipates the psychedelic mode of multimedia events such as Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and the gestural bodily extremism of Carolee Schneemann’s performance works.[11] The sensory overload of cruelty supersedes the textual to reach an aesthetics of pure encounter, with Derrida commenting that ‘The theater of cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable.’[12]

Rather than Brecht’s proletarian viewer who is inspired upon leaving the theatre to upend the world, Artaud instead expects ‘the spectator to give himself up, once outside the theater, to ideas of war, riot, and blatant murder.’[13] Instead of the didacticism of Brecht, such a surrender to immersion could perhaps be the key to another form of active engagement by an audience, one in which consciousness is raised and razed, leaving the fan stripped of their shell and open to the production of new possibilities. Such a state of possibility is akin to the Deleuzian body without organs (BwO), and it is from Artaud’s play To Have Done with the Judgment of God (1947) that Deleuze first takes the concept:

Man is sick because he is badly constructed.
We must make up our minds to strip him bare in order to
scrape off that animalcule that itches him mortally,

and with god
his organs.
For you can tie me up if you wish,
but there is nothing more useless than an organ.            

When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom.

Then you will teach him again to dance wrong side out
as in the frenzy of dance halls
and this wrong side out will be his real place.[14]

It is Artaud’s abeyance of the linguistic in favour of the guttural wail, the ‘breath-words’ and ‘howl-words’ that Deleuze positions as calling forth ‘a glorious body…a new dimension of the schizophrenic body, an organism without parts which operates entirely by insufflation, respiration, evaporation, and fluid transmission.’[15] To Deleuze the nature of the schizophrenic is ‘less a question of recovering meaning than of destroying the word, of conjuring up the affect, and of transforming the painful passion of the body into a triumphant action, obedience into command, always in this depth beneath the fissured surface.’[16] The fan destroys the world through the supplanting of ontic reality with the fictional. They too plumb the depths, to seek the esoteric, the deletia and the appended, and furthermore to inflate, to gouge new spaces that deny fixity of meaning or canon. The fan surrenders at least a portion of their subjectivity, to become both the object of obsession and stand apart from it as admirer.

Despite Artaud’s distancing from the surrealists, his theatre of cruelty retains many elements of their approach, in particular his prioritisation of the gestural over the linguistic script. Barthes identifies how the surrealists sought to erode the primacy of language – ‘language being system and the aim of the movement being, romantically, a direct subversion of codes’[17] leading to ‘the desacrilization of the image of the Author…accepting the principle and the experience of several people writing together.’[18] The surrealists practiced this desacralization in collective exercises such as the exquisite corpse, whose assemblages often become literal bodies without organs, populated instead by a comingling of enmeshed lines of thought, disjunctured propositions.

Breton describes how the exquisite corpse ‘tend[ed] inevitably to raise anthropomorphism to its highest pitch and to accentuate vividly the continuing relationship uniting the exterior world with the interior world,’[19] indicating the ways in which conception of the bodily might have very little to do with the substance of flesh. The body depopulated of organs becomes a world wrong side out, a universe, just as the fan’s conception of the extra-bodily universe retains the anthropomorphic schema of a paranoid’s ‘influencing machine’. The collectively executed fan work becomes a discursively authored exquisite corpse, composed of myopic occluded contributions. Denied the absolute knowledge that the paranoiac might seek, one must act nonetheless, to leave a mark upon the page, small accretions that form the bodily whole.

Exquisite corpse by André Breton, Valentine Hugo, Paul and Nusch Éluard, source: https://poulwebb.blogspot.com/2019/11/cadavre-exquis-exquiste-corpses.html

[1] Patricia A. Clancy, “Artaud and the Balinese Theatre,” Modern Drama 28, no.3 (Fall 1985): 397, http://dx.doi.org/10.3138/md.28.3.397.

[2] Antonin Artaud, “Letter to Louis Jouvet, 27 August 1931,” quoted in Bettina Knapp, “Artaud: A New Type of Magic,” Yale French Studies 31, Surrealism (1964): 98, http://dx.doi.org/ 10.2307/2929726.

[3] Antonin Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” in The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 99.

[4] Antonin Artaud, “Letters on Cruelty,” in The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 102.

[5] Artaud, “Letters on Cruelty,”102.

[6] Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” 89.

[7] Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” 73.

[8] Artaud, “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” 75.

[9] Antonin Artaud, “Oriental and Western Theatre,” in Antonin Artaud Collected Works Volume Four, trans. Victor Corti (London: Calder & Boyars, 1974), 55.

[10] Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future, trans. William Ashton Ellis (Leipzig: Wigand, 1849), 78, http://users.skynet.be/johndeere/wlpdf/wlpr0062.pdf.


[11] Carolee Schneemann, Imaging Her Erotics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 230.

[12] Jacques Derrida, “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 234.

[13] Antonin Artaud, “No More Masterpieces,” in The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 82.

[14] Antonin Artaud, “To Have Done with the Judgment of God” in Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 571.

[15] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (London: Continuum, 1990), 88.

[16] Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, 88.

[17] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press,1977), 144.

[18] Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 144.

[19] André Breton, “The Exquisite Corpse, Its Exaltation (1948),” in André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: MFA Publications, 2002), 89.

Author: danielseankelly

I'm a practicing artist. This blog is for me to channel my ideas into writing, through short form essays.

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