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Theatre of Cruelty

The Theatre of Cruelty is an experimental genre of theatre that’s concerned more with audience sense-experience than it is with dialogue and content.

The term is associated with famed French playwright Antonin Artaud. A former member of the surrealist movement, he defined the Theatre of Cruelty in The Theatre and its Double. This collection of essays outlined his theories in regard to the theatre and contained his manifestos for a Theatre of Cruelty. The aim of the Theatre of Cruelty was to shock audiences and assault their senses in a way that Western theatre was not known for. Gesture, dance, and movement were all more powerful in Artaud’s manifesto of theatre than a language was.

Artaud’s works are enormously hard to read and comprehend but, they do contain a series of important themes and characteristics necessary for understanding his vision of what theatre can be. His works were incredibly influential on 20th-century avant-garde theatre, influence the symbolist and surrealist movements. 

Theatre of Cruelty pronunciation: thee-it-ur ohv croo-lee-tee

Theatre of Cruelty 

What is the Theatre of Cruelty? 

The Theatre of Cruelty is a type of theatre in which the audience’s senses are constantly stressed and engaged by lights, sounds, movements, and more. Text and dialogue are far less important in this genre of experimental theatre than the relationship between the performers and the audience members. Often, Artaud’s plays centered the audience and structured the performance physically around them. Trapped inside the drama, the audience would have a very different experience from the traditional. They would also have a sense-based experience that was unrivaled by other theatrical forms. 

The Theatre and its Double

This important publication was written by Antonin Artaud and published in February of 1938. It was included in Gallimard’s Métamorpheses Collection. Unfortunately, when this book was published, Artaud was at his lowest, nearly catatonic in a mental institution in Sainte-Anne. Throughout the collection of essays, Artaud outlines his attack on conventional theatre and focuses on the importance of language. Expression was at the heart of his connection to the audience. A Theatre of Cruelty, Artaud defined, should attack the audience’s senses, enraging them in a way that Western theatre did not at the time. 

Examples of Plays from the Theatre of Cruelty 

Les Cenci by Antonin Artaud 

Les Cenci was, unfortunately, the only play that Artaud put into production based on his theories of the Theatre of Cruelty. It was based around Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Les Cenci, a verse drama written in 1819. It was inspired by the House of Cenci and when written, was not considered stageable. It included depictions of parricide and incest. Today, Shelley’s Les Cenci is considered an important piece of Western drama. 

Artaud’s version of the play was performed at the Théâtre des Folies-Wagram in Paris. It only showed 17 times and did not garner a great response. Despite this, it did exemplify the tenants of the Theatre of Cruelty that Artaud was interested in. 

When speaking about Les Cenci, the playwright sad that the opening scene was “suggestive of extreme atmospheric turbulence, with wind-blown drapes, waves of suddenly amplified sound, and crowds of figures engaged in ‘furious orgy.’” Artaud’s interest in Oriental theatre is also seen through this production. 

Antonin Artaud Life and Death

Antonin Artaud is a crucial part of the Theatre of Cruelty. Understanding the complexities of his life, and its struggles may help readers understand what he was trying to accomplish with the Theatre of Cruelty. He was born in September 1896 and throughout his life worked as a poet, writer, dramatist, actor, theatre director, and more. He’s recognized today as one of the most important figures in 20th-century theatre. 

He is responsible for conceptualizing the Theatre of Cruelty within The Theatre and its Double. His works often contained themes of experimentation, drugs, mysticism, and more. Throughout his life, he suffered from schizophrenia and was confined, on and off, to mental hospitals. Artaud was not afraid to experiment and at one point he lived and studied with the Tarahumaran people in Mexico. There, he participated in peyote rites and wrote about it in Voyage to the Land of Tarahumara. It was at the end of his life that his best-known work, The Theatre and Its Double was published. 

Influence of the Theatre of Cruelty

Artaud’s definition of the theatre of Cruelty has been highly influential on numerous important playwrights. These include writers like Peter Brooke and Romeo Castellucci. The latter is known for his work as a set designer, artist, and is part of the contemporary European avant-garde movement. His works have been presented around the world and are known for their dramatic lines and complex visuals. 

Other creators, like Jean Genet, have also been influenced by the Theatre of Cruelty. Genet was a novelist and playwright who also came to be known as a political activist. His works were often deliberately provocative. He wrote about criminality, homosexuality, and more. It’s Genet that most scholars cite as having been influenced most successfully by Artaud’s theatre.


Why is the Theatre of Cruelty important?

The Theatre of Cruelty is important because of the influence Artaud’s writings had on 20th-century avant-garde literature and drama. This genre of experimental theatre was willing to push the bounds in a way that other types of theatre were not. Within Artaud’s work, audience experience was at the forefront. 

What are the characteristics of the Theatre of Cruelty? 

Artaud’s conception of the Theatre of Cruelty involved the audience’s centrality to the performance. There should be interactions between the audience and the perfumers, lights, movements, dance, piercing sound, and more. 

How did the Theatre of Cruelty influence writers? 

Numerous 20th century and 21st-century authors have been influenced by Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. His willingness to focus on sense experience over dialogue and plot changed what was possible in the world of drama

Related Literary Terms 

  • Play (Theatre): a form of writing for theatre. It is divided into acts and scenes. 
  • Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
  • Motif: an action, image, idea, or sensory perception that repeats in a work of literature.
  • Sensory Language: the words used to create images that trigger the reader’s senses. These include sight, sound, smell, and taste.
  • Coherence: refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other. 

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