Theatre of Cruelty Conventions


Sadly, the French mastermind known as Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) was not always a lucid one. The man who coined the term ‘theatre of cruelty’ spent a significant portion of his later life in asylums, and when on the outside, addicted to opium.

Much of Artaud’s writings on the theatre are difficult to comprehend and his manifestos in ‘The Theatre and Its Double’ are not exactly bedtime reading. Artaud often has less appeal to teachers and students of theatre than other theorists and practitioners because his techniques are not readily translatable. One has to work hard to decipher how Artaud’s concepts for his Theatre of Cruelty become concrete conventions for the stage. But this does not mean we should dismiss Artaud or his influence on 20th century theatre.

A largely movement-based performance style, Theatre of Cruelty aimed to shock the senses of its audience, sometimes using violent and confronting images that appealed to the emotions. Text was given a reduced emphasis in Artaud’s theatre, as dance and gesture became just as powerful as the spoken word. Piercing sound and bright stage lights bombarded the audience during performances.

Artaud experimented with the relationship between performer and audience, preferring to place spectators at the very centre of a performance surrounding them. His intention was to trap the audience inside the drama.

I have recently been working with my Year 12 Drama class on Artaud, scouring numerous texts in order to understand his Theatre of Cruelty techniques in some depth. Our intention is for some students in the class to present the story of Jack the Ripper in this style. Below, I have compiled a categorised list of many of the conventions of the Theatre of Cruelty in the hope that it proves useful for teachers and students.



  • Artaud saw both the world around him and the theatre, itself, in need of change
  • he was influenced by Surrealism and at one time was a member of the movement
  • his theatre set to awaken the dormant dream images of our minds
  • Artaud’s theoretical writings included a series of manifestos on the theatre
  • his theoretical essays were published (during his lifetime) in 1938: ‘The Theatre and Its Double’
  • reading Artaud’s writings is akin to doing a cryptic crossword puzzle
  • his theories were never realised in an accessible form for future generations to interpret easily
  • Artaud attempted to appeal to the irrational mind, one not conditioned by society
  • there was an appeal to the subconscious, freeing the audience from their negativity
  • his theatre could not communicate using spoken language (primary tool of rational thought)
  • his was a return to a theatre of myth and ritual
  • the Theatre of Cruelty was an enhanced double of real life
  • Artaud created ‘doubles’ between the theatre and metaphysics, the plague, and cruelty
  • he claimed if the theatre is the double of life, then life is the double of theatre
  • his theatre was to mirror not that of everyday life, but the reality of the extraordinary
  • this ‘extraordinary’ was a reality not contaminated by ideas of morality and culture
  • his art (theatre) should be a double of a higher form of reality
  • Artaud’s theatre aimed to appeal to, and release the emotions of, the audience
  • mood played an important part in Theatre of Cruelty performances
  • by bombarding the audience’s senses, they underwent an emotional release (catharsis)

This is Artaud’s ‘double’: theatre should recall those moments when we wake from dreams unsure whether the dream’s content or the bed we are lying in is our reality (The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Performance)


  • emphasis on the written or spoken text was significantly reduced
  • the notion of text being exalted (a more powerful component) was eliminated
  • Artaud referred to spoken dialogue as ‘written poetry’
  • emphasis on improvisation, not scripts

There can be no spectacle without an element of cruelty as the basis of every show (First Manifesto, Antonin Artaud)

Movement & Gesture

  • Artaud was inspired by a performance of Balinese dancers in 1931 (use of gesture and dance)
  • Grotowski claimed Artaud’s interpretation of the Balinese dancers was ‘one big mis-reading’
  • Artaud wished to create a new (largely non-verbal) language for the theatre
  • (ritualistic) movement was a key element (often replacing traditional text/spoken words)
  • performers communicated some of their stories through ‘signs’
  • ‘signs’ in the Theatre of Cruelty were facial expression and movement
  • stylised movement was known as ‘visual poetry’
  • dance and gesture became just as effective as the spoken word
  • movement and gesture replaced more than words, standing for ideas and attitudes of mind
  • movement often created violent or disturbing images on stage
  • sometimes the violent images were left to occur in the minds of the audience (not on stage)

We do not intend to do away with dialogue, but to give words something of the significance they have in dreams (First Manifesto, Antonin Artaud)


Space & Actor-Audience Relationship

  • Artaud experimented with the actor-audience relationship
  • relationship between the actor and audience in the Theatre of Cruelty was intimate
  • preference for actors to perform around the audience in the centre (rectangle/ring/boundary)
  • he attempted to reduce or eliminate the special space set aside for the actors (the stage)
  • Grotowski refuted Artaud’s concept of eliminating the stage area
  • performers placed in four corners / on four sides of the space (revolutionary?)
  • Grotowski argued Artaud’s use of space was not revolutionary; it had already been attempted
  • the audience was therefore placed in a weaker, less powerful position (encircled by actors)
  • the audience was often seated on swivel chairs (easily swinging around to follow the action)
  • galleries and catwalks enable the performers to look down on the audience (trapping them)


  • emphasis on light and sound in performances
  • sound was often loud, piercing, and hypnotising for the audience
  • the audience’s senses were assaulted with movement, light and sound (hence ‘cruelty’)
  • music and sound (voice, instrument, recorded) often accompanied stage movement or text
  • lighting used a combination of flooded light and pinpointed, more directed light
  • using spectacle and sensation, Artaud wanted his theatre to hypnotise its audience
  • colour, light and costume added theatrical effect (opposite to Grotowski and Poor Theatre)
  • sets were eliminated from performances, (but musical instruments could form part of a ‘set’)
  • the Theatre of Cruelty is ‘total theatre’ (full of spectacle)
  • Artaud preferred to dismiss modern costumes, employing clothing used for ancient rituals
  • some evidence projection and/or film may have been used in Artaud’s performances
  • Artaud likened film editing to the juxtaposition between performers’ movements and gestures
  • oversized puppets/mannequins/effigies were used to create contrast in size with the actors
  • mask was also used on occasions

We intend to 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 (First Manifesto, Antonin Artaud)

Acting & Characterisation

  • the actor was encouraged to openly use emotions (opposite to Brecht and Epic Theatre)
  • no emphasis on individual characters in performance (opposite to Stanislavski and Realism)
  • characters were less defined by movement, gesture and dance (compared to spoken dialogue)
  • Grotowski warned the Artaudian actor to avoid stereotyped gestures: one for each emotion

48 Responses

  1. Paul Stanton says:

    Really helpful, thanks.

  2. Sasha says:

    This has helped me thoroughly with my A-Level coursework, THANKS JUSTIN!

  3. Bob says:

    Great article!

  4. sam says:

    thanks meant a lot hope one day i could meet up with him

  5. C J says:

    As a KS5 Drama teacher this article has really helped my students consider their own work in relation to Artaudian ‘style’ and conventions. Thanks so much

  6. Hamiida Namugga says:

    Very well explained piece

  7. Stanley Jenkins says:

    I remember seeing an experimental film of sun ra performing which seemed to me to approximate the theater of cruelty in many ways. As the performer played, and was filmed in black and white, bright lights were shined directly into the camera, causing a strobe effect. The music was loud and the effect was disorienting, painful and ….well….cruel.

  8. biob says:

    Fantastic piece!

  9. Ariel Styk says:

    It’s helped me a lot!

  10. Mari says:

    I’m a professional theatre maker and I specialize in working in the Theatre of Cruelty, Epic Theatre, Theatre of the Poor and Theatre of the Oppressed. Reading The Theatre and it’s Double was like reading my own mind. I literally cried. It’s my favorite bedtime book.

  11. Meghan says:

    Thank-you so much for this well-written, informative post! Would you be able to clear up for me why many people regard Theatre of Cruelty as an “impossible” form of theatre? What about it makes it impossible to produce?

    • Justin Cash says:

      Hi Meghan, thanks for your feedback. I think the difficulty with Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty is that Artaud’s own writings are difficult to decipher in a coherent form and that may be why his theatre is considered by some as difficult to produce. Yes, it is avant-garde, but so is a lot of great theatre. Perhaps it is the holy, ritualistic, surreal, hypnotising, bombarding and movement-based elements of Artaud’s drama that make it a challenge for theatre-makers? I certainly enjoy teaching Artaud in the senior high drama classroom and my students always find his concepts for the theatre engaging, yet challenging.

  12. Justin Cash says:

    I’m pretty sure I understand Artaud, Michael. I agree, his theatre was indeed a theatre of magic. The point I was making in this article is that Artaud’s concepts are often difficult to understand. Given that the target audience of this blog is high school drama/theatre teachers and their students, I’m sure you’d agree The Theatre and It’s Double is not exactly easy reading for a teenager. Hence the purpose of this post, aiming to break it down into a concise and coherent form. I wouldn’t bother writing about Artaud unless I believed his theatre was worthy of it.

  13. Michael Freeman says:

    You mostly write about how you don’t understand Artaud. Don’t write about Artaud if you aren’t ready to understand it. He is the completely rebellious artist — and took risks all his life to prove it. His theater goes against the precepts of Westernized theater. If you are stuck to that, then you will never understand. There are no yawns in Artaud’s audience. It’s a theater of magic.

  14. Molly says:

    This was a life saver, it’s very difficult finding such concise well written information like this. Thank you so much!

  15. JOHN CALVERT says:

    Speaking as a writer, I find the current stage of much theatre abysmal…. admittedly there are a handful of writers and directors producing new and exciting work but they remain unrecognised and unacknowledged.Artaud other others showed what could be achieved in theatre, but hardly anyone these days wants to take up that challenge. With the advance of countless innovations in stage technology, you would think it would be now more than ever possible to produce a theatre which stuns and intruigues us… just as Artaud imagined. Alas , we seem to be afraid of the new , the dangerous.

  16. Alex says:

    Very helpful for my A-level drama piece acting in the style of Artaud, using the script of 100 for our stimulus. Thanks

  17. Max says:

    Thankyou this was really helpful.Just did a mock GCSE that explored Artauds use of drama.Then had to write and explain about Artaud in a devising log that was marked by an exam board.Really appreciate it.

  18. Freddie says:

    Artaud has inspired me to create my own play

  19. Justin Cash says:

    Excellent! Thanks for your feedback Beatrice.

  20. Beatrice Hooper says:

    Thank you this was very helpful for my Drama GCSE homework.

  21. Agbonkhese Derek Godfrey says:

    Nice work your research on Arturd’s theatre really helped me for my master exam. Derek

  22. Val says:

    I’m really interested in this form of drama, I want to perform it, and I have many ideas, I am currently studying it in drama and it blows my mind away

    • Sam says:

      Could you please recommend me a workshop idea to present to my class? It’s so hard of a project:(

      • Justin Cash says:

        Sam, try creating a workshop that focuses on assaulting the senses. Loud pre-recorded music, piercing sound, bright stage lights, invasion of personal space, lots of movement, running and intense physical activity, pulsating sounds via the use of the actor’s voice and body, creating a sense of eeriness, dreamlike atmosphere etc. This will all make sense with Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty.

        • Sam says:

          Hey, thanks a lot for the idea! I have to create a 45min – 65min long seminar for my class and I will need to go over the style of theatre thoroughly. More specifically I will need to include the : Biography on the practitioner(s), a detailed description of the elements, principles, and style of the genre, and a workshop (40-45 minutes) that exposes students to the style of the genre. For the workshop, what would you recommend me to ask my fellow peers to present. My class has 16 students in it (including my partner and I). I’m thinking of maybe splitting up the class into 7 groups of 2, but then what should I ask them to do? Should I give them all a scene or something to act out, or a theme, and ask them to try and portray that theme through the techniques you’ve learned through Artaud’s style of theatre?


  23. brandon says:

    Artaud was on occultist,comparriate of Crowley and devised this form of theatre as a early form of what would become large scale ritual performances intended to alter mental was basically a predecessor of Mk ultra type mind control.he did predict the large scale rituals we have now any Grammy ceremony in recent years has had some type of occult performance.I’m not saying he’s bad I was risked hermetic but I’m telling you what your learning about is occultist Artaud was unable to handle the things he dabbled and delved into and drove him mad.I’m not saying occultism is bad, but I do think people should know before participating in his techniques.its designed to hit subconscious triggers that can open old trauma or pain thus making you open to influence and control.if you were raised hermetic you learn very early to loose fear because fear leaves you venerable to the things you try to harness if you fear it it will turn on you.that’s why theres rituals that must be performed in progression of training.Artaud and Crowley alike lacked discipline you can’t dabbled with these Crowley trying to preforms the abramelin was his downfall Artaud wasn’t mentally able to cope and its something that can happen to others who participate in his ritual theatre.100 may try it and only one be effected but you never know how mass rituals will effect people performer or audience and I can tell you the exact grimoire he got this idea from, its an offshoot of the gotta.if someone truly harnesses magick.youll never know dabblers send addicts will publicize it true practioneers have no need of publicity and definitely dont want spotlight.its basically playing with live wires its unsafe the traditional protection for the performers are nonexistent.the 4corners north east south west above and below the set up is a ritual in itself so just coming together even unintentional activates the portal.

  24. very helpful with my drama diary thank you

  25. paul mecock says:

    fab stuff

  26. chloe says:

    very helpful with my drama diary thank you (GSCE)

  27. Jasmine says:

    Hi, this is brilliant and has helped me so much. Was just wondering if you had a refference list available for this?

  28. Clyde says:

    He influenced surrealists. You have the causation working the wrong direction.

  29. Honour says:

    Just used this for an essay for my interdisciplinary work for my degree, was very helpful thank you!

  30. Justin Cash says:

    That’s great news, Cara! Thanks for your feedback.

    – Justin

  31. Cara says:

    So helpful with my GCSE Drama work

  32. Alyssa says:

    Thank you#!!!

  33. Clair Haynes says:

    This alone has triggered many ideas to workshop and experiment with. …Great, concise explanation – thank you!

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