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Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) was a French dramatist, playwright, poet, actor and theoretician. He advocated an experimental theatre focusing on movement, gesture, dance and signals instead of relying primarily on text as a means of communication.
Much of Artaud’s writings are difficult to comprehend, including the manifestos on his Theatre of Cruelty in the collected essays The Theatre and Its Double.
While his theories and works were not fully appreciated in his lifetime, the influence of Artaud on 20th-century theatre has been significant. His followers included Irish playwright Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) and English theatre director Peter Brook, among others. The Royal Shakespeare Company, under the artistic direction of Brook, even devoted its entire 1964 season to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty.
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 emotions. The text was given a reduced emphasis in Artaud’s theatre, as movement 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 with the intention of trapping them inside the drama.