French theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) is today known as the major exponent of the Theatre of Cruelty, a largely movement-based experimental form aimed at assaulting the senses of the spectator, and in doing so, awakening their subconscious mind.
Below is a series of flip cards I use to summarise Artaud’s concepts and his Theatre of Cruelty techniques to students and teachers in classes and workshops. Individually and collectively, these summary cards are useful in gaining an understanding of an often misunderstood man and his vision for a new form of theatre.
Spectator's senses were assaulted with movement, light and sound that was loud, piercing and hypnotising.
Artaud said his Theatre of Cruelty aimed to awaken the "dormant dream images of our minds". It was an appeal to the irrational mind and the subconscious ... freeing the audience from their negativity.
No emphasis on individual characters in the performance. Characters were deliberately less defined due to the heavy use of movement, gesture and dance.
Spectators were often seated on swivel chairs, enabling them to easily follow the action happening all around them.
Artaud's theatre was non-realistic, experimental and non-mainstream. He once said "there can be no spectacle without an element of cruelty as the basis of every show".
Artaud's was a largely movement-based, non-verbal form of theatre. He called the performers' stylised movement in performance "visual poetry".
Artaud's essays, contained in a book titled "The Theatre and its Double" (1938), argue his art should be a double of a higher form of reality. The Theatre of Cruelty was an enhanced double of real life – mirroring the reality of the extra-ordinary – a life not contaminated by ideas of morality and culture.
With little evidence of speech, Theatre of Cruelty performers communicated mostly through signs, i.e. facial expression and movement.
The theatre of realism has long placed text as the primary means of communication. Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, however, eliminated the notion of text having a higher rank in performance. As a result, dance and gesture soon became as effective as the spoken word.
Performers were openly encouraged to use emotions and mood played a vital role in a Theatre of Cruelty performance. For the spectator, the assault of their senses through movement, light and sound was intended to create an emotional release (catharsis).