Illustration: Spell for Roger Blin, Antonin Artaud 1939 Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Bequest of Paule Thevenin
The following is excerpted from The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, from W.W. Norton & Company.
ANTONIN ARTAUD COINED THE TERM "theater of cruelty" in his crackling volume of manifestos from the 1930s, The Theater and Its Double. The Theater and Its Double aimed to annihilate Western theater, and to re-create it from the ashes in accordance with Artaud's principle: "Everything that acts is a cruelty," he wrote. "It is upon this idea of extreme action, pushed beyond all limits, that theater must be rebuilt."
From the start, Artaud was anxious to differentiate his concept of cruelty from that of simple sadism, violence, or bloodshed. His cruelty, he insisted, meant something quite different: "the appetite for life, a cosmic rigor and implacable necessity, in the gnostic sense of a living whirlwind that devours the darkness, in the sense of that pain apart from whose ineluctable necessity life could not continue."
Despite his repeated, manic attempts at clarification, however, Artaud still thought his concept was virulently and consistently misunderstood. Indeed, for a madman who lived infamously far beyond the constraints of societal mores, he spent an inordinate amount of time defending his use of the term. "With this mania we all have for depreciating everything, as soon as I have said 'cruelty,' everybody will at once take it to mean 'blood,'" he wrote in 1933, in a sort of preemptive strike. "But 'theater of cruelty' means a theater difficult and cruel for myself first of all." (As if self-cruelty canceled out its other effects: take note — this will recur, and ought to arouse our suspicions.)
It didn't help Artaud's case that even as he protested vociferously against the literal interpretation of his cruelty, when the time came to get theatrically specific, his examples of potential subjects were tales of literalized bloodshed: "the story of Bluebeard, reconstructed according to the historical records and with a new idea of eroticism and cruelty"; "a tale by the Marquis de Sade, in which the eroticism will be transposed, allegorically mounted and figured, to create a violent exteriorization of cruelty"; "an extract from the Zohar: The Story of Rabbi Simeon, which has the ever present violence and force of a conflagration," and so on.
Artaud wanted his cruelty to speak, as it were, for itself. "The person who has an idea of what this language is will be able to understand us," he wrote. "We write only for him." But the concept doesn't speak for itself. In fact, the very use of the word "cruelty" in relation to the kind of life-force venerated by Artaud can at times seem a regrettable lexical error, perhaps of the Western, or Manichean variety — a distortion akin to the histrionic skewing of shunyata, the Buddhist concept of emptiness, entertainingly accomplished by philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, who spun the notion out of its fundamental neutrality and into negativity and nihilism. Artaud was looking to give a name to the "living whirlwind that devours the darkness ... the pain apart from whose ineluctable necessity life could not continue." He had already renamed God, shit; he called this whirlwind, cruelty. "And I claim, in doing this, the right to break with the usual sense of language, to crack the a...