Theaters of Cruelty

By Maggie NelsonJuly 8, 2011

Theaters of Cruelty
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 DoubleThe 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 armature once and for all, to get the iron collar off its neck." In short, cruelty meant whatever Artaud wanted it to mean. This makes the term, as passed down through him, somewhat difficult to work with.

But his use of the term, and his unwillingness to give it up, were no semantic accidents. Like Nietzsche before him, Artaud insisted on cruelty because cruelty is associated not only with implacability, but also with evil. And both men considered the riotous reclamation of evil something of a necessary pit stop on the way to dancing with cosmic forces which have no truck with normative, especially religious, conceptions of morality. In other words, embracing cruelty is a step — a sort of hazing, or threshold — on the path to moving beyond cruelty, a space valorized by Artaud (as well as by the Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille, Camille Paglia, and countless others) as a more elemental, more animal, more "natural" realm than that of the civilized world, with the latter's internalized psychic limits, fretting over ethics, hypocritical moralizing, tedious social contracts and policy debates. "We sail straight over morality and past it, we flatten, we crush perhaps what is left of our own morality by venturing to voyage thither," Nietzsche wrote, rallying the invisible troops.

Here Nietzsche echoes the great Marquis de Sade, from whose name the word "sadism" derives. In the eighteenth century, Sade inverted Jean-Jacques Rousseau's more benevolent view of man-in-the-wild, and wickedly venerated the cruelty of Nature as a model for human affairs. As Simone de Beauvoir summarized in her 1955 essay, "Must We Burn Sade": Rousseau held that "Nature is good; let us follow her," Thomas Hobbes that "Nature is evil; let us not follow her," and Sade that "Nature is evil; let us follow her." "Cruelty is simply the energy in a man civilization has not yet altogether corrupted," Sade wrote in 1795's Philosophy in the Bedroom. "Therefore [cruelty] is a virtue, not a vice." Two hundred years hence, Artaud pushed this notion of cruelty as fundamental, uncorrupted energy further still, into the realm of the mystical, the metaphysic: "It is cruelty that cements matter together, cruelty that molds the features of the created world," he wrote.

It was, of course, of little concern to Sade, or Nietzsche, or Artaud, what kind of world, or what amount of suffering, the exaltation of such principles might bring about. Or, rather, they may have cared, but they had, as they say, different priorities.




Since Artaud's death in 1948, there have been many sincere and often laudable attempts to apply his theories to the theater. But any time an audience remains intact enough to shuffle out murmuring how powerful before deciding where to have its pie and Schnapps, Artaud's dream of "crushing and hypnotizing the spectator," perhaps to the point of no return, has died. Despite all his work as an actor, director, and playwright, Artaud's most enduring legacy has not lived on in the theater, but rather in more experiential, physically immersive spheres of expression, such as punk rock, radical performance art, carnivals, butoh, "happenings," festivals such as Burning Man, and so on. (During his lifetime, Artaud's major attempt to apply his principles to the stage was 1935's The Cenci, which was a messy flop; Artaud abandoned the theater shortly thereafter.) Like Dada, which, by definition, cannot produce a masterpiece (though it has, and plenty), Artaud's theater of cruelty cannot be understood as a means by which one might achieve aesthetic mastery. It aims instead to torch aesthetic mastery itself, and leave a "passionate and convulsive conception of life" in its place.

This call to dismantle or destroy the mediating object — be it the objet d'art, the theater experience, or the book-in-hand — in order to reveal this "convulsive conception of life," is so persistent in avant-garde rhetoric that one sometimes wonders why any of its pushers bothered with art at all. "The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd," proclaimed André Breton, the so-called Pope of Surrealism, in 1930.

This desire to break down the barriers between life and art — and further, to have this breakdown be marked by violence and rupture — has characterized avant-garde operations at least since the Italian Futurists. The Futurists — whom many consider the first avant-garde — took aim at revolutionizing not only painting, music, sculpture, theater, and architecture, but also fashion, morals, manners, religion, and politics. They aimed to do so in the spirit of "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism," written in 1909 by ringleader F. T. Marinetti, which infamously declares that art "can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice," and promises "to glorify war-the world's only hygiene," along with "militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman." As much of a failure or an aborted mission as some say Futurism was (World War I — the war the Futurists agitated tirelessly to bring about, deprived the movement of much of its steam, not to mention many of its leading figures), one must also admit that much of the 20th century, in both art and politics, unfolded in its image.

By the 1960s, proponents of abolishing the line between art and life were not nearly so fixated on violent rupture — think of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's peace-loving "Bed-In" of 1969, or of the happily mundane art/life scores of Allan Kaprow and Fluxus, or of the advent of intentionally monotonous, endurance-based performance art, epitomized by pieces such as Linda Montano's and Tehching Hsieh's Art/Life (1983-4), in which Montano and Hsieh agreed to remain tied together by an eight-foot rope, without touching each other, for a year. Other artists, however — such as the Austrian artists known as the Viennese Actionists — upheld the more violent, aggressive line. "'It is the assignment of the artist to destroy art and come closer to reality," Actionist Otto Muehl declared. With some measure of pathos, Muehl later explained his response to this assignment as follows: "Because I knew no other way than art to get to reality, I intensified my actions to extremely aggressive undertakings."

Why the desire to "restore us to our senses" or "get to reality" has so often leapt straight to "extremely aggressive undertakings," epitomized by bloody shock — even when the artist is well aware, as was Artaud, of the flattening effects of such a literalization — remains an open question. Consider, for example, the work of Actionist Hermann Nitsch, who cites Artaud as a primary influence ("his Theater of Cruelty was very deep in me ... I would say he was my brother"). The pinnacle of Nitsch's career was something called the Six-Day Play, for which Nitsch prepared over decades, and which was finally performed over six days on the castle grounds of Prinzendorf, Austria, in 1997. Nitsch describes but a snippet of the play as follows:


GRAPES, FRUIT and TOMATOES, ANIMAL LUNGS, FLESH and INTESTINES are trampled on in ecstasy. People trample in SLAUGHTERED ANIMAL CARCASSES FILLED WITH INTESTINES, in troughs full of blood and wine. Extreme noise from the orchestras. Slaughtering of the bull, slaughtering of two pigs. Disembowelment.

Nitsch may be after Dionysian revelry rather than apocalyptic terror, but the presumption that bloodshed, however ritualized, is the ultimate means of giving participants and audience a "feast of the senses," of "returning them to life," remains the same. (Whether bloodshed need always signify violence is also something of an open question, as is the definition of violence itself: think, for example, of the varying uses of the word at issue in phenomena such as "symbolic violence," "divine violence," "domestic violence," "the violence of capital," "abortion as violence," "violent language," and so on. Another open question: whether an act of so-called violence must always be characterized or accompanied by cruelty: the killing of animals for food, some instances of suicide, assisted suicide, or mercy killing, ritualized body mortifications, and so on, all offer ready sites for debate.)

It could be argued that there is, quite simply, no substitute for the visceral unease provoked by such bloodshed, either in representation or in reality, or in any smash-up of the two. It's nearly impossible, for example, to remain physically unaffected by many of the Actionist films from the 1960s, which feature multiple forms of mutilation, beatings, penetrations, and bloodletting. (The same likely goes for the more recent bloodletting work of performance artists such as Ron Athey, Franco B, and others, though their work differs profoundly in both tone and motivation.) Despite the culture's professed fatigue with transgressive body art, these Actionist films have not lost much of their visceral punch — I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't find them, at least upon first viewing, provoking, exciting, repulsive, or some combination thereof.

But however ecstatic the communion, or however viscerally startling the transgression, this emphasis on bloodshed as a jumpstart into reality can be wearying. Indeed, whenever I read an articulate excoriation of the Viennese Actionists — such as those written by artist Carolee Schneemann or feminist Germaine Greer — the work can seem quickly ridiculous, a witless testament to a ludicrous white-boy repression, Austrian-style, literally trying to whip itself up to Wagnerian proportions. "Soll niemand mein Schwanz steif machen?" — "Is no one going to make my dick hard?" — a flaccid Otto Muehl reportedly yelled during a 1971 performance, a performance at which Muehl's sacrificial goose was seized (by the British poet Heathcote Williams, urged on by Greer) before it could meet its fate. Goose-less, Muehl ended up shitting on the stage instead.

In any case, whether the call is to create a Dionysian orgy (à la Nitsch), to mobilize a "hygienic violence" to cleanse society of its gangrenous elements (a la the Futurists), or simply an injunction to "free your mind" (à la Oko and Lennon), the anxiety over the relationship between art and life remains quite high; the mandate to break down the barriers between them, acute.

This anxiety and urgency — often posed as a conflict between spectatorship and action, or between the simulated, or mediated, and the real — is literally ancient. Plato famously thought mimesis (i.e. imitation, but also representation in a much broader sense) drew people away from truth, and therefore had a deleterious effect on the citizenry; it was for this reason that poets were to be banished from his ideal republic. Aristotle had more of a social-control stance, arguing, via his theory of catharsis, that beholding evocative representations with the proper distance (such as going to see tragic theater) could provide a healthful outlet for impulses and ideas that might otherwise be disruptive to the social fabric.

This latter theory arrives in an endlessly debated passage in Aristotle's Poetics, in which Aristotle defines tragedy as an imitation of an action "with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions." The confusion derives in part from the original Greek, which leaves not only the process itself a bit murky, but also its proper object. Katharsisarrives in English virtually untranslated, as "catharsis," which derives from katharos — pure. But the word has stretched to signify or entail a wide variety of processes, including clarification, enlightenment, purgation, elimination, transubstantiation, sublimation, release, satisfaction, homeopathic cure, or some combination thereof. Second, the phrasing of Aristotle's original sentence leaves it unclear whether "catharsis" applies to incidents or to emotions — that is, whether the action takes place inside an individual, outside of her, or somewhere in between. Here, for example, are two plausible, but totally distinct, translations of Aristotle's sentence: "[Tragedy] achieves, through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such pitiable and fearful incidents" (Leon Golden); "By means of pity and fear, [tragedy] contrives to purify the emotions of pity and fear" (J. L. Creed/A. E. Wardman).

In the twentieth century, dramatists Artaud and Bertolt Brecht each staged a savage reckoning with this set of problems. Both accepted Plato's premise — that there was something inherently nefarious about mimesis — but neither embraced Aristotle's attempted rescue of it. Brecht wrote explicitly against Aristotle's theory of catharsis, aiming to replace projective identification and emotional cathexis — both of which he thought rendered audiences complacent and politically impotent — with strategic forms of alienation that would provoke the audience into dialectical thinking, decision-making, a desire for further knowledge, and action. Artaud — who, unlike Brecht, was no Marxist or seeker of social justice — was more concerned with resurrecting the magic and rawness that he thought spectatorship stamped out of daily life. "If our life lacks brimstone, i.e., a constant magic, it is because we choose to observe our acts and lose ourselves in considerations of their imagined form instead of being impelled by their force," Artaud wrote.

The problem is, of course, that art typically requires an audience, which loops us right back to the problem of observing actions and losing ourselves in consideration of their imagined form. (Kaprow, coiner of the term "happenings," agreed that the most persistent problem he faced in his attempts to blur art and life was the presence of the audience — a problem he spent nearly sixty years trying to solve via a more benign method he called "un-arting.") In The Emancipated Spectator (2009), French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls this "the paradox of the spectator," which he succinctly describes as follows: "There is no theater without spectators. But spectatorship is a bad thing. Being a spectator means looking at a spectacle. And looking is a bad thing, for two reasons. First, looking is the opposite of knowing ... Second, looking is deemed the opposite of acting." While Brecht and Artaud share the same set of premises, they offer opposite solutions: Brecht demands that the spectator become more aware, via a forced self-consciousness, of his or her complicity; Artaud strives to collapse the distance between looking and acting entirely, leaving the spectator subsumed, possessed, dissolved.

One can see a coarse, au courant torsion of the Brechtian approach in Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's notorious film Funny GamesFunny Games, which Haneke originally made in 1997, and then remade for an American audience in 2007, is the story of two torturers who terrorize and mutilate a bourgeois family over the course of the film's 108 minutes. As they go about their bloody business, the torturers periodically turn to the camera to impugn the viewer, saying things like, "You really think it's enough?" or "You want a proper ending, don't you?" This is about as crude a means of drawing attention to a viewer's complicity as you can get, which is likely why A. O. Scott, in his review of the remake, described the technique as one which "might have seemed audacious to an undergraduate literary theory class in 1985," but that today comes off as a fraud. (I might also add that while directly addressing the audience is indeed a Brechtian technique, directly indicting the nature of its attention was not; Brecht did not presume the worst about what an audience was feeling or desiring, as does Haneke here. The presumption to know collapses an important space — a space of great importance to Brecht, as he thought it allowed for the development of agency.)

It may simply be that the time for the efficacy of such an enterprise has passed — not because our complicity (in you-name-it) has lessened or grown any less toxic, but because the enormity of certain geopolitical crises have made a viewer's complicity in the presumed evils of spectatorship seem like small potatoes. (Yes, we like to watch, but so what?) Brecht himself was already onto this: at least in his early years, his curiosity was bent toward investigating the ways in which one might entertain and instruct simultaneously — to allow entertainment and instruction to stand together "in open hostility" — rather than toward advocating the abolishment or villainization of entertainment itself.

More to the point, it may be that the fast-moving pace of the so-called image regime under which many of us now live offers so little opportunity for slow looking, reflection, and contemplation, that the indictment of a viewer's prolonged attention these days seems like a waste of an increasingly rare resource. Consider, for example, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar's installation Untitled (Newsweek) (1994), which consists of seventeen digitally reproduced covers ofNewsweek magazine, hung in chronological order, covering the five-month period of April 6 to August 1, 1994. The last of the covers features the Rwandan genocide, which began roughly five months earlier; below each cover is a card with printed text conveying choice details of what was happening in Rwanda on the date of the above cover. The juxtaposition is meant to highlight what the U.S. (or the U.S. as represented by Newsweek magazine) was focusing on (the legacy of Jackie O, the O. J. Simpson trial, the World Cup, the future of North Korea, and so on) while it could have been — that is, should have been — turning its attention toward the ghastly, large-scale slaughter underway in Africa.

Jaar has a perfectly valid — if not obvious — point to make about what mainstream American media chooses to make newsworthy and what it opts to ignore. But since the artist has already predetermined what it is, exactly, that we should have been looking at — and, by extension, what is frivolous or wrong to look at in its place — what is the use of our looking at all? The artist, buoyed by good conscience, has simply replaced the hierarchy of Newsweek's attention with his own.

In 2007, Jaar gave a lecture at Wesleyan University in concert with this work. The lecture was titled "It is Difficult" in reference to the ways in which Jaar's works "force us to look at events we would rather not see." But who is the "we" here? And how does the artist know in advance what we would rather not see, or how difficult the looking may be? And is it really the looking that's so hard? Or is it all the work that looking at atrocity doesn't do — namely, as Susan Sontag has it, repairing our ignorance about the history and causes of suffering, and charting a course of action in response, tasks that may fall fairly and squarely outside the realm of art? Even groups such as ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which fought relentlessly for the radical politicization of art, sometimes found themselves landing on a similar point: think, for example, of the ACT UP flier produced in protest of a 1988 Nicholas Nixon show at the Museum of Modern Art, a show that included several photographs of people devastated by AIDS. "STOP LOOKING AT US; START LISTENING TO US," the flier read.



The other day, a friend hoping to gain some insight into my current project asked me to describe Artaud's theater of cruelty to him; I opened up to a weathered page of The Theater and Its Double and read aloud to him how it concentrates on "famous personages, atrocious crimes, and superhuman devotions," with a special appeal to the forces of "cruelty and terror." "Sounds a lot like Hollywood," my friend shrugged, before returning to his book, unmoved. And so it does. In the end, the irony of Artaud's theater of cruelty may not lie in its legendary inapplicability, but rather in the fact that our age may have given the lie to its dream of the destructive, regenerative, revolutionary power of the spectacle.

This isn't because, as some have said, there is no longer any "reality" beyond the spectacle. Nor is it because some privileged people have the luxury of "patronizing reality," while the more unfortunate — who are presumably mired in the so-called real at every moment — do not (see Sontag). Rather, it is because the whole notion that art, or a more fundamental form of representation (such as language, vision, or consciousness itself) obscures or distorts an otherwise coherent, transcendental reality is not, to my mind, a particularly compelling or productive formulation. Much more interesting, I think, are the capacities of particular works to expand, invent, explode, or adumbrate what we mean when we say "reality." Another way of putting this would be to use Rancière's term, the "redistribution of the sensible." To focus on this redistribution is to celebrate the bounty of representational and perceptual possibilities available to us, and to get excited about art as but one site for such possibilities — one means of changing, quite literally, what we are able to sense.

For this reason, however much Artaud may have desired a theater that would "break through language to touch life," I find him most moving and inspiring when he is analyzing, excavating, and making strange the very acts of thinking, articulation, and representation themselves. See, for example, 1925's "The Nerve Meter," in which Artaud reports from the void: "Words halfway to intelligence. This possibility of thinking in reverse and of suddenly reviling one's thought. This dialogue in thought. The ingestion, the breaking off of everything. And all at once this trickle of water on a volcano, the thin, slow falling of the mind."

It is a testament to Artaud's intensity — and perhaps to his madness — that the deadening aspects of his theatrical vision never seem to have occurred to him. He dreaded literalization and misunderstanding, yes, but his proposals to "get us out of our marasmus, instead of continuing to complain about it, and about the boredom, inertia, and stupidity of everything," always called for more intensity, more spectacle, more bloodshed, more shock, more immersion, more obscenity. He was, after all, a man who persisted — if just barely — in a harrowing state of near constant agony, ecstasy, trance, withdrawal, or psychosis that few others would choose or be able to suffer. He did not live to see the piece in Le Monde published shortly after 9/11, in which French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called the terrorist attack that brought down the Twin Towers "our theatre of cruelty, the only one left to us." Nor did he live in the age of, say, beheadings available for casual viewing on YouTube. Nor, thankfully, did he live to see the results of my Google search this morning under "theater of cruelty": up first, a piece from The Nation that describes the acts of torture committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib — and the circulation of the photographs of those acts — as a "Theater of Cruelty"; next, a USA Today blog inviting readers everywhere to weigh in on the question, "Are '[AmericanIdol' auditions a 'Theater of Cruelty'?"

Perhaps this is why Artaud's writing now seems to me best encountered in silence, in solitude, and — despite what he might have wanted — on the page. Its crackle is still audible, it still scorches. But there it does not rely on the decimation of thought that Artaud at times imagined as a purification, but which the anti-intellectualism of contemporary American culture has repurposed into something utterly stultifying.

For the mainstream thrust of anti-intellectualism, as it stands today, characterizes thinking itself as an elitist activity. And even if one were to get excited about leaving the contortions of mental effort behind, today's anti-intellectualism makes no corollary call for us to return our fingers to blood and dirt, to discover orgiastic bliss, to become more autonomous in our ability to fulfill our basic, most primal needs, or to become one with the awe-inspiring forces of the cosmos. It does not demand, as did Thoreau, "Give me a Wildness whose glance no civilization can endure, — as if we lived on the marrow of koodoos devoured raw." It does not invite us to "throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind," as did F. T. Marinetti. And needless to say, it most certainly does not imagine, à la Carolee Schneemann, that the liberated power of female erotic pleasure could gain us entrance to an ecstatic experience of our bodies no longer defined in opposition to intellectual inquiry. Instead, it promotes something more like an idiocracy, in which lowgrade pleasures (such as the capacity to buy cheap goods, pay low or no taxes, carry guns into Starbucks, and maintain the right not to help one another) displace all other forms of freedom, even those of the most transformative and profound variety.

"Don't think, say the stupid, says the vulgar herd, why try to think?," wrote Artaud, who often experienced thinking as a sort of bodily agony. "As if without [thinking] it were possible to live."


LARB Contributor

Maggie Nelson is a poet and the author of nonfiction books and essays, including Jane: A Murder, The Art of Cruelty, Bluets, and The Argonauts. She teaches at CalArts in Valencia, California.


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