Poetry of the senses and the theatre of cruelty: the perception of Antonin Artaud´s theories and their influence on modern theatre



Theatre will never be itself again, […] unless it provides the audience with truthful distillations of dreams where its taste for crime, its erotic obsessions, its savageness, its fantasies, its utopian sense of life and objects, even its cannibalism do not gush out on an illusory make-believe but on an inner level. 

Theatre and Its double, 1938

Antonin Artaud had a radical vision. The French director, actor and thinker was obsessed with the idea of revolutionizing the theatre of his time by bringing meaning and truth back to the stage in a mid-20th century, war-torn Europe that was using theatre as a tool to entertain and distract the masses from what was really going on. In Artaud´s opinion his generation’s sensibility had reached a point where it needed theatre that “wakes up heart and nerves” by erasing, or at least blurring, the borders between theatre and life (Schumacher, 1989, p102).

In the anguished, catastrophic times there is an urgent need for theatre that is not overshadowed by events, but arouses deep echoes within and manages to rise above an unsettled period. (Schumacher, 1989, p102)

Grounded in the idea that life itself is evil and goodness is an act of will, Artaud declared that it is cruel to have to continually make the effort to live without evil. So if life and theatre are the same it is neccessary to include the evil into theatre, hence the title for his theatrical ideal ‘theatre of cruelty’. Although his work has occupied a cultish space in both French and English criticism, the image of Artaud as a brilliant but mad theoretician and inspirational writer has reinforced itself in various different disciplines over time. With his avantgardist theories and statements he belongs to one of the most widely read thinkers in theatre and performance and is considered a great influence on modern performative art practice as well as fine art and politics. In this essay I would like to discuss how the work of this visionary and controversial figure within french theatre influenced generations of artists and theatre-makers and in what way his theories shaped modern theatre and modern thinking.

Artaud as Marat in Abel Gance's (1927) Napoleon
Artaud as Marat in Abel Gance’s (1927) Napoleon

In order to get a better understanding of how Artaud thought it is important to look at his biography. Due to severe health damage from meningitis and mental illness he spent a large part of his life addicted to drugs or locked up in psychiatric asylums. His mental state was never stable and this has led contemporaries into thinking that Artaud´s ideas and visions came from an unstable personality, and were not to be paid further attention. Especially because he wrote most of the letters and statements that were included in his ‘Theatre and its Double’ during the time in an asylum. In a way he escaped from reality into a closed space that was not directly but indirectly affected by the war’s devastation making him turn his focus even more on to an internal landscape. Fellow director Eugene Ionesco, who denies being influenced by Artaud, said “Artaud was a troubled man, not a desperate man, a temperamental rebel, not a thinker. His anxiety was convulsive, not at all philosophical” (Sellin, 1968: 92). But in fact some of his fellow intellectuals valued his approach and used his guidance to create a new kind of theatre that intended to reach deeper into the viewer´s mind than light-hearted Cabaret for example. Artaud was a major influence on avant-garde writers such as Beckett, Genet and Albee (Education Scotland, 2016).

Born in Marseille in 1896 Artaud first moved to Paris at the age of 24. His interest for the arts, theatre and film were happily encouraged during his childhood, as he came from a well-off family. Once in Paris he was inspired by the surrealists around Man Ray and André Breton and soon began writing plays and poems. Alongside Robert Aron and Roger Vitrac he founded an experimental theatre company the ‘Alfred-Jarry-Theater’, which was meant to revolutionize life through theatre (Briefe und Seitz, 2000). Positioned in the far left their company criticised bourgeois lifestyles and aimed to find a new, until then unseen, language. In one of his manifestos “Theatre and the Plague“ Artaud later declared that his theatre is designed to be a place of ritual, ceremony and healing; both church and hospital. A place where an audience could exorcise the demon of cruelty; a place where an audience could both contract the ‘plague’ and be cured of it (Artaud, 1995). The plays that were staged a the Alfred-Jarry-theatre were described as scandalous and perceived with shock by the general parisian audience. Artaud’s biggest contribution within the surrealist context was the screenplay for a short movie named ‘The Seashell and the Clergyman’.


The Seashell and the Clergyman penetrates the skin of material reality and plunges the viewer into an unstable landscape where the image cannot be trusted. Remarkably, Artaud not only subverts the physical, surface image, but also its interconnection with other images. The result is a complex, multi-layered film, so semiotically unstable that images dissolve into one another both visually and ‘semantically‘, truly investing in film‘s ability to act upon the subconscious. (Jamieson, 2007)

The film was overshadowed by Un Chien Andalou (1929), written and directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. It is considered the first surrealist film, but its iconic techniques are all borrowed from Artaud´s early film. Artaud later abandoned the surrealist movement because of its involvement with politics, but still worked towards establishing a theatre that dispensed with narrative and psychological realism in favour of dreams and interior obsessions of the mind. He became very fascinated with Asian performance art; and drew major inspiration from the Balinese theatre—a trance inducing ritual dance, which he first saw in 1931. He decided that the western theatrical tradition had focused exclusively on conscious experience and that a new type of theater was needed that would reveal the hypocrisy of the world:

Our theatre has never grasped this gestural metaphysics nor known how to make use of music for direct, concrete, dynamic purposes, our purely verbal theatre is unaware of the sum total of theatre, of everything that exists spatially on the boards or is measured and circumscribed in space, having social densitycould learn a lesson in spirituality from the Balinese theatre with regards to the indeterminable, to dependance on the minds suggestive power. (Schumacher, 1989 p90)

Artaud asked for a physical, tangible language that expressed thoughts that are beyond spoken language by which theatre can be distinguished from words.  His criticism of theatre as it was then was that everything that could not be expressed with words had been left in the background, according to him:

The feeling of a new bodily language no longer based on words but on signs which emerge through the maze of gestures, postures, airborne cries, through their gyrations and turns, leaving not even the smallest stage space unused. These mental signs have an exact meaning that only strikes one intuitively, but violently enough to make any translations into locigal, discursive language useless. (Schumacher, 1989 p93)

Artaudian theory states that everything filling the stage should appeals to the senses, instead of being adressed primarily to the mind, like spoken language. He is speaking about the mis-en-sène, the arrangement of the scenery and props on the stage of a theatrical production or on the set of a film. The techniques in which to achieve the new mise-en-scène are outlined in ‘Theatre and Its Double’:






The Actor





The Audience



In the following paragraph I would like to speak about Artaudian ideals that I have noticed in contemporary German theatre by focussing on the mise-en-scene as well as the use of musicians as a part of the theatrical experience. First of all it is interesting to observe that the general name of the type of theatre seen on German stages is called “Sprechtheater” (Engl.: Theatre of speech). This clearly marks the relevance of words and spoken language within theatrical fundamentals. Nonetheless the language of German drama and stage conception can easily be seen in connection to the Artaudian visions of mise-en-scene. The space is usually used in a very abstract way—not always giving exact reference to the script or storyline. I have seen empty stages with just one item on them, wide and surreal landscapes made of unidentifyable material or artificial rain pouring down on the actors throughout the entire show. With regard to music it can be said that you generally won’t come across any production on any of the big German stages without live musicians incorporated into the (stage) concept. Sometimes, sitting inconspiciously in the corner of the stage or in the case of Jette Steckel’s Romeo and Juliet (staged at Thalia Theatre in 2014) a grand piano rotated on a circular platform throughout the entire show. There seem to be no limits; dimension, force and message of the and plays often react directly to current political events. In opposition to contemporary German thatre Artaud´s Theatre of Cruelty would avoid contemporary dress: “…because it is perfectly obvious certain age-old costumes of ritual intent, although they were once fashionable, retain beauty and appearance because of their closeness to the traditions which gave rise to them” (Artaud, 1995 p74).  “Puppets, huge masks, objects of strange proportions appear by the same right as verbal imagery, stressing the physical aspect of all imagery and expression—with the corollary that all objects requiring a stereotyped represen-tation will be discarded or disguised” (Artaud, 1995 p75).

Romeo & Juliet Directed by Jette Steckel, Thalia theatre Hamburg
Romeo & Juliet Directed by Jette Steckel, Thalia theatre Hamburg

As a final investigation into the influence of Artaud´s legacy to the world outside of theatre and performance I would like to briefly introduce two sociologists who’s interest of research follow in Artaudian footsteps: Brook and Goffman. Artaud´s idea that theatre and life are inseperable was further developed and expressed in a publication by English sociologist Peter Brook’s ‘The Empty Space’ in which he says that “I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone esle is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged” (Brook, 1968 p1).

Ervin Goffman’s ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday life’ uses the imagery of the theatre to describe the importance of human social interaction (Goffman, 1956). This becomes more evident in the German title “Wir alle spielen Theater” (Engl.: we all play theatre). The parallel to Artaudian thoughts about life and theatre are more than apparent and even manage to establish them within the context of psychology. Goffman intended this book as a kind of report in which he frames out the theatrical performance that applies to face-to-face interactions. He believed that:

when an individual comes in contact with other people, that individual will attempt to control or guide the impression that others might make of him by changing or fixing his or her setting, appearance and manner. At the same time, the person the individual is interacting with is trying to form and obtain information about the individual. (Trevino, 2003 p35)


In conclusion it can be said that Artaud left a long-lasting impression on the following decades of theatre-makers and artists. His name is remembered and his theories are discussed and widely acknowledged. The fact, that he was a troubled soul does no longer hinder contemporary practicioners from seeing the quality in what Artaud was implying. His vision of the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ was never realised but the idea echoes back from many different walls of the cultural landscape and has become a familiar consept to theatre goers. ‘Artaudian’ has become a term for some forms and styles of theatrical practice which is almost immediatley understandable. His means include ‘words’ being replaced or reduced in significance by gesture, shouts and groans; use of ancient or newly manufactured musical instruments to create vibrations; exaggerated props; a redefined relationship between actor and audience and many other ideas. Perhaps what remains of Artaud: scenarios, letters, poems, manifestos, aricles, drawings, is not the true essence of his proposals for theatre. Perhaps the only accurate representation of Artaudian theatre was Artaud’s life itself. Perhaps the Theatre of Cruelty’s one and only performance lasted from September 4th 1896 to March 4th 1948.




Artaud, Antonin (2000) Das Alfred-Jarry-Theater, München,

Artaud, Antonin (1995) The Theatre and Its Double, trans. Victor Corti and Alastair Hamilton, London: Calder, http://www.almaclassics.com/excerpts/Theatre_Double.pdf

Briefe, Matthes und Seitz, München (2000) Artaud, Antonin: Das Alfred-Jarry-Theater, Manifeste, Bühnenstücke, Inszenie-rungsplaene.

Brook, Peter (1968) The Empty Space, Touchstone Books.

Education Scotland (2016) Antonin Artaud, Introduction, http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/images/antonin_artaud_tcm4-123683.pdf

Goffman, Erving (1956), The presentation of self in everyday life, Doubleday Anchor Boooks.

Lee Jamieson (2007) ‘The Lost Prophet of Cinema: The Film Theory of Antonin Artaud,’ in Senses of Cinema, Issue 44, July.

Macpherson,  Sophie  (1995) The `Theatrical Space´, Influences of Antonin Artaud, Dissertation 4th Year Enviornmental Art, Glasgow School of Art

Sellin, Eric (1968) The Dramatic Concepts of Antonin Artaud, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Schumacher, Claude (1989) Artaud on theatre, London, Methuen Drama.