Is theatre a branch of literature or an art in its own right?
The most important work of theatre theory of the 20th century, theatre historians divide the history of their subject into ‘before’ and ‘after’ Artaud’s seminal text. Before Artaud, theatre (especially, but not only in France) was a branch of literature; the text was all important, and that text was psychological: characters talked about their inner states, and conflicts arose as a clash between different aims and intentions of the characters. The playwright was king, actors and directors were subsidiary supporting ‘workers’, whose job was to bring the text to life.
Artaud held that theatre should be an art form in its own right, and he sought to inject theatre with some of the pagan, atavistic, magical, sacrificial, ritual, ceremonial, cathartic power that it had once had in Ancient Greece, and which he saw as still existing in the theatre of the East, especially Balinese theatre, which exercised an incalculable influence on Artaud’s ideas.
For Artaud, the text is irrelevant; the theatre must create a new language of theatrical signs, in which the mise en scene predominates over the text, a language (what later theorists would call semiotics) consisting of music, design, space, props, lighting and sound effects, movement and gesture. This total theatre, this new theatrical grammar, liberated from the stifling power of the psychological word, will work directly on the audience’s entire nervous system, cleansing and purifying.
It’s Artaud’s ideas which gave rise to what used to be called ‘director’s theatre’, a theatre in which the ideas or interpretation of the director takes precedence over the text, or indeed in which there is no text, but the work is devised in workshop as a collaborative process between director, designer, writer and actor. Chief examples of this are the productions of Grotowski, Brecht, Joan Littlewood, Peter Brook, and in our own time, the theatre of Robert Lepage and possibly, Le Cirque du Soleil (although this has become merely watered down entertainment now.)
Central to Artaud’s vision of a real theatre (as opposed to a staged text) is the notion of cruelty, and it’s this idea that makes The Theatre and its Double such a powerfully important literary text – apart from Artaud’s fabulous, incandescent prose – outside the immediate field of theatre studies. It’s also an idea that was –and continues still to be – much misunderstood. The term appears in his Manifesto for a Theatre of Cruelty from 1938 and is later developed in a series of letters to J.P. ( I do not know who this is – a critical and academic apparatus to the Grove Press edition of the English translation is woefully non- existent.)
For Artaud, cruelty is a metaphysical condition, a necessary concomitant to consciousness. There is no cruelty without consciousness and without the application of consciousness. It is consciousness which gives to every act of life its blood-red colour, its cruel nuance…. For Artaud, cruelty arises from the consciousness of ones acts, and from a range of mental attitudes with which one does those acts, especially the determination to carry acts through. He lists these mental attitudes thus: rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination. The dual notion of determination (determination in its every day sense of ‘intention’, determination in its technical philosophical sense as ‘necessity’) is crucial here. If, as philosophers maintain, free will is an illusion and everything is determined, then this is an act of cruelty on the part of some creator/nature; to be conscious of this is to suffer cruelty: The most current philosophical determinism is, from the point of view of our existence, an image of cruelty. For Artaud, our life is bounded by, infused by cruelty as a result of our consciousness of our lack of free will.
Life itself is cruelty, then. This was unfortunately so for Artaud himself, who spent years locked away in mental institutions, often against his will, and who probably took his own life, although we are not sure about this. A theatre such as that envisioned by Artaud would break down the life-culture dichotomy, and would allow culture – which Artaud sees as actually smothering the true cruelty of life - to really represent life in all her cruelty. Life, for Artaud, shows her claws in those historical moments where civilisation breaks down, which is why he begins his book with a hallucinatory description of the Black Death. Artaud seeks to create a (theatrical) culture in which the true nature of life is revealed not disguised, hence the meditation on Van Leyden's painting of Lot and his Daughters. One can see in the background to this painting effects similar to those Artaud described in his Manifesto, and similar too, to what one finds on the modern stage: Artaud's words have brought this painting to life in the form of theatre. Artaud placed his ideas on theatre within the context of a wider battle to open up culture and civilisation to the true meaning and character of life. His work is to be understood as: A protest against the idea of culture as distinct from life – as if there were culture on side and life on the other, as if true culture were not a refined means of understanding and exercising life.
The theatre will never find itself again – i.e. constitute a means of true illusion – except by furnishing the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsessions, his savagery, his chimeras, his utopian sense of life and matter, even his cannibalism, pour out, on a level not counterfeit and illusory, but interior.