What Antonin Artaud Really Meant by 'Cruelty', and his Concept of the 'Subjectile'
Language, magic and the uncooked in Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, and how his blend of surrealism and expressionism influenced contemporary theatre.
Antonin Artaud (source: Agence de presse Meurisse)
Antonin Artauds' 1931 manifesto for his Theatre of Cruelty claims a unique role for theatre amongst the arts, believing that 'it allows the sum total of the magical means in the arts and words to be organically active like renewed exorcisms' because it is living bodies moving through time on stage. In his Second Manifesto, Artaud clarifies that this cruelty will be bloody if need be but what is essential is a severe mental purity, keeping with cruelty's etymological root of uncooked, raw, not processed.
Influenced by Eastern forms of ritualised dance, particularly Balinese, Artaud wanted to use a physical language of gesture to distort realism and rouse in the audience and performers an awareness of our chaotic, chthonic inner state. Verbal language was to be freed from the Western constraints of logic, to turn words into incantations, restoring their magical origins.
Essential to Artaud's theatre was the shattering of naturalisms' fourth wall, so that the audience is encircled and furrowed by the action. Theatre architecture should be replaced by that of some churches, holy places, or certain Tibetan temples. Artaud's writings shows great eclecticism, drawing on diverse historical periods and cultural forms in his striving to disrupt the illusion of an unproblematic realism to produce spiritual encounters achieved through a visceral assault. Struggling with insanity himself, he could see how thin is the veneer of rationalism.
In Artaud's drawing, as in his theatre, he does not seek a neutral medium but for the medium to be in a visible and dynamic relationship with the subject. In his self-portraits, he has scoured, inscribed into, and burnt with a cigarette the paper, so that this medium becomes what he called the subjectile, combining the idea of substrate, subject and the dynamic energy of a projectile.
Artaud, and the combined form of expressionism and surrealism he brought to the theatre, has had an immense influence on theatre practitioners in, for example, a form of violence done to naturalist language, a dismantling or problematising of psychological realism, physical expression through hybrid forms of dance, the use of silence, disorienting stage effects, and in exploiting the possibilities of non-theatrical spaces, such as deserted bathhouses, factories and prisons.
Antonin Artaud's two manifestos were published in 1936 in his collection of articles The Theatre and its Double (Grove Weidenfeld, 1985).
Combining the technique of 'hot seating' with a compelling exercise used by French theatre director Jacques Lecoq, which draws on the Ancient Greek chorus.
Adieu in Forum Freies Theater, Dusseldorf (Photo by Oliver Paul)
I came up with ‘hot staging’ by combining the technique of ‘hot seating’ with an exercise used by French mime artist and theatre director Jacques Lecoq (1921-1999) to create a more embodied method of developing character. It's as effective when used with A-level students as it is with more experienced theatre practitioners.
Hot seating is used to help an actor get a deeper understanding of the character they are playing, and is used in both devised work and when working with a play text. The actor sits in the hot seat and must answer, in character, questions asked by the others in the room.
As here we are interested in devising, let’s imagine that a group of actors have a rough idea of the characters and storyline and now want to give both greater depth. One of the actors is to play an eight-year-old girl. So she (or, of course, it could be a male actor) settles down into the hot seat and the questions begin.
Someone asks: ‘What is your greatest fear?’ The actor instantly has to use her imagination to think of a reply. She says, in a little voice, ‘That I will be lost in a park and it’s getting dark and my mummy can’t find me.’ Someone else asks: ‘Has that ever happened to you?’ ‘No. But it happened once to mummy when she was small. She told me.’
The hot seating could open up in various ways from here, perhaps asking more about the mother, asking a related question about what else the girl fears, or changing the subject completely by asking what is her favourite dinner. All these questions help to build the actor’s understanding of this character: we are formed partly by who our parents are, our fears affect how we react to situations and people, and our taste in food reveals much about our class, culture and attitude to eating.
The process, which lasts around ten minutes, can be grueling; the result is that a more dense and complex character has now been formed, with whom all the actors can now play when devising their performance. The mother, for example, may never be mentioned, and yet the knowledge that everyone shares about her will inform the play. Then it’s on to the next actor to take the hot seat.
Jacques Lecoq and Ancient Greek Theatre
The problem with hot seating, though, is it is static: it’s a hot seat, not a hot stage. So here is where Lecoq’s exercise comes in. In Ancient Greek theatre, the chorus, who had the role of commenting on the action unfolding on the stage, sometimes had a leader called acoryphaeus. Therefore, Lecoq would instruct his actors to imagine the stage was like a wobble board balanced on a central pivot, and that one of them was this coryphaeus. The coryphaeus was deemed to weight the same as the combined weight of the other actors, and would begin by standing next to the imaginary central pivot, with the other actors the same distance from it on the other side. The coryphaeus would then begin to move around and it was up to the other actors to counterbalance his weight by changing their positions, to prevent the stage from ‘tilting’.
In hot staging, I combine the coryphaeus exercise and hot seating to create a technique where actors embody their characters as they learn about them, so that this knowledge becomes remembered not just by their minds but by their bodies. The actor being questioned is the coryphaeus, who then responds to the questions at a physical, as well as a mental, level, by how she positions herself in relation to the other actors. The other actors need instantly to respond to this by trying to counterbalance the coryphaeus’s weight. But what begins as a mathematical problem takes on a gripping, psychological dimension.
A Hot Staging Example: the Little Girl
Let's replay the previous example:
An actor is to play an eight-year-old girl. Someone asks: ‘What is your greatest fear?’ The actor replies:‘That I will be lost in a park and it’s getting dark and my mummy can’t find me.’
This time, however, the actor responds to that emotion of fear, and that fantasy of the dark park, physically as well. Since she is currently next to the central pivot, the other actors will also be huddled close to her. Does the girl find that comforting or intimidating? Does she try to get even closer? If she does, the other actors must also press in closer, until they are touching. Is that too much? Does she then pull away, causing the actors to move away as well, or does she clutch one of them? Does she see these actors as strangers, ghosts, familiar faces? If strangers, are they to be trusted?
From this, you can already glimpse the compelling dynamics that can be provoked, and how this can offer insights for all the actors. No-one can sit back, half-listening, as everybody has to be intently involved and ready to move. Each becomes aware of the power they have to shatter the pattern of actors on stage by even a change in physical posture or in the tone of their voice: perhaps an actor asks a question aggressively and provokes a violent reaction in the girl, which then causes a ripple effect through the other actors. Or perhaps the girl is running around playfully, causing the others to run too, and then a seemingly innocent question stops her - and therefore the other actors - in her tracks.
That innocent question might be about her favourite dinner. The girl freezes and then runs as far away as she can and hides, because perhaps the dinner table in her house is a place of terror. Now the other actors must also go to the far reaches of the stage, so the next question must be shouted over, with all intimacy lost.
After the Hot Staging
Afterwards, all the actors need to discuss what they experienced. Still stay standing, so that emotions can be demonstrated physically and earlier movements easily replayed. Has this given one of the actors a revelation about how his character might respond to the little girl character, about how their lives might cross?
Then he can be the next one up to take the role of the coryphaeus and explore who he is.