Theatre of Cruelty: Artaud

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  • 0:06 Overview
  • 0:23 Surrealism
  • 0:54 Artaud
  • 2:17 Characteristics
  • 3:40 Examples
  • 6:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

Most of us watch movies or television shows to relax or escape reality, not as a means of reform. In this video, learn how Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty tries to shock the audience into becoming better people.


The Theatre of Cruelty was the creation of French director, actor, and writer Antonin Artaud. His view that theatre should confront the audience's fears in order to help them overcome them can best be understood if we first look at Surrealism.

Historical Context: Surrealism

Surrealism was inspired by Sigmund Freud's study of the unconscious mind. Surrealist playwrights moved beyond reality and looked to dreams instead of logic for inspiration to create a true reality. They wanted to be able to explain everyday reality in a way that the mind hadn't imagined before. While Apollinaire is known as the founder of Surrealist theatre, it was André Breton's 'The Surrealist Manifesto' that sought to unify the reality of the mind and reality that surrounds us.

Theatre of Cruelty: Artaud

Antonin Artaud, who briefly followed Surrealism, took Breton's suggestions and combined them with the dramatic movements of Balinese dance, and the Theatre of Cruelty was born. Conventional theatre of the time, which was geared toward the elite and bourgeoisie, looked to imitate real life. Artaud and others like Bertolt Brecht wanted theatre for the masses; something that would change the way the audience experienced the theatre. But while Brecht saw problems with society, Artaud believed that man's issues stemmed from the subconscious. The Theatre of Cruelty, defined in the late 1930s, took the Surrealist approach to create its own violent and ritualized theory of drama. Artaud first proposed this idea in his book 'The Theatre and Its Double'. He believed that 'man was savage under the skin', but also that people could be pushed to overcome savage impulses if they were confronted with the violence behind their desires. His goal was to make the audience more aware of their instinctual feelings through psychological shock. The audiences were quite shocked when they attended Artaud's plays; people were often sick! Artaud died in 1948 after nearly a decade in psychiatric hospitals, but his ideas continued to influence playwrights well into the 1960s.

Characteristics of the Theatre of Cruelty

Artaud's use of the word cruelty did not intend to mean brutal or mean. Instead, he meant that it was up to the actors to show the audience things they didn't want to see. In this fashion, the actors had to be brutally honest and cruel - with and to themselves. To make this happen, the actors needed to employ methods that were quite different than those of traditional theatre.

Even so, Artaud did not demand a system of exercises or instructions to follow. But we can draw some conclusions based on his ideas and his work.

  • The text was not as important as the action on stage.
  • Artaud's theatre wanted to transfer a sense of pain, suffering, and evil, using gestures, sounds, and symbols instead of words.
  • The screams, cries, and other noises that were the focus of the Theatre of Cruelty meant to jar the mind and make people face their fears.
  • Much like the Balinese dance, the gestures the actors used were symbolic instead of natural.
  • In fact, because the Theatre of Cruelty dealt with dark universal concepts like madness and perversion, there were often graphic portrayals of such things on stage.
  • To ensure that the audience was completely immersed in the action, he wanted them to sit in swivel chairs in the middle of the performance so the performance would take place all around them.


Artaud attempted to stage his theories in 1935 with The Cenci, a play partially adapted from Percy B. Shelley's story that told of a 16th century Italian noble who was killed by his servants. His telling of the story was both disturbing and graphic, especially at the point where Count Cenci is murdered on stage. Light and sound are used to enhance the audience's shock at the torture, incest, and rape happening in front of them.

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