On Antonin Artaud and The Theater of Cruelty

"The festival must be a political act. And the act of political revolution is theatrical." Jacques Derrida, writing about Antonin Artaud, 1966.

It appears that the history of the Surveillance Camera Players to date is a two-part story. From December 1996 to April 1999, the group (though primarily political in its inspiration) performed works of fiction specially adapted for performance as silent plays in front of surveillance cameras. From April 1999 to the present (November 1999), the group has performed either original works that are not "literary" or adaptations of works of non-fiction. In a recent theoretical text, we set this movement from fiction to non-fiction, which seems to suggest a deepening of the SCP's political commitment, into the (nonfiction) context of the general movement towards transparency. Without undermining the significance of this movement from fiction to nonfiction -- without minimizing the differences between the two stages in the SCP's development -- we would like, in this text, to explore the continuity in the SCP's development, that is, the elements from 1996 that are still with the group toady, three years later, and the elements from 1999 that were already there, three years ago. As was the case with our exploration of the theory of transparency, this exploration of the SCP's relationship to literature is not disinterested or detached: it is in fact intended to clarify certain theoretical issues so that the Players can perform (that is, act) more effectively as a revolutionary group.

It will no doubt be tempting to see this text and the one on transparency as presenting two very different, if not contradictory, visions of the SCP as it is today: one (this one) from the perspective of art and pleasure; the other from the perspective of politics and education. There will, of course, be contradictions and discrepancies between the two texts, just as there will be contradictions and discrepancies within each of them. Because the SCP's practice is more advanced than its theory, the group accepts the inevitable existence of and therefore aren't paralyzed by opacities in its texts. But we note well that the writer for The Daily News, commonly thought to be a third-rate newspaper, clearly and accurately perceived that the SCP is a "combination theater and protest group." It is the combination that is significant. No one these days gives a shit about either theater or protest, but, if they are put together (they both suffer from isolation) and in the proper combination (of course), the result reinvigorates both theater and protest, and suggests a superior third form that, neither theater nor protest, does away with the division between the two.


For a while now, SCP co-founder and director Bill Brown has been using "Art Toad" as an alias, the beauty of which has been the fact that absolutely no one has gotten the joke: "Art Toad" is a pun on the last name of Antonin Artaud (French, 1896 to 1948), the brilliant film and stage actor, and theorist of the theater. There is, of course, more to the joke than the similarities in spelling and sound between Artaud and Art Toad: the ugliness of toads is meant to echo Artaud's ridicule of and hostility towards masterpieces and the beauty of art ("All writing is shit," Artaud writes in Nerve Meter (1925); "One mustn't let in too much literature.")

Like the SCP, Artaud was a great lover of the dramatic works of Alfred Jarry: in November 1926, Artaud founded The Alfred Jarry Theater; in November 1996, Bill, Susan Hull and several others founded the SCP and began work on adapting Alfred Jarry's first major play, Ubu Roi, 100 years after its first public performance. Both the SCP and Artaud are great lovers of Edgar Allan Poe's poems and short stories. In October 1921, Artaud wrote: "The gods of this school [of theater] are not Tolstoy, Ibsen, or Shakespeare, but Hoffman and Poe [...] The Japanese are our masters and our inspiration, together with Edgar Allan Poe [...] It can certainly be said that [Poe] has influenced me." In July 1998, the SCP performed adaptations of works by both Jarry (Ubu Roi again) and Edgar Allan Poe ("The Raven"), with one by Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) thrown in for balance, in the same way that Artaud included certain plays "out of a spirit of reaction against my own principles."

But the similarities between Artaud and the SCP go beyond simple matters of literary taste. When evaluated in terms of Artaud's theoretical writings on the theater, the SCP's performances are startlingly close to what the actor-theorist wanted "the theater of cruelty" to be. This is quadruply ironic: first, because Artaud himself had great difficulty producing plays that, even in his own mind, actually had the qualities and produced the effects demanded by his own manifestoes; second, because -- despite the fact that the influence of certain ideas contained in Artaud's writings on the theater has been strong, widespread and enduring -- there have been all too few theatrical groups that have stuck closely to Artaud's theories at the global level and have attempted to stage a properly or "purely" Artaudian theater of cruelty; third, because the SCP have been producing a genuine Artaudian theater of cruelty out of necessity, inadvertently, without paying attention, not to mention sticking closely, to the theoretical writings on the subject; and, fourth, because the SCP's success in combining art and politics flies in the face of Artaud's demands that the theater of cruelty should be "an independent and autonomous art."

Artaud elaborated his theory of the theater of cruelty over the course of more than fifteen years (1921 to 1938) and in the form of several manifestoes, essays, reviews and letters. Though Artaud himself thought these texts to be "chaotic, impenetrable, and forbidding," they in fact offer a coherent vision of what the theater of cruelty should be. There is at this writing (November 1999) a thriving literature on Artaud, but it is limited to academic theorists of language (especially Jacques Derrida), not practicing dramatists.

"Without an element of cruelty at the foundation of every spectacle," Artaud writes in "The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto)," "the theater is not possible." Readers of the Marquis de Sade, who, like Artaud, was a playwright and director, will be forgiven if the name the theater of cruelty suggests that the subject and content of the new theater will be "sadistic," that is to say, obsessed with the infliction of pain and suffering. Though Artaud is quite interested in performing a "tale" by de Sade, he insists that "the eroticism will be transposed, represented allegorically and clothed, resulting in a violent externalization of cruelty and a concealment of the rest." Artaud's version of de Sade would be "sadism" at the metaphysical level of the mind, and not at the physiological level of the body.

In letters from 1932, Artaud explains that "Effort is cruelty, existence through effort is a cruelty," and that "this cruelty is a matter of neither sadism nor bloodshed, at least not in any exclusive way [...] The word 'cruelty' must be taken in a broad sense, and not in the rapacious physical sense that it is customarily given [...] I use the word cruelty in the cosmic sense of rigor, implacable necessity, in the gnostic sense of the vortex of life which devours the shadows, the sense of that pain outside of whose implacable necessity life could not go on [...] Cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination." The theater of cruelty is intended to dramatize the cruel vitality of life itself. If successful, cruel productions will provoke "the sense of that mysterious fear which [the Balinese] know to be one of the most effective and indeed essential elements of theater, when restored to its proper level." Paradoxically, cruel productions will also be full of "true humor and of the physical and anarchic, dissociative power of comedy"; they will be funny in precisely the way the Marx Brothers' movies are funny.

In Artaud's writings, the theater of cruelty is distinguished from almost all contemporary theatrical productions, which are unhealthily obsessed with the transparent psychology of characters. The theater of cruelty is set against "the psychological conception, the old classical conception of the theater of manners and the theater of character, in which man is studied with what might be called a photographic -- at any rate, prematurely dead, essentially anti-heroic -- interest in his passions, studied in an everyday and habitual context, so that every play is like a game of chess or a game of psychological construction and gives us only a flat and depressing image of reality" (letter drafted 1931, emphasis added). In a letter drafted in 1933, Artaud focuses on the connection in contemporary theater between psychology and spoken dialogue.

This obstinacy in making characters talk about feelings, passions, desires, and impulses of a strictly psychological order, in which a single word is to compensate for innumerable gestures is the reason, since we are in the domain of precision, the theater has lost its true raison d'etre and why we have come to long for a silence in it in which we could listen more closely to life. Occidental psychology is expressed in dialogue; and the obsession with the defined word which says everything ends in the withering of words.

In an image that is truly startling from the perspective of photographic surveillance, Artaud twice likens the withered, dialogue-based psychological theater to voyeurism. "These torments, seduction, and lusts before which we are nothing but Peeping Toms gratifying our cravings, tend to go bad," he writes in one section of The Theater and Its Double, which was published in 1938. "As long as the theater limits itself to showing us intimate scenes from the lives of a few [human] puppets, transforming the public into Peeping Toms, it is no wonder the elite abandon it and the public looks to movies, the music hall or the circus for violent satisfactions, whose intentions do not deceive them," he writes in another section. More than 60 years after these lines were written, they (still) accurately define the poverty of contemporary theater, as well as the poverty of movies and television, which, since Artaud's time, have also become spectacles of voyeuristic pop-psychology (even action heroes have "complicated" personalities, a "sensitive side" and "personal issues" with which they must deal).

For Artaud, "the point is not to do away with speech in the theater but to change its function, and above all to reduce its role, to regard it as something other than a means of guiding human characters to their external goals." Speech will, in a "visual and plastic" sense, be "materialized" and "manipulated like a solid object" in the new theater. In the same way that props and other objects on stage "will have to be understood in an immediate sense, without transposition . . . taken not for what they represent but for what they really are," words will be "heard in their sonority rather than be exclusively taken for what they mean grammatically"; words will "be construed in an incantational, truly magical sense -- for their shape and their sensuous emanations, not only for their meaning."

Once speech -- which "does not belong specifically to the stage, [but] belongs to books" -- has been made one technique among others, rather than the central, organizing technique, those techniques that are in fact specific and proper to the theater can re-attain the status and power they once had in the ancient mythological theater. Significantly, none of these properly theatrical techniques -- props, objects, scenery, sets, movements, gestures, mimicry, pantomime, dance, forms and colors of light, vibrations, music, cries and other nonverbal uses of the voice -- can be expressed in spoken or written language. In fact "the distinctive quality of theatrical effects is that they cannot be contained in words or even in sketches," Artaud writes in a letter from 1931. "A mise en scene is created on stage," and literally nowhere else.

Freeing mise en scene from the domination and limits of speech means, for Artaud, freeing the theatrical director from the domination of both the play as text (precise instructions for dialogue) and the author of the play-text, as well. "According to the sense generally attributed to the word director, this man is merely an artisan, an adapter, a kind of translator eternally devoted to making a dramatic work pass from one language to another," Artaud writes; "this confusion will be possible and the director will be forced to play second fiddle to the author only so long as there is a tacit agreement that the language of words is superior to others and that the theater admits none other than this one language." Once this tacit agreement on language is broken, the director has "the occasion . . . to create in complete autonomy," free from "the dictatorship of the writer," and "the old duality between author and director will disappear, to be replaced by a kind of unique Creator who will bear the double responsibility for the spectacle [the mise en scene] and the plot."

As for the plays this Creator will produce, they will not be acted by professional actors. "The audience must have the feeling that they could, without specialized training, do what the actors are doing," Artaud writes in 1924. "People would come not so much to see as participate." Participation marks the end of "entertainment, that quality of a pointless artificial game, an evening's diversion, which is the distinguishing characteristic of our [contemporary] theater." The subjects and themes of the new plays will correspond "to the agitation and unrest characteristic of our epoch," and will concern "great social upheavals, conflicts between peoples and races, natural forces, interventions of chance, and the magnetism of fatality." There will be plays about "famous personages, atrocious crimes, superhuman devotions, a drama which, without resorting to the defunct images of the old Myths, shows that it can extract the forces which struggle within them." Precisely because these themes are "cosmic [and] universal," the theater of cruelty is "a theater of action and a mass theater," one that turns "upon the preoccupations of the great mass of men, preoccupations much more pressing and disquieting than those of any individual whatsoever." The theater of cruelty seeks "in the agitation of tremendous masses, convulsed and hurled against each other, a little of that poetry of festivals and crowds, when, all too rarely nowadays, the people pour into the streets."

The very architecture of contemporary theaters will have to be altered. There will be no more "people sit[ting] on a certain number of straight-backed or overstuffed chairs placed in a row." The structure of the room will have to be changed "so that the stage could be moved according to the needs of the action," Artaud writes in a 1924 essay. In The Theater and Its Double, he is even more bold.

We are eliminating the stage and auditorium and replacing them with a kind of single site, without partition or barrier of any kind, which will itself become the theater of action. A direct communication will be established between the spectator and the spectacle, between the actor and the spectacle, because the spectator, by being placed in the middle of the action, is enveloped by it and caught in its cross fire. This envelopment is the result of the very shape of the room [...] So composed and so constructed, the spectacle will be extended, by elimination of the stage, to the entire hall of the theater and will scale the walls from the ground up on light catwalks, will physically envelop the spectator and immerse him in a constant bath of light, images, movements, and noises.

The theater of cruelty doesn't simply require modifications of the theater's architecture, of the architecture of theatrical halls and rooms: it is the embodiment of the rediscovery of the essentially spatial nature of the theater. (In the dialogue-dominated psychological theater, the theater itself is primarily a temporal phenomenon, something that unfolds in time and in front of a backdrop.) The new theater will "make space speak," will be a "poetry of space," a space that "lives magically in itself." (Here the similarities of Henri Lefebvre's formulations about space to those of Artaud are very strong.)

In all of this, nothing will be left to chance; there will be anarchy but not chaos. "All these gropings, researches, and shocks will culminate nevertheless in a work written down fixed in its least details, and recorded by new means of notation," Artaud writes. "The composition, the creation, instead of being made in the brain of an author, will be made in nature itself, in real space, and the final result will be as strict and as calculated as that of any written work whatsoever, with an immense objective richness as well [...] The theater, like poetry as well, though by other means, is born out of a kind of organized anarchy, [...] that spirit of profound anarchy which is at the root of all poetry."


In a letter dated 1933, Artaud claimed that "for once what I want to do [in the theater of cruelty] is easier to do than to say." But he was wrong: it proved very difficult, virtually impossible, for even Artaud himself to produce "cruel" plays. There were always artistic, personal, financial and logistical problems to be overcome. In the end, The Alfred Jarry Theater, a commercial enterprise, lasted only two years. No properly "cruel" play that was performed by Artaud survives. As a result, we have a theory of theatrical cruelty, but no established body of practice, or, rather, only pieces of a haphazard practice. In a play such as Breath, Samuel Beckett (a kind of anti-Artaudian playwright) took a single idea from Artaud's writings -- the idea that non-verbal techniques such as lighting and breathing should be foregrounded and closely combined -- and made an entire (albeit a very, very short) play out of it. But the larger context and motivations for the use of such techniques is missing; as a result, there is no cruelty, no fear, no humor, just a spectacular and ultimately boring display of virtuosity.

Despite the impression that Artaud's theater of cruelty is a creative dead-end (or merely fodder for "close readings" and academic theories of language), the Surveillance Camera Players are clearly part of the line in experimental theater that runs from Alfred Jarry to Antonin Artaud. More than that: the SCP have been and are still writing and producing plays that are clearly and authentically "cruel" in the precise sense that Artaud used the term. The irony of the situation is the fact that the SCP are unintentionally Artaudian, or, rather, they have become Artaudian out of practical necessity, not out of any conscious desire to revitalize a 70-year-old dramatic theory or to defend it from academic theorists such as Jacques Derrida, for whom action is a kind of self-deception.

"It is not on the stage that one must look for truth today, but in the street, and if one offers the crowd in the streets an opportunity to show its human dignity, it will always do so," Artaud writes in The Theater and Its Double. But the SCP only perform in the street, and have never performed in a theater or any other "performance space," precisely because it is in the streets that one finds both surveillance cameras and the people that will form the movement against their installation in public places. There is no better way of convincing people that they are being surveilled than by actually showing them the cameras; and there is no better way of convincing people that protests by individuals or small groups can be effective than by encouraging them to join the performance that caught their attention in the first place.

The SCP is not a commercial enterprise, and so relies completely on volunteers, none of whom have any training to be or experience as actors. Indeed, the total absence of professional actors among the SCP emphasizes the fact that everyone, and not just certain groups or individuals, should be concerned about surveillance and the way it infringes upon and violates constitutionally protected rights to privacy, anonymity and public assembly. (The same could be said for the total absence of professional political activists in the SCP.) Precisely because the amateur "actors" of the SCP perform their plays directly in front of surveillance cameras, and thus directly in front of security guards, police officers and anyone else who is watching, both fear and subversive humor are inevitably and essentially part of the theatrical experience.

Because the SCP's efforts are focused upon surveillance cameras, the group's plays have never concerned psychological themes, except insofar as psychology plays a role in mass behavior (cf. the SCP's adaptation of Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism.) Most of the SCP's plays, but especially 1984, SCP Headline News, and You Are Being Watched For Your Own Safety, are exclusively concerned with such transpersonal and objective realities as war, police states, mass social control, propaganda, and racial profiling. Though there are funny bits in these plays, there is nothing "entertaining" about them. In any event, the plays never last long enough to be perceived as intended to be entertaining: the speed -- designed to take advantage of the element of surprise -- always conjures up a guerrilla action, not a pleasant diversion.

Unlike Artaud, the SCP have not chosen to completely dispense with the spoken word; neither a theory nor a personal experience with madness has motivated the group to perform in total silence. The SCP perform in silence -- and rely exclusively upon props, objects, movements, gestures, mimicry, and pantomime to dramatize their themes and intentions -- because surveillance cameras do not pick up sound: they are exclusively visual devices. (Significantly, the laws that first declared the spoken word to be fundamentally different from and more in need of legal protection than behavior, appearance and movement, were formulated and passed while Artaud was putting together The Theater and Its Double and clearly serve to bolster the entire social organization that, among other things, favors dialogue-based theater and marginalizes mise en scene as simple "special effects.") If the SCP want to convey meaning through written words, these words must be printed on boards large enough so that they can be read by the lens of the surveillance camera. In the form of captions, thought-bubbles and speech-balloons -- devices taken from comic strips and books -- the SCP literally "materialize" and "manipulate" the spoken word as if it were an object. To the extent the SCP has made its printed boards visually striking, these "materializations" of speech are both visual and plastic elements, to be appreciated as objects, as well as carriers of meaning.

Both cruelty and humor are involved in the process of adapting pre-existing plays, novels or poems to be performed by the SCP, especially if these works were originally strong on spoken dialogue and weak on spectacle. Some works -- such as Jarry's Ubu Roi, in which the use of placards and other printed boards are already part of the script -- lend themselves easily to "the silent treatment," to being rendered into a series of large printed boards that combine written words and images. Other works -- such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Poe's "The Raven" -- must be attacked if they are to be performed by the SCP, who must mercilessly "cut" scenes, acts, characters, and turns in the plot, so that the finished product can be performed in under 10 minutes. A few works -- such as Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest -- won't just bleed, they will die if they are adapted, and so they haven't been, even if they would make great SCP productions (think of Chief Broom's remark in Cuckoo's Nest that the violence he sees is like something in a comic strip and would be funny if he didn't know it to be real!).

For the SCP, the process of authoring either an adaptation of an existing work or a new original work is necessarily the same process as directing that play in front of the surveillance camera. Only the author of an SCP play can direct it, precisely and simply because there is absolutely no distinction or difference whatsoever between the script of the play and the play as it will be performed: the boards are both the script for the play and the play itself! There is no script that says what to do with the boards; one isn't necessary. The boards must simply be held up in the proper order and even this, experience has shown, is not strictly necessary. Each board is a "cruel" play unto itself.


And so we've established that the SCP -- despite their uniqueness and originality -- turn out to be one of the genuine inheritors (the rightful heirs) of Artaud's theater of cruelty, and that the roots of the SCP lie in avant-garde theater as well as in anarchist politics. But here's the rub: to what uses can these facts be put?

At the very least, our demonstration shows that, despite changes in the sources and content of the plays performed by the SCP since 1996, there has been no fundamental change in the form and manner in which those plays have been authored, scripted and performed. In both stages of the SCP's history, the group has staged properly "cruel" plays. The increasing transparence of the SCP's plays and their motivations for performing them is only a shift within, and not a deviation from, the group's central modus operandi, which have remained essentially unchanged, and are not likely to change in the future.

What we've also demonstrated is the weakness of Artaud's theory, despite its startling and unexpected relevance to the plays put on by the SCP. According to Artaud, the theater -- if if it is going to "revive or simply . . . live" -- is and should remain "an independent and autonomous art." The vast program of the theater of cruelty "does not exceed the theater itself," according to Artaud; the theater, because it "appears to us, all in all, to identify itself with the forces of ancient magic," will be able to accommodate all demands made upon it. But Artaud sets aside certain crucial demands, and thus protects the theater from exhaustion, or, rather, simply defers that exhaustion for just a little longer. "We need action, but without practical consequence," he writes in The Theater and Its Double; "It is not on the social level that the action of the theater unfolds [...] I did not say that I wanted to act directly upon our times." While Artaud was right to criticize the Surrealists (with whom he had been associated) when they allied themselves with the French Communist Party in 1927, he failed to see the general necessity of organized political action, and so, when The Alfred Jarry Theater died, it died in and as a result of isolation.

But the SCP have achieved success, as both as anti-surveillance camera activists and as "street" performers, precisely to the degree that they have acted directly upon the times, have unfolded the action of their theater on the street and on the social level, and have been fully aware of -- indeed, have been counting on -- the practical consequences of their actions. The SCP has had success without any interest whatsoever in "ancient magic" and despite the group's hostility both to mystical beliefs, in general, and to naive beliefs in the curative powers of pure spectacle, specifically. Like Artaud, the SCP have used all available techniques and devices, but, unlike Artaud, the SCP have not used them in the service of a single discipline, because the group sees that specialization must be abolished at both the level of the institution as well as at the level of the individual. The "theater" staged by the SCP is alive to the precise extent that it isn't independent or autonomous, that it isn't a pure "art," and that it can't accommodate all the demands made upon it. The very inadequacy of the SCP's theater of cruelty -- the fact that it seems powerless to actually stop generalized video surveillance -- is actually its strength: the inadequacy prevents anyone from believing that a "revolution" in the theater is enough, and demonstrates that all of society, and not just the theater, is going to have to be changed. The theater of cruelty is most effective when it is clearly intended to be a temporary and transitional social form, not when it pretends to be the incarnation of "eternal" cosmic forces.

That said, it seems that the SCP can learn a lot from Artaud; certainly the group can rescue useful ideas from the general wreckage of his project. Two ideas seem especially appropriate. First, the SCP might script and perform a version of Artaud's four-act play The Conquest of Mexico, which "The Theater of Cruelty (Second Manifesto)" both includes and announces to be "the first spectacle of the Theater of Cruelty." The interest of this play is completely political: as a result of his trip to Mexico in the mid-thirties, Artaud became convinced that Marxism was useless, even counter-productive, to the Mexican Revolution, and that only Mexico's indigenous cultural forms could be successfully called upon to continue it. The similarity between these ideas and those of the Zapatistas is quite stunning. Perhaps an SCP version of The Conquest of Mexico could make clear this unexpected connection to the Zapatistas.

Second, and more profoundly, the SCP might integrate the writing of the script (that is, the creation of the boards and placards) and the performance of the play -- activities that are, at present, done at different locations and different times -- into a single performance. "Why not conceive of a play composed directly on stage, produced on stage?" Artaud writes. Indeed, why not? Let the surveillance camera see all of it: the blank boards; the notepads full of sketches; the pencils, magic markers and spray-paint cans; and the hours of effort, discussion and deep concentration, as well as the show, "the finished product," itself. Let the cameras see the entire process, let all of it be completely transaprent to the police officers and guards who are watching the closed-circuit monitors! Let them figure out the exact moment at which the SCP's activity stops being "art" and starts being "politics"! Let their inevitable entry into the action (in order to arrest it) be the climax and completion of the play, and not its interruption! Let them think they are breaking up the action, when they are actually extending and intensifying it at a higher level!

Producing a SCP play "on stage"-- making production public and collective rather than a private and individual project -- might also make it easier for Players other than Bill to write/direct plays. To this point, Bill has been the SCP's only writer-director; everyone else has been actors. As a result, the SCP's highly publicized anarchism has been something of a fraud: no group is truly anarchist if specialization thrives within it. The SCP will only become truly anarchist when all divisions, specializations and hierarchies within the group have been abolished and when all plays performed by the group have been collectively written and designed. Until that time, the SCP should work as hard on developing its internal organization as it does on its external presentations.

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Surveillance Camera Players