It is difficult to say something specific about Antonin Artaud and to limit his contributions of not just re-inventing or re-forming the concept of the theater but also of art, human intellectuality and psychology.
Before coming to the idea of The Theater of Cruelty Artaud was concerned with the worlds insignificance towards culture. Artaud explains the need for culture to feed the human mind. He makes a comparison between the need for culture being equal with hunger for food. Unlike the understanding of the contemporary thinkers, Artaud evaluated culture as the most liberal way of gaining knowledge and involving human mind in an intellectual thinking. The civilized man, according to him does not give any relevance to the ability of the human mind to reach higher levels through its liberty.
Artaud recognized a necessity for changes in the culture, a necessity to bring something absolutely new. There was a need for impressive appearances that are a far cry from the clichs; in fact, according to Artaud the changes should lead towards producing something very shocking for the public, and thus surpass their expectations given by the classical theater. The need for change made Artaud bring the idea of the capability of theater to express the mind or the inner experience. He brings to light the effect of theater on the human mind to be even greater than a real experience. Although he utilized theater to apply his basic ideas, his primary goal, however, was to make a change in the way the human experience was presented.
He related theater to the plague because both destroy the face of civilization, revealing the ugly realities beneath and returning man to a primitive state, in which he lacks morality and reason. The aim of the Theater of Cruelty was to disturb the audience and reveal the forces of nature. Consequently, through his book the author emphasizes the idea of shocking the audience and disturbing their minds. By doing so, the audience is brought to the most essential values and attributes of the intellect. The audience, according to Artaud needs to be shocked and to face the crude reality of their thinking abilities. Therefore, Artaud implies that these thinking abilities, encouraged by theater reality, should continuously develop among that audience. To achieve this objective he emphasized the nonverbal aspects of theater such as color and movement and stressed the importance of violence as a theatrical device.
Artaud understood the importance of meaning of the theater and denounced the worlds recognition of it of merely having an entertainment purpose. He believed in forcing the above mentioned concept to the audience would make an elevated effect. He proposes, in the Theater of Cruelty, that terrible and necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us. We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theater has been created to teach us that first of all (Artaud 79). Clearly Artaud has a definite idea of what he wants his audience to take home from his theater, and he comprehends the way to make it happen: he appeals to their emotions, to their reactions, to their humanity.
Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty is deliberately alienating to the human being. It is, one might say, an obvious attempt to persuade cognitive dissonance or peculiar state of affairs that requires the audience to think like no other can. His thesis generally relies on the fact that he has to affect the viewer deeply in order to achieve anything. But at the same time, he knows that he has to get the viewer in the door, and that, for his cruelty to be truly cruel, he must transport the spectator onto the stage. The viewer should be introduced to the cruelty and thus find oneself truly involved in the performance. Ultimately, the viewer should be fully involved in the plot or the theme and become part of the stage.
I believe Artaud wants to ask, as anyone should, how is it that we are supposed to take anything home with us, how we are supposed to see anything at all worth seeing in a work of art, if we do not identify with it. If we do not, to a certain extent, see ourselves in the work of art we cannot experience that work.
“It is idiotic to reproach the masses for having no sense of the sublime, when the sublime is confused with one or another of its formal manifestations, which are moreover always defunct manifestations. And if for example a contemporary public does not understand Oedipus Rex, I shall make bold to say that it is the fault of Oedipus Rex and not of the public (Artaud 74).”
According to Artaud, theater plays are not written for intellectuals, nor for the lowest common denominator, but for humans. Therefore, the theater play ought to appeal to humans, and if it is obscure to them, or if it cannot speak to them, then it has failed to accomplish its purpose.
Artaud made it possible to aurally experience the constitution of the human being as a speaking and spoken being; and he thereby laid bare the weak spot in the theatre of his day. The integration of the heterogeneous orders of the imaginary and the symbolic in the figure of the actor, whose voice and body make the text realistic, was precisely the social model of the subject that Artaud’s unique experience with language had unsettled. This imposed him to find a form of theatre, which, through performance, would be capable of integrating unconscious emotional affects into the symbolic by way of the imaginary in such a way that the force of these affects could not be sub lead in the symbol. Artaud asked how the force, tension, pressure of words, and their suppression in written language, might be made obvious in writing without being sub lead in the process of reception by socially trained thought. That is why it was so important to him that the word also speak to the body, in the sense of making the body audible as sound or noise. Artaud also proposed that the barrier between stage and performer should be demolished, with the spectators placed at the center in a bare, undecorated building.
Artaud descended into madness, illness, and death. But his writings have been influential across a wide range of media. He is one of the sources of contemporary performance art, the language poetry movement and even in contemporary philosophy.
We can speak of the madness of the artist, but when we consider the career of Artaud, those prejudices take on uncommon literalness. He suffered from a delusional psychosis, and in time his behavior became so extreme that even the surrealists, those connoisseurs of oddity to whose circle he initially belonged, found him too difficult to handle. But if Artaud was madder than most, he was also brilliant, and his disease never diminished his genius. His call for a Theater of Cruelty, staging acts of extreme violence and primal emotion, found followers such as: playwrights Peter Weiss, Sam Shepard and the Beat Generation poets, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and its Double. New York, NY