Theatre of Cruelty

RELATED TERMS: Alienation effect - Verfremdungseffekt; Avant-garde movements; Epic theatre - Brecht; Tragic theatre - Aristotle; Theatre; Performative

Antonin Artaud, 1896-1948, wrote the extraordinary theoretical book, Le Théâtre et son double (The Theatre and Its Double) in 1938. Influenced by Balinese dancers he saw in Paris in the early 1930s, Artaud imagined a Western theatre that would neglect realism and narrative for kinetic images, rituals, and even magic. The sheer physicality of Artaud’s theater is exceptional. The mise-en-scene is not mere staging. It becomes an attack on the spectator’s senses: language is for screaming rather than for dialogue; traditional musical instruments are replaced by new alloys of metals to produce intolerable, ear-shattering sounds or noises. Such theatre surrounds the audience, enticing it to participate. It was a theatre not of estrangement but of derangement. His theatre of cruelty aims not to stage cultural masterpieces but to make the audience experience its flesh in the form of fear, delirium, and extremes of sensation.

The influence of Georges Bataille can also be seen in Artaud when he writes in one of his manifestos:

“The theater cannot become itself again . . . until it provides the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsessions, his savagery, his fantasies, his Utopian sense of life and of things, even his cannibalism, pour out on a level that is not counterfeit and illusory but internal”

The ‘theatre of cruelty’ anticipates the more radical performances of Peter Brook, the Living Theater, Happenings and performance art. Although Artaud aspired to create consequential avant-garde art, he was never able to put his theory of the theatre into practice and it is as a theorist that he is mostly remembered.


Artaud, A. (2958, 1938). The Theatre and Its Double Translted by M.C. Richards. NY: Grove.

Kostelanetz, R. (1993). A Dictionary of the avant-gardes. Pennington, NJ: a capella books.

Bruns, G.L. (2007). Becoming-animal (some simple ways). New Literary History, 38 (4), 703–720. Available from [Accessed 18 July 2019].