Artaud likened the true theatre to the plague. What did he mean by this?

Writing The Stage Essay

The French, poet, actor and theorist, Antonin Artaud is recognised as one of the most radical influences on theatre in the 20th century. His main aim was to create a new type of theatre that would dismiss the idea of theatre as a mere attraction or entertainment. It instead would become a sort of communion between the audience and the actor and make theatre a live experience. Many of Artaud theories have been used by others, such as Grotowski, Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company. It is also obligatory reading in many drama colleges.

Artaud is known for likening the theatre to the plague. One of his essays The theatre and the plague describes in detail the similarities he sees in the two. The main points he raises are:

That, like the plague, theatre acts on large groups and ‘disturbs’ them all in the same way, it does not discriminate. Artaud thought the theatre could impact on anyone and everyone. You do not have to be a certain class, gender, race or of a certain background to enjoy the theatre. When people went to the theatre they were united, in that they were all there to delight in a performance.

When we are witness to the theatre we feel an overwhelming wave of something that we cannot control, just as a plague passes through us like a ‘gigantic liquidation’. Everyone who watches a play forgets their troubles and problems. It is an escape from everything and everyone in the theatre experiences the same feels, emotions and thoughts; something they can’t manipulate or regulate.

There is the sense that something important and life changing is about to happen. The audience cannot participate in the activities on stage, therefore they feel helpless. They do not have control over the behaviour of others (much as they would do in a home or work environment) and this itself could be potentially life changing; their way of thinking and reacting could be altered without their contribution. Artaud wanted this effect from his work; he wanted to manipulate the audience and make them realise what ‘true’ theatre really is. “Everything is the actors physical aspect, just as in the plague victim, shows life has reacted to a paroxysm, yet nothing has happened”

Theatre creates a sensual unrest, releases suppressed emotions as does the plague; we lose all sense of normality. Watching a play can bring out raw emotions, emotions that are not present in everyday life. The plague brings out chaos, confusion and turmoil; as do emotions when not experienced frequently. This outcome was satisfactory for Artaud as he wanted his work to be shocking, outrageous and alarming; he wanted to be recognised and remembered. Artaud states, “The plague takes dormant images, latent disorder and suddenly carries them to the point of the most extreme gestures. Theatre also takes gestures and develops them to the limit. Just like the plague, it reforges the links between what does and does not exist in material nature. It rediscovers the idea of figures and archetypal symbols which act like sudden silences, fermata, heart stops, adrenalin calls, incendiary images surging into our abruptly woken minds……. For theatre can only happen the moment the inconceivable really begins, where poetry taking place on stage, nourishes and superheats created symbols”.

Like the plague, in theatre, the unusual, and impossible starts to become the norm instead. The more people went to the theatre, the more they experienced different things. The theatre of cruelty made people realise that there was more to life than what they saw. There were people with different morals, traditions, cultures, actions and feelings; the audience began to get accustomed to Artaud’s work. They were also educated in various subjects, things they had never seen before they learnt about. They experienced feelings unfamiliar to them.

Like the plague, theatre urges us to see ourselves as what we really are. “Making the masks fall and divulging our world lies, aimlessness, meanness, and even two-facedness”. What Artaud meant by this was that people didn’t show their emotions or didn’t speak about certain topics as it was not ‘the thing to do’. Artaud wanted people to go to the theatre and leave all