Cathartic Cruelty

Artaud’s Aristotelian Overture


Jared Wright


“Tragedy,… produces its effect even without movement; its quality is apparent from a mere reading… It offers verisimilitude when read no less than when performed.” (Aristotle 54-55)

“As if Literature were worth bothering with, as if it were not elsewhere that we had always fixed our lives.” (Artaud 161)

“It is essential to put an end to the subjugation of the theater to the text.” (Artaud 78)

“The events, the story, are the point of tragedy, and that is the most important thing of all… So the story is the foundation and as it were the soul of tragedy.” (Aristotle 24)

The Theater of Cruelty, a theater enigmatically described by Artaud as the “authentic performance of magic,” (Sontag 161) and considered one of veritable ‘impossibilities’ onstage (Lublin 62), diverged greatly from Aristotle’s Poetics and the common understanding of theatrical performance that had held fast for centuries. Aristotle’s exploration of theater and his explanations of tragedy had served as a principal authority for performance techniques and stagecraft since its inception, and while many before Artaud had questioned those tenets, the ‘Occidental’ theater seemed never to waver too far from this canon (Berghaus 26). Though Artaud’s revolutionary and elusive theater was communicated in aphoristic and often contradictory statements, it may have been fitting for it to have been difficult to grasp, because Artaud heralded his new ‘Oriental’ approach as one that revalued the center of the theatrical experience. He sought to change the theater from one of contrived literary and psychologic mimesis to an organic theater in which directors would “aim to transform the very state of …

listeners by moving them physically.” It was a lofty and, deemed by many, impossible aim, a judgement supported by most accounts which viewed his attempts at bringing a tangible Theater of Cruelty to life as failures and misunderstandings (Costich 103). This essay attempts to develop an understanding of The Theater of Cruelty by explaining the connection it maintains with the very theater it often refutes—Aristotle’s. The physical movement of the audience, a visceral response, is the goal of The Theater of Cruelty, and I contend that Artaud’s theatrical aspirations are in fact grounded in the Aristotelian concept of a cathartic theater.

The Rebel’s Conformity

It may seem counter-intuitive to consider Artaud’s use of Aristotelian concepts in light of his open antipathy to the theater predicated upon its tenets. Artaud’s distrust of Aristotle was well recorded in his writing. In “Metaphysics and the Mise en Scene,” he attacked the very core of Aristotelian theater—the text. He wrote:

How does it happen in the theater, at least in the theater as we know it in Europe, or better in the Occident, everything specifically theatrical, i.e., everything that cannot be expressed in speech, in words, or if you prefer everything that is not contained in dialogue… is left in the background?… A theater which subordinates the mise en scene and production, i.e., everything in itself that is specifically theatrical, to the text, is a theater of idiots, madmen, introverts, grammarians, grocers, antipoets and positivists, i.e., Occidentals. (39-41)

This excerpt highlights that Artaud, before resorting to insults, completely rejected the traditional understanding of stagecraft that Aristotle originated. His new focal point became the director. He seems to have responded directly to Aristotle’s assertion in Poetics that there should be a “primacy of plot” in a performance, that “staging… is not a matter of art and is not integral to poetry,” that it “belongs more to the scene painter’s… than to… the poets” (25-26). Here we must acknowledge that Artaud’s mode of transferring or communicating the story of the stage to the audience cannot be reconciled to the Aristotelian concepts of theater. Aristotle’s was a theater of the playwright, while Artaud made a demiurge of the director. The new language of gestures in space and spectacle that Artaud demanded of his theater, the theater he described as the ”poetry of the senses” (37), clearly set a demarcation line between The Cruel and the Aristotelian Theaters. But we must recognize that these were differences only in the mode of communication.

Despite only differing in mode, the extremity of Artaud’s deviations led some to contend that his work was aimless, that his was “an insurrection without an institutional foundation and thus without a predictable trajectory” (Gorelick 263). This belief derives from the seemingly endless obfuscations and extreme metaphors Artaud consistently made of his ultimate goal– a theater that can manifest a transformative experience in its audiences. Artaud felt that the older, text based, mode of theatrical expression no longer provided for the needs of audiences, but his rejection wasn’t necessarily of the ancient theater. In “Metaphysics and the Mise en Scene” when Artaud stated that he sought something, “capable of reintroducing on the stage a little breath of that great metaphysical fear which is at the root of all ancient theater”(44), he seemed to echo the sentiments of Aristotelian theater. Indeed, Aristotle demanded just that intensity from every performance. He felt that audiences must experience “a series of events [during which they] should feel dread and pity” (Aristotle 33). Artaud felt that the theater of his age had lost that ability. He confirmed this strong connection to Aristotle’s requirement of a performance in “The Theater and Cruelty” when he wrote “at the point of deterioration which our sensibility has reached, it is certain that we need above all a theater that wakes us up; nerves and heart“ (Artaud 84). The nerves, of course, are referring to fear and the heart to pity. So while Artaud sought a different means of expression, the goals of The Theater of Cruelty were the same– catharsis through fear and pity. This Aristotelian (ancient) foundation upon which he based his performance is, I believe, a starting point for understanding his eventual, while not necessarily predictable, trajectory.

Historical Release

The goal, the telos, of theater, as set out in Aristotle’s Poetics, is catharsis. Aristotle emphasizes this point in his summarizing section, “What has been said” at the beginning of Poetics. As Belfiore states, “The definition of tragedy, the conclusion… include[s] the final cause (telos) of tragedy, and Aristotle’s phrasing, ‘Accomplishing katharsis,” suggests that Katharsis is this final cause’”(158). In his definition of tragedy, which he considered the only worthy form of performance, Aristotle stated that tragedy would “Effect through pity and fear, the purification of such emotions” (23). Acknowledging that catharsis is the goal of theater demands that we interrogate the term, which has been contested and debated by scholars since Poetics was rediscovered in the Renaissance. For a proper evaluation of the ways in which The Theater of Cruelty as laid out by Artaud shares this desired effect, we must come to an understanding of what Aristotle actually meant by a cathartic theater. Scholars and philologists have offered varying interpretations with their own sets of implications for the stage, and Aristotle’s full explanation of the term has infamously been lost to antiquity. A cursory review of the essential interpretations will help us place Artaud in the framework of that canon. (Meisiek 800).

The etymology of catharsis has its origins in the practices of medicine and rituals in ancient Greece. The Dionysian cult used cathartic rituals to cleanse the body of sicknesses through ecstatic expressions and dances. Most translators decide to interpret catharsis as a “purification,” but some apply the terms “cleansing,” “purgation,” or “refining” (Kenny XXV). These translations reflect the various historical interpretations of the actual cathartic state. During the Renaissance it was interpreted as a cleansing of the mind from erroneous thoughts or beliefs or a negative affect (Meisiek 801). Christian thinkers such as Rousseau interpreted it as a movement toward stoicism, an attempt at hardening the audience to the suffering evident in life, a purgation of fear and pity. Lessing conceived of a refining catharsis, a transforming of passions into virtues through empathy, a balancing or calibration, par excellence. Goethe and Nietzsche approached catharsis as an aesthetic element of drama, a feeling of completion in the performance itself, slowly relieving it of its didactic responsibility (Pavis 45).

A Comparative Analysis

The Theater of Cruelty seems to flout all of these interpretations of catharsis. In The Theater and Its Double, Artaud indirectly addresses the Renaissance’s understanding of catharsis as a cognitive movement from ignorance to enlightenment. He asserts in “The Alchemical Theater” that: to analyze such… drama philosophically is impossible; only poetically and by seizing upon what is communicative and magnetic in the principles of all the arts can we, by shapes, sounds, music, and volumes, evoke, passing by way of all natural resemblances of images and affinities to each other not the primordial directions of the mind, which our excessive logical intellectualism would reduce to merely useless schemata, but states of an acuteness so intense and absolute that we sense, beyond the tremors of all music and form, the underlying menace of a chaos as decisive as it is dangerous. (50)

This quotation elucidates the aim of The Theater of Cruelty as one that creates a feeling, not an intellectual understanding or a cleansing of erroneous thoughts. Artaud believed that the theater should occupy a field of expression inaccessible to articulation. In Artaud’s panegyric ”On the Balinese Theater” he lauds the actors as performers of “animated hieroglyphs” emphasizing that “these spiritual signs have a precise meaning which strikes us only intuitively but with enough violence to make useless any translation into logical discursive language” (54). Here he emphasized the theater’s responsibility to give expression to “the unknown, fabulous, and obscure reality which we here in the Occident have completely repressed” (61). The intention of such a theater would not ground its end in a catharsis of the same mind it subjugates.

Artaud also decisively rejected the Christian interpretations of catharsis as a cleansing of negative affect or as a morally instructive medium. In “The Theater and the Plague,” Artaud demanded we create a theater that can, “motivate acts so gratuitously absurd” so as to liken it to a plague. He feels at the moment when disease can cripple a society and all norms collapse, “at that moment the theater is born. The Theater, i.e., an immediate gratuitousness provoking acts without use or profit” (Artaud, 24). Here, Artaud exhibits a chaotic understanding of the cathartic moment, when anything can happen, any impulse can be acted upon. Artaud revels in Augustine’s revulsion of the ‘sinful spectacles’ of theater, writing, “Augustine complains of this similarity between the action of the plague that kills without destroying the organs, and the theater which, without killing, provokes the most mysterious alterations in the mind of not only the individual but an entire populace” (26). Augustine identifies the theater as a “dangerous scourge… that attacks not bodies but customs… the soul” (26). He understands the theater as a corruptor of goodness, the opposite of a creator of purity or stoicism, and Artaud relishes in the corruptive power of the theater. He writes, “In the theater as in the plague there is something both victorious and vengeful” (27). Here, it is clear; Artaud places little value on a moralizing theater.

As with the other interpretations of catharsis, The Theater of Cruelty repudiates performances that refine or balance desires or produce an aesthetic satisfaction. Artaud sought “a theater that also takes gestures and pushes them as far as they will go”(27) and he contends that from theater, “we desire an example of absolute freedom in revolt,” when “we are obliged to advance still further into an endless vertigo”(29). A theater that encourages such extremes would be deemed incompatible with the concepts of par excellence. Artaud scoffed at any performance that catered to such ends. He decried “the spiritual infirmity of the Occident, which is the place par excellence where men have confused art and aestheticism… in an attempt to castrate the forms of art” (70). His contempt for theater that focused on art for art’s sake was keenest in his thoughts on “The Alfred Jarry Theater.” Artaud wrote, “If the theater is an amusement, too many serious problems demand our attention for us to be able to divert the least particle of it to anything so ephemeral” (Sontag 155). He continued, “If we did not have the very clear and very profound sense that an intimate part of our lives was involved in that spectacle, we would see no point in pursuing the experiment” (156). To Artaud, the source of performance had to be in the real world, an essential element of our lives.

What is Left

Where, then, does that leave us? The historical interpretations of catharsis fail to address the aims of The Theater of Cruelty. The Cruel Theater, as defined by Artaud, was one that evoked “untranslatable” (Artaud 71) feelings involving an “intimate part of our lives” (Sontag 156) whose “object is not to resolve social or psychological conflict…, but to express objectively certain secret truths, to bring to the light of day certain aspects of truth that have been buried” (Artaud 70). He desired that audience members know as they entered the theater, that they “would not come out unscathed.” Artaud wanted an intensely serious theater that would express feelings otherwise inexpressible. But that goal, and the failure of that goal to assimilate to historical interpretations of catharsis, does not leave the Cruel Theater outside the realm of cathartic theater. The fault may lie with the interpretations of Aristotelian catharsis and not the original intent.

Some modern scholars find earlier readings of Poetics to be insufficient. Elizabeth Belfiore asserts in Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion that “Many scholars… have erred in interpreting catharsis too narrowly, in terms of only one of these aspects” (259). She highlights that, “G.E. Lessing characterized catharsis in exclusively ethical terms,” and that “earlier works overemphasized the intellectual aspects of katharsis, arguing that katharsis is ‘the process of clarification’” (259). When she says that these thinkers “failed to take into account Aristotle’s view that the emotions had cognitive as well as physical aspects,” she contends that Aristotle had a more encompassing definition of the cathartic movement, one that “was suitable to the whole nature of man” (259-60).

Other contemporary thinkers have viewed their predecessors’ interpretations of catharsis as inadequate. Boal rebelled against the common concept of catharsis as nothing more than, “Aristotle’s coercive system of tragedy… a very powerful purgative system, the object of which is to eliminate all that is not commonly accepted” (47). He desired a catharsis that motivates action, which echoes in similar tones Artaud’s ideas proposed in “The Theater and the Plague.”

Artaud asserts that, “In the true theater a play disturbs the sense’s repose, frees the repressed unconscious, incites a kind of virtual revolt” (28). The Cruel Theater’s aim was to reveal something that was so powerful that it could cause “true action” or impulsive expression that would before have seemed unconscionable. But then where does that cruel catharsis fit into Aristotle’s original explanation?

One possible overlap appears in Samuel Weber’s “Theatricality as Medium,” which identifies commonalities between Artaudian and Aristotelian catharsis. In his chapter “The Virtual Reality of Theater: Antonin Artaud” he writes:

Does not Artaud’s defense of the Theater of Cruelty recall Aristotle’s defense of tragedy in terms of catharsis, a kind of purgation? Is there not throughout Artaud’s writings on theater an appeal to ‘‘action’’ that ‘‘doubles,’’ as it were, Aristotle’s emphasis on tragic mimesis as the imitation of an action, a praxeos? (Weber 279)

Weber understands that Artaud wasn’t necessarily “anti-Aristotelian,” but merely against the manipulations of Aristotle’s Poetics that were prevalent in the theater of his time. Weber also charged both theoreticians with forming ideas of catharsis that are didactic: “And does not Artaud’s emphasis… on a certain pedagogical function of theater also echo the passages in the Poetics in which Aristotle seeks to justify mimesis against its Platonic condemnation by stressing its didactic virtues?”(279) Artaud vehemently confirms this as he writes in the Alfred Jarry Theater, “Henceforth [we] will go to the theater the way [we] go[es] to the surgeon or the dentist.” (Sontag 160). Weber recognizes that there is something to be learned, intuitively, in the cathartic moments of both Artaud and Aristotle.

Of course the lessons of Aristotle and Artaud differ greatly, but that would not eliminate Artaud from applying his more chaotic message to a similar cathartic function in the theater. Interestingly, Weber does not agree. He contends that Aristotle’s ideological differences from Artaud create a rift for the Cruel Theater that make it irreconcilable to the Aristotelian cathartic moment. He says that Aristotle was always moving toward unity, consensus, that his theater “is ultimately concerned, not with individuals, but with making ‘‘man’’ and his consciousness the measure of all things, in particular, the measure of all theater” (282). To Weber, Artaud, by contrast, wanted all audiences to be reminded of the fact that “the sky can still fall on our heads,” that our unity forming systems are constructs (283-285). Weber’s primary assertion and eventual conclusion is that the “rigor” and “cruelty” to which Artaud constantly refers– an unrelenting ‘virtual reality’ that must be transferred to the stage (282), sets him apart from Aristotle. Weber errs when, in the course of his “virtual” realization, he precludes a commonality between Artaudian and Aristotelian catharsis. He asserts that Artaud “seeks to dehumanize the notion of peripeteia (the fear driving the cathartic moment) and thereby to turn it against its mythological origins” (Aristotle) (286). For Weber, Artaud’s deviant didactic message separates his catharsis from Aristotle’s, but this summation fails to consider the contexts into which each theater needs to speak.

A Continued Connection

Weber’s engagement with The Cruel Theater, one that holds true to Artaud’s ideological message, seems to fall prey in its course to the same error of earlier epochs by limiting the definition of Aristotelian catharsis. That Aristotle could not have imagined a catharsis that could properly deliver its purgative affect without touting his dogmas greatly underestimates his foresight. Scholars recognize that Aristotle was a philosopher foremost, and he sought to arrange

a complete ontology; he may even have preferred tragedy to affirm his beliefs, but his explication of dramatic art did not limit tragedy so. He even states at the beginning of the history of tragedy that “this (Poetics) is not the place to inquire whether even now tragedy is all that it should be… whether in itself or in relation to its audience” (21). To Aristotle tragedy was representation of truth, and catharsis was the physical and emotional revelation of that same truth created through the performance of the tragedy. So the relation of those truths could always be improved upon. He acknowledges himself that he did not know if the means to create that catharsis reached its full potential, whether tragedy “is all that it should be…” This acknowledgement almost begs for innovation in the mode of transferring the cathartic goal.

While he did anticipate changes upon the form, Aristotle assuredly did not anticipate a breach of form quite as stark as The Cruel Theater, but Artaud’s extreme deviation was actually an attempt at a return to the cathartic theater of Aristotle’s drama. He writes in “The Theater and the Plague”:

The terrorizing apparition of Evil which in the Mysteries of Eleusis was produced in its pure, truly revealed form corresponds to the dark hour of certain ancient tragedies which all true theater must recover. If the essential theater is like the plague, it is not because it is contagious, but because like the plague it is the revelation, the bringing forth, the exteriorization of latent cruelty.

This excerpt speaks to two important points. The theater, to Artaud, had lost its potency, and that potency was lost because that theater could no longer transfer fear and pity effectively to reveal truth or exteriorize, physicalize, its relieving aspect. Here is Artaud’s catharsis, one that strikes the audience as a physical revelation of true conditions and relieves the viewer of dependency upon false constraints. It may be termed as a purgation, but it is one that purges in a very physical way, the effects of a repressed self.

Artaud’s physical cathartic effect harkens to Breuer’s and Freud’s experiments with the psychological and physical manifestations of repressed expression in Studies on Hysteria. In their experimentation with Anna O., a woman with severe physical manifestations of what they called a “strangulated affect” (Breuer and Freud 286), Breuer and Freud found catharsis to be the desirous result of her free expression of her experience. Eventually Freud took the term catharsis from Breuer, called it abreaction, and incorporated it into his psychoanalyses. These pre-psychoanalytical experiments consciously appealed to the cathartic method of Dionysian festivals (Meisiek 6).

Belfiore finds insight into Aristotle’s understanding of catharsis from a return to Dionysian festivals as well. Within the ecstatic displays and purgative elements of the spectacle at the Dionysian festival, she says that Aristotle’s “tragedy is a verbal analogue of the drinking cup reproduced in the frontispiece, in which a terrifying gorgoneion glares in the midst of reveling wine drinkers” (359). In such a description the gorgoneion, a monster who purges revelers of their supposed confidence in systems as they are, seems to be reminiscent of Artaud’s intentions for the Theater of the Plague. Indeed, Belfiore continues, “Aristotle fully agreed with Aeschylus: There is a place where the terrible is good, and must remain established, an overseer of thoughts” (359). Such an assertion of the menace in tragedy exhibits an understanding of tragedy and the cathartic moment that reminds one that “the sky can still fall on our heads.”

That ancient grounding in a physical purgation of suffocating affect, the cathartic method of Dionysian rituals, is where Artaud sought to return. He wanted to reintroduce the gorgoneion into the room. But to create true representation one must create a theater that reproduces the essential struggles of the age in which it is performed. Only then can one have a catharsis that “seems to manifest its presence in… the very organs of the body” (Artaud 21). Aristotle’s philosophy responded to the zeitgeist of his era—one that built the foundations of Western thought. Therefore the catharsis of his theater would give to his audiences a physical and emotional revelation reflecting that philosophy, a sense of consensus. Artaud belonged to a post Nietzsche, post Kierkegaard world, a world that was questioning the primacy of man’s meaning-making ontologies, so it would only make sense to reveal a truth that reflected his time. His deviations from the other tenets of Aristotelian theater were actually an attempt at reinstating his understanding of the ‘ancient’ catharsis to which Aristotle alludes. The means of delivering what Aristotle deemed the telos of all tragedy no longer struck audiences with enough force. So in Artaud’s fidelity to the principle doctrine of Aristotelian theater, he dismembered it to “restore the theater, by means of ceremonies of indubitable age… to its original destiny” (53). That aim, an effective mimesis that can physically reveal truth and purge an audience of misconceptions of an easy world, does not separate The Theater of Cruelty from Aristotle’s theater, but is the critical element that unites them.

Works Cited:

Aristotle. Kenny, Anthony, Translator. Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and Its Double. New York: Grove Press, 1958.

Belfiore, Elizabeth. Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Boal, Augusto. McBride, Charles and Maria, Translators. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group. 1979.

Breuer, Josef, and Sigmund Freud. Studies on Hysteria. New York: Basic, 1957. Print.

Costich, Julia. Antonin Artaud. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Gorelick, Nathan. “Life in Excess: Insurrection and Expenditure in Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty”. Discourse 33.2 (2011): 263–279. Web.

Lublin, Robert. “Cadences of Cruelty: Artaud’s Discursive Performance”. Theatre Symposium Vol. 8 (2000). Web:

Meisiek, Stefan. “Which Catharsis Do They Mean? Aristotle, Moreno, Boal and Organization Theatre.” Organization Studies (2004): 797-816. Print.

Moser, Keith. “(Re)-Attaching Truth to the Physical Realities of the Universe : Antonin Artaud and J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Philosophical Quest.” Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics. 34 p.83. Print.

Pavis, Patrice. Shantz, Christine, Translator. Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1998.

Sakellaridou, Elizabeth. “Oh my god, audience participation!: Some twenty-first-century reflections”. Comparative Drama. 48.1-2 p.13. Print.

Sontag, Susan, ed. Artaud, Antonin. Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings. California: University of California, 1976.



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