Saint Genet and Artaud's Theater of Cruelty May 14, 2013

by Heidi

I think with a group like Saint Genet, it’s going to be important to have some critically founded ways to consider them and tools with which to distance ourselves or . . . complicate the reactions we have--kind of like a softening of an impact—for which there is a definite potential when viewing a sensational and visceral group such as Saint Genet. Maybe analysis thwarts the guttural reactions they intend an audience to have, but I think the greatest compliment to an artist is to be able to look at a work and attempt to understand it intellectually as well as intuitively.  So this is my hope:  that this essay begins to examine the roots and intentions of Saint Genet, and also reflects on some reasons why this work might be important and actually very beautiful, exposing us (the audience) to controversial but provocative aesthetics.

There are many interesting entry points into Saint Genet (Theater of the Absurd, Jean Genet, Georges Bataille, etc.) but for the sake of brevity and simplicity, I’m going to focus on the writings of Antonin Artaud and how they relate to Paradisiacal Rites. Artaud is concerned with reconfiguring the way the audience is affected by theater.  He rejected the theater of his contemporaries, finding it impotent, castrated— lacking its full potential. He rages about it, claiming if people have come to think of theater as an inferior art it’s because, “we have learned too well what theater has been, namely, falsehood and illusion . . . a purely descriptive and narrative theater—storytelling psychology . . . the public is no longer shown anything but the mirror of itself.” Instead of this safe, passive, reflection of reality—performances that leave the audience unscathed—he sought to return theater to its full capacity to affect and awaken an audience.  He says in The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),

“The theater will never find itself again—i.e. constitute a means of true illusion—except by furnishing the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsession, his savagery, his chimeras, his utopian sense of life and matter, even his cannibalism, pour out, on a level not counterfeit and illusory, but interior.”

With the intention of the theater redefined, he lays out a definition of the Theater of Cruelty and his essay Metaphysics and the Mise en Scene—the theory and method of his theatrical productions. Saint Genet seems to have similar methods. I read a quote, (Google translated from German, so this is an approximation) about Saint Genet, just a little quip, that says, “actors, ballet dancers, choreographers, musicians, visual artists and filmmakers employ all their skills in a solemn and somber performance, and intoxicating exhibition to serve our existential pain.” This touches on two of the important connections Saint Genet shares with Artaud: how their theater is the expression of existential pain (danger/cruelty in the terminology of Artaud) and then how it is expressed—through the full range possible by theater, a theatrical poetics, the resulting sensation of combined movement, light, sound, dance, intonation, etc.

Artaud defines the Theater of Cruelty in the essay No More Masterpieces thusly:

“As soon as I have said “cruelty” everybody will at once take it to mean “blood.” But ‘Theater of cruelty” means a theater difficult and cruel for myself first of all. And, on the level of performance, it is not the cruelty we can exercise upon each other by hacking at each other’s bodies, carving up our personal anatomies . . . but the much more 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.”

There are plenty of other quotes about violence and the theater of cruelty (like, “I propose a theater in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theater as by a whirlwind of higher forces.”) but this quote seems to reflect a slightly gentler, or heavier (suffocation by a slow falling sky, maybe), view of the theater of cruelty as a theater designed to mourn and recognize the cruelty of simply existing. This reminds me of some of the ways Ryan Mitchell talks about his work, saying the idea of there being ‘no salvation’ having importance in work and his life, as well as trying to express a ceremony where the beauty of the ceremony is appreciable even if the things happening are upsetting. In interviews, Mitchell also listed his best performances as the ones which were really uncomfortable for him—this sort of blurring of pain and success, which along with the beauty of the ceremony, acknowledges a universal experience of life that is exquisite on the one hand and traumatic on the other.

As addressed above, Artaud isn’t interested in reflecting the complexities of life as some sort of psychoanalytical drama that reflects reality, he wants to generate and affecting theater halfway between dream and reality. Artaud therefore creates a theory of the metaphysics of the mise en scene--mise en scene meaning the gestalt effect of all the things on stage acting upon an audience—how they mean all-together.  He wants to make a language that is specifically for theater, including a new way of performing (a hybrid of language and movement), the elements on the stage, how we see them, and then how those things are read toghether syntactically. “It consists of everything that occupies the stage, everything that can be manifested and expressed materially on a stage and that is addressed first of all to the senses instead of being addressed primarily to the mind as is the language of words.”

Similarly, Saint Genet has mentioned that their work could be defined as Gesamtkunstwerk, (meaning the connecting of several media, such as music, dance, visual art, gesture, lighting, voices).  This upcoming piece is a puzzle of collaborators from all different art forms working to create a multi-disciplinary whole.  One of the things Artaud talks about in the very beginning of the essay,  Metaphysics and the Mise en Scene, is how a particular painting—through the combination of the imagery and color and elements and subject matter—evokes deep seated metaphysical concepts.  I cannot help but think of the powerful images generated by Saint Genet.  Looking at the pictures of their works, they are creating objects, scenes, scenarios from our nightmares, our dreams, our fantasies, as well as this sort of looming American motif found in a wheat field with birds hanging above it; the images, the totality, that are born of some sort of collective subconscious—a strange environment we have never been before but all understand. 

If you are coming to Paradisiacal Rites come prepared for some images that are going to shake you to your core. This piece, roughly modeled after Artaudian Theater of Cruelty, is out to light up your intuitive imaginations—fears and dreams alike.