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Postmodern techniques
A postmodern theatrical production might make use of some or all of the
following techniques:
1. The accepted norms of seeing and representing the world are
challenged and disregarded, while experimental theatrical
perceptions and representations are created.
2. A pastiche of different textualities and media forms is used,
including the simultaneous use of multiple art or media forms, and
there is the 'theft' of a heterogeneous group of artistic forms.
3. The narrative needs not be complete but can be broken, paradoxical
and imagistic. There is a movement away from linearity to
multiplicity (to inter-related webs of stories), where acts and scenes
give way to a series of peripatetic dramatic moments.
4. Characters are fragmented, forming a collection of contrasting and
parallel shards stemming from a central idea, theme or traditional
5. Each new performance of a theatrical pieces is a new Gestalt, a
unique spectacle, with no intent on methodically repeating a play.
6. The audience is integral to the shared meaning making of the
performance process and its members are included in the dialogue
of the play.
7. There is a rejection of the notions of "High" and "Low" art. The
production exists only in the viewer's mind as what the viewer
interprets - nothing more and nothing less.
8. The rehearsal process in a theatrical production is driven more by
shared meaning-making and improvisation, rather than the scripted
9. The play steps back from reality to create its own self-conscious
atmosphere. This is sometimes referred to as meta-theatre
While these techniques are often found in postmodern productions they
are never part of a centralised movement or style. Rather, they are tools
for authentic introspection, questioning and representation of human

Jacques Derrida: The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation

In his second article on Artaud[1], Derrida underlines that the theater of
cruelty in the sense of a destruction of the classical representation for the
sake of life implies a liberation from the concept of imitation/mimesis.
Artaud stresses an affirmation of life by rejecting the representation that is
equiprimordially an attack of the theological ur-stage: The stage is
theological for as long as it is dominated by speech, by a will to speech, by
the layout of primary logos which does not belong to the theatrical site
and governs it from a distance. The stage is theological for as long as its
structure, following the entirety of tradition, comports the following
elements: an author-creator who, absent and from afar, is armed with a
text and keeps watch over, assembles, regulates the time or the meaning
of representation, letting this latter represent him as concerns what is
called the content of his thoughts, his intentions, his ideas. He lets
representation represent him through representatives, directors or actors,
enslaved interpreters who represent characters who, primarily through
what they say, more or less directly represent the thought of the creator.
Interpretive slaves who faithfully execute the providential designs of the
master. (TC, 235)
But the theater of cruelty strictly refrains from association or
improvisation; on the contrary, it points to rigorous formalization, a
reconstruction of the scenery which would break and transgress the
dictatorial compulsion of the word and the written text. But: How will
speech and writing function then? (TC, 240) Thus, Derrida explains: They
will once more become gestures; and the logical and discursive intentions
which speed ordinarily uses in order to ensure its rational transparency,
and in order to purloin its body in the direction of meaning, will be reduced
or subordinated. And since this theft of the body by itself is indeed that
which leaves the body to be strangely concealed by the very thing that
constitutes it as diaphanousness, then the deconstitution of
diaphanousness lays bare the flesh of the word, lays bare the words
sonority, intonation, intensity the shout that the articulations of language
and logic have not yet entirely frozen, that is, the aspect of oppressed
gesture which remains in all speech, the unique and irreplaceable
movement which the generalities of concept and repetition have never
finished rejecting. (TC, 240)
Furthermore, Derrida underlines that this opening of a Glossopoeia, which
is neither an imitative language nor a creation of names, takes us back to
the borderline of the moment when the word has not yet been born, when
articulation is no longer a shout but not yet discourse, when repetition is
almost impossible, and along with it, language in general: the separation
of concept and sound, of signified and signifier, of the pneumatical and the
grammatical, the freedom of translation and tradition, the movement of
interpretation, the difference between the soul and the body, the master
and the slave, God and man, author and actor. This is the eve of the origin
of languages, and of the dialogue between theology and humanism whose

inextinguishable reoccurrence has never not been maintained by the

metaphysics of Western theater. (TC, 240)
This origin of the languages in the sense of a theatrical writing will no
longer occupy the limited position of simply being the notation of words,
but will cover the entire range of this new language: not only phonetic
writing and the transcription of speech, but also hieroglyphic writing, the
writing in which phonetic elements are coordinated to visual, pictorial, and
plastic elements. (TC, 240) This issue of a hieroglyphic writing compares
Derrida with Freuds remark on the transferred and transposed dreamcontent by a pictural writing and an analogy of the psychoanalytical
interpretation of the dreams to the decipherment of an ancient
pictographic script such as Egyptian hieroglyphs. (TC, 241) Hence, the
correspondence of the Freudian interpretation of the dreams and the
theater of cruelty is centered on this certain decipherment of a
pictographic script. On the other hand, Artaud stresses his reservation and
diference in regard to psychoanalysis in general: As concerns
psychoanalysis and especially psychoanalysts , Artaud was no less careful
to indicate his distance from those who believe that they can retain
discourse with the aid of psychoanalysis, and thereby can wield its
initiative and powers of initiation. (TC, 242) Because of his intention to
translate the dream into the cultural and social structures in order to give
them a signification, the psychoanalyst falls back and reverts to the
original structure of elusion and its inherent logic of representation. Thus,
psychoanalysis appears as an agent and accomplice of the general
structure of elusion. On the contrary, according to Artaud, the dream is not
a substitutive fulfillment of desire (TC, 243) but rather an original
relation to ones self and its body, it is rather a field of immanence of
desire in the terms of Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari which should be
open for its conscious creation. Hence, the theater of cruelty thus would
not be a theater of the unconscious. Almost the contrary. Cruelty is
consciousness, is exposed lucidity. (TC, 242)
In order to circumscribe Artauds project of a theater of cruelty Derrida
lists conditions which would break and not fulfill Artauds intention. This
would refer to 1. all non-sacred theater, 2. all word theater, 3. all abstract
theater which intends to reduce the medial plurality of the scenery, 4. all
theater of alienation, because the effect of alienation is tied to an aspect
of a distance of the spectator which is refused in the theater of cruelty, all
nonpolitical theater and also 6. all ideological theater, all cultural theater,
all communicative theater, interpretive [] theater seeking to transmit a
content, or to deliver a message []. (TC, 245) Hence, Artaud intends to
annihilate a content that could be repeated in different contexts and
Derrida points out: Artaud wanted to erase repetition in general. For him,
repetition was evil, and one could doubtless organize an entire reading of
his texts around this center. Repetition separates force, presence, and life
from themselves. This separation is the economical and calculating
gesture of that which defers itself in order to maintain itself, that which
reserves expenditure and surrenders to fear. This power of repetition

governed everything that Artaud wishes to destroy, and it has several

names: God, Being, Dialectics. (TC, 245)
Thus, in this sense the theater of cruelty would be the art of difference
and of expenditure without economy, without reserve, without return,
without history. Pure presence as pure difference. Its act must be
forgotten, actively forgotten. (TC, 247)
That is the reason why Artaud connects the conservation of the writingsystem with an erasure of the body, of the living gesture which takes
place only once. (TC, 247)
But even the theater of cruelty has to affirm the repetition and in regard to
this condition it appears "tragically" as impossibility: it will always remain
the inaccessible limit of a representation which is not repetition, of a representation which is full presence, which does not carry its double within
itself as its death, of a present which does not repeat itself, that is, of a
present outside time, a nonpresent. (TC, 248) The impossibility of a
theater of cruelty results from its reference and binding to a purity of
presence which would no longer know any difference or repetition. This
impossibility is grounded in Artauds emphasis on a metaphysics of proper
subjectivity and life that leads the theater of cruelty again to a closure of
representation. Artaud intends to erase the ur-stage of the killing and
elusion of proper subjectivity and thus produces another ur-stage of
destruction as its supplement. In regard to this framework, representation
would be endless by pointing to a closure of that which is without end
(TC, 250). This turn is inscribed in Artauds project due to his unquestioned
assumptions of a pure and proper self-presence on the one and a thought
of original alienation due to the structure of elusion on the other hand.
According to Derrida, Artaud did not question the metaphysical opposite of
purity and difference radical enough. Hence, in these earlier readings of
Derrida Artaud appears as an accomplice of metaphysics within a project
of a destruction of metaphysics.
A New Scne Seen Anew:Represent
Colin Russell




In the work of Antonin Artaud, Jacques Derrida discovers another of the

many sites which both presages and opens to the penetration of his
deconstructive method. Artaud's texts make a substantial contribution to
the toolbox with which Derrida problematizes and dismantles cherished
tenets of Western thought. In the essay "The Theater of Cruelty and the
Closure of Representation," Derrida explores how the theoretical plan for
the theatre flies bravely, though hopelessly in the face of the structures of
Western thought. In his biography of Artaud, Stephen Barber attributes to
Derrida's article the claim that "[r]epresentation is a repetitious and
malicious process (explicitly social for Artaud) which diverts the immediacy

and tangibility of the creative work, so representation is always attacked

and opposed" (Barber 6). This quotation succinctly captures the
quintessence of Artaud, and what Derrida says about him. In his
discussions of metaphysics and language, of the body and gesture, of
theatre and the plague, Artaud seems always to be obsessed by this
problem, and Derrida finds ample fuel for the fires of his own similar
obsession. Comparisons with Nietzsche and Freud, made by Derrida and
other authors, demonstrate how Artaud's writings participate in the antitheological deconstruction. Derrida vociferously challenges the charges of
destructiveness levied against his own method, and he begins his essay
with the same defence of Artaud, that the Theatre of Cruelty is essentially,
necessarily, implacably affirmative.This is its nature, yet "this affirmation
Artaud expounds the notions of the Theatre of Cruelty in the essays
collected in The Theatre and its Double. In "Theatre and Cruelty," he opens
with the lament, or the charge, "We have lost the idea of theatre" (Artaud
64). In the bourgeois theatre of the early twentieth century, which is
perhaps identical to the theatre of the nineteenth, even the eighteenth
century, the focus is on "probing the intimacy of a few puppets" (Artaud
64). The members of the audience are voyeurs, privy to the machinations
of these characters, passively consuming what the author, director and
actors peddle as the heady liquors of titillating forbidden scenes. This
passive role which the audience is compelled to accept leads to a
complacency and a sterility. In Derrida's words, this stage "comports a
passive, seated public, a public of spectators, of consumers, of 'enjoyers' as Nietzsche and Artaud both say - attending a production that lacks true
volume or depth, a production that is level, offered to their voyeuristic
scrutiny" (Derrida 235). The absence of "violent gratification" has led the
masses away from theatre to "the cinema, music-hall and circus" (Artaud
64). The whole experience of theatre has been denuded of its original
The damage wrought by psychological theatre, derived from Racine, has
rendered us unaccustomed to the direct, violent action theatre must have.
Cinema, in its turn, murders us with reflected, filtered and projected
images that no longer connect with our sensibility, and for ten years has
maintained us and all our faculties in an intellectual stupor. (Artaud 64)
Of the two programs - the disconnection from sensibility and the
maintenance of intellectual stupor - Artaud clearly seeks primarily to
redress the former. The theatre of the West has confused the proportions,
since it has tended to privilege the intellectual response over the sensory.
It is this error which the genesis of the Theatre of Cruelty is intended to
Infused with the idea that the masses think with their senses first and
foremost and that it is ridiculous to appeal primarily to our understanding
as we do in everyday psychological theatre, the Theatre of Cruelty
proposes to resort to mass theatre, thereby rediscovering a little of the
poetry in the ferment of great, agitated crowds hurled against one
another, sensations only too rare nowadays, when masses of holiday

If theatre wants to find itself needed once more, it must present

everything in love, crime, war and madness. (Artaud 64-5)
These subjects - love, crime, war and madness - present human
experience beyond the quotidian, and these are the subjects which Artaud
believes can expunge the lifeless Western theatre and its patrons from the
comfortable niche in which several centuries of practice have ensconced
them. These are of course the subjects of the traditional theatre itself, but
there they are dealt with in safe, secure ways that perhaps allow for a pale
shadow of Aristotle's catharsis to occur in the ambience of the hall itself,
without disrupting the comfortable digestion of coffee and cakes after the
performance, let alone the conduct of business the next day. For Artaud,
unless the experience of theatre irremediably alters the individual, it is
worthless. It must surpass this level of "seeking diversions," and shake the
foundations of our worldview. In a letter to to his friend and editor Jean
Paulhan about his Manifesto, Artaud insists upon a broad, allencompassing definition, or array of definitions, for the term cruelty as he
uses it. This array includes a definition from a "mental viewpoint,"
according to which "cruelty means strictness, diligence, unrelenting
decisiveness, irreversible and absolute determination" (Artaud 77). Derrida
distinguishes "the sense of cruelty as necessity and rigor " (Derrida 238). It
is not only on the grounds of the desired appeal to the masses that the
Theatre of Cruelty precludes the bourgeois attitude to theatre of the
fashionable socialite or the pleasant but ineffectual humanist. Serious
theatre "upsets all our preconceptions, inspiring us with fiery, magnetic
imagery and finally reacting on us after the manner of unforgettable soul
therapy" (Artaud 64). Neither coffee nor business should ever be the same
again after one has undergone the experience of an authentic theatre.
There should be an absolute cathartic experience once the body and soul
have been drawn through the maelstrom which Artaud intends for his
Cleansing, transfiguration, exaltation - these are objectives Artaud will
accomplish through the medium of "cruelty". . . . He did appear to intend
that a punishment of a sort be visited on spectators. However it would be
a beneficient punishment. Life has in it a lot of ugliness and evil, which are
both natural and man-made. Instead of shielding spectators from their
impact he would expose them, put them through the experience of a
danger and then free them from it. He went to great pains to explain that
his theatre was not a form of torture, but a facing of the worst that could
happen, followed by a refreshing release from it. At the end the spectator
would feel relieved, as if awakening from a nightmare, the evil and terror
The horrible crimes, and the treament of madness, love and war, would
shock the audience from their complacency, and send them out with a
reawakened sense of the vitality and authenticity absent from their daily
lives, and from the theatre which they had hitherto experienced in the
Comdie franaise and each additional tired rendition of Molire.
As Martin Esslin points out, this search for a renewed vitality and
authenticity in life and in the theatre marks an affinity between Artaud and

Nietzsche, another pivotal figure in the deconstruction of Western thought

for Derrida. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche derives the concepts of the
Apollonian and the Dionysian principles from Greek tragedy. The
Apollonian principle, reasoned, restrained, self-controlled, form-giving and
organizing, is subsumed in Nietzsche within the Dionysian principle,
primordial, passionate, chaotic, frenzied, drunken, chthonic and creative.
The aesthetic tension allows the imaginative, creative power of Dionysus
to operate, though the products of this operation are kept honest and
Artaud rejected the Apollonian element altogether and put his trust in the
dark forces of Dionysian vitality with all their violence and mystery. If these
forces could be activated through the theatre, incarnated by the theatre,
Artaud hoped that mankind might be diverted from their disastrous path
that led towards an increasing atrophying of their instincts which
amounted to the death of their vitality and eventual extinction. (Esslin 80)
A compelling reason for privileging the Dionysian elements over the
Apollonian in Artaud's theories is his preoccupation with the body. The
desired cathartic effect of theatre is far more fundamental in Artaud than
that made manifest in the previous reference to alterations in coffeedrinking and the conduct of business. Like Nietzsche, who felt that a new
physiology was required for the human being to successfully overcome the
negative effects of spiritual and aesthetic genealogy, Artaud is insistent on
a radical transformation and reappropriation of one's own body.
One of the most striking metaphors by which he demonstrates such a
transformation is the comparison of theatre and plague. Drawing on
archival accounts of plague epidemics, Artaud illustrates his thesis that
"the plague" is a psychical entity, regardless of the particular baccili which
may be isolated to explain it in medico-scientific terms. He records eerie
stories of the apparently intelligent and discriminating movement of a
disease which seems to select and reject potential victims. To achieve the
greatest impact on the reader, gruesome details of the infection itself vie
with horrible accounts of the psychological impact on both the victims and
those who are spared the actual physical attack. It is the inverted
behaviour of those who do not display symptoms which provides the
strongest evidence in support of the thesis. The plague is a catastrophic
social phenomenon, and a total disorganization of not only individual
bodies, but the body politic, out of which a new social order and
physicality emerge. As Jane Goodall asserts in "The Plague and its Powers
in Artaudian Theatre," the dream of the Viceroy which Artaud relates in
. . .illustrates that the powers of the plague are powers of revelation, of
alchemical transformation, leading through the nigredo of dissolution
towards a new genesis. Artaud describes how volcanic eruptions on the
surface of the flesh violate the inside/outside borders which preserve
corporeal integrity, as social, psychological and ethical structures implode.
"Civilized man" disintegrates in an elemental forcefield that seems to be
reversing the process of creation and the more determined his strategies
of self preservation, the more directly they contribute to the process of his
destruction. (Goodall 529)

The psychical impact, devoid of "real" physical symptoms, of the

psychosomatic plague sufferer provides Artaud's analogy to the activity of
the actor. He argues that "[t]he condition of a plague victim who dies
without any material destruction, yet with all the stigmata of an absolute,
almost abstract disease upon him, is in the same condition as an actor
totally penetrated by feelings without any benefit or relation to reality"
is what she portrays, but "nothing has really happened." Similarly, the
audience should truly experience the horrors which are enacted before
them because the atmosphere into which they are thrust has the same
affective power as the locale of a plague has to undermine the rational
[j]ust as it is not impossible that the unconsumed despair of a lunatic
screaming in an asylum can cause the plague, so by a kind of reversibility
of feelings and imagery, in the same way we can admit that outward
events, political conflicts, natural disasters, revolutionary order and
wartime chaos, when they occur on a theatre level, are released into the
audience's sensitivity with the strength of an epidemic. (Artaud 15)
Like the plague, theatre "takes gestures and develops them to the limit," it
"can only happen the moment the inconceivable really begins," and it
"disturbs our state of mind" (Artaud 17). Both the plague and the theatre
evince " a powerful appeal through illustration to those powers which
return the mind to the origins of its inner stuggles" (Artaud 19).
At the origin of the inner struggles of the mind is the primordial
responsiveness to myth, which is fundamentally rooted in the body and its
relation to those themes of crime, love, war and madness. For Artaud, it is
necessary to reject not only the traditional theatrical representation of
these themes, but also the "ancient Myths" which inspire our deepest
knowledge and sense about them. In the body of mythology inscribed in
our civilization, the human experience of crime, love, war and madness
has been encoded for posterity. Artaud believes, like Nietzsche, that these
treatments are hackneyed with use and abuse, and furthermore that the
treatment which one epoch gives to these themes is good for that time,
but not for all times. In Artaud's opinion, one must cast off the trappings of
a theatrical genealogy, just as Nietzsche would have us remove the
shackles of an outmoded moral genealogy. According to Liliane Papin, this
classical theatre, "nous dit Artaud, est n de la littrature , cantonn au
langage, bti sur une parole vieillie, cule et use. Il faut 'en finir avec les
chefs d'oeuvres' et tout recommencer, tout rinventer" (Papin 668). As one
of Artaud's essay titles expresses this last point, it is necessary to have
done with the judgement of God. Again like Nietzsche, Artaud banishes
God from the space of his theatre as an interloper, a transgressor who
tries to impose the Logos upon the pure, primordial sensibility of action.
God's text is underlying the operation of the classical theatre, and permits
no escape from the perpetual representation of the original creation. This
new theatre must have done with God and with Myths, because it must be
its own mythos. As Erella Brown argues, "Artaud's notion of theater as
myth-making, as an alternative for traditional representation, is but
another name for life as the double of the theater" (Brown 595). The

responsibility of the theatre is to be as novel as possible, to stretch the

envelope, to seek the limits of its spatial and temporal conditions, without
losing that frame of reference which allows for immediate impact upon its
audience. The new thing must impact on the body like a plague, uniquely
We want to make theatre a believable reality inflicting this kind of tangible
laceration, contained in all true feeling, on the heart and senses. In the
same way as our dreams react on us and reality reacts on our dreams, so
we believe ourselves able to associate mental pictures with dreams,
effective insofar as they are projected with the required violence. And the
audience will believe in the illusion of theatre on condition they really take
it for a dream, not for a servile imitation of reality. On condition it releases
the magic freedom of daydreams, only recognisable when imprinted with
terror and cruelty. (Artaud 65)
In his analysis of Artaudian theatre, Martin Esslin comments on Artaud's
notion of the "dream-work" of the theatrical process. He suggests that
. . . has parallels with Freud's view that the malaise in Western civilization
was due to the repression of so much of man's instinctive, subconscious,
impulsive life. . . . It was Freud who had indicated how language in dream
is transposed into images which can then be read like picture-writing,
hieroglyphs. Hence Artaud, in his endeavour to reactivate the
subconscious and to appeal to it directly, preached a return to
communication at this level. (Esslin 80-1)
Of course, hieroglyphics, "the writing in which phonetic elements are
coordinated to visual, pictorial, and plastic elements" (Derrida 240), is the
very example which Artaud gives as a tentative, temporary model as he
wrestles to attain a suitable alternative for the logocentric text of the
Freud's conception of the unconscious provides a fruitful analogy for the
battle between the classical authorial control and the primordial forces
that control represses. One could posit that the preoccupation with
written, scripted text maintains an ego control over the processes in the
theatre. Beneath that control swirls the cesspool of the id, the
subconscious source of desire and mystery which Artaud seeks to tap for
sensory experience of the theatre, as Freud seeks to tap it for clues to
behaviour. Freud acknowledges the necessity of the controlling mechanism
to keep the repressed forces from overwhelming the individual and the
society in an explosion of irrational, chaotic activity. This is perhaps exactly
what Artaud desires - the casting off of the yoke of submission to personal
and social control, the release of the body from the control of the intellect,
the spontaneous responsiveness of the deepest core of the self to an
experience of theatre which delves far below mere aesthetic appreciation
and has nothing to do with moral edification. As Jane Goodall suggests,
"[i]t is as though Freudian insights help to show Artaud the way to the
vulnerable core of the social and psychological order he abhors, but his
relationship to these insights is itself subversive" (Goodall 533). Derrida
too suggests that Artaud's relation to Freud is one of subversion. If the


Theatre of Cruelty is a theatre of dreams, then the desired immediacy of

theatrical experience belies the removal from immediate experience which
Freud identifies in the dream process. As Derrida muses, "[p]erhaps Artaud
is also protesting against a certain Freudian description of dreams as the
substitutive fulfillment of desire, as the function of vicariousness: through
the theater, Artaud wants to return their dignity to dreams and to make of
them something more original, more free, more affirmative than an
activity of displacement" (Derrida 243). Another significant difference
between Artaud and Freud, for Derrida, is the insistence of the former
upon the fully conscious operation of the theatre. Artaud wishes to remove
the subconscious from its traditional role on the stage and particularly in
the relationship between actor and audience, and the relationship of critic
or analyst to the stage. There should be no intermediaries between the
audience and the action. Derrida contests that Artaud "would have
rejected a psychoanalytic theater with as much rigor as he condemned
psychological theater. And for the same reasons: his rejection of any secret
interiority, of the reader, of directive interpretations or of
Derrida's commentary in "The Theater of Cruelty" on Freudian analogies is
devoted mainly to such correspondences and differences between the
theatre-work and the dream-work. In The Interpretation of Dreams and
other works, Freud suggests that speech is a thing, among other things,
which can be manipulated by the dreamer like any object. Words can be
selected from an array and abandoned in favour of others if they fail to
meet the requirements of the dream-content which the dreamer is
imagining. Speech thus loses its normal authoritative function as the
schematic means for naming the other objects in the environment. The
speech balloons of the comic strips provide an excellent example of the
"pictorialization" of speech. Derrida suggests that in Freud's assessment of
such representations, "we understand what speech can become when it is
but an element, a circumscribed site, a circumvented writing within both
general writing and the space of representation. This is the structure of the
This model invokes Artaud's notion of "spatial expression," as outlined in
the "First Manifesto of the Theatre of Cruelty." He contrasts "expressive,
dynamic spatial potential" with "expressive spoken dialogue potential"
(Artaud 68). This new "language" of theatre includes the normal
conception of language, but as one "gesture" out of an array of gestures
Theatre can still derive possibilities for extension from speech outside
words, the development in space of its dissociatory, vibratory action on
our sensibility. We must take inflection into account here, the particular
way a word is pronounced, as well as the visual language of things
(audible, sound language aside), also movement, attitudes and gestures,
providing their meanings are extended, their features connected even as
far as those signs, making a kind of alphabet out of those signs. Having
become conscious of this spatial language, theatre owes it to itself to
organise these shouts, sounds, lights and onomatopoeic language,
creating true hieroglyphs out of characters and objects, making use of


their symbolism and interconnections in relation to every organ and on all

levels. (Artaud 68)
Artaud wishes to abandon the strict adherence to the way in which the
words of dialogue signify the meaning of a play in traditional Western
theatre. These words and this meaning are typically pre-determined and
pre-programmed by the playwright and enacted, or represented by the
director and cast. The primordial responsiveness which has been
submerged in the social experience of the psychological theatre, is
recouped through an abandonment of dependency on the words. Thus all
the non-textual facets of theatrical production are brought to the fore in a
holistic conception of the stage presentation. Sounds, lights and
movement of the body are all gestures by which a total theatre can exhort
a response. Onomatopoeia is a very "gestural" form of language, as the
sound invokes a direct physicality, but it does not incorporate the
elements of Artaud's vision in the way that Derrida's term does.
Glossopoeia, which is neither an imitative language nor a creation of
names, takes us back to the borderline of the moment when the word has
not yet been born, when articulation is no longer a shout but not yet
discourse, when repetition is almost impossible, and along with it,
language in general: the separation of concept and sound, of signified and
signifier, of the pneumatical and the grammatical, the freedom of
translation and tradition, the movement of interpretation, the difference
between the soul and the body, the master and the slave, God and man,
author and actor. This is the eve of the origin of languages, and of the
dialogue between theology and humanism whose inextinguishable
reoccurence has never not been maintained by the metaphysics of
Western theater. (Derrida 240)
With these binaries, one recognizes the Derridean obsession with the
structure of Western metaphysics. In the type of "grand ideas" invoked by
such words, one encounters Artaud's conception of the "metaphysics" of
theatre. He apologizes for the use of the overdetermined word, but asserts
that "that is what such ideas are called." He refers to associations such as
change, Fate, Chaos, the Marvellous and Balance, which strike him while
viewing the painting Lot and his Daughters by Lucas van Leyden. In the
essay "Production and Metaphysics," Artaud establishes correspondences
between the experience of this painting, and his vision for the theatre, for
"this painting is what theatre ought to be, if only it knew how to speak its
own language" (Artaud 25). Such "metaphysical" concepts cannot easily
be put into words because they are so profound, so deeply buried in the
core of our being that they surpass the limits of expression, that their
adequate expression is inconceivable, that they reside somewhere beyond
words, and for Artaud, certainly beyond dialogue. He complains of the
situation of Western theatre, in which "everything specifically theatrical,
that is to say, everything which cannot be expressed in words or if you
prefer, everything that is not contained in dialogue. . . has been left in the
background" (Artaud 25). He points out that dialogue is not specifically an
inhabitant of the stage, but rather of books, since "there is a special
section in literary history textbooks on drama as a subordinate branch in


the history of spoken language" (Artaud 25). The stage needs "its own
concrete language," and Artaud insists that "[t]o make metaphysics out of
spoken language is to make language convey what it does not normally
The concatenation of metaphysics, concrete language, the search for
originary moments in the mind, and the situating of experience within the
body, suggests that Artaud is striving for a metaphysics of presence on the
stage. This notion is supported by Jon Erickson in "The Language of
Presence: Sound Poetry and Artaud." He argues that Artaud seeks a
language of presence through a type of sound-text "which operates
through a denial of signification toward an ideal of the unification of
expression and indication" (Erickson 279). Erickson outlines the
assumptions upon which the search for such a language of presence must
First of all, behind this language of presence is the tacit assumption that it
is the original, adamic tongue, an ursprache that names an object or being
in its essence, which means that the signifier is one with the signified and
their relationship is not arbitrarily fixed. Secondly, because of the primal
nature of this language, it can be construed as a universal language,
whose true nature arises primarily from exclamation and emotional
intonations. Thirdly, this emotive, intonational language is seen as being
more true for the human condition than signifying language because its
expression is that of the body, active and reactive, not distracted by any
cognitive split. And finally, this language should be incantatory,
summoning forth the power of presence within every fiber and organ and
nerve of the human being, uniting the spiritual with the physical, tapping
into dormant and primal creative energies, and emanating outward to
Erickson refers to Derrida's characterization of this language as the object
of a "'nostalgia for presence,' a concern about origin, about a type of
Golden Age myth that has persisted, often unrecognized, to this day"
(Erickson 283). The second part of the title of Derrida's article indicates
the significance of this illusive quest in which Artaud is engaged - the
quest for the "closure of representation." Derrida affirms, "[t]he theater of
cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself, in the extent to which life is
unrepresentable. Life is the nonrepresentable origin of representation"
(Derrida 234). The classical theatre which Artaud disparages has, through
its dialogue and text-bound performance, been constantly engaged in the
representation of real life which the audience has come to expect. For
Derrida, Artaud breaks with the notion of the mimetic. While the cathartic
experience is still a useful characterization of the audience's response to
the new theatre, the rest of Aristole's aesthetics must be transcended. Art
does not imitate life, art is equal to life, and even superior to life, since
Artaud insists that the performance of an act on stage makes it universal,
whereas the performance of the same act "in the world" occurs once and
As previously mentioned in relation to Nietzsche, the problem here is to
have done with the judgement of God, to cast God off the stage. The
reason that theatre has been representational has been its reliance on the


creative genius whose authority permits the action to occur. Just as the
Logos of God has initiated the activity of humanity in the world, the Logos
of the playwright has initiated the activity on the stage. The related
injustices of tyranny, hierarchy, mimesis and the alienation of labour
involved in the theatrical act all contribute to the representational form,
and for Artaud, the fundamental removal of the primordial meaning
of theatre. Crime is at the head of the list of appropriate topics for
theatrical display because, according to Derrida, "there is always a murder
at the origin of cruelty, of the necessity named cruelty. And first of all, a
parricide" (Derrida 239). It is in removing the author, that one removes
God and frees the stage from the tyranny and alienation.
The stage is theological for as long as it is dominated by speech, by a will
to speech, by the layout of a primary logos which does not belong to the
theatrical site and governs it from a distance. The stage is theological for
as long as its structure, following the entirety of tradition, comports the
following elements: an author-creator who, absent and from afar, is armed
with a text and keeps watch over, assembles, regulates the time or the
meaning of representation, letting this latter represent him as concerns
what is called the content of his thoughts, his intentions, his ideas. He lets
representation represent him through representatives, directors or actors,
enslaved interpreters who represent characters who, primarily through
what they say, more or less directly represent the thought of the "creator."
(Derrida 235)
For Artaud, the tyrannical author is as diabolical as the God whom he so
delighted in reviling. The prompter, or souffleur, according to Derrida, is
the "hidden but indispensable center of representative structure - which
ensures the movement of representation" (Derrida 235-6). All the agents
of the theatre, playwright, director, actor, prompter, audience,
unconsciously conspire to continue this dependency and this inauthenticity
of the production. The significance of the souffleur is paramount in
Derrida's other article on Artaud in Writing and Difference. In "La Parole
souffle," Derrida plays on the various meanings of souffle and its
derivations to indicate Artaud's sense of the words/breath/spirit/life being
stolen from him by God, author/creators and prompters. As Allen Thiher
puts it, "[f]or Artaud it is the ultimate theatrical author, the author of
creation, who is the great metaphysical thief. God is Artaud's personal
enemy. God is the proper name of that which disappropriates us of our
proper name" (Thiher 505). This disappropriation, theft, or alienation is
what Artaud experienced vividly in what we conveniently designate as
. . . Artaud lived the separation of speech and language as what Derrida
calls la parole soufle - speech that is at once stolen and prompted,
offered by the theatrical prompter as the word of the missing author on
the stage of metaphysical representation. It is in this sense that Artaud
could not overcome his sense of impouvoir, for he could not be an
authentic speaking subject if his speech were already determined for him
by an absent logos, an absent speaker, an absent author. By its very


structure then, le langage souffle - it takes our souffle or soul as it offers

us words to repeat that are not ours. (Thiher 505)
The word, the dialogue, the script-text is paramount in this equation, so
that each production is true to the original intent of the playwright-god,
and "true to life" as well! All the many ways in which the primordial
presence could be achieved without recourse to stultifying words, are
banished to subsidiary roles in the traditional theatre. Derrida asserts that
"all the pictorial, musical and even gesticular forms introduced into
Western theater can only, in the best of cases, illustrate, accompany,
serve, or decorate a text, a verbal fabric, a logos which is said in the
Indeed, the "word" ensures that the history of the theatre of the West has
been a continual process of erasure. Derrida claims that "classical theater,
in Artaud's eyes, is not simply the absence, negation, or forgetting of
theater, is not a nontheater: it is a mark of cancellation that lets what it
covers be read: and it is a corruption also, a 'perversion,' a seduction , the
margin of an aberration whose meaning and measure are visible only
beyond birth, at the eve of theatrical representation, at the origin of
tragedy" (Derrida 236). Here is a classic Derridean trace within the
structure of binary opposition. The classical stage, despite its best efforts
to obscure the primordial theatrical presence, continues an illicit
communication, a communication of betrayal, with that counterpart, and
hence the absence of that presence makes the presence itself present.
Artaud's theatre lurks in every classical production because its principles
Despite the best efforts of those who would enclose the theatre within the
text which initiates productions, theatricality itself betrays them, and
provides glimpses of the scenario which Artaud envisions. This is a "mise
en scne," and the French conveys the essence of what he is trying to
accomplish - a "putting on stage" of something. The term seems to
connote creativeness without authoritativeness, presentation without
representation. Derrida's Artaud asserts that "to put on stage and to
overthrow the tyranny of the text is thus one and the same gesture"
(Derrida 236). This production is unique: it presents itself rather than being
the "repetition of a present." What is conveyed in the production is not
subordinate to something which could have occurred elsewhere at another
time, either as a "real" event or as a previous production of the "same"
dramatic text. This is a "closed space, that is to say a space produced from
within itself and no longer organized from the vantage of an other absent
site, an illocality, an alibi or invisible utopia" (Derrida 238). This is an
original representation, or an
autopresentation, the recovery of an original presence, comprised of pure
sensibility. Perhaps each Artaudian production would be its own mythgenesis, tapping the well of responsiveness which humans bring to
encounters with myth, but refusing to rely on the "tired Myths"
This new mise en scne includes a new space, a new time and a new
speech. Such a spectacle creates its own space, as suggested above, and


this "appeals to a time that is no longer of so-called phonic linearity"

(Derrida 237). For Artaud, the time that speech takes determines the
duration of the classical production. The removal of dependency upon
spoken dialogue for the progression of the production will alter the
parameters of time within which the theatre operates. Within this space
and time, everything is part of the text of the production, subordinating
the power of speech and the ordinary understanding of text/script/dialogue
within a holistic scheme. According to Derrida's interpretation, speech "will
cease to govern the stage, but will be present upon it. Speech will occupy
a rigorously delimited place, will have a function within a system to which
it will be coordinated" (Derrida 239). Part of the essential rigour and
necessity which govern the Theatre of Cruelty is the closely prescribed
stage directions which replace the author's text. Since the author and his
text are absent, the director and all the participants assume more
responsibility for creating the text of the production. Everything is carefully
planned, and crucial to the whole, in contradistinction to the classical
derivation of subsidiary elements from the text provided by the author. In
this theatre, according to Derrida, "speech and its writing will be erased on
the stage of cruelty only in the extent to which they were allegedly
dictation : at once citations or recitations and orders" (Derrida 239). It
signifies the end not only of dictation, but also "of the diction which made
theater into an exercise of reading" (Derrida 239). As Elinor Fuchs points
out, in a way that "parallels Derrida's deconstruction of speech and
writing, theatre practitioners have begun to expose the normally
"occulted" textuality behind the phonocentric fabric of performance"
(Fuchs 166). These inheritors of Artaud have introduced a meta-textuality
into the theatre, deconstructing the received ideas about the place and
It is in the diction and the dictation, the recitation and repetition, that
Artaud's theatre is doomed to fail, as both he and Derrida acknowledge.
Defeated by dialectics. As Allen Thiher suggests, "Artaud is a victim of the
structuration of Western metaphysics. He is a martyr to its determination
of language as a metaphysical sign as well as to its ontico-theology that
has culminated in the Western theatrical stage and its practice of
representation" (Thiher 504). Derrida's list of types of theatre foreign to
the Theatre of Cruelty - non-sacred theatre, theatre that privileges speech,
abstract theatre, theatre of alienation, nonpolitical theatre, ideological
theatre, cultural theatre - seems to account for most of the extant theatre,
and this virtually all-inclusive list fails to leave much room for the
realization of Artaud's scheme. As usual in Derridean analyses, the
theoretical possibility of the full presence outside the system is
unrealizable, because one is always already within the system. "Dialectics
is the movement through which expenditure is reappropriated into
presence - it is the economy of repetition. . . . Dialectics is always that
which has finished us, because it is always that which takes into account
our rejection of it. As it does our affirmation" (Derrida 246). Repetition
means that one can never have an original experience, and nowhere,
according to Derrida, is this more apparent than in the theatre.
For Derrida, Artaud is another of the many figures in the history of Western
thought who provide a glimpse of the contradictions by which that system


undermines itself. Some of these figures, like Kant, could live a

comfortable, sedentary life while writing earth-shattering books, but
Artaud is a figure who truly lived the theory that he promulgated. As many
post-structuralists argue, the individual who goes beyond the structures by
which others govern themselves steps into an abyss, since all our learning
is focussed on mastering the structures. There one encounters freedom,
but at the price of losing the advantages of the system. Artaud felt that his
body was appropriated by God, and that in recovering the full presence of
the original moment of theatre, he could reappropriate his body and
experience the communion with sacredness, without God. The theatre that
he posited in order to accomplish this cannot be realized, for there is no
origin without a past, nor a moment without a repetition, nor presence
In the madness to which Artaud succumbed, Derrida can read a case study
of the effects of Western culture and thought as the mise en scne of
madness. Allen Thiher concludes that, "in encountering Artaud, Derrida
makes more than clear the Nietzschean origins of a thought that must
exalt in the play of the same - at the risk of otherwise going mad" (Thiher
508). If Western metaphysics and Western theatre are akin to a plague,
Artaud suffers the physical symptoms as his body fights the infection, and
the apparently healthy cannot be assured that they too do not suffer from
the ubiquitous effects of this social disease. In representation, the chronic
and terminal condition of the disease becomes apparent, and Artaud can
only dream of the closure which could occur on the stage in the moment of
presence, the moment of gesture, the moment of cruelty.