A Legacy of Theatricality: Antonin Artaud’s Encounter with Balinese Gamelan
Before the advent of global travel, many people first encountered Indonesian music and dance at a world’s fair or colonial exposition. One such person was the actor, playwright, poet, and drama theorist Antonin Artaud (1896‒1948), who attended a performance of the Balinese gamelan at the Paris International Colonial Exposition in 1931. Artaud’s understandings (and misunderstandings) of what he witnessed inspired his ongoing quest to recuperate the form and purpose of theatre in order to save it from what he considered its quotidian fate as mere illusion. Contemporary theatre’s continuously emerging engagement with theatricality since the 1960s is mapped back to Artaud’s reactions to his chance encounter with the Balinese gamelan in 1931.
Theatricality of the Medium
New playwriting and directing trends in and around the New York City theatre scene—on, off, and off-off Broadway—are increasingly exploring the theatricality of the medium of theatre itself, an exploration that can be traced back to the rise of modernism during the first half of the twentieth century. Theatricality, whether as a descriptor in the theatre world or in the theatrum mundi, is a slippery term that “has achieved an extraordinary range of meanings, making it everything from an act to an attitude, a style to a semiotic system, a medium to a message” (Davis and Postlewait 2003:1). For my purposes in this article, “theatricality of the medium” is used to describe theatre that does not aspire to be a sequestered leisure activity detached from “real” life, where an illusion of reality is enacted behind an invisible fourth wall.1 Instead, it refers to an event that takes place in a performative space shared by actors and audience, where truth can emerge by using the assets of its medium as theatre.
This does not necessarily mean a theatre that drops all conventions of a normative New York City theatre experience. It does signify, however, a shift away from heavily dialogued, psychologically driven character plays (that have dominated mainstream and commercial theatre since the beginning of the twentieth century) toward plays and productions that are more deeply engaged with what live theatre can offer that reading a written text cannot. We can thank Indonesia as a major contributor to this shift, and in particular Bali and its performing arts tradition. In an unlikely but traceable lineage from the Ubud regency in Bali in the 1930s to Manhattan in the 2010s, the theatre’s continuously emerging engagement with theatricality can be mapped back to French theatre director, actor, playwright, theorist, and poet Antonin Artaud (1896‒1948) and his chance encounter with the Balinese gamelan in 1931 (fig. 1).
As early as 1816, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826), the colonial governor of Java while it was briefly under British control during the Napoleonic wars, was the first to bring a gamelan back to Europe. Well before the advent of global leisure travel, this gamelan could be seen by many without having to venture far from home. Raffles’s Javanese gamelan instruments, probably commissioned by him to be more aesthetically appealing to Westerners, were put on display at various locations in England, including the Royal Albert Hall and the residence of the Duke of Somerset. Sumarsam, in his comprehensive study on the introduction of gamelan to the West, notes that the designs on the gamelan sets commissioned by Raffles were “atypical” and “appear to be designed according to his European tastes” (Sumarsam 2013:80). He also points out that the instruments were primarily for exhibition and study rather than for playing or performance, so they mostly remained unheard (Sumarsam 2013:79).
Before the mid-twentieth century, the majority of people outside Southeast Asia first heard the gamelan at world’s fairs or colonial expositions. These fairs and expositions (the precursors of and blueprints for what can currently be experienced at places such as Epcot Center in Walt Disney World in Florida) were occasions for Western imperial powers to show off their colonies’ assets. Pavilions, erected by each participating country and usually in the “style of” the indigenous architecture, exhibited each colony’s material and cultural resources. This included displays of local performing arts traditions by artists brought from the colonies to the fairs, where they lived in the pavilions (fig. 2).
On the one hand, the world’s fairs and expositions during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were occasions for competitive Western powers to show off their political capital in Asia and Africa and to “one up” their neighbors. On the other hand, they provided a significant bridge to access other cultures firsthand before commercial international air travel opened up the world to tourism in the 1940s. While the positioning of the cultural displays as colonial subject and “other” was more often than not used as a way to flaunt Western dominance and fuel power differentials, the performances were popular with visitors and introduced a generation of creative artists in the West to alternative approaches to music composition, dance choreography, and theatricality. For example, French composer Claude Debussy (1862–1918) has been quoted as saying he found the layered interlocking rhythms of the Javanese gamelan to “have percussive charm” after he heard one at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition (Sumarsam 2013:102). Debussy’s high praise for the gamelan has led to speculation that it may have influenced his later compositions (Sorrell 1992:66).
Artaud and His Influence
Another artist inspired by cultural performances at an exposition was Artaud, who first became enamored with an oriental aesthetic after attending a performance of Cambodian dancers held in front of a reconstruction of Angkor Wat at the 1922 National Colonial Exposition in Marseille. He was then later moved to a “moment of revelation” when watching the Balinese gamelan and dancers perform at the Paris International Colonial Exposition of 1931 (Pronko 1967:8).
Artaud is arguably one of, if not the most, influential avant-garde drama theorists of the twentieth century and beyond. He inspired numerous productions worldwide after his book The Theatre and Its Double was published in an English translation in 1958 (fig. 3). Theatre that deals with primitivism, ritual, cruelty, and foregrounds spectacle—which Artaud called the mise en scène (everything that is materially expressed on stage)—can trace its influence back to him. Ideas, such as drama as process, theatre as a means rather than an end, holy theatre, and physical theatre, were made popular by theatre companies that looked toward Artaud for inspiration, including the Performance Group of Richard Schechner (born 1934) and the Living Theatre of Judith Malina (1926–2015) and Julian Beck (1925–1985), as well as theatre practitioners, such as Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999), Peter Brook (born 1925), Richard Foreman (born 1937), Ariane Mnouchkine (born 1939), Sam Shepard (born 1943), and many others, beginning in the 1960s in the United States and Europe.
Furthermore, his influences can now be broadened to include our current “post-postmodernist”2 moment and what is becoming increasingly the defining style of new playwriting in theatre today. British and American playwrights of the new style, such as Mac Wellman (born 1945), Paula Vogel (born 1951), Suzan-Lori Parks (born 1963), Sarah Ruhl (born 1974), Young Jean Lee (born 1974), Nick Payne (born 1984), and others, display in their work a perceptible shift from adhering to conventional notions of character development and narrative/temporal coherence to a focus on breaking open the possibilities of the theatrical medium itself. According to Paul Castagno, who writes about new playwriting strategies in the twenty-first century, playwrights have, for the past one hundred years or so, tended to focus on psychologically driven characters that conform to the ideals of naturalism expressed by Emile Zola in the late nineteenth century. Naturalistic plays, which still dominate commercial theatre endeavors today, are written with the Method/Stanislavski-trained actor in mind (who will be cast if the play is produced), thus favoring “central character-driven plays” and “privileging the internal over the external style” of acting, where actors rely on their imagination and emotions rather than stylized and conventional physical (external) gestures (Castagno 2011:73).
For this trend, Castagno also credits the film and television industry that exerts its stylistic influences over all manner of dramatic writing. Nevertheless, as Castagno encouragingly points out, new dramaturgies have been arising in the twenty-first century where “theatricality supersedes the dramatic function as the root of characterization” (Castagno 2011:82). Some of this shift has to do with an increased engagement with global theatrical styles due to touring productions, international theatre festivals, and the Internet. In addition, I believe the perceived shift toward theatricality has more to do with a reaction to the ubiquity of electronically mediated performance (movies, television, and the Internet) that is pushing new playwriting toward an increased engagement with the theatricality of the theatre (as opposed to its dramatic or literary possibilities) precisely because of theatre’s unique structure that depends on liveness and presence, which an online and electronically mediated world lacks. While Artaud’s theories have been more frequently invoked in the rehearsal process of devised works and ensemble theatre making (that are often physically based and may or may not be based on a written text or play), current and emerging playwrights are increasingly fulfilling a vision of theatricality through more conventional forms of playwriting that owe a considerable debt to Artaud’s theories on theatre.
Artaud was not the first artist to be inspired by Asian theatre, but he paved the way for many others to do so after him in an unparalleled broad reach. His essays on theatre and his vision for a Theatre of Cruelty, published in his seminal 1938 work Théâtre et son Double (The Theatre and Its Double), were written after he saw the Balinese gamelan and dancers at the 1931 International Colonial Exposition in Paris (fig. 4). Artaud’s understanding of what he witnessed was limited; the program notes were not particularly detailed (Pronko 1967). Artaud filtered his interpretations through a personal agenda. Yes, he got some facts wrong. No, he did not conduct independent scholarly research to try and fully contextualize the authenticity of the performances staged in the Dutch East Indies Pavilion in the Vincennes Woods on the outskirts of Paris (fig. 5). Was he simply the author of one of “the most alluring fictions of the ‘oriental theatre’ that have ever been written,” as Indian cultural critic and Orientalism watchdog Rustom Bharucha contends (Bharucha 1984:3)? Did it matter that it was the Balinese gamelan performances that brought Artaud to his “moment of revelation”? In her introduction to an anthology of his writings, Susan Sontag suggests Artaud’s theories perhaps did not have to spring from seeing Balinese performance specifically. Instead, what counted was that “the other culture [was] genuinely other; that is non-western and non-contemporary” (Sontag 1988:xxxix). For Bharucha, this remains problematic. He argues that Artaud’s fictive vision of “oriental theatre” continues to have a negative impact on artists today by encouraging them to appropriate Asian performances without fully understanding them (Bharucha 1993:15).
The debate about Artaud’s relationship to the Balinese performance as inspiration, appropriation, misunderstanding, fabrication, or Orientalism has been taken up by numerous scholars in journal articles and books over the years before and since those penned by Rustom Bharucha (Bharucha 1984) and Susan Sontag (Sontag 1988). They include L. C. Pronko (Pronko 1967), P. A. Clancy (Clancy 1985), Stephen Snow (Snow 1986), Kathy Foley (Foley 1992), Evan Winet (Winet 1998), Nicola Savarese and Richard Fowler (Savarese and Fowler 2001), and Matthew Cohen (Cohen 2010), among others. I am not going to dispute their positions except to say Bharucha misses the point. He argues that Artaud’s reductive and mystifying view of Oriental theatre is to show what “western theatre is not” (Bharucha 1984:15) and in the process constructs Asia as the “other” that can be spoken for and assigned signification as an Orientalist project.
It is my contention that Artaud, rather than reifying and constructing a fictional version of Balinese performance to show what Western theatre is not, instead discovered in the Balinese performances a way to understand what the prevailing theatre scene in Paris was at the time and could become, thus implicating the two traditions in each other. This not only legitimated Artaud’s theory of the Theatre of Cruelty that he was formulating at the time and writes about in The Theatre and Its Double, but it also legitimated Balinese performance as worthy of Western study and inspiration. As a result of Artaud’s engagement with the Balinese gamelan, Western theatre practitioners have inherited a rich and complex relationship with Bali that continues to be exceptionally generative.
Western vs. Balinese Theatre
Even before seeing any Asian performance, Artaud was dissatisfied with the state of Western theatre and called for fundamental changes. Dismayed by the theatre’s focus on naturalism, in his letters and essays he disparaged it as “purely descriptive and narrative” in its “psychological and human stagnation,” engendering a passive reception that “leaves the audience intact, without one image thrown off that produces its vibration in the organism” (Artaud 1988:76, 243, 254). For Artaud, naturalism’s “slice of life” theatre presents merely “falsehood and illusion” that appeals to audiences “with nothing but peeping Toms gratifying [their] cravings” (Artaud 1958:76, 77). He wondered:
How does it happen that in the theatre, at least in the theatre as we know it in Europe, or better yet 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 the dialogue . . . is left in the background? (Artaud 1958:37)
Owing in part to the continuing domination of Aristotle’s Poetics on all forms of drama, not just tragedy, spectacle in Western theatre practice in Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century was predominantly relegated to a supporting role in service of the delivery of the written word through dialogue. Theatre was conceived as a form of “illustration” and like “the pictures in a nineteenth-century novel, a staging . . . add[ed] to the attractiveness of a play but not to its essence” (Carlson 1985:6). As Artaud explains in the draft of a 1931 letter to René Dumal, European theatre over the past century had been “limited to the psychological and verbal portrait of individual man,” where “specifically theatrical means of expression have gradually been replaced by the text” (Artaud 1988:206).
To counteract this prevailing notion, Artaud wanted to examine how theatre could express that which cannot be expressed with words by using a language found only on the stage. The Balinese performance at the Colonial Exposition in Paris illustrated for Artaud that the language of the stage, in fact, “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 the language of words” (Artaud 1958:38).
One of the reasons Artaud may have thought the Balinese didn’t need words to express meaning is because he obviously couldn’t understand the meaning of what they were saying in a foreign language he didn’t speak. Not understanding the meaning of a word can allow the listener to focus on the sound of it without being flooded with its intellectual meaning. It’s interesting to note that many Balinese didn’t understand all of the words either, since Kawi, an archaic language reserved for performances and recitations of ancient texts, was often used. I have not been able to discover if Artaud was aware of this or not. Nevertheless, the words uttered by the Balinese performers did have meaning, and they narrated the scenes presented despite the fact that to Artaud they were simply sounds. To him, the European naturalistic/psychological theatre was bogged down by words and their meanings. It was bound to a script and limited as a branch of literature—theatre was merely a performed text. From the Balinese theatre emerged “the sense of a new physical language, based upon signs and no longer upon words” (Artaud 1958:54). This theatrical language was not new to the West, Artaud argued, but rather it was “a language to which it seems we no longer have the key” (Artaud 1958:57). This revelation fed directly into his desire to free theatre from the insidious grip of naturalism, where the written text and dialogue reign supreme.
Therefore, rather than being the basis or source for his theories on theatre, Artaud saw the Balinese performances at the Paris International Colonial Exposition as proof of his drama theory’s legitimacy. The performances by the Balinese galvanized his ongoing quest to recuperate the form and purpose of contemporary theatre, specifically from the stagnating consequences of naturalism. He saw in Balinese performances, where the gamelan music and the dancers’ movements create a “concrete physical language” and “intense stage poetry,” a way to “rescue” naturalist theatre from its quotidian fate as mere illusion and “from its servitude to psychology and ‘human interest’” (Artaud 1958:37, 62, 90). From the start, Artaud perceived Balinese theatre as recuperative and as a way to recreate theatre that existed sometime before naturalism and heretofore lost to the West. For Artaud, Balinese theatre (which he often used interchangeably with “oriental theatre”) had been “preserved for us down through the centuries in order to teach us what the theatre should never have ceased to be” (Artaud 1958:59).
On Balinese Theatre
The essay “On Balinese Theatre”—dated the earliest in The Theatre and Its Double although it is listed as chapter IV—begins with Artaud asserting that Balinese theatre “restores the theatre . . . to its original destiny which it presents as a combination of [dance, song, and pantomime] fused together in a perspective of hallucination and fear” (Artaud 1958:53). He was struck by the stylized gestures performed by the Balinese dancers and imagined them to be signs symbolizing mystical correspondences (fig. 6). He believed their gestures represented not the “conflict of feelings, but conflicts of spiritual states, themselves ossified and transformed into gestures—diagrams” (Artaud 1958:53). He understood the dancers as “animated hieroglyphs,” who perform gestures, a “language” that “has value or existence only in terms of its degree of objectification on the stage” (Artaud 1958:54, 53). It is a language of gestures where no one element—voice, movement, lighting, scenography, sound—has predominance over another.
Balinese theatre, according to Artaud, is not only made up of gestures but is also “the musical quality of a physical movement” (Artaud 1958:55). Artaud compared his idea of Balinese theatre to music throughout his essays and letters. In an unfinished 1931 letter to Jean Paulin, he wrote that the theatrical language of Balinese theatre “consists of a kind of orchestra of vocal modulations and gestures similar to the instrumental orchestra that serves as its backdrop” (Artaud 1988:208). In “On Balinese Theatre,” he speculated that “something akin to the musical state must have existed” when Balinese theatre was conceived “in the midst of a whole ferment of visual or sonorous images” (Artaud 1958:63, 62). While watching Balinese performances, Artaud found sound and gesture so intimately connected between the gamelan and dancers that “the mind finally finds itself doomed to confusion, attributing to the separate gesticulations of the dancers the sonorous properties of the orchestra—and vice versa” (Artaud 1958:59). He was also struck by the “vibratory” qualities of the Balinese voice that he believed were used for incantation and pure sound. Artaud was impressed by the fact that Balinese theatre appeared not to need to resort to words to convey abstract ideas but instead invented “a language of gesture to be developed in space, a language without meaning except in the circumstances of the stage” (Artaud 1958:61).
Echoing his experience of the Balinese performances, Artaud’s writings propose a theatre where words should be chosen first for their vibratory qualities rather than for their meaning. Words should not be entirely eliminated from the stage, but rather they should be given “something of the importance they have in dreams” as both conveyers of sound and signification (Artaud 1958:94). By having “dialogue itself considered as a function of its possibilities for ‘sound’ on the stage, as a function of the exigencies of the sonorisation [sic],” the words become only one element of the total performance score and can have “different ways of being projected into space” (Artaud 1958:37, 38). He wanted to change the function of speech, to take away its preeminence, thereby making “sound, as in the Balinese theatre [have] its equivalent in a gesture” and to have these “sounds make their entrance like characters” (Artaud 1958:39, 95).
Artaud is not the only one who has been moved to write about the instruments and the sounds of Balinese gamelan performance functioning as gestures and making entrances. For example, Michael Tenzer, in his book Balinese Music, describes how baris (a male “warrior dance” that was seventh on the program witnessed by Artaud)3 begins with the entrance of an “arresting kendang [drum] fanfare” that may be somewhat improvised, but after a few “declamatory opening phrases” it moves into a recognizable rhythm that prepares all the musicians to follow the raised mallet of the lead metallophone to come “crashing down . . . right after the final drum stroke, making an explosive attack” (Tenzer 1991:60). This is followed by a strike of the large gong, then “the kempli starts tapping the beat, the jegogans and calungs enter, and the baris melody proper begins” (Tenzer 1991:60) [my emphasis added]. Throughout the course of the piece, different musicians are poised, “quiet, static, and tense,” or active, “explosive and kinetic,” in concert with the dancer’s gestures (Tenzer 1991:60). The interplay among musicians, dancers, instrument sounds, and gestures lend themselves to being perceived as part of a unified choreography that incorporates their entrances and exits as characters (fig. 7).
Artaud and Balinese Performance
For Artaud, the Balinese performance is “true” theatre (of realism rather than illusion), where magic and fear rule, where metaphysical forces are played out rather than the psychological focus of naturalism “that works relentlessly to reduce the unknown to the known, to the quotidian and the ordinary” (Artaud 1958:77). Instead, argued Artaud, “the domain of the theatre is not psychological but plastic and physical” (Artaud 1958:71). Artaud insisted that true theatre is cruel: it demonstrates “we are not free. The sky can still fall on our heads. And the theatre has been created to teach us that first of all” (Artaud 1958:79). The function of theatre is to remind us that we have no control over our destinies, that we are part of a cruel world relentlessly lurching forward with us in its grasp. Theatre should not just show audiences “the mirror of itself” by focusing on the mundane affairs of everyday life, such as “worry over money, social careerism, the pangs of love unspoiled by altruism, sexuality sugarcoated with an eroticism that has lost its mystery” (Artaud 1958:76, 77).
Instead, Artaud proposed a Theatre of Cruelty “in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theatre as by a whirlwind of higher forces” (Artaud 1958:83). He argued for an effective theatre that would awaken the audience to the reality that life is not reducible to the known and “shake the organism to its foundations and leave an ineffaceable scar” (Artaud 1958:77). In Artaud’s estimation, unlike naturalism with its illusion of life, the Balinese theatre is one that has not lost its sense of danger. It could help restore theatre’s true function in the West, where we would be “capable of recovering within ourselves those energies which ultimately create order and increase the value of life” (Artaud 1958:80).
Despite not being well informed about the actual tradition, Artaud’s interpretation of Balinese theatre was extremely perceptive in several respects. For example, his observation that the music and dance are inextricably linked is an accurate reflection of how gamelan musicians and dancers depend on each other to conduct the duration and direction of a particular piece. As Foley points out, “Artaud correctly sensed that the connective tissue between music, movement, and vocalization was essential to the impact of this theatre. Drums accent movements, modal scales define vocal placement, etc.” (Foley 1992:11–12). As the performance takes place, the dancer signals to the drummer through set choreography, such as a flick of the eyes (seledet) or a shift in balance (agem), the direction that the dance will take next (fig. 8). The drummer then signals through specific beats to the rest of the gamelan what musical phrase, speed, or section of the piece will accompany the dancer. This communication happens instantaneously and seamlessly, allowing the performers to tailor their performances to the interests and engagement of their audiences. This focus on a theatre where gesture, sound, and voice can be of equal importance and where character is shaped by not only the words contained in dialogue but also by movement, costume, mask or facial expression, music, and “sonorisation” (Artaud 1958:37) has been one of his lasting legacies in the development of theatre that does not adhere to naturalism as its guiding aesthetic.
Artaud adamantly called for the abolishment of the practice of “art for art’s sake, with art on one side and life on the other” (Artaud 1958:77). For him, this separation of art from life was one of the primary causes for theatre’s debasement into “an inferior art” that “exists only to distract our leisure, . . . a decadent idea and an unmistakable symptom of our power to castrate” (Artaud 1958:76, 77). Artaud professed instead that theatre and life are not distinct from one another, a characteristic he attributed to Balinese theatre. From the stage of the Dutch East Indies Pavilion in 1931, Artaud sensed a purpose of Balinese gamelan performances to create harmony among people, nature, and the gods.
Performing arts in Bali are presented during odalan (festivals to honor the anniversary of a particular temple), rites, and other rituals, where they are entertaining for their audiences, earthly and divine, but primarily “dedicated to gods who are believed to be the holiest of spirits, living in a perfect but invisible world” (Dibia 1985:62). Odalan are intended “as sacrificial offerings to the gods” in addition to being a type of social therapy, “as a religious ceremony . . . a social event, and an important theatrical occasion” for the community (Dibia 1985:65).
The central conceit of Artaud’s theory is the idea of the double, a much-debated concept that Artaud doesn’t help elucidate much in his writings. However, if we are to take into consideration a Balinese-Hindu view of life’s interplay between sekala (the seen, conscious, earthly) and niskala (the unseen, unconscious, divine), we can understand how Artaud’s concept of the double (with the evocation of the metaphysical whirlwind of higher forces that surround us) is at the very least an approximation, if not a literal reproduction, of the acceptance and ease with which the Balinese move between the sekala and niskala as part of their day-to-day reality. For Artaud, what is presented as real and true (naturalism) on occidental stages is only the illusion of a surface image. The true reality is contained within the double—that which is seen and that which is not.
And for the lovers of realism at all costs, who might find exhausting these perpetual allusions to secret attitudes inaccessible to thought, there remains the eminently realistic play of the double who is terrified of the apparitions from beyond (Artaud 1958:54).
The interaction between the seen and unseen is contained within the Balinese philosophy of rwa bhineda (two differences), or “the principal of balance in the world: male/female, day/night, good/evil, right/left” (Dibia and Ballinger 2004:8–9). This is not based on a Western construct of duality of an either/or binary, but instead it reflects ongoing adjustments made between the two states to create a sense of balance central to the Balinese conception of life. For example, “[d]ance movements are executed on both sides and musical instruments are tuned so that two different instruments create a harmonic. . . . In dance, the basic position is a mastery over imbalance” (Dibia and Ballinger 2004:9).
For Artaud, occidental theatre was out of balance during his lifetime because it was preoccupied only with the seen. It had become merely a vehicle for “performed text” and was “used only to express psychological conflicts particular to man and the daily reality of his life” (Artaud 1958:68, 70). Without addressing the unseen, Artaud was concerned that “theatre will never find itself again.” His solution was that “the theatre must pursue by all its means a reassertion not only of all the aspects of the objective and descriptive outer world, but of the internal world, that is, of man considered metaphysically” (Artaud 1958:92). Consequently, one interpretation of the title of his book The Theatre and Its Double can be attributed to the double function of the theatre in presenting the performers in their seen, outer, and objective (with the illusion of control) worlds while balancing that with their internal, metaphysical, cruel worlds.
In this double—trembling, yelping childishly, these heels striking the ground in cadences that follow the very automatism of the liberated unconscious, this momentary concealment behind this own reality—there is a description of fear valid in every latitude, an indication that in the human as well as the superhuman the Orientals are more than a match for us in matters of reality” (Artaud 1958:54–55).
Theatricality of Theatre
Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, at once inspired and confirmed by the Balinese theatre presented at the Colonial Exposition in 1931, itself went on to have global importance. For example, Jerzy Grotowski who, like Artaud, observed Asian performances and discovered in them inspiration and analogies for his own theatrical practice, also found inspiration in Artaud’s theories. In his book Towards a Poor Theatre (1968), Grotowski includes the chapter “He Wasn’t Entirely Himself” to explore his understanding of Artaud’s visionary Theatre of Cruelty and its influence on his own work. He explains that the “Balinese for Artaud was like a crystal ball for the fortune teller. This work of Artaud’s provoked by the Balinese theatre gives us an image of his great creative possibilities” (Grotowski 1968:121). Grotowski clarifies:
Artaud spoke of the magic of the theatre, and the way he conjured it up leaves images which touch us in some way. Perhaps we don’t understand them entirely, but we realize he was after a theatre transcending discursive reason and psychology. And when one fine day, we discover that the essence of the theatre is found neither in the narration of an event nor in the discussion of a hypothesis with an audience nor in the representation of life as it appears from outside, not even in a vision—but that the theatre is an act carried out here and now in the actors’ organisms, in front of other men, when we discover that theatrical reality is instantaneous, not an illustration of life but something linked to life only by analogy, when we realize all this, then we ask ourselves the question; wasn’t Artaud talking about just this and nothing else? (Grotowski 1968:118–19) [my emphasis added]
This idea that “theatre is an act carried out here and now in the actors’ organisms” is one that continues to have an impact on global contemporary theatre, specifically avant-garde and experimental theatre. It also touches the commercial sphere that until recently has been as dominated by words and psychology as when Artaud wrote The Theatre and Its Double.
Peter Brook is another influential theatre director and drama theorist who credits Artaud as one of his main influences, which is reflected in his theory of the holy theatre. He honored Artaud with a Theatre of Cruelty season at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964. Brook conducted Theatre of Cruelty (anti-Stanislavsky) workshops for actors and directed the first professional production of Artaud’s 1925 play Jet of Blood as well as his celebrated staging of Marat/Sade. Even now, over fifty years later, Brook’s 2014 production of The Valley of Astonishment at the Brooklyn Academy of Music shows Artaud’s influence continues to be clearly manifested in the performance of the actors, who are skillfully trained, fully present, and masters at activating the spectators’ imaginations, just as the Balinese gamelan and performers were for Artaud. Brook’s 2014 production could be described as Artaud had once recounted his first experience watching the Balinese performances in 1931.
In the performances of the Balinese theatre the mind has the feeling that the conception at first stumbled against gesture, gained its footing in the midst of a whole ferment of visual or sonorous images, thoughts as it were in a pure state. To put it briefly and more clearly, something akin to the musical state must have existed for this mise en scène where everything that is a conception of the mind is only a pretext, a virtuality whose double has produced this intense stage poetry, this many-hued spatial language (Artaud 1958:62–63).
Any move away from a dialogue-heavy, psychologically driven, and intellect-focused theatre of naturalism and illusion toward one that produces “stage poetry” and “many-hued spatial language” is one that engages with the theatricality of the theatre. This theatricality is one of Artaud’s legacies. It capitalizes on the notion that a mode of being, of communication, of expression—in other words, a performative (theatrical) language—belongs to the theatre. That language exists solely within it and is not only unintelligible but also nonsensical outside of it. There is something magical, moving, persuasive, and important about the theatre, specifically the theatricality of the theatre that exists in no other medium. It’s an indefinable “something” that eludes articulation. Artaud felt its presence in the Balinese performances, and it emboldened him to theorize how to recuperate the impotent state of theatre in Europe at the time. Pronko’s proclamation just a few years after the 1964 Theatre of Cruelty season at the Royal Shakespeare Company still remains true today: “One of the major impacts of the Orient on the west has been an indirect one, through the writings of that fiery prophet of the theatre, Antonin Artaud” (Pronko 1967:7). Artaud’s impactful “orient” was the Balinese gamelan at the 1931 International Colonial Exposition in Paris. It set Artaud’s visionary genius on fire, and it arguably burns even brighter today.
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