by Hannah Gunson-McComb, dramaturg
It doesn’t matter who started the trend first, all visual art will follow suit. What the visual art world does, performing arts surely will, too! So when the art community decided to question all tradition and create wild, evocative pieces in the name of their movement, “Dada,” theatre created its own aesthetic: abstract theatre.
Dada emerged after World War 1, when the surviving soldiers coming home from the war were suffering from existential crises. The terrors they’d seen on the battlefield had convinced them that the pursuit of truth and beauty through art was foolish and impossible because if humankind was capable of the ugliness they’d just witnessed, there was no beauty to find. Rather than paint exquisite paintings (think Thomas Kinkaid), they started drawing and collaging stuff like this:
It was based in expressing their emotions, which were— as you can see— angry, hurt, conflicted, confused, and nihilistic.
In theatre, they created Surrealism, seeking also to overcome the traditions of theatre. However, they sought to explore their own imagination, still focusing more on expressing emotion but also dealing with topics that were rather illogical. Dada might have tried to escape traditions, but Surrealism full blown attacked them.
Here’s the thing: abstract theatre is not a genre, it’s an aesthetic and a school of thought. At its core, abstract theatre is representing events or feelings rather than presenting them realistically. Ideologies and topics became more important than the stories themselves, and it was very important to these theatre practitioners that the audience be thinking about the themes. Among several playwrights was Thornton Wilder — you might know of his play, Our Town, and maybe your high school has produced it! Wilder used abstract theatre to focus on his characters and their journeys. When you see our production of A Wilder Night, you’ll see that each one act has a specific message and a corresponding specific situation the characters exist in. We invite you to consider the elements that helped you to focus on the theme of the story!
But Wilder wasn’t the only one to write abstract, of course. Through this movement, writers and practitioners used several techniques to achieve their goals of thematic expression, and these would create the abstract aesthetic.
First, if you’re watching an abstract play, you probably won’t see many (if any) props or a realistic set that clearly defines time and space within the story. Lighting too would swap realistic effects for more evocative imagery. In a production, you might be reminded by the actors themselves that you’re in a theatre, watching a play, and that everything you see is fake. It’s unusual and it might be uncomfortable at first because we’re so used to watching traditional theatre. However, abstract theatre is important not just to theatre history, but also to us— abstract theatre highly involves and values the audience’s participation. A successful production would leave the audience thinking and changed. In the end, abstract theatre is just as much about you as it is the stories and characters.
Like many movements and schools of thought, there has been branching off and development of abstract theatre, and I’d like to focus on one in particular— Theatre of Cruelty.
Here came this… charming… young man named Antonin Artaud and of course he was French. A member of the Surrealist movement, he began creating his own ideas based on those theatre practices and landed on this: theatre artists should assault the senses of the audience. Yes, he was exactly the kind of person you think would say such things. He was kicked out of the Surrealist community for having an “uncontrollable personality” and for being “perpetually in revolt.” Antonin had a rough childhood— he was addicted to opium at a young age and was a very depressed teenager. He joined the Surrealist movement but was kicked out of the community because of his continuously revolting, ever-so-unpredictable personality. He went abroad afterward, wrote a couple of poems and plays, and had an incredible breakdown that sent him back to his native France literally in a straightjacket. The end of his life was filled with frequent stays in sanitariums. He was diagnosed with cancer and died at 51.
Antonin’s theories, written in his book The Theatre and Its Double, begin with the separation of theatre and cruelty, believing that theatre isn’t just a staged performance but a practice that “wakes us up” and makes us experience “immediate violent action” meant to be therapeutic and unforgettable. Cruelty to him didn’t wasn’t actual emotional or physical violence (towards the audience), but “unrelenting agitation of a life that has become unnecessary, lazy, or removed from a compelling force,” as says scholar Nathan Gorelick. Cruelty isn’t sadism, just the act of breaking complacency. However, this “breaking out of complacency” relied on shock. To create that shock, Antonin relied on gesture, image, sound and lighting.
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Theatre of Cruelty as “a primitive ceremonial experience intended to liberate the human subconscious and reveal man to himself,” while Antonin himself describes it as the “communion between actor and audience in a magic exorcism… that can be used to subvert thought and logic and to shock the spectator into seeing the baseness of his world.” Both of these statements break Theatre of Cruelty down to a thesis statement, but perhaps they don’t fully express the experience of watching a Theatre of Cruelty production. They both fail to tell audiences that these pieces are trying to communicate pain, suffering, and the evil of the world. With topics like these, it follows to reason that, combined with nontraditional practices, it was a lot for Antonin’s audience to take in.
He only ever produced one of his plays, an adaptation of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley titled Les Cenci, which perfectly exemplified the principles Antonin believed in. It ran for 17 critically and commercially unsuccessful runs. It began simply enough, with the main character Cenci lounging on a staircase and talking to a priest. The scene ended in escalating violence and a soliloquy directed towards the audience. Later, there was a scene played with movement rather than dialogue and towards the end of the scene, sounds began to take over. A banquet table was raised, smoke billowed… and then a frenzied, hectic commotion exploded with actors running back and forth across the stage in stylized but strange movements. The rest of the play vacillated between scenes with and without dialogue, but all contain dramatic and unexpected mood swings from the characters. Gongs and bells continued to toll, storms were represented by actors and musicians, all of it leading to the roaring death of Cenci and his daughter, Beatrice, eating bull’s brains by the handful. The story being told is one of incest and murder that would make our contemporary audiences cringe (at best). One has to ask: what was the point of all that? What was I as an audience member supposed to purge? What am I supposed to awaken to?
Antonin’s legacy lives on in the works of Jean Genet, Jerzy Grotowski, and several activist performances. Les Cenci was revived in 1997 and the decision to do so was highly questioned by critics aware of its production history. Antonin’s particular school of thought is, perhaps, so niche that it’s inaccessible to audiences. The theory might be there but the execution? Debatable.
Despite its commercial failures, Theatre of Cruelty as a theory does ask some very important questions, namely, should art make us feel uncomfortable? Is art only meant to inspire and uplift? Or should we expose ourselves to discomfort every now and again for the sake of growth and empathy? There are horrible things in this world that affect us, our neighbors, and our friends and perhaps Antonin was right in stating that we as a society have been lulled into complacency. Maybe that complacency has cut us off from extending our hearts towards those who have suffered great pain and anguish.
Throughout horror’s history has been many an artist who’ve taken the platform to express emotions and feelings that, if we’re lucky, we might never feel. Depression, grief over a loved one, trauma, oppression— these have featured in such popular films and series such as The Babadook, the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, and the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Who are we to deny these artists their expression? Can we withhold empathy from them because what they’ve produced has offended our sensibilities? What if we cut ourselves off from learning and expanding our hearts and minds because we’re uncomfortable?
Now, there’s no Theatre of Cruelty in BYU’s production of A Wilder Night. In fact, it’s a beautiful exploration of truth and beauty through abstract imagery and situations. This collection of short stories takes the audience through several generations of family dinners, a road trip, and a train ride. They take us through grief and joy, life and death, faith and trials. There is much to connect with and much to ponder afterward, even if the presentation might be different from the shows you’ve seen in the past. Abstract theatre might be a little strange, perhaps uncomfortable to you, even without the extreme violence in Theatre of Cruelty.
However, as I’ve studied the horror genre from an academic standpoint, I would be remiss as a dramaturg if I didn’t mention the ugly cousin of abstract theatre and ask an incredibly important question— what are we to learn from this? We might never confront Theatre of Cruelty in our lives, but we will experience discomfort for that is the way of life.
When we do, I hope we learn from and empathize with it.