The Body is a Stage, a Theater of Light

“We need above all a theater that wakes us up: nerves and heart” (Artaud 84).

In “The Theater and Its Double, “ Artaud describes a kind of theater that engages its audience on a bodily level. The location of the theater shifts: “instead of making the stage and auditorium two closed worlds, without possible communication, {it} spreads its visual and sonorous outbursts over the entire mass of the spectators” (86). I believe that for Artaud, the cruelty of his theater was denying the audience safety and separation offered by traditional modes of theater. He argues that in this way: “a direct communication will be re-established between the spectator and the spectacle, between the actor and the spectator, from the fact that the spectator, placed in the middle of the action, is engulfed and physically affected by it” (96). The audience becomes a part of the performance and its ultimate purpose – which is not to merely entertain or inform, but to change the audience on a physical, bodily level.

Artaud mentions light several times over the course of his essay. Light acts as a way to bridge actor and audience, and also to physically alter the audience. The physical motions of the actors will have “no lost movements, all movements will obey a rhythm; and each character being merely a type, his gesticulation, physiognomy, and costume will appear like so many rays of light” (98). He goes on to describe how in the theater of cruelty a “diffusion of action over an immense space will oblige the lighting of a scene and the varied lighting of a performance to fall upon the public as much as the actors” (97). The lighting acts as a way to weave together the actors and audience into the same mesh of life. I imagine Artaud writing his essay and envisioning the light falling on the skin of the audience members. The body, in particular the skin, is important to Artaud. He states that “without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds” (99). There is not a duality of body and mind, but rather the body acts as a conduit to the mind, and both are necessary in order “to put the spirit physically on the track of something else” (91).

Artaud makes me consider whether protests might be considered a kind of theater of cruelty. The location is a public space, and the speakers move with the audience, denying boundaries. Bodily presence is important at a protest, and there is a feeling of connection – a kind of seeping in through the skin of the potential for change.

In Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction, David Hopkins states that “for Breton, revolution was essentially an intellectual position. For Artaud it demanded a visceral, soul-wrenching submission to unreason” (102). But the unreason of the mind is the sense of the body. And body-sense has an advantage when working around fears and avoidances brought forward by an intellectual reaction.

Artaud sought to bypass duality and create an equilibrium of art and audience, of experience within the timespan of the theater and consequent actions afterwards. The theater becomes mobile, personal, a lived experience that recurs in the audience members as they switch to their different tracks. We are jolted out of our everyday realities, our nerves suddenly receptive, and in the collective experience, we find our heart.

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