11
“The Virtual Reality of Theater”:
Antonin Artaud

INANAGE when the relation of violence to the media has become a widespread concern, the words with which Antonin Artaud introduced his notion of a “theater of cruelty” in the fateful year 1933 acquire a particular resonance:

The question is to know what we want. If we are prepared
for war, plagues, famine, and massacres, we don’t even need to
say so, all we have to do is carry on. Carry on behaving like
snobs, rushing en masse to hear this or that singer, to see this or
that admirable show … this or that exhibition in which impres-
sive forms burst forth here and there, but at random and without
any true conscience of the forces they could stir up….

I am not one of those who believe that civilization has to
change in order for theater to change; but I do believe that
theater, utilized in the highest and most difficult sense possible,
has the power to influence the aspect and formation of
things….

That is why I am proposing a theater of cruelty…. Not the
cruelty we can exercise upon each other by hacking at each
other’s bodies, carving up our personal anatomies, or, like Assyr-
ian emperors, sending parcels of human ears, noses, or neatly
severed nostrils through the mail; but the much more terrible
and necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us. We
are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And theater
has been created to teach us that, first of all.1

Artaud’s words seem both uncannily appropriate and utterly outmoded. Utterly outmoded in the political and cultural importance he attaches to theater. Uncannily appropriate in his vision of “war, plagues, famine, and massacres” that are the result, not of any special

-277-

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