Speaking of the nature of Greek Tragedy, it’s odd to consider that People used to think of and use entertainment for something more than just turning off their brains for a while.
This is from The Theatre and Cruelty, by Antonin Artaud, translated by James O. Morgan from Le Theatre et Son Double, Paris 1938. With permission of Librairie Gallimard.
A concept of the theatre has been lost. And indirect proportion to the matter in which the theatre limits itself only to allowing us to penetrate into the intimacy of some puppet or to transforming the spectator into a Peeping Tom, it is to be expected that the elite will turn away from it and the crowds will go to the movies, the music halls, or the circuses, in search of violent satisfactions which at least have no false pretenses.
After the wear and tear to which our sensibilities have been subjected, it is certain that, before all, we have need of a theatre that will awaken us: heart and nerves.
The misdeeds of the psychological theatre since Racine have made us unaccustomed to that violent and immediate action which the theatre must possess. Then come the movies to assassinate us with shadows, which, when filtered through a machine, no longer are able to reach our senses. For ten years they have kept us in a state of ineffectual torpor, in which all our faculties seem to have been dulled.
The agonizing and catastrophic period in which we live makes us sense the urgent need for a theatre which will not be left behind by the events of the day, and which will have within us deep resonance and which will dominate the unstability of the times we live in.
Our long familiarity with theatre as a form of distraction has led us to forget the idea of a serious theatre, a theatre which will shove aside our representations, and breathe into us the burning magnetism of images and finally will act upon us in such a way that there will take place within us a therapy of the soul whose effects will not be forgotten.
All action is cruelty. It is with this idea of action pushed to its extreme limit that the theatre will renew itself.
Penetrated by the idea that the crowd thinks first with its senses, and that it is absurd to attempt as the ordinary psychological play does, to address itself to the understanding, the Theatre of Cruelty proposes to recourse to mass effects: to seek in the agitated behavior of significant mass grouping thrown against the other in convulsive action a little of that poetry which is found in popular festivals and in crowds on those days, now too rare, when the people take to the streets.
All that is to be found in love, in crime, in war, in madness the theatre must return to us if it is to become significant again.
Day-to-day love, personal ambition, banal squabbling have no value except in an interaction with that form of terrifying Lyricism that is to be found in Myths to which large collectivities have given their belief.
That is why we shall try to concentrate around famous persons, atrocious cries, or superhuman devotions, a spectacle which, without having recourse to the expired images of the old Myths, will be capable of extracting the forces which are at work in these Myths.
In a word, we believe that there is in what is called poetry, living forces, and that the presentation of a crime in the requisite theatrical manner is more powerful for the mind than that crime in realized life.
To further clarify my point, the images in certain painting of Grunewald and Hieronymous Bosch tell us what a theatrical spectacle might be – whereby in the mind of a saint, the objects of external nature come to appear as temptations.
It is here, in this spectacle of temptation, where life has all to lose and the spirit all to gain, that the theatre will again find its true significance.