PLAYNOTE An investigation into Artaud’s theory in comparison with Naturalism


An investigation into Artaud’s theory in comparison with Naturalism

[演劇メモ] 2004/11/26 13:00

Modern spectators, who are prone to take naturalism for standard form of theatre, might be astonished that the period in which plays were performed in naturalism manner is less than one and half centuries, and in the other period most of the elements which could be seen on stage – not only stage set and prop, but also acting style – tended to be more like mimic or symbolical representation than real. Without doubt, theatre is on the decline in these days. Some comments of Joanna Laurens, a British young playwright, might arouse resonance among the people who concern about the future of theatre.

I don’t want the same experience from both television and theatre. … For as long as we dare put only naturalism on our stages, writers will only dare write naturalistic plays – and British theatre will remain as poor as it is.1

The word "British" in the comments can be replaced by a number of other countries. This sort of scepticism in the effectiveness of naturalism has existed since the very beginning of its progress, and one of the eminent practitioners who tried to move away from naturalism was Artaud. It might be worth while to re-evaluate the nature of naturalism and the effectiveness of it, and also to consider Artaud’s theory as an alternative principle of theatre. Thus, this essay will investigate in the progress and the significance of naturalism in theatre in brief, and then analyse the theory of Artaud.

The history and theory of Naturalism

Neo-classicism and the theory of three-unity had been dominant in European theatre for some two hundred years until 1830, the year in which Victor Hugo put his Hernani on stage. The premier of Hernani, which was filled with both applaud of Hugo’s supporter and booing of opponent, is now celebrated as a first triumph of romanticism. On a parallel with romantic movement, the 19th century theatre had tendencies of verisimilitude and picturesque in form, although they were demanded in order to achieve more striking spectacularly effect. Although these tendencies should be clearly differentiated from the aim of naturalism – to depict environment of character as underlying cause of drama and social problems –, these could be considered as a historical background which gave birth to naturalism.2

Besides, unprecedented upheaval of the society which shocked the value system of 19th-century people should be remarked as a crucial stimulus to the birth and growth of naturalism movement. First of all, the rise of bourgeois class inevitably required new type of protagonist, and consequently subject matter, instead of classical tragedy of royalty or aristocracy. Added to this, rapid and furious progress of natural and social sciences – especially the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin and dialectic observation of economy by Karl Marx – granted intellectuals of that time new way of understanding human beings. This social and scientific background had already brought about the change in literature from romanticism to realism in the middle of 19th century, and consequently affected theatre. The advocates of Naturalism considered heredity and surroundings as the most important factor to decide one’s character.

In these accumulating theatrical and social demands for new form of theatre, in 1880, a half century after the victory of romanticism, French novelist Emile Zola published Le Naturalisme au Theatre in which he argued the necessity of bringing naturalism in theatre. He was vividly aware of preceding achievement of realism in literature and admired Balzac to create "so individual and so alive"3 characters, and consequently hoped theatre to evolve itself following literature. He admitted that romanticism had emancipated theatre from the convention of classicism and three-unity, but at the same time accused it of insufficiency of describing character "determined by his setting, by the environment that produced him"4 and of covering the issue of present social problems, because "Romanticism was based on nothing but the fantasy."5

The upsurge of naturalism movement was not only in France. In 1879, a year before Zola’s manifesto, Ibsen completed A Doll’s House in Norway, and in 1988 Stanislavsky begun to work in theatre industry in Russia by establishing his own company, the Society of Art and Literature. The movement was encouraged by the appearance of great playwrights, such as Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Gorky, Hauptmann and Shaw.

The significance of Naturalism

Although life-like stage set and acting style tend to be regarded as the most distinguishable feature of naturalism, it should be bored in mind that naturalism revolution had its significance in the transformation of text. For example, the shift of social class from royalty to citizen, exclusion of supernatural elements, emphasis on everyday prose speech, and so on.6 In this sense, naturalism invention did not remain merely in the matter of form, but it exerted considerable influences on entire quality of theatre and dramaturgy. So, Raymond Williams does not hesitate to call naturalism "one of the two major transformations in the whole history of drama."7 If this point is overlooked, true significance of naturalism can not be appreciated.

Since its birth, naturalism, or naturalistic manner, has been most normal, dominant and ‘natural’ form of theatre, but a few number of keen-eyed directors became aware of the limitation of naturalism from very early stage of its development, and embarked to look for other alternative form which could resume the lost property or attain another possibility of theatre. The analysis by Williams is concise and sagacious. Williams asserts that naturalism is "physically convincing and intellectually insufficient," because "Beyond this key site of the living room there were, in opposite directions, crucial areas of experience which the language and behaviour of the living room could not articulate of fully interpret."8 Naturalistic life-like stage set confines plot, characters and the consciousness of audience within the drawing room on stage which is certainly suitable for dramatising psychological subtleties of characters; however, the effectiveness of it seems to be in doubt because the coherence and the psychological order of human beings seems to have lost its persuasiveness in after-war and post-modern context, and there are the realm which is difficult or unable to be dramatised by the language of naturalism from the very beginning. New form was demanded. Antonin Artaud, French poet and one of the most influential practitioners throughout the 20th century, devoted his existence to the pursuit of what Williams calls "crises of subjectivity.9"

The life of Artaud: How Artaud got to form his own theory

Artaud was born in 1896. The name of Artaud was first known as a rising poet who was considered "the true heir to Baudelaire and Rimbaud."10 He was involved in Surrealism movement of an early date as well, but he soon found that words are insufficient to express what he craved for. His first encounter with theatre was brought by his doctor when receiving medical treatment for mental illness. Acting gave him a vent for his pent-up desire for expression. Leach writes, "the physical reality of theatrical performance provided a more visceral, more immediate, doorway to the expression for violent truth for him than poetry ever had."11 Leach also introduces an interesting episode at rehearsal in which Artaud "entered the stage as the Emperor Charlemagne on his hands and knees, and crawled towards the throne, animal fashion."12 When Dullin, the director of that performance, suggested him it was unlike for emperor to enter in such a style, he responded: "Oh, well, if you want realism!"13 Given the circumstance of theatre at that time, it is surprising enough that Artaud, an un-experienced young actor who begun his career only two or three years before, had come up with such a unique, avant-garde idea. However, this sort of extremely radical attitude as actor prevented him from working with company long. He worked with three directors, but every relationship did not last long.

Afterwards, he came to establish his own company, Alfred Jarry Theatre, with former surrealists in 1926. The productions of Alfred Jarry Theatre include some astonishingly striking ones – one of them is even considered the most successful surrealist play – , but the company broke up in 1930, mainly because of the worsening relationship between Artaud and the other member. After the dissolution of the company, Artaud fell in the depth of poverty and hopelessness, but happened upon three crucial art works which led him to form his own theatre theory, the Theatre of Cruelty. Those were Balinese dance theatre and two paintings; Lot and His Daughters by Lucas van Leyden and Dulle Griet by Bruegel.

Artaud’s view

Artaud looked at theatre in his own view which was intense and drastically different from theatrical convention of that time. He believed in the inherent power of theatre. He wrote, "the picture of a crime presented in the right stage conditions is something infinitely more dangerous to the mind than if the same crime were committed in life."14

Although Artaud himself did not have adequate time and opportunity to develop his theory in practice, the theatre he aspired for is not obscure. He considered that theatre should abandon its subordinate position to the text and must acquire theatre’s own language so that it can capture "the fiercest experience of life."15 The tendency of Western theatre to lay emphasis on the text was criticised by him as a cause which deprived theatre of "religious, mystical meaning our theatre has forgotten."16 The target which his theatre tried to appeal was not intellect, but sense. He tried to remove the boundary between the show and the audience to achieve a "single, undivided locale without any partitions of any kind,"17 in order to establish direct contact and make theatre rather thing to experience than thing to observe. Leach points out the similarity of this to ritual, in which "the shaman … leads the initiate through a searing process, which he too simultaneously experience, and they emerge from it with the initiate initiated."18 The fact that Artaud had had a wish to be a priest when he was young19 and was inspired by the experience of joining the ritual of native people might support Leach’s observation. Thus, in contrast to naturalism theatre which placed immense emphasis on science and rationalism, ritualistic tendencies and irrationalism are the keys to understand Artaud’s theory, and also these keywords might help to understand why Artaud enormously inspired a number of directors, writers, performance artist and choreographers especially after war.

In Theatre and Its Double he suggested a number of practical ideas for the Theatre of Cruelty. He paid attention to almost everything in theatre – such as costume, music, lighting, masks, puppets and props –, because the Theatre of Cruelty intended to attain direct attack against sensuality through physical and tangible means. However, it should be remembered that the effect of the attack does not remain in body but it opens "the path through physicality to spirituality."20 In Artaud’s words, "metaphysics must be made to enter the mind through the body."21 The harmonious integration of all elements available on stage would produce "spatial poetry"22, or "poetry for senses"23, transcending conventional bounds of the text.


Artaud’s theory has significant influences on wide range of artists and seems to be completely relevant to today’s circumstance of theatre industry, in which "overwhelming majority of theatrical works and productions continue, in relatively obvious senses, to be naturalist, or at least (for there can be a difference), naturalistic."24 Added to this, Artaud’s inclination to ritual reminds us of theatre’s primitive form and energy, which Nietzsche called "Dionysian." Although it was indeed regrettable that Artaud died before developing his theory in practice, the success of artist inspired by him, such as Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, Ariane Mnouchkine, Maurice Bejart and Pina Bausch, tells infinite possibility and strikingly vivid effectiveness of Artaud’s theory.

(1959 words)


  • Artaud, Antonin. Theatre and Its Double, Calder, London, 1993
  • Carlson, Marvin. The Theories of Theatre, Cornell U.P., London, 1984.
  • Leach, Robert. Makers of Modern Theatre, Routledge, London
  • Stoppelman, Gabriela. Artaud for Beginners, Writers and Readers Publishing, New York, 2000
  • Williams, Raymond. "Theatre as a Political Forum" from The Politics of Modernism, Verso, London 1989
  • Zola, Emile. Naturalism in the Theatre translated by Albert Bermel, photocopy provided in the reading pack

1 The Guardian 11.12.03
2 From the lecture handout about naturalism
3 From the photocopied handout: Emile Zola, Naturalism in the Theatre p11
4 Zola, p16
5 Zola, p7
6 For detail, see Raymond Williams "Theatre as a Political Forum" in The Politics of Modernism p83, Verso, London 1989
7 Williams, p83
8 Williams, p83
9 Williams, p84
10 Robert Leach, Makers of Modern Theatre p153, Routledge, London
11 Leach, p155
12 Leach, P155
13 Leach, P155
14 Antonin Artaud, Theatre and Its Double p65, Calder, London, 1993
15 Leach, p167
16 Artaud, p35
17 Artaud, P74
18 Leach, P167
19 Artaud for beginner, p6
20 Leach, p170
21 Artaud, p77
22 Artaud, p28
23 Artaud, p27
24 Williams, p83


投稿者:Kenichi Tani (2004年11月26日 12:41)


投稿者:しのぶ (2004年11月26日 13:21)


投稿者:Kenichi Tani (2004年11月26日 13:32)


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