"The Greatest Thing of All"

The Virtual Reality of Theater

Samuel Weber


"One Hundred Years of Cruelty" - Only one hundred? Did cruelty begin in 1896? Certainly the past century has been particularly distinguished in this respect, and if we can judge from the events of recent years, the century to come will hardly be any better. So much has changed in these years, and yet, in respect to cruelty, so much as remained the same. For instance, since the year 1933, when Antonin Artaud wrote the following words:
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 impressive 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 Assyrian 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)

"One Hundred Years of Cruelty": Artaud saw them coming, found himself in their midst, suffered their terrible impact more than most. But why then should he have proposed, if only for a time, to bring cruelty to the theater?. Why bother to theatricalize cruelty rather than just letting it take its course, as indeed it does every day, without requiring any help from Antonin Artaud. What claim can this bizarre project of Artaud still make on the attention of those for whom cruelty has become as ordinary, as self-evident as banal as the evening news. Why bother, then, with a theater of cruelty, when cruelty itself abounds?

And it will be said that the example calls for the example, that the attitude of healing invites healing and that of murder calls for murder. Everything depends on the way and the purity with which things are done. There is a risk. But it should not be forgotten that if a theatrical gesture is violent, it is also disinterested; and that theater teaches precisely the uselessness of the action which, once accomplished, is never to be done again... (82/99)
Artaud's defense of a theater of cruelty is not to deny that it could incite one to commit the acts it performs. "There is a risk involved, but in the present circumstances I believe it is a risk worth taking." (83/99). For properly performed, namely theatrically, the violent gesture remains singular. "Once accomplished," Artaud insists, it can never be identically repeated, above all, not in the world "outside":
Whatever the conflicts that haunt the heads of an epoch, I defy a spectator whose blood will have been traversed by violent scenes, who will have felt in himself the passage of a superior action, who will have seen in extraordinary exploits the extraordinary and essential movements of his thought illuminated as in a flash (...) I defy him to abandon himself on the outside to ideas of war, of revolt and of dangerous murders. (82/98-99)
And yet, is the fact that the theatrical gesture, even violent, remains singular and disinterested, enough to justify bringing it on the stage, and indeed, making it into a determining factor of theater itself? A further justification is required. And it is curious, symptomatic and revealing to see how Artaud, in order to legitimate his notion of cruelty, is led, here and elsewhere, to appeal to precisely the tradition he so often attacks. In this case: that of an Aristotelian conception of theater. For does not Artaud's defense of the Theater of Cruelty here recall Aristotle's defense of tragedy in terms of catharsis , as a kind of purgation? Is there not throughout Artaud's writings on theater an appeal to "action" that "doubles", as it were, Aristotle's emphasis on tragic mimesis as the imitation of an action, a praxeos?. And does not his emphasis, in the passages quoted, on a certain pedagogical or didactic function of theater also echo the Poetics, where Aristotle seeks to justify mimesis against its Platonic condemnation by stressing its didactic virtues? Artaud wants his listeners, and readers, not to forget what theater above all teaches: that we are not free, that the sky can still fall upon our heads, and above all, that an action performed on the stage can never be simply repeated elsewhere.

If Theater for Artaud - and not just for him - is always a question of "doubles" and of "ghosts", could it be that the Theater of Cruelty is in some sense haunted by Aristotle? By the very tradition against which Artaud also rebels? And if this were so, what would it tell us of the relation of "doubles" and "ghosts" to their "originals"? And hence, of the nature of theater as the medium of such duplicity?

It may be useful, therefore, in attempting to discover just what is distinctive and lasting about Artaud's conception of theater, and in particular in the cruelty it entails, (it may be useful) to begin therefore with a brief discussion of the ways in which his conception of theater both derives and diverges from the tradition first powerfully articulated in the Poetics of Aristotle.

It should be remembered, of course, that Artaud himself, unlike Brecht for instance, never considered himself primarily "anti-Aristotelian". Rather, the tradition from which he sought to distance himself, above all, was the more recent and modern tradition of theater that had developed in the West since the Renaissance, a theater which he designated and condemned above all for being "psychological". Such a position, however, is by no means simply anti-Aristotelian. In his Poetics, Aristotle leaves no question about the fact that it is not "character" (ethos) that is the most decisive element in tragedy, but rather first of all action and secondly, its narrative articulation as mythos, or plot. It might seem, especially to a contemporary perspective, that it is difficult to speak of action without speaking of actors. But Aristotle insists that the two must be separated:

The greatest of these elements is the structuring of the incidents. For tragedy is an imitation not of men but of a life (biou), of an action (praxeos) and they (...) include the characters along with the actions for the sake of the latter. Thus the structure of events, the plot (mythos) is the goal (telos) of tragedy and the goal is the greatest thing of all.

Again: a tragedy cannot exist without a plot, but it can without characters: thus the tragedies of most of our modern poets are devoid of character and in general many poets are like that (...) (50a)

Action can thus do without character (ethos) but never without plot (mythos). And it is here, with respect to this "mythological" dimension of Aristotle's conception of plot, that the difference to Artaud begins to emerge. What is at stake is not simply a question of representation, for Artaud never envisaged simply eliminating or abandoning representation entirely in favor of pure performance (as is evident from his own stagings and proposals for the Théâtre Alfred Jarry). What he did insist on, however, is that the dimension of the "represented" no longer entirely dominate the practice of theater. This domination, whose theoretical justification does indeed go back to Aristotle, entails two distinct if often interrelated aspects. The first consists in the elevation of "character" and its representation to the predominant theatrical function. The rejection of this predominance, however, is, as we have just seen, a position that Aristotle had elaborated long before Artaud. It is only on the second point that the divergence between the two emerges with clarity. It is no accident that Aristotle does not treat of theater as such in his Poetics, but rather only of those forms of it that he considers most worthy of discussion: tragedy, and secondarily, comedy. From this choice everything else follows more or less necessarily. Above all, the subordination of everything peculiar to the medium of theater to its thematic content, which Aristotle identifies, first with the action, and then with its structured representation as plot, mythos. Much of Aristotle's discussion of tragedy, therefore, focuses on the question of how effective tragic plots are constructed. Underlying Aristotle's approach to this question is his conception of theatrical mimesis as above all a learning experience, albeit one that proceeds more through feeling, pathos, than through conceptual understanding.

We should keep in mind, of course, that Aristotle's discussion of theater in the Poetics did not take place in a vacuum, but like much of his thinking was intended as a response to Plato, and in this particular case, to the latter's categorical condemnation of theater and mimesis in the Republic and elsewhere. Plato considered mimesis in general to be a dangerous process since it involved a distancing from the nature of things which at the same time could be seductively pleasurable. In this respect, Plato held theater to be a particularly dangerous form of mimetic activity, since the pleasure it produced could easily encourage people to forget where they came from, who they were, and where they belonged. Against this notion, Aristotle in the Poetics seeks to defend mimesis by stressing its role in the process of learning: mimesis, for Aristotle, is an indispensable learning experience and must be cultivated as such. For Aristotle, then, it is essential to approach theater as an important pedagogical tool, which is why tragedy is singled out as its exemplary and most worthwhile form.

Aristotle's discussion of the structure of plot, then, proceeds from his general defense of mimesis against the Platonic condemnation:

The habit of imitating is congenital to human beings from childhood (actually man differs from the other animals in that he is the most imitative, and learns his first lessons through imitation). A proof of this is what happens in our experience. There are things which we see with pain so far as they themselves are concerned but whose images, even when executed in very great detail, we view with pleasure. (....) The cause of this is that learning is eminently pleasurable (...) The reason (we) take pleasure in seeing the images is that in the process of viewing (we) find (ourselves) learning, that is, reckoning what kind a given thing belongs to: "This individual is a So-and-so". Because if the viewer happens not to have seen such a thing before, the reproduction will not produce the pleasure qua reproduction but through its workmanship or color or something of that sort. (20-21, 48b)
According to Aristotle, then, we learn through mimetic behavior and actions. One of these involves the viewing of images. We find it pleasurable to view images that we recognize, he argues. But to recognize an image, we must already know what it represents. Learning through seeing is an actualization of a knowledge that we already have, but only virtually. Learning as actualization consists in an act of judgment and of predication: "This one here is a so-and-so." In this act the encounter with a perceived object becomes pleasurable by permitting the viewer to find the predicates required to identify the object and put it in its place.

The construction of plot therefore has to serve this purpose: it must represent the action as a unified and comprehensible whole, with beginning, middle and end. More specifically, "it must be possible for the beginning and the end to be seen together in one view" (63, 59b). Such unification requires, however, a certain type of narrative. It is precisely this narrative that Artaud singles out for criticism:

If people have lost the habit of going to the theater, if we have all finally come to think of theater as an inferior art, as a means of popular distraction and to use it as an outlet for our worst instincts, (...) it is because we have been accustomed for four hundred years, that is since the Renaissance, to a theater that is purely descriptive and which recounts, which recounts psychology.(92/52)
The juxtaposition of Artaud and Aristotle allows us to see what is distinctive in The Theater of Cruelty. What Artaud condemns is not simply narrative as such, but the kind of narrative that Aristotle himself would have condemned: that which sacrifices action to character. What Artaud condemns is a theater that "recounts psychology", i.e. that tells stories whose unity derives from the structure of character, of the individual figures involved. But Artaud does not stop there. For "psychology", as he uses the term, does not just designate the state of mind or soul of individual human beings or subjects: it goes further, although I hasten to add that those of you who must rely on the English translation of The Theater and Its Double might easily mistake the direction in which Artaud is moving. For there is an error in translating one of Artaud's most powerful formulations. A few lines after the passages just cited, Artaud writes the following:
If, in Shakespeare, man is sometimes preoccupied with what goes beyond him, it is always ultimately a question of the consequences of this preoccupation in man, which is to say, (a question of) psychology. (77/92)
For Artaud, as this more literal translation makes clear, the issue is not simply that of the representation of "character" in the sense of the portrayal of individual human beings on the stage. Rather, what is at the heart of "psychology" as Artaud here uses the term, is the underlying humanism it conceals, an anthropomorphism that places not just individuals, but through them the very idea of "Man" himself, at the center of all things and of theater as well. The English translation, unfortunately, makes a slight but symptomatic error: instead of translating l'homme as "man" it renders it as "a man", and then proceeds consistently to translate the concluding part of the sentence as though it were referring to an individual person or character rather than to "man" as such. What emerges in the English translation, therefore, is a critique of psychology as individualistic, perhaps, but not as anthropocentric, which is ultimately Artaud's point. Here is the published English translation:
If, in Shakespeare, a man is sometimes preoccupied with what transcends him, it is always in order to determine the ultimate consequences of this preoccupation within him, i.e. psychology. (TD, 77)
I call your attention to this problem of translation for two reasons. First, to alert you to a general problem with translations (and those of Artaud are certainly no worse than many others, and probably better than most...): since translators are generally concerned with rendering the text being translated into idiomatic language, and thereby making it familiar and plausible, such "idiomatization" can easily efface precisely what in the original resists established conventions of decorum and meaning. Second, the kinds of errors or distortions that occur almost always reveal a more general state of affairs, and rarely ever are merely idiosyncratic. Here, what is being resisted in the translation is precisely a condemnation of psychology directed not just against a form of individualism but against humanism itself. "Theater" and "cruelty" for Artaud are both inseparably linked with what he at various times refers to as the "inhuman": the "rigor" and "necessity" which he constantly associated with "cruelty" suggests that the forces at work in it cannot be measured in terms of the distinctive traits of modern man: above all, those of self-consciousness, freedom and autonomy.

What Artaud is therefore criticizing in the passage just cited, is that all theatrical movements which carry the human subject beyond itself, even in Shakespeare, are ultimately recuperated and resituated once their effects are measured in terms of human beings. That is what "psychology" is all about: it is concerned not ultimately with individuals, but with making "man" the measure of all things, and in particular, the measure of all theater.

It is not therefore the theatrical use of narrative elements as such that concerns Artaud, but the dominance of an anthropologically anchored and teleologically oriented type of storytelling. Why? As long as the privilege of "man" is taken for granted, the cosmos in which he dwells can be assumed to have a certain stability. With man at the center of the universe, the sky's the limit. But if man can no longer be assumed to provide the governing principle of life and of death, of being and of nonbeing, then there is no assurance that the sky will stay put. It "can still fall on our heads". On that part of our bodies commonly identified with the seat of the distinctive faculty of man: the capacity for reason and self-consciousness. The capacity to know, to learn and to teach.

"The sky can still fall on our heads" - why should Artaud resort to just this formulation to describe what he is after with the notion of "theater of cruelty"? It may help if we recall once again Aristotle's insistence that a tragic plot should be capable of being "taken in at a single view" (30, 51a). (2). The unity of such a "view" in turn presupposes a stable and detached point of view, a position from which the plot can be taken in as a unified whole. This in turn presupposes a certain arrangement of space: a clear-cut separation, for instance, between stage and audience, actors and spectators. It is precisely this stable partitioning of space and the kind of localization that it permits which Artaud challenges, continuing a tradition that goes back at least to Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and Kierkegaard's Repetition. What this emerging thought of a space that would be irreducibly theatrical does is to break with a tradition that is not merely as old as the Renaissance, but which once again takes us back to Aristotle's discussions in the Poetics. In his approach to theater, through a perspective that focuses upon tragedy and comedy, Aristotle relegates everything having to do with the specific medium of theater to the margins: above all, what he calls opsis, everything properly "optical" and "theatrical". But perhaps even more, he marginalizes everything having to do with the condition of opsis, which is to say, everything having to do with space and place, with localization and lighting, and finally everything connected with bodies, masks and, in general, the stage. All of this is subordinated in Aristotle's discussion to the thematic elements of theater: which is to say, to plot, action and character, And the form in which Aristotle accomplishes this marginalization is, curiously and significantly, to privilege mythos over all other aspects of theater. What determines the quality of tragedy, then, is first and foremost, plot understood as the temporal arrangement of events so as to form a meaningful and comprehensible whole.

However, as usual, the story is not quite so simple. In order for plots to be effective theatrically, Aristotle stresses, it is not enough for them to be unified. They must also be dramatic. Which is to say, in order for a learning experience to take place, it must include a passage through non-knowledge. That passage then becomes the obligatory structural factor in constituting a narrative unity that would be properly dramatic. The term Aristotle uses to designate this trait is, in Greek, peripeteia, "peripety" in English, which is to say, a sudden and unexpected turn of events. The French have a better term for it, which goes back at least to Diderot's Paradoxe sur le comédien: it is, coup de théàtre. Literally, a stroke or blow, something that more or less violently interrupts an expectation or a conscious plan. This is precisely how Aristotle defines peripeteia: as "a shift of what is being undertaken to the opposite" (35, 52a) producing an "outcome (...) very different from what one intended" (51, 56a). It is this emphasis on the theatrical importance of an abrupt and violent turn of events, one that is both unexpected and yet also in some sense necessary, that most closely links Aristotle's notion of peripeteia to Artaud's conception of cruelty. Both insist on the implacable rigor and violence of a turn of events that escapes conscious control and that as such constitutes an essential moment of theater. The difference, however, is that Aristotle insists that the most effective peripeteia are those that are accompanied by an almost instantaneous anagnoresis, "recognition". Anagnoresis, like peripeteia, involves a sudden turn or shift, but this time in the other direction as it were, "a shift from ignorance to awareness" (36, 52a). Although Aristotle stresses that "it is possible for" such a shift "to take place (...) in relation to inanimate objects and chance occurrences," (52b), the examples he gives, from Oedipus Rex and from Iphigenia, indicate that "the recognition" involved entails primarily "a recognition of persons" (37, 52b). Here then, finally, a decisive distinction between Aristotle's notion of peripeteia and Artaud's of cruelty begins to emerge. For Aristotle the sudden surprise is merely a means for the acquisition or confirmation of knowledge, albeit a knowledge that passes by the emotions of "pity and fear" rather than by way of conceptual understanding. But the condition of such feelings appears for Aristotle to reside in the recognition of similitude between spectator and hero, no matter how great the distance between them. If the noble hero is overwhelmed by the import of an "action" that gets out of hand, a similar fate could in principle await the spectator, whose condition vis-à-vis such forces is one of even greater dependency. The placing of human figures, otherwise known as "heroes", at the center of the tragic "action", even if the significance of this action does not derive from them as individuals, gives to the action the requisite unity, coherence and wholeness required by theater if it is to exercise its pedagogic function as Aristotle conceives it. For however one chooses to read the Aristotelian notion of "purification", catharsis, the result of such "expulsion" is a more unified conception of human beings and their relation to the world than that which was manifested by the tragic conflict. It is the confirmation of such unity through conflict that is the ultimate "goal" of theater qua tragedy - and for Aristotle, we recall, the "goal is the greatest thing of all" (27, 50a).

Precisely such unity, however, is what Artaud's Theater of Cruelty calls into question: unity of meaning, of action, of the subject, and above all, of time, space and place. It is this last point that is perhaps decisive. What is both explicit and massive in Aristotle's Poetics, as well as the theatrical tradition informed by it, is that everything having to do with the specificity of the theatrical medium, with that opsis that Aristotle sought to treat as a mere technical and material accessory, is relegated to the margins. Plot, character, ideas - their hierarchical sequence may be shuffled around, but these three factors continue to dictate the conception and performance of theater even (and especially) today. Artaud was not the first to protest against this tradition, nor to note how effectively it has diminished and delegitimized the distinctive resources of theater. But the manner in which he interpreted those resources remains not just unique, but in certain aspects prophetic.

It is here, I believe, and not so much in the possibility of actually realizing a theater of cruelty, that the relevance of Artaud's theatrical writings is to be sought.: In other words, the actuality of the Theater of Cruelty lies not in its practical feasibility but in its relation to the future. It is a future however, that excludes neither the "present" nor the "past". That the Theater of Cruelty is a theater of the future can be seen in the way in which it anticipates, but also alters, many of the effects that today are designated by the term, "virtuality", effects associated primarily with the spread and mounting influence of the electronic media over all walks of life.

What is "virtualization"? Obviously, the term is elusive and there are many ways of defining it. I will take one that strikes me as particularly suggestive, if by no means exhaustive. It is to be found in a recent book by Pierre Lévy, entitled Sur les chemins du virtuel (On the Paths of the Virtual, 1995 - a text incidentally that is available for downloading on the Internet). In this book Lévy offers the following approach to the question of virtualization:

What is virtualization? Not the virtual as a manner of being, but virtualization as a dynamic. Virtualization can be defined as the inverse movement of actualization. It consists in a passage from the actual to the virtual, in an "elevation to potentiality" of the entity under consideration. Virtualization is not derealization (the transformation of a reality into a complex of possibilities), but rather a change of identity, a displacement of the center of ontological gravity of the object being considered: instead of being defined principally by its actuality (as a "solution"), the entity henceforth finds its essential consistency in a problematic field. To virtualize an entity is to discover a general question to which it refers, to transform the entity in the direction of this interrogation and to redefine the initial actuality as the response to a particular question. (Virt1.htm, 3/8)
It should be noted that "detachment from the here and now" (4/8), which is yet another way Lévy characterizes virtualization, is of course in itself nothing new. Indeed, it continues what could be called the "meta-physical " tendency that has been one of the mainstreams of Western thought ever since Plato. And the "dialogical" model of "question" and "answer" invoked by Lévy in defining the notion of virtualization also has its origins in the Socratic dialectic, which could be described as an effort to "virtualize" the certitudes that are "actually" taken for granted and thus to reveal problems where before there seemed only self-evident solutions. I emphasize this continuity between the Socratic dialectic and Lévy's definition of virtualization as problematization in order to suggest that Artaud's rejection of the notion of dialogue as essential to theater distances him from that tradition. As is well known, the interpretation of theater as essentially dialogical was one of the mechanisms by which Artaud considered Western theater to have been deprived of its specific resources:
How does it happen that in the theater, at least in the theater as we know it in Europe, or better in the West, everything specifically theatrical, i.e. everything that cannot be expressed in speech, in words, or, if you prefer, everything that is not contained in the dialogue (...) is left in the background? How does it happen that the Occidental theater does not see theater under any other aspect than as a theater of dialogue?

Dialogue - a thing written and spoken - does not belong specifically to the stage, it belongs to books... ( 37/45)

Dialogue, as an exchange of questions and answers, is anchored in meaning. Meaning, however, at least as traditionally conceived, is considered to transcend factors of space and of place. Meaning is assumed to stay the same no matter where and when it is occurs. It thereby denies the relevance of precisely those factors that Artaud considered specific to theater:
I say that the stage is a concrete physical place which asks to be filled, and to be given its own concrete language to speak. (37)
Despite his attack on verbal discourse, Artaud never dreamed of simply abolishing language but rather of restoring its capacity to signify, in short: its virtuality. To do this, the tyranny of meaning had to be supplanted by a language of signification: a language above all, of gesture, intonation, attitude and movement, but without recognizable or identifiable "goal". The absence of such a goal would allow the movement of language, its signifying force, to come into its own without being subordinated to a purpose. The incidence of such a language of signification would have to be inseparable from its location in time and space. But that location can never be stabilized once and for all. The performance of a gesture on the stage remains tied to a singular situation. This is why the most concrete manifestation of such a language would be not expression but rather interruption. To remain singular, gestures, sounds, or movements must interrupt themselves on the way to fruition. It is as if Artaud sought to sever what for Aristotle had to stay together: as though he sought to detach peripeteia from anagnoresis, fear from pity, emotion from feeling, discharge from purgation, theater from drama, tragedy and the totalizing idea of the hero. For the hero stands for the human, and the "human" imposes meaning on all things. If the "goal", as Aristotle states, is "the greatest thing of all", then "man" names the actualization of that greatness, of that "all". For man names the being that claims the right to set its own goals, and hence also to set goals for all other beings and for being as a whole. Artaud's innovative turn is to dehumanize the notion of peripeteia and thereby to turn it against its mytho-logical origins. If the greatest of myths, in this sense, is that which goes under the name of "man", it is this myth that Artaud singles out as the greatest obstacle to theater. Against it he seeks to mobilize a certain notion of "things":
A moment ago I mentioned danger. The best way, it seems to me, to realize this idea of danger on the stage is through the objective unforeseen, the unforeseen not in situations but in things, the abrupt, untimely transition from a thought image to a true image. (...) An example would be the appearance of an invented Being, made of wood and cloth, entirely pieced together (crée de toutes pièces), corresponding to nothing (literally: answering to nothing, ne répondant à rien), and yet disquieting by nature, capable of reintroducing on the stage a whiff of that great metaphysical fear that is at the root of all ancient theater. (44/53)
This "invented Being", which appears to be a close relative of Kafka's Odradek, is theatrical in precisely the same way. Unable to discern in Odradek any sign either of a goal, a Zweck, or of its absence, the Housefather is puzzled: "The whole appears senseless, it is true, but in its way complete". (cited in Mass Mediauras, 32). One never knows where and when one is going to stumble upon Odradek, who has "no fixed residence" and hangs out on the periphery of domestic living space: stairways, halls, attic, cellar. But what really worries the Housefather is that this strange thing may well turn out to outlive him, his children and even theirs. Things can survive where humans can't. But are they still alive? Were they ever? Where "things" are concerned, life and death are not easy to distinguish. "He doesn't seem to harm anyone," concludes the House Father, "but the idea that he might actually outlive me is almost painful".

Would the determination of the "goal" as "the greatest thing of all" be an effort to avoid such pain? Would what we call meaning name yet another such effort? And would the idea of a transparent, cohesive and coherent narrative mark an attempt to avoid "that great metaphysical fear" in which Artaud saw the primary resource of his theater of cruelty, which was also a theater of Doubles and of Ghosts. For the Theater of Cruelty, then, it was not the "goal" of "meaning" or the mythic plot that was "the greatest thing of all" but rather the "great metaphysical fear" itself.. And yet, how could such a fear avoid in turn turning into a goal? The goal of the Theater of Cruelty, for instance. Only, perhaps, by being mindful of the singular virtuality of theater, which prevents it from being identically repeatable, generalizable, theorisable, and perhaps even realisable.

This is perhaps why such issues cannot simply, for Artaud, ever be discussed in pure abstraction from their scenic singularity. It could also explain why some of the most powerfully theatrical articulations in his writing were not written "for" theater, not at least in the dramatic sense of the term. One such instance is his celebrated essay on "The Theater and the Plague". Neither purely theoretical nor purely theatrical, this text demonstrates most forcefully what Artaud elsewhere, in "The Alchemical Theater", calls "the virtual reality of theater" (49/60).

In "The Theater and the Plague", which he first delivered in April of 1933 at the Sorbonne, Artaud recounts the spread of the plague in Marseille in 1720. After a brief discussion of plagues and their possible etiologies, Artaud describes the stages through which the plague passes as it spreads throughout the city. It is here that we encounter an allegory of the origin of theater. This consists of four stages, which at the same time and perhaps above all mark what can be called the theatricalization of the stage (temporal as well as spatial). As we shall see, this theatricalization also involves a kind of virtualization, although it is one that contrasts in certain decisive aspects with virtualization as it is generally understood and practiced today. Let us begin, however, by retracing Artaud's account of the four stages of the plague.

First, as the plague takes hold in the city, there is a progressive collapse of all normal institutions and services, the dissolution of what Artaud in French designates as "les cadres réguliers" the "regular framework" that defines and maintains social space and time in periods of normalcy:

Once the plague is established in a city, the regular frameworks collapse; maintenance of roads and sewers ceases; army, police, municipality disappear; pyres are lit with whatever arms are available in order to burn the dead. Each family wants to have its own. (23/29)
Note here how the institution of the family emerges and attempts, as it were, to take up the slack as the social polity begins to collapse. But what form does this take? Artaud tells us quite precisely: "each family wants to have its own" - its own pyre, in this case. Which is to say, its own property rights in the face of death. The scourge afflicts everyone collectively, but "each family wants to have its own..." This type of response is not entirely unfamiliar to us today. But the resurgence of "family values" is soon caught up in the very crisis that brought it forth:
(Each family wants to have its own). Then, with wood, places and even flames growing rare, family feuds break out around the pyres, soon followed by a general flight, for the corpses have grown too numerous. Already the dead clog the streets, forming crumbling pyramids whose fringes are gnawed at by animals. The stench rises into the air like a flame. Whole streets are blocked by heaps of the dead. (ibid.)
The orderly, organized space of the city disintegrates, and families contribute to the chaos in their struggle to preserve a minimum of property and propriety - "Each family wants its own" - and each succeeds, but not as planned. Each family gets its "own", but what it gets is death and disintegration that rapidly sweep away all possibility of ownership. The first and most significant sign of this disassociation is the blockage of the avenues of communication. As a result, habitual movements no longer are possible. In their stead, however, a new kind of movement and communication burst out, and with them, a new arrangement of space and time. This new arrangement ushers in the second stage of the plague:
(Entire streets are blocked by the piles of the dead). It is at that very moment (c'est alors que...) that the houses open up and delirious plague-ridden victims, their minds overwhelmed with hideous visions, stream forth screaming into the streets. The disease (but note that Artaud uses a French word here which means not just "disease" but also "evil" as well as "pain": le mal) at work in their guts, pervading their entire organism, breaks free in mental explosions (se libère en fusées par l'esprit). Other plague victims, lacking all bubos, delirium, pain and rash, proudly observe themselves in the mirror, bursting with health, before falling dead (on the spot), their shaving mugs still in their hands, (still) full of scorn for the other victims.
This second stage is thus marked by the implosion of the closed space of domesticity, with houses and homes breaking down and forcing their inhabitants to flee into a space that is no longer either public or private. The orderly, goal-directed movements of organized social life are progressively supplanted by the pointless gestures and explosive spasms, both physical and mental, of those whose bodies and being have become the staging ground of the plague. What is in the process of breaking down here is the last vestige of self-control, the faculty of self-consciousness itself. Those who have no visible, outward signs of the plague, and "who feel themselves bursting with health" (se sentant crever de santé), "burst" indeed, but not with health. Here, the peripeteia does not interrupt an action or an intention, in the sense envisaged by Aristotle, but rather self-consciousness itself. It imposes a different temporality: that of the belated reaction. Consciousness cannot catch up with the plague and its effects. People congratulate themselves on having escaped, and drop dead still "full of scorn for the victims". This belated temporality drives a wedge into the visible. The scene, for all of its horror, moves away from drama and from tragedy, towards comedy and perhaps even more, towards farce. For not only is the consciousness of the characters increasingly inadequate to the situation, but the very idea of action itself, of a plot, increasingly disappears. The lack of visible signs of the plague becomes itself an invisible sign of its power. Visibility loses all transparency and reflexivity all reliability. The stage is set for what will be the final coup de théâtre. But before it can strike, a final effort is undertaken to ward it off. This effort, which brings us to the third stage of the plague, only confirms the domination of farce, although one that is still not quite ready to assume its theatricality:
Over the poisonous, thick, bloody streams, colored by anxiety and opium, which gush from the corpses, strange figures dressed in wax, with noses long as rods, eyes of glass, mounted on a kind of Japanese sandal composed of double wooden tablets, the one horizontal in the form of a sole, the other vertical, isolating them from infected fluids, pass by chanting absurd litanies whose virtues do not prevent them from sinking into the flames in turn. Such ignorant doctors display only their fear and their puerility. (23-24/29)
Such carnevalesque figures - which, once again, should be quite familiar to many of us-- appear, in this third stage, as a parody of the order they seek to maintain. With their disappearance, however, the last vestiges of propriety, and of property, are condemned. And it is at this point that we arrive at the fourth and final "stage" of the plague, that in and on which theater finally takes (its) place:
Into the opened houses enter the dregs of the population, immunized, it seems, by their frenzied greed, laying hands on riches from which they sense it will be useless to profit. It is at that very moment (Et c'est alors...) that theater takes (its) place (que le théâtre s'installe). Theater, which is to say, that immediate gratuitousness which imposes acts that are useless and without profit for actuality (qui pousse à des actes inutiles et sans profit pour l'actualité) (24/29-30).
Acting without actualizing itself, it is here that the Theater of Cruelty "installs itself", takes its place, as a reality that is irreducibly virtual, but in a way that is quite different from the virtualization with which we today are increasingly familiar. For however widespread and ubiquitous its effects, virtualization today is almost always and everywhere construed and undertaken from the perspective of actuality. Even Pierre Lévy, who, as we have seen, draws much of his inspiration from Deleuze's seminal discussion of virtuality in Repetition and Difference, links virtuality inescapably, if negatively, to actuality. As we have seen, he defines virtualization as a process of de-actualization, which is to say, as an inverted mode of making actual, transforming into acts. Action, by contrast, in the Theater of Cruelty, can not be measured, either positively or negatively, in terms of actuality. For virtualization, as Artaud describes the plague, no longer has any goal whatsoever. Not the greatest and not the smallest. For what it attacks is not actualization as such, but rather its specifically modern condition of possibility, which can be designated as appropriability. The virtualization that takes place today, in the media and elsewhere, cannot be separated from the economic dictates of what is called globalization, which in turn does have a very definite, if problematic, goal: that of the maximization of profit. Profit, however, entails however not just the production of "value", but of value that is appropriable. Capital therefore continues to impose its goal upon virtualization, which by and large is permitted to develop only insofar as it serves this particular end.

It is this goal or telos - that of profit and appropriation, in all senses--that is explicitly challenged by Artaud's Virtual Theater of Cruelty. This is why it is a serious mistake to render, as the published English translation does, the key phrase in this fourth and final stage of the plague, which describes the emergence of theater, as its "birth": "And at that moment the theater is born" (24). Although here as elsewhere, Artaud is enormously indebted to the author of "The Birth of Tragedy", the Theater of Cruelty is still not born, not even stillborn, if by "birth" we mean its coming into a world from which it was previously absent. Theater, like the plague, does not have to come into the world: it is already there., albeit dormant. Its time is not the linear time of narrative, of plot, of beginning, middle and end, of before and after. Nor is the time of theater that of production. Theater is not made, if by "making" is meant a process of conscious and deliberate construction governed by a design, a plan, an idea or a goal.. Least of all, however, is theater created, if by creation is meant creatio ex nihilo. Artaud, as always in decisive moments such as these, is extremely precise in his choice of words, of those words whose power over the theater he knew could be dislodged only through a precision that cut into the specious self-evidence of self-contained meaning. What Artaud writes in French, to describe the emergence of theater, is that "c'est alors que le théâtre s'installe": it is then, at that moment, "that theater installs itself", takes its place. To "install oneself", however, is to take a place that is already there, to occupy it, indeed, to expropriate it and in the process, to transform it. That is precisely what theater does when it makes the site into a scene, the place into a stage, and it is this alteration and expropriation that makes it cruel. It involves, above all, a movement of dispossession, but not for profit. A place is robbed of its apparent unity, meaning, propriety. Houses are demolished, the barrier between inside and outside, domesticity and politics, private and public breaks down, just as Artaud envisaged eliminating the partition in theaters between the stage and the audience, or more generally, between theater and its other. The Theater of Cruelty was to take place in barns and hangars, rather than in established "theaters". The audience was to be placed at the center of the theatrical space, but on movable seats, so as to be able to follow a spectacle that was to exploit all the dimensions of space, not just that which is positioned "in front" of the public. The Vor-stellung, the German word that signifies both theatrical performance and mental representation, (the Vor-stellung) would no longer serve as an alibi by which subjects could hope to exonerate themselves and escape from their involvement in what was necessarily a violation of all constituted legality. The space of the theater would not just be "outside" or "inside" - it would take hold of the body itself, that of humans as of things, turning them into stages for unheard of peripeteias where sound becomes silence fluids freeze and matter becomes hollow.

The "gratuitousness" of the theatrical act, then, is inseparable from the rule of law, which it must presuppose in order to violate, although Artaud always understood the violation to be, paradoxically, prior to any inviolate identity. It must presuppose therefore organized, delimited spaces: those of domesticity, of propriety, but also of the polis: the city, the state, the nation and indeed, the cosmos. At the same time, however, the expropriating effects of theater are and must remain virtual. Of this Artaud never left any doubt. Theater is inseparable from a virtuality that is irreducible not just to actuality but also to any other form of appropriability. Including, first and foremost, Man. Not just the idea of man but "his" appearance has long served to justify the possibility of and right to such appropriation. It is the dismantling therefore of this image of self-containment and of self-contentment that forms that primary action of the plague and makes it a powerful analogy and allegory of theater. Once again, however, it must not be forgotten that the plague, and theater, can only trigger forces that are already there, reading and waiting, temporarily immobilized:

The plague takes images that are dormant, a latent disorder, and suddenly pushes them to become the most extreme gestures; and theater also takes gestures and pushes them to the limit: like the plague it reforges the chain between what is and what is not, between the virtuality of the possible and what exists materialized in nature. It recovers (...) all the conflicts that sleep in us, restoring them to us with their forces and giving these forces names that we salute as symbols: and behold, before our eyes a battle of symbols takes place...(37/34).
The self-containment of the "image" is thus literally pushed to the extreme, where it suddenly reveals itself to be in touch with the other, with what it is not, with the outside. In place of the self-contained image, representing its "content", there is revealed the process by which that content was con-tained: through the arresting of signification, of a process that always involves a pointing elsewhere. This is why the image driven to the "extreme" becomes gesture: The gesture points away. But not towards a goal, towards that goal which,.for Aristotle was "the greatest thing of all". The goal as end and purpose has been supplanted by the extreme as enabling limit, but as a limit that also disables. It is at this limit, the limit of gesture and gesticulation, where gesture shades into spasm, stutter and tic, that the Theater of Cruelty takes place. But the place it takes can never be its own. It must always belong to another. And this is why its taking place must be conflictual and why a certain violence and of violation must mark the Theater of Cruelty. It is peripeteia without end or goal, and therefore, a peripeteia that remains virtual.

This is why the "place" or "stage" of the Theater of Cruelty can never be simple or straightforward. It must always be a place of a singular duplicity. Like Nietzsche, who begins The Birth of Tragedy by explicitly asserting the "duplicity" (Duplizitšt), of the great antagonistic forces he is about to describe: the Dionysian and the Apollonian . This Nietzschean duplicity foreshadows the "doubles" and "ghosts" that haunt the Theater of Cruelty. The double and its shadows are what replace and supplant the "heroes" of dramatic theater. They are virtual heroes of a stage that is itself split and doubled, the space of what Artaud, near the end of his lecture, describes as an "essential separation":

The theater, like the plague, is in the image of this carnage and this essential separation. It releases conflicts, disengages powers, unleashes possibilities, and if these possibilities and these forces are black, it is the fault not of the plague or of the theater but of life. (31/38)
Virtualization, then, is not simply as de-actualization but "separation". If the theater, like the plague, plays on forces that are already "there", it is because of this "essential separation" or separability of place "itself". To close its borders it must still remain in contact with what it excludes. Such contact may be temporarily forgotten, excluded from consciousness, but its effects do not go away. Separation, in short, does not dissolve the relation to the other or to the outside, nor does it reduce that other to a goal or purpose that would complete a story and make it intelligible. Rather, separation communicates with that from which it distances itself, even if that communication has to be "delirious", Artaud's word for describing the spread of the plague. (33).

We can try to ignore such delirium, confine it, shore up the borders that seem to separate us from it, try to purify our cities and our states from everything alien. We can try to forget Artaud and his wild ravings. We can organize our lives and our worlds to best meet our goals. We can, in short, carry on as we have been doing - and cruelty will continue to take care of itself. Or we can try to remember that cruelty did not begin nor end with Antonin Artaud, who, in placing this word at the center of his theater, took a risk for which he paid dearly, but one which he esteemed had to be taken "in the actual circumstances" (99).

Are our "actual circumstances" today so very different? Do we come together tonight to reassure ourselves that One Hundred Years of Cruelty are finally over? Or to celebrate that they have only just begun? One Hundred, Two Hundred, Two Thousand: The sky's the limit. But this is a sky that can still fall on our heads. Still? Why still? Has it already fallen? Virtually? There is a risk, of course. But is it one we can afford not to take?

Sydney, September 1996


1. Antonin Artaud, "No More Masterpieces," The Theater and its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards, New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958, pp. 78-79.
Oeuvres Complètes, vol. IV, pp. 94-95.
English translation modified where necessary. Future references to these editions will be given in the body of the text, with the English page numbers first, followed by those of the French edition. - Back to the text.

2. See also Poetics, 59b 19-21: "It must be possible for the beginning and the end to be seen together in one view." - Back to the text.


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