A Spectacle Of Punishment: Clare Curran’s fate: public, prolonged and filled with intense emotional pain; was out of all proportion to her transgressions. As always in the Theatre of Cruelty, we were treated to the spectacle of hate without cause; punishment without mercy; and the unimpeded triumph of institutional sadism.
“HARDER! HARDER! I want to hear her scream!” The awful images and dialogue from that late-night arts documentary, broadcast forty years ago, were unforgettable in the worst way. One of those highbrow British television networks was examining the “Theatre of Cruelty”: an artistic movement born out of the surrealist revolution of the 1920s and 30s which was making something of a comeback in the work of the French playwright, Jean Genet. The scene seared on my memory was an out-take lasting only a few seconds: but those few seconds were enough.
The shock-factor intrinsic to the Theatre of Cruelty was intended to demolish the smug assumptions of its audiences by exposing the violence and sadism lying just below the surface of everyday life. The playwright’s purpose was to lay bare the cruelty embedded in the institutions that educate, employ, entertain and govern us. It certainly had that effect on me, a callow youth of 16 or 17. The sheer delight with which one of the characters urged on the torturer to new heights of depravity was profoundly affecting.
Why am I reliving all this? Because the recent treatment of Clare Curran brought it all back. The Theatre of Cruelty and contemporary politics have converged in a truly alarming fashion.
What distinguishes the Theatre of Cruelty from traditional theatre is its rejection of the classical precepts of dramatic art. Traditionally, plays are both a representation and an affirmation of the accepted moral order, in which those who seek to overthrow or evade its strictures are judged and punished. Or, more colloquially: drama is about reassuring us that the good guys always win. In the Theatre of Cruelty, however, not only do the good guys not win, but they are subjected to the most appalling torments by the bad guys – who are not judged or punished in any way at all.
The parallels with contemporary politics are, hopefully, clear. What start out as morality plays: demonstrations of what happens to politicians when they break the rules; very quickly degenerate into something quite different. The villains of these political morality plays, it soon transpires, are, like Shakespeare’s King Lear “more sinned against than sinning”. Their fates: public, prolonged and filled with intense emotional pain; are out of all proportion to their transgressions. As always in the Theatre of Cruelty, we are treated to the spectacle of hate without cause; punishment without mercy; and the unimpeded triumph of institutional sadism.
The surrealist pioneer of the Theatre of Cruelty, Antonin Artaud, envisaged an entirely new configuration of the theatrical experience. He wanted his audiences huddled in the middle of the auditorium with the players performing not in front of them but all around them. His direction also called for them to be bombarded by all manner of startling special effects – to the point where their senses were overloaded and they became disoriented.
A more vivid anticipation of the twenty-first century media experience is difficult to imagine. Artaud wanted his audiences to be at the mercy of his players; to dissolve the boundaries, both physical and psychological, which conventional theatres use to keep the audience safe from the action on stage. But, it is precisely the absence of boundaries – most particularly moral boundaries – that defines the experience of contemporary social media. The players are, as Artaud foresaw, all around us, and their viciousness is without restraint. We are transformed into witnesses of cruelties from which we cannot turn away.
The damage caused by this extraordinary environment is difficult to assess. That a few seconds exposure to the Theatre of Cruelty’s horrors left such a deep scar on the imagination of my teenage self makes me wonder what the ubiquitous and almost casual cruelties of twenty-first century media are doing to the imaginations of today’s teenage viewers. What sort of moral order is being communicated in the very public crucifixions of politicians, sportspeople and every other variety of celebrity? And what do these endlessly repeated spectacles of punishment tell us about the tastes of the contemporary citizen?
Forty years ago, we looked back with a mixture of superiority and horror at the vast crowds which once gathered to watch public executions. Forty years later, in our panoptic on-line dystopia, Artaud’s intuitive apprehension that the virtues of civilisation are barely skin-deep can only be described as cruelly prophetic.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 September 2018.