Antonin Artaud in The Passion of Joan of Arc


A key figure of the European avant garde, the French poet, theatre theorist and actor Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) developed the ideas behind the Theatre of Cruelty. In 1928 Artauld played the role of Jean Massieu, the Dean of Rouen, in the highly acclaimed silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Dreyer. The actors were encouraged to wear little or no make-up, and lighting and close-up camera shots were used to heighten the sense of grotesque.

The Theatre of Cruelty

The Theatre of Cruelty is both a philosophy and a discipline. Artaud wanted to disrupt the relationship between audience and performer, to shock and confront the audience with emotions, not just words. Sound and lighting could also be used as tools of sensory disruption. 

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French poet and actor Antonin Artaud in a scene from The Passion of Joan of Arc
1928, France
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Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty

Article by:
Natasha Tripney
20th-century theatre, Capturing and creating the modern, Theatre practitioners and genres, European influence

The Theatre of Cruelty, developed by Antonin Artaud, aimed to shock audiences through gesture, image, sound and lighting. Natasha Tripney describes how Artaud's ideas took shape, and traces their influence on directors and writers such as Peter Brook, Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet.

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