The idea of a theatre of cruelty was first introduced by Antonin Artaud to describe a form of theatre that he hoped would unleash unconscious responses in audiences and performers that were normally inaccessible. Artaud was opposed to theatrical productions based on venerated classical texts or established literary forms and thought they merely represented worlds that were irrelevant and highly artificial constructions. He wanted audiences to find in the theatre not an area for escape from the world, but the realisation of their worst nightmares and deepest fears. He therefore tried to provoke conditions that would force the release of primitive instincts he believed were hidden beneath the civilised social veneer masking all human behaviour. Describing the energy and impact of a radical new way of performing and responding in strong and often dark imagery, he envisioned a theatre that rejected rational interpretation. Instead, he welcomed the irrational impulses that could be stimulated by suffering and pain and argued that every facet of theatricality should be employed to increase a sense of danger, violence and disorientation in the audience. However, Artaud argued that his concept of cruelty was not sadistic. He wanted to stimulate what was honest and true and the cruelty he envisaged required a rigour and determination that was necessary if performers and audiences were to confront and experience the dark and terrifying responses that lay at the heart of each human being.
Albert Bemel provides a useful summary of Artaud's suggestions for creating a theatre of cruelty:
The kind of theatre Artaud envisaged would use the classics but only after subjecting them to a radical overhaul. Lighting, sound equipment and other technical means would no longer subserve the text; they would partially replace it. The noises, music and colours that generally accompany the lines would in places substitute for them. They would be fortified by a range of human noises- screams, grunts, moans, sighs, yelps- together with a repertoire of gestures, signs and other movements. These would extend the range of the actor's art and the receptivity of the spectator. To put it another way, they would enlarge the theatre's vocabulary…They would surrender themselves to a performance, live through it and feel it, rather than merely think about it. (6-7)
Artaud attempted to stage his new approach of theatre with his adaptation of Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Cenci. This first, and only production with ‘Theatre de la Cruaute' opened and folded in 1935 and it did not fully realise Artaud's visions or ambitions. But although he did not launch another production, the concept he had created continued to circulate. And, as Artaud's work and ideas began to receive further attention after his death in 1948, his visions began to inspire and intrigue a new generation of theatre critics and practitioners. In the 1950s, the concept of Theatre of Cruelty was used to describe some of the dark views of human existence evident in the plays of writers like Albert Camus and Jean Genet (their work was also described as Theatre of the Absurd). In the 1960s, a number of influential directors began to explore his recommendations and the celebrated Polish director Jerzy Grotowski began to employ many of his ideas with the actors he worked with at his Theatre Laboratory in Poland. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) also conducted experiments with Artaud's theatre of cruelty in a series of workshops directed by Peter Brook. These sessions stimulated much discussion and resulted in very confronting but stimulating productions such as their celebrated version of Weiss's Marat/Sade. While a number of Artaud's ideas have been freely interpreted and often misunderstood, quite a number of theatrical innovations were introduced due to his suggestions for a theatre of cruelty. Some of these include the development of the concept of audience participation, the emphasis on developing a new and viscerally engaging language for the theatre and the use of a stage's three dimensions.