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Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of Cruelty


From its earliest beginnings in Greek Tragedy through its history to the modern day, drama has exerted a fascination for philosophical aesthetics. There have been times when drama has responded to this critique and times when it has blithely followed its own course. This series of articles aims to follow some of the continuities and the evolutions in drama - to give a selected overview of the interest that drama has held for aesthetics, whilst examining the idea of an aesthetic experience in the theatre.

4. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of Cruelty

5. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of the Absurd

6. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Silence in the Theatre

Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of Cruelty

Tis Pity She’s a Whore

It would be understandable to consider that there is a gulf between the early study of philosophical aesthetics under that name and twentieth century theories of the theatre. Equally, a similar gulf may be thought to exist between seventeenth century drama and the more modern Theatre of Cruelty. However, there are also considerable similarities to be found and common threads that link the two.

Alexander Baumgarten, who, in 1735, was the first philosopher to employ the term 'Aesthetics' in its modern sense - meaning the study of beauty, taste, and the nature of art - interprets the aesthetic experience as the art of thinking beautifully. For Baumgarten, it should be noted, this practice of thinking beautifully involves thought provoked by sensory perception, specifically the sensory perception of experiencing an art form, which should be clear, direct, and avoid obscurity. Paul Guyer observes that when "Baumgarten writes that 'The aim of aesthetics is the perfection of sensible cognition as such, that is, beauty, while its imperfection as such, that is, ugliness, is to be avoided. (Aesthetica, §14)' ... he is saying that beauty lies not ... in the representation of some objective perfection in a form accessible to our senses, but rather — or also — in the exploitation of the specific possibilities of sensible representation for their own sake." (Guyer, 2020).

That is to say, the mind has a latent ability for the intricate appreciation and understanding of what is meritorious in an art form and it is for the art form to bring this out. The mind does not simply receive an impression of beauty, it must have this latent potential for experiencing it stimulated so that it tends toward perfection in that 'sensible cognition'.

In other words, there is potential for beauty in the form of a work as well as in its content because its form can be pleasing to our complex capacity for sensible representation — the analogon rationis — just as its content can be pleasing to our theoretical or practical reason itself ... Thus Baumgarten introduces the idea that the sensible imagery a work of art arouses is not just a medium, more or less perfect, for conveying truth, but a locus of perfection in its own right. (Guyer, 2020).

Two hundred years later, in The Theatre and its Double, Antonin Artaud wrote:

In the long run, Shakespeare and his followers have instilled a concept of art for art's sake in us, art on the one hand and life on the other, and we might rely on this lazy, ineffective idea as long as life outside held good, but there are too many signs that everything which used to sustain our lives no longer does so and we are all mad, desperate and sick. And I urge us to react (Artaud, 1977, p.58).

He goes on to say that,

I am not of the opinion that civilization must change so theatre can change, but I do believe theatre used in the highest and most difficult sense has the power to affect the appearance and structure of things...For this reason I suggest a Theatre of Cruelty. (Artaud, 1977, p.59-60).

Baumgarten's interpretation is that art is essentially intended for our appreciation of it, for its and our own sake, whilst Artaud wants us to be overwhelmed by the art form, where "violent physical images pulverise, mesmerize the audience's sensibilities, caught in the drama as if in a vortex of higher forces" (Artaud, 1977, p.63) and in the process to have our thoughts changed.

However, Baumgarten also insisted on representations that are both clear and confused. Confused for Baumgarten is the co-involvement of many intermingled parts: sense impressions, the provoking of emotions, the use of metaphor. This compares to Artaud's manifestos of a Theatre of Cruelty, albeit in a less extreme form. Artaud demands a complex of movement, incantation, lighting, humour, anarchy, amongst many other elements, as well as an immediacy of contact between actors and audience. Both Baumgarten and Artaud are striving for a perfection of that 'sensible cognition': "Whether they admit it or not, whether a conscious or unconscious act, at heart audiences are searching for a poetic state of mind, a transcendant condition by means of love, crime, drugs, war or insurrection." (Artaud, 1977, p.81).

Whilst Baumgarten might not have recognised the means, he would, perhaps, have recognised the poetic state of mind as being his ars pulcre cogitandi - the art of thinking beautifully. Even if Baumgarten employs very different terms, he joins with Artaud in finding the mind's capacity for representation is there to be aroused and it is best aroused by an intense density of images.

In the The Theatre and its Double, Artaud chides 'everyone' for taking cruelty to mean "blood" (Artaud, 1977, p.60). What he seems to mean by cruelty is the expression by artistic means of the universe's fundamental, underlying cruelty and The Theatre of Cruelty is a place of total violent intensity. "A real stage play," he writes, "upsets our sensual tranquility, releases our repressed subconscious, drives us to a kind of potential rebellion ..." (Artaud, 1977, p.19) before discussing the one play that he examines in any depth in The Theatre and its Double, John Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore.

Termine, R. (2012) ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

In Ford's play, what we witness is something of a rebellion in which everything is turned upside down. The play opens with Giovanni presenting to a man of the cloth a vigorous argument in support of incest: broadly that, since siblings are so close in nature, why not be joined in love? Giovanni argues a little later: "'Tis not, I know, My lust, but 'tis my fate that leads me on." (Webster & Ford, 1933, p.277). Which is in itself disingenuously back to front reasoning, especially in light of his confession to his sister a few lines later: "Oh Annabella, I am quite undone! / The love of thee, my sister, and the view / Of thy immortal beauty, have untuned / All harmony both of my rest and life." (Webster & Ford, 1933, p.279)

Annabella, far from being shocked by his declaration of love, reciprocates it "For every sigh that thou hast spent for me, / I have sigh'd ten" (Webster & Ford, 1933, p.279) and, a moment later, Ford has brother and sister, so in tune are they with each other, spontaneously speak precisely identical lines to each other, in a corrupted echo of a marriage ceremony.

Even for the famously jaded tastes of the Jacobean audience, this unrestrained exposition of incest, a crime considered akin to bestiality at the time, would surely have gone some way to 'pulverize, mesmerize the audience's sensibilities'. Equally powerful would have been the fact that Ford does not appear to condemn the love between Giovanni and Annabella: if he is not overtly sympathetic, he presents it neutrally. Perhaps the culmination of the outrageous defence of incest comes from the mouth of the aptly named Putana: "Fear nothing, sweetheart: what though he be your brother? your brother's a man, I hope: and I say still, if a young wench feel the fit upon her, let her take anybody, father or brother, all is one." (Webster & Ford, 1933, p.284)

This is a play in which so many other elements, such as truth and justice, are turned upside down. Soranzo, suitor to Annabella, who later condemns Annabella for her being unfaithful (unaware that it has been an incestuous infidelity) has himself been in an adulterous relationship with Hippolita. He has vowed to marry Hippolita when her husband is dead (and seems to have been complicit in his supposed death) but now argues with blunt sophistry: "The vows I made, if you remember well, / Were wicked and unlawful: 'twere more sin / To keep them than to break them" (Webster & Ford, 1933, p.287)

Perhaps the most striking figure in this play, even though he is a relatively minor character, is the Cardinal. As the Pope's nuncio, he has the highest authority to dispense justice yet when Grimaldi murders the entirely innocent Bergetto, the Cardinal protects him and more or less absolves him on the grounds that "He is no common man, but nobly born," (Webster & Ford, 1933, p.311). However, at the end of the play he dispenses justice in an arbitrary manner. Putana, who, although scarcely blameless, was not the prime mover in the incestuous union, and who has already had her eyes torn out in punishment, is nonetheless condemned to death by the Cardinal: one may assume because she is a commoner. Having dispensed this 'justice' he then proceeds to confiscate all the property of the many protagonists who have died. One might argue that he is not, despite being a prince of the church, the least sinful character.

Harlan, M (2014) 'Tis Pity She’s a Whore

Nothing in the play is sacred and everything is turned upside down, as the language reveals. We hear Giovanni describe the Friar's arguments against incest, after he has impregnated his sister, as:"Some petty devil factor 'twixt my love / And your religion-masked sorceries" (Webster & Ford, 1933, p.326) and he goes on to speak of seeing "the waters burn", and "Be dark, bright sun, / And make this midday night" (Webster & Ford, 1933, p.330-1). Elsewhere Soranzo is encouraged to "arm your courage in your own wrongs" (Webster & Ford, 1933, p.328).

Overall, the audience is treated to the spectacle of the most heinous crimes, hypocrisies, multiple murders (including one in the middle of a marriage ceremony), of authority and justice turned on their heads - all culminating in a birthday party in which Giovanni, having murdered his own sister, appears holding aloft Annabella's heart skewered on his dagger, likening it to the food they are eating, and in which he shows no repentance for any of his actions. Truly "what a height of liberty in damnation hath the devil trained our age!" (Webster & Ford, 1933, p.322).

The audience's mind will surely be reeling from all this by the end of the play and they may also feel to a degree overwhelmed. Yet, more importantly, in terms of the aesthetic experience, their senses and their cognition will have been fully engaged.

In Jean Genet's The Balcony, instead of the world being turned upside down, it is turned inside out. The play consists in dislocation and disorientation where imitation is reality and where reality has no power over imitation. There are clear similarities with Ford's play: particularly in the fact that authority and justice are only appearance. Equally, the neutral presentation of morality in The Balcony results not so much in amorality as a vacuum of morality, much as that vacuum seems to exist in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.

Armstrong, I.C. (2014) The Balcony (1957)

The play is set in a brothel which, for the first three-quarters of the play, is surrounded by an ongoing revolution. Inside the brothel, various characters pay to inhabit the roles of imaginary personages. However, it is clear that whilst for the characters, these personages are more important to them than themselves, they do not want to be those personages 'in reality'.

Their relationship with their roles is a complex one. The Bishop, for example says "To become a bishop, to rise in the hierarchy - whether by virtue or vice - would have meant my becoming further and further removed from the ultimate dignity of being a bishop ... the majesty, the dignity, that illuminate me, irradiate from a more mysterious source; from the Bishop in me taking precedence over me." (Genet, 1991, p.5-6). The Judge, forced to crawl in front of the Thief (an employee of the brothel) says to the Thief "You're quite right to make me crawl for the privilege of being a judge, you slut, but if you finally denied my existence, you cow, that would be criminal ..." (Genet, 1991, p.13-14). The pillars of society, bishop, judge, and general are neither sustained by their office nor by their reality. The hollowness of the assumed role is nonetheless more important, more essential to the characters playing these roles than being the real personage, for the real personage is even more empty of significance.

IRMA: ... just think what the Judge, the General and the Bishop are in real life...

CARMEN: Which ones are you talking about?

IRMA: The real ones.

CARMEN: Which ones are the real ones? The ones we have here?

IRMA: The other ones. In life their role is to keep the show going, trailing it through the mud of everyday reality. Here, theatre and appearance keep their purity: the ceremony remains intact. (Genet, 1991, p.29-30)

Thus it is that when the revolution kills the 'real' bishop, judge, and general, the characters are very reluctant to become their impostors. But by doing so, they effectively end the revolution - thus some semblance of order is reasserted through this act of impersonation.

At the same time the Chief of Police, who is the brothel madam's lover, is the 'real' Chief of Police. However, he aspires only to become someone who is impersonated by a client of the brothel. He longs for this act of imposture and when finally it does occur, he sees it as the validation of his significance. Indeed, Genet portrays it as being his virtual apotheosis.

Janicki, M. (2013) Simona Contras and David Steiger in The Balcony.

When Irma the brothel madam is asked to take the place of the 'real' queen who has also died in the revolution, she asks "And I'll be real? My dress will be real? And all my lace, and my jewels, will be real? The rest of the world will be a copy of what I'll be?" (Genet, 1991, p.68). These convolutions of an inside-out reality revolve until it is hard to determine where they begin or end. Even God seems to a mere part in the circularity of significance. The Bishop, trying to establish some sort of hegemony, places the Queen below the martyred revolutionary Chantal who sits just below God. To which the Chief of Police answers "And above God? (Silence) Well gentlemen, have you no answer? Above God - you - without whom God would be as nothing. And above you - me - without whom you would be as nothing." (Genet, 1991, p.81). The appearance of these personages, in turn, helps to bolster the appearance of the others.

The audience has almost nothing rational, certainly nothing secure or permanent, to hold on to. The one reality seems to be death since, whoever these characters portray, if they are killed, at least that is some instance of reality imposing itself. However, in the last scene of the play, all those we have seen shot dead or mutilated, return to the stage hale and hearty. The whirling minds of the audience are denied even this morsel to hang on to.

What pulverizes the audience's sensibilities in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is a confusion of horrified morality (and indeed plain horror). That which pulverizes the audience's sensibilities in The Balcony is a confusion of rationality and the inability to discriminate between what is real and what is appearance. However, paradoxically, the effect is to fully enhance that capacity in the mind for sensible representation precisely because what enters the mind comes fully through the senses rather than via ratiocination. Indeed, these two plays are constructed in such a way that this irruption into the mind through the senses cannot be denied.


Artaud, A. (1977) The Theatre and its Double. John Calder Ltd.

Guyer, Paul, "18th Century German Aesthetics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Genet, J. (1991) The Balcony. Faber and Faber.

Webster, J & Ford, J (1933) Selected Plays, Tis Pity She's a Whore. Everyman.

Image References:

Armstrong, I.C. (2014) The Balcony (1957) Sourced from

Harlan, M (2014) 'Tis Pity She’s a Whore Sourced from

Janicki, M. (2013) Simona Contras and David Steiger in The Balcony. Sourced from

Termine, R. (2012) ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore Sourced from


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Oliver Nicholson

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