Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and its Double has exerted immeasurable influence on recent generations of theatre practitioners and scholars. His “Theatre of Cruelty,” derived from surrealism, focuses on spectacle, gesture, and ritual, rejecting both psychological realism and the primacy of text, and seeks to overwhelm the audience with a multisensory experience that will free them from their quotidian state of mind. As a theorist, he is widely considered to be one of the two most important figures in twentieth-century theatre (the other being Bertolt Brecht.) As a playwright and director, however, Artaud is generally considered to have been less successful. The Cenci, his loose adaptation of a nineteenth century verse tragedy by Percy Shelley, ran for less than two weeks in 1935 and was a commercial disaster. The reasons for this failure are the subject of significant disagreement: perhaps the audience was not ready for Artaud’s revolutionary staging techniques, or perhaps Artaud was not able to, on his first attempt, realize his vision for the Theatre of Cruelty. On stage, The Cenci seems to have been received as a hybrid of tragedy and Grand Guignol and audiences rejected it soundly. The production’s notoriety, along with a notoriously stiff translation into English by British surrealist Simon Watson Taylor, have imbued the play itself with the forbidding air of one of the greatest flops in theatrical history.
John Jahnke’s company Hotel Savant has set out to redress this state of affairs by securing the rights to the first American translation of Artaud’s Cenci and incorporating the aesthetics of Cruelty into the postmodern staging paradigm that owes so much to Artaud’s theoretical writings.
There is much to admire in this new production, including Richard Sieburth’s clever new translation, which inserts some much needed irony and humor into the stilted text; Kristin Worrall’s densely layered and sophisticated sound design; Peter Ksander’s simultaneously spare and complex set, which transforms the Ohio Theatre into a sort of maze for both audience and performers; Jahnke’s elaborate and fluid staging, with simultaneous action and metatheatrical flourishes that update many of Artaud’s ideas; and mostly compelling performances from a skilled and physically beautiful cast. There is little question that this team of collaborators have given their all with this production, and that most of them feel they are working on something special and possibly even important.
The problem is that the play, despite Sieburth’s considerable efforts, just isn’t very good. Artaud wanted to de-emphasize the text in his work, foregrounding the sensory, real-time impact of liveness on stage, but The Cenci is still a text-based play and therefore the text needs to provide a strong foundation for the production. Instead, it feels like the product of a fevered adolescent imagination, perhaps an adolescent who had only recently discovered the writings of the Marquis de Sade. This kind of work has its charm when framed as a B-budget horror film but when presented with the self-importance of ground-breaking theatre it collapses under the weight of its grand pomposity.
The story of The Cenci, inspired by a real-life family of sixteenth-century Italian nobility, is a lurid one. Francesco Cenci (Anthony Torn), the family’s patriarch, is a licentious libertine who abuses his family and servants psychologically and physically. When some in the family report his crimes, which include an incestuous relationship with his daughter Beatrice, he is treated leniently by the papal authorities and subsequently removes his family to a castle outside of Rome, where they take matters into their own hands and murder him rather than continue to live under his tyranny. The crime is discovered and the family are put to death.
The sensational and scandalous tale of the Cenci family has been the subject of novels, plays, operas and films by artists ranging from Stendhal, to Dumas, to Hawthorne. The problem with Artaud’s version is that his oft-stated rejection of simplistic psychology and specifically character-driven motivations lead him to embrace the idea of Evil with a capital “E,” an idea that is meant to make the story something more but paradoxically makes it seem smaller and somehow absurd. Even if an audience were to embrace the suspect idea that Evil is a primal force, it is unlikely that any actor or actors could successfully embody such an abstraction, even when aided by sound and light and gesture. The power of the story of The Cenci is that it really happened; attempting to elevate to the realm of the “universal,” Artaud instead rendered it kind of silly.
Still, for theatre history enthusiasts, Hotel Savant’s production represents a unique opportunity. It is unlikely that another rendition of Artaud’s play will pass our way any time soon. It is well-worth the $18 price of admission to witness a skilled and enthusiastic ensemble grappling with one of theatre’s most ambitious failures.