For Part III, "Political Theater", click here
In this final part of my World's Fair blog series, I look at French playwright and theatre director Antonin Artaud (who is, incidentally, from my home town of Marseille) and the impact for the world of theatre of his first encounter with Balinese performers. I have based this post in part on Nicola Savarese's piece "Antonin Artaud Sees Balinese Theatre at the Paris Colonial Exposition".
It goes without saying that this encounter took place at a World's Fair, precisely in 1931 at the Paris Colonial Exposition. This was one of the first times that Balinese music and dance were performed outside of Bali. Artaud it seems only saw the performance once or twice, but was so taken by it that he wrote a review for one of the French newspapers, which he later expanded upon for a more lengthly piece that was published in his famous collection of essays "The Theatre and its Double". In it, Artaud says:
"In fact the strange thing about all these gestures, these angular, sudden, jerky postures, these syncopated inflexions formed at the back of the throat, these musical phrases cut short, the sharded flights, rustling branches, hollow drum sounds, robot creaking, animated puppets dancing, is the feeling of a new bodily language no longer based on words but on signs which emerges through the maze of gestures, postures, airborne cries, through their gyrations and turns, leaving not even the smallest area of stage space unused."
Artaud is known in part today for his insistence that theater should have its own language, based in physicality rather than in words. It would appear that seeing those Balinese performers at the Paris Expo was a catalyst for Artaud, and as a result he developed an approach to theater called "theatre of cruelty":
"The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood. This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid.” Antonin Artaud, The Theatre of Cruelty, in The Theory of the Modern Stage, 1968.
Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty has influenced other great playwrights and directors, such as Peter Brook and is said to have influenced artists like Jim Morrison. Would Artaud and subsequent theatre directors have developed this type of theatre if it had not been for this encounter? Would The Doors have had such success without the sort of inspiration that Artaud provided?
I invite you to dive into the world of Fairs to discover the artistic and cultural legacies that they created. To learn more, I suggest starting with this Wikipedia article. I hope you have enjoyed this blog series!
Thanks for reading!