I thought I knew a thing or two about cruelty. To be honest, I might have called myself an expert on the subject. I mean, I’ve seen movies like Pasolini’s Salo and Noé’s Irreversible, and I’ve read everything I could get my hands on that’s been deemed transgressive or cruel. I’ve even tried emulating it in my fiction—one short piece about a man whose fingers split and cracked and fell from his body with each keystroke, or another about a car thief who moonlights as a life thief. All for the fun of it. So, I’m an authority on what it means to be cruel, right?
Here’s what I’ve been learning over the past few weeks. Cruelty, at least in the theatre (though it’s tenets would appear to be entirely fruitful in all mediums), isn’t about pain and suffering. True cruelty isn’t a splatter film; it doesn’t exist simply to turn a stomach. But to turn a heart, a mind. When I watched those films, read those books, and imitated them in my own work, it was a matter of exploitation, a search for a higher body count, more red dye and corn syrup (ex. Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive). There was nothing provoked in me other than a drive to see something I hadn’t seen before.
Where the theatre of cruelty differs, is that the cruelty isn’t limited to the content, and is certainly more than mere acts of violence. The cruelty, at least for me, lies within the audience’s response to the performance. Are they uncomfortable? Do they feel queasy? Is everyone dying to run from the theatre? Now, is this because there’s a bloodbath on stage? It can’t be. We’ve seen Saving Private Ryan. This is nothing new, we’re used to gore. In fact, I’d argue most of us are less interested without it. Instead, if we’re feeling tense, it must be a product of how it’s presented. That lack of content, the tilting off center, is the cruelty.
What I found interesting was this: as I went into writing my first scene, I wrote with the word “cruelty” in mind. I thought, let me take all the violence I’ve internalized over the years and boil it down to a single act of violence. I thought I’d shock the audience by staging a murder without reason or purpose, and the cruelty would pump out like a torn artery. I still thought that the cruelty was in the act, rather than the presentation. To add a spin, I made the murderers female, because that never happens, right? After, however, and continuing to think about the theatre of cruelty, I realized that this was just like all those exploitive pieces I searched for. I was trying to shock, not move.
And so I set out with my second scene. This piece, I, much like the other scenes brought to class, featured very little, if any, violence. It was as if I shied away from violence, with purpose or without, simply because I recognized my reliance on it. Strangely enough, a suicide to end the scene would have tied in perfectly with the cruelty I’d been aiming for. I wanted the audience to be forced to crane their necks to see the actors up on the catwalk. I wanted them to dodge the trash and debris being thrown at them. I wanted them to get off their phones on the stage, in the line of fire. Letting the character with seemingly no intention to do so, jump straight at them would have capped off the discomfort and movement (emotional or otherwise) I’d been seeking in my audience.
Cruelty then, I’m continuing to discover, is violence and it isn’t. It’s the discomfort found in extended silences, in contorted bodies, both physical and emotional. Cruelty is found in what isn’t said, and whatever is elicited in the audience. I was blown away by Josie’s piece because I was forced to answer the questions myself. We’ve seen the scenes in movies, and heard the news reports. We’ve listened to lawyers and fought through testimony and such inundation has made us immune. All we have to do is change the channel or walk out of the auditorium. But with the theatre of cruelty, if done right, you can’t. You have to step into the shoes and feel the production strum a nerve that had otherwise been desensitized.