From the social point of view the epidemic is insofar remarkable, as the disease passes from the individual to the social status. Here the spectacle concerns all, infects all and overcomes all just like the theatre etc.
Artaud, Outlines for “The Theatre and the Plague”
Approaching and localizing his notion of a true and necessary theatre, that he finally will label as “The Theatre of Cruelty”, Artaud juxtaposes in his poetics the theatre with its doubles, that he identified during his examination of life. In one of the most discussed essays from “The Theatre and its Doubles”, Artaud contrasts the theatre with the plague:
The theater, like the plague, is in the image of this carnage and this essential separation. It releases conflicts, disengages powers, unleashes possibilities, and if these possibilities and these forces are black, it is the fault not of the plague or of the theater but of life.
What he means here with this analogy in relation to his conception of theatre, becomes much clearer if we have a closer look to “The Conquest of Mexico”.
Here Artaud - in the tradition of most historical records – accentuates its two most prominent antagonists, Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma II, and condenses and sharpens therefore the conflict between the Spanish invaders and the Mexican inhabitants for the means of the stage.
But as we can read in the very first lines of his exposé, Artaud is in opposition to most historical writers primarily not so much concerned with the illustration of the individual characters, biographies and motivations of the two leaders, but installs their functions in a more broader context on the stage:
It will stage events, not men. Men will come in their turn with their psychology and their passions, but they will be taken as the emanation of certain forces and understood in the light of the events and historical fatality in which they have played their role.
When Artaud here writes about men as the “emanation of certain forces”, there is no doubt, that these forces are related to the forces that he writes about in his essay about the plague: Forces that are connected to life, forces that might be black. What does Artaud mean with that? And why could it still be relevant?
In our civilized world we aim for safety and security. The civilized human mankind in general tends to the construction of solid buildings and clear defined borders. We define ourselves through all that, what we not are. We try to categorize everything, that seems to be different from us. We try to control and exclude everything what is supposed to become a threat for us. We get nervous, if we can't solve a question, we get aggressive if we are confronted with something beyond our intelligibility. We try to overcome our fears, while we observe, isolate and persecute what we suppose to produce them.
In case of an epedemic, we realize how our constructed borders become permeable. We try to secure ourselves, but there can never be a 100% guarantee. We have to acknowledge something other, that also belongs to our life. Therefore we too have to play our role in the world, a role that we can't define ourselves.
From here we can see why Artaud is not interested in the demonstration of psychological conflicts between characters. Artaud was not an advocator of a realistic theatre, that f.e. would show and explain interpersonal situations like mobbing on a stage claiming to solve and overcome them in real life this way. Neither was his concept of theatre intended to confront us with simple representations of cruelty on the stage. Instead, his "Theatre of Cruelty" applies the very same problems but on a deeper layer. In "The Conquest of Mexico" men become a statement about our relation to the world around us, about the hiding and masking of the unsavory truths about our relations to each other and to the world, that we share. Beneath our connection to the world there lays a specific fonds of cruelty, a gap, that we never can fit totally. It is this essential separation Artaud is speaking about, when he writes about the plague and the theatre. It is a separation, that comes in in this very moment, where signs come into play, whenever we try to signify.
There is something we can't express totally, there is something we can't know, but we have to get along with this absence and our non-knowledge, and we have to prepare ourselves for situations like this. We will always continue to achieve informations our whole life long, but there will be always one step that we are behind.
At this moment, there raise many questions here in Mexico-City. People want to know, how serious the epidemic threat is, they want to know more about the actual effort of the sanctions of their government, and they want to know, why so far only Mexican people have died from the swine flu. There is a call for transparency, and there is one word I heard quite often in the last days, “propaganda”, and this word remembers us that knowledge and information are always connected to power. There lays a big responsibility in these days in the local government, in the governments of the worldwide countries, in the international health organisations, and also in the media. Fear is nothing we should play with, nor something we should try to direct with power, the risks are to high. If its “black forces” become potentized in reality, there is no human power any longer capable of its control.
In some way we all are infected, and in some way this is why Artauds "Theatre of Cruelty" concerns us all, until today:
It is the social task of the art to create a way out of the fears of its time.
(published in Mexican newspaper El Nacional in 1936)