Dan Deacon and the 21st Century “Theater of Cruelty”
“The theater of cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself.” (W&D p.324)* Antonin Artaud, in his 1948 Le théâtre de cruauté, sought to enact a revolution within theater on par with Kandinsky’s abstract turn. Rejecting the traditional model of theatrics, theater as representation, Artaud developed his “Theater of Cruelty.” In The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation Derrida describes this theater as the sixfold rejection of:
1. All non-sacred theater…
2. All theater that privileges speech or rather the verb, all theater of words…
3. All abstract theater which excludes something from the totality of art…
4. All theater of alienation…the non-participation of spectators…
5. All nonpolitical theater…
6. All idealogical theater… theater seeking to transmit a content.
These six principles outline a theatrical experience, an enactment which is conducted within (not in the face of) life. This Theater of Cruelty is therefore a spontaneous creation of its participants, no longer divided between spectator and performer, observer and observed. Instead of actions, words, plot, etc., externally viewed by non-committed observers, the Theater of Cruelty can not be observed: it must be lived; it is not theoria, it is praxis. It does not exist (ek-sist), in the sense that its experience cannot be divided from its enactment. It is only through participation in its enactment, in the theatrics, that the theater can manifest itself.
It is through this understanding (of theater as enactment) that Artaud’s bizarre claim of the Theater of Cruelty, that it can only take place once, must be understood. This claim must not be misread as an ungrounded assumption that pure theater can only be conducted at a single historical-objective time, that the successful undertaking of this theater would permanently and necessarily bar future theater. But instead, that the enactment of the Theater of Cruelty is manifested as an event.
Jean-Luc Marion, in Being Given, captures the unrepresentable character of The Event when he writes, “This means precisely that nobody can claim for himself a “here and now” that would permit him to describe it [The Event] exhaustively and constitute it as an object” (p.228). The Theater of Cruelty, as the enactment of an event, cannot be constituted as an object, as a representation, because it cannot be encompassed within a horizon of visibility. It cannot be seen as such, but simply experienced.
Nonetheless, even with his conception of pure theater, Artaud was never able to successfully “perform” the Theater of Cruelty. This difficulty has lead to its designation as “impossible theater” and the general consensus that Artaud’s description is too abstract and metaphorical for literal performance. Yet, the performance of this theater, in its purity, may be identifiable, not within the world of theatrics, but from an unlikely source within the Baltimore indie music scene: Dan Deacon.
Notorious for his immersive live performances, the experience of a Dan Deacon show can only be expressed as an “event.” If one examines this experience in light of Derrida’s six principles, the direct correlation between the Deacon “performance” and the Theater of Cruelty becomes undeniable.
“1. All non-sacred theater.” This first principle, the rejection of the non-sacred, is by far the most unclear, for the simple reason that no further elaboration is provided. Yet, if we recognize that the Theater of Cruelty “inhabits or rather produces a nontheological space” (W& D p.235), than we can further recognize that the sacred is not identical with the theological, i.e. traditionally religious. Instead, the sacred is a direct, though potentially indefinite, experience. Through this bracketing of the traditional-religious, the Dan Deacon show can be recognized as essentially sacred in its tonality, particularly in its more explicitly reflective modalities (notably, the experience of Snookered).
“2. All theater that privileges speech or rather the verb, all theater of words” The rejection of logo-centrism in Dan Deacon’s performances can be recognized in the simple fact that early all speech is improvised and contingent upon the present experience. There is not script, no director, no plot. Certain themes may recur and broad underlying structures (e.g. set-list) may be discernible, but, much like a jazz improvisation, these factors do not diminish its essentially improvised character.
“3. All abstract theater which excludes something from the totality of art.” It is perhaps in its artistic inclusivity that the Dan Deacon show bears its closest affinity to the Theater of Cruelty. Music, dance, comedy, visuals, tactile sensation, spoken word, athletic activity… all coincide at the event, blurring together in an unprecedented affective milieu.
“4. All theater of alienation…the non-participation of spectators” At the Dan Deacon performance, there are no spectators and there is no stage. The representational “4th wall” does not, and simply cannot, exist. Instead, it is precisely the enactment of the audience/performer which engenders the event. Certainly, Deacon functions as a master-of-ceremonies, holding a particularly unique role in regards to audio-performance. But his role is qualitatively similar to, perhaps nearly identical to, the audience/performer. His perspective, like every other, is unable to “describe it exhaustively and constitute it as an object.” Simply put, the Dan Deacon performance relies upon its audience/performer as much as on Dan Deacon himself.
“5. All nonpolitical theater” and “6. All idealogical theater… theater seeking to transmit a content.” These final two principles must be taken together if their meanings are to be accurately understood. For, the “politics” of the Theater of Cruelty must not be misunderstood as ideological. Pure theater does not seek to communicate, interpret, create, or deliver a content; even a political content. In what sense, then, can the Theater of Cruelty be understood as “political”? The theater is itself a political act. Once again, it must be recognized that the nonrepresentational character of the theater derives from its essence as enactment. The theater is political because it enacts politics, not because it transmits political ideologies. Like protest, rallies, or the recent “Occupy” encampments the simple act of gathering, the assembly of individuals, is itself a political act. Precisely the same can be said of the Dan Deacon concert. The act of assembly, even assembly with an aim toward the arts, is a political activity.
We must therefore reject the common assertion that the Theater of Cruelty is an impossible theater. For, not only is it possible, but it has been and is being actualized. Perhaps not within the “theater world,” but certainly within the wider world of artistic expression. As a twenty-first century Theater of Cruelty, the Dan Deacon performance permeates the audience/performer. It moves beyond mere representation and strikes at the nonrepresentational core of human reality, life itself.
*Derrida, Jacques. “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation” in Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978)