Beauty in Cruelty

by on Tuesday, 07 June 2011 Comments


At the end of April of this year, the Dark Eyes Lab launched their new collaborative production ‘A Crash Course in Modern Theatre: Theatre of Cruelty, Absurd Theatre and Anti-Theatre’, a part of which was the stunning Beauty 2011, which was put under the label of Theatre of Cruelty, a play that was first performed in 2000 by the Oz Theatre Company and was performed several times until the dissolution of the company in 2004. This is the first time it has been performed since then.

I'm not sure exactly why, but I started liking the Dark Eyes Performance Lab a while ago, perhaps it was because, without dialogue or scripts, it is the actions and expressions of the actors which allow the audience to experience their performance in a very physical way. In a similar way to Charlie Chaplin's silent movies, they use exaggerated movement and expressions to make the audience laugh, but we don't really question why we are laughing. Are we laughing at the pain of others? Is the nature of laughter cruel in itself? In Modern Times Chaplin falls onto a conveyor belt of a production line, he rolls back and forth comically. But is it funny? In the world after the Industrial Revolution, humanity is pushed towards standardization, humanity becomes but a screw holding together the machinery of the production line, the symbolic,the symbolism of the big gears lead to his insane behaviour. When the mask of humour drops, the cruel reality is revealed.

When I was watching Beauty 2011, some of the audience was laughing out loud, this laughter is just the same as the laughter at Chaplin's silent films, rending and piercing, which reveals its latent cruelty. The first actor to come out on stage chewed a steamed bun with an ecstatic expression on his face, the steamed bun looked (fragrant and sweet), as if the flavour came out more and more with every chew, enough to make you hungry for a taste. After undergoing a series of rituals, the other actor is at last ready to receive the sacred steamed bun, one mouthful at a time, enjoying the feeling of her mouth being stuffed full of it. However, her mouth, full to overflowing makes it hard for her to swallow, completely stopping up her mouth, with not a sliver of space remaining. She still forces a smile as she is force-fed more steamed buns. If in the pursuit of beautiful things we manage to chase down our prey, is it not akin to that crazy scene of excess; Wanting to vomit, but not wanting to waste the hard-earned steam bun? Even having regurgitated it and spat it out, the impulse to pick it back up and stuff it back into her mouth overpowers. The scene repeated ad infinitum, attains the nuance of cruelty. How is it cruel? The cruel is something that goes beyond physical pain, a kind of extreme psychological torture. In an interview with director Zheng Zhizhong, he said: "In 2004 when I was putting my actors through the Yuquan special training program, I already thought that their bodies did not have the tension required. They had to hold 1.8 litre milk bottles in both hands, and raise them above their heads; this kind of training program trained their bodies to have more endurance." The weight of 1.8 litre milk bottles to an untrained body seems cruel; it requires one to overcome psychological barriers. Like the psychological wall people report running into at a certain stage of a marathon, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. When the will and the body become at odds with each other it is also has a nuance of cruelty. In Beauty 2011, the will of the actor drives them to keep swallowing the steamed buns, but their body is unable to take any more. If the actors had not gone through the Yuquan special training program, perhaps their performance would not have attained the desired goal.

Rather than analysing to what extent Beauty 2011 conforms to Artaud's concept of the Theatre of Cruelty, it would almost be better to take Beauty 2011 as an embodiment of Artaud's condition: a condition in which the will is split from the body. This split shrouded Artaud for the whole of his life, inside his mind roamed free, but this resulted in the imprisonment of his body in a mental asylum, which made the split between the two only more pronounced. Although Artaud only ever suggested the concept of a Theatre of Cruelty, and that it has never been put into practice in performance, I think that Artaud in himself was an instance of this theatre, any attempt to represent the Theatre of Cruelty on stage signals the return of the unremitting spectre that is Artaud.

Article by Ida Yang, translated by Conor Stuart

Taiwanese director Zheng Zhizhong discusses his recent performance of "Beauty 2011" in a recent three-part introduction to Modern Theatre.

Alternative (for Readers in China)

Interview, Filming, Editing and Subs by Conor Stuart and Ida Yang

Ida Yang (楊詩涵)

Currently studying a Masters in Art Criticism at National Taipei University of Education.
Undergraduate at Fu Jen Catholic University, Department of French Language and Literature.

畢業於輔仁大學法文系
目前就讀國立臺北教育大學藝術與造形設計學系研究所藝術評論組

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