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Cruel Vibrations: Sounding Out Antonin Artaud's Production of Les Cenci1



This article examines the sonic elements of Antonin Artaud's 1935 production of Les Cenci, Artaud's infamous attempt to realize his proposed ‘theatre of cruelty’. The aim is to qualify the critical opinion that Artaud was a failed theatre practitioner by analysing the conceptual complexity and potential effectiveness of the sound design for this production. Artaud utilized new sonic technologies and an aesthetic arguably derived in part from Balinese gamelan music to affect audience members on a physiological level, prefiguring the vibrational force and ultrasonic ambitions of modern sonic warfare. This analysis engages a range of primary and secondary materials, including an extant recording of music and sound effects used for the production, and is situated with reference to an estimated acoustic ‘horizon of expectations’ of Artaud's audiences and to neuroscientific conceptions of how the brain processes auditory input.



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A Graduate Research Grant from Northwestern University supported archival research for this project. I wish to thank Tracy Davis, Susan Manning, Kimberly Jannarone, Jon Sherman and Audrey Curtin for their comments and assistance.



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2 Jannarone, Kimberly, ‘The Theatre before Its Double: Artaud Directs in the Alfred Jarry Theatre’, Theatre Survey, 46, 3 (2005), pp. 247–73.

3 See, for example, Knapp, Bettina L., Antonin Artaud: Man of Vision (New York: David Lewis, 1969), pp. 112–27; and Thévenin, Paule, ‘Une Musique de scène exemplaire’, in Mayer, Denise and Souvtchinsky, Pierre, eds., Roger Désormière et son temps: Textes en hommage (Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 1966), pp. 5465.

4 See my essay ‘Defining and Reconstructing Theatre Sound’, in Collins, Jane and Nisbett, Andrew, eds., Theatre and Performance Design: A Reader in Scenography (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 218–22.

5 The ‘acoustic’ horizon of expectations is a reformulation of that proposed by Jauss, Hans Robert in Towards an Aesthetics of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).

6 Artaud, Antonin, ‘What the Tragedy The Cenci at the Folies-Wagram Will Be about’ in idem, The Cenci, trans. Watson-Taylor, Simon (London: Calder, 1969), p. 11. This piece was first published in Le Figaro, 5 May 1935.

7 Indeed, the ‘surround-sound’ aspect of Artaud's production precedes the emergence of cinematic surround-sound. The first notable example of the latter was Disney's Fantasia (using ‘Fantasound’), released in 1940. See Klapholz, Jesse, ‘Fantasia: Innovations in Sound’, Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, 39 (February 1991), pp. 66–8, 70.

8 Artaud, The Cenci, pp. 22, 45. Artaud provided detailed instructions as to how this vocal effect was to be achieved in a note attached to the production notebook.

9 Ibid., p. 56.

10 The word ‘acousmatic’ refers to the akusmatikoi, pupils of Pythagoras who were required to sit in silence while they listened to their master speak from behind a screen. In music theory, acousmatic music is that which exists in recorded form and is designed for loudspeaker or headphone listening as opposed to music that one can ‘see’ performed; the term has particular usage in electro-acoustic art music and in film theory. See Schaeffer, Pierre, Traité des objets musicaux (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966); and Chion, Michel, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Gorbman, Claudia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

11 Artaud, The Cenci, p. 27, my emphasis.

12 Ibid., pp. 50, 55.

13 Quoted in Roger Blin et al., ‘Antonin Artaud in Les Cenci’, TDR: The Drama Review, 16 (no. 2 1972), pp. 90–145, here p. 102.

14 Artaud, The Cenci, p. 29.

15 Savarese, Nicola mentions the gamelan ensemble in passing in her unfortunately titled (but otherwise excellent) article ‘1931: Antonin Artaud Sees Balinese Theatre at the Paris Colonial Exhibition’, trans. Fowler, Richard, TDR, 45, 3 (2001), pp. 5177.

16 In his study of Edgard Varèse, Malcolm MacDonald notes that the use of the loudspeakers in The Cenci suggests resonances of a Varèsian aesthetic, and speculates as to whether Artaud may have derived some of his theatrical ideas from his discussions with Varèse about music in the early 1930s. MacDonald, , Varèse: Astronomer in Sound (London: Kahn and Averill, 2003), p. 236.

17 The sounds used are abstracted in a fashion that prefigures Pierre Schaeffer's technique of musique concrète – recorded, acousmatic, ‘found’ sounds – developed in the late 1940s.

18 This is track 17 on the recording held at the audiovisual department of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) (MSSAUD-105).

19 Artaud, The Cenci, pp. 58, 59.

20 Gold, Lisa, Music in Bali: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 111.

21 Armory, ‘Les Cenci’, in Comoedia, 8 May 1935.

22 Quoted in Blin et al., ‘Antonin Artaud’, pp. 138, 134, 133.

23 Ibid., p. 132.

24 Ibid., p. 136.

25 Ibid., p. 141.

26 Ibid., p. 142.

27 The possibility exists that Artaud fabricated these letters, although it is unlikely, and there is nothing to suggest that he did so.

28 Quoted in Blin et al., ‘Antonin Artaud’, p. 142.

30 Spreen, Constance, ‘Resisting the Plague: The French Reactionary Right and Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty’, Modern Language Quarterly, 64, 1 (2003), pp. 7196, here p. 84 and passim. The reviewer, Colette, writing in Le Journal, makes a passing remark about ‘reminders of Jewish theatre’ in support of his thesis that Artaud's production was beset by ‘many different and contradictory impulses’. Quoted in Blin et al., ‘Antonin Artaud’, p. 135. I have not been able to locate evidence of Jewish culture in Artaud's production, and so conclude that this remark was prejudicial.

31 Hollier, Denis, ‘The Death of Paper, Part Two: Artaud's Sound System’, October, 80 (1997), pp. 2737, here p. 35.

32 Quoted in Blin et al., ‘Antonin Artaud’, p. 127. The last sentence is a translation from the complete review, held at the manuscript department at the BnF (NAF 27431–27864).

33 Solidarité Française was founded in 1933 and disbanded in 1935. Its slogan was ‘France for the French’. See Soucy, Robert, French Fascism: The Second Wave, 1933–1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 59104.

34 See Cranny-Francis, Anne, ‘Sonic Assault to Massive Attack: Touch, Sound, and Embodiment’, Scan: Journal of Media Arts Culture, 5, 3 (2008) available at; and Goodman, Steve, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).

35 Artaud, ‘An Affective Athleticism’, in The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove, 1958), p. 135. Artaud refers here to the ‘soul’ of an actor, but I believe that the reference holds with respect to the ideal attendee (participant) of his theatre of cruelty.

36 Birdsall, Carolyn, ‘“Affirmative Resonances” in the City? Sound, Imagination and Urban Space in Early 1930s Germany’, in Mieszkowski, Sylvia, Smith, Joy and Valck, Marijke de, eds., Sonic Interventions: Sex, Race, Place (Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2007), pp. 5786, here pp. 57, 79.

37 On the topic of Artaud and fascism see Greene, Naomi, ‘All the Great Myths are Dark: Artaud and Fascism’, in Plunka, Gene, ed., Antonin Artaud and the Modern Theater (Toronto: Associate University Press, 1994), pp. 102–16; Jannarone, Kimberly, ‘Audience, Mass, Crowd: Theatres of Cruelty in Interwar Europe’, Theatre Journal, 61 (2009), pp. 191211; and idem, Artaud and His Doubles (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2010).

38 Artaud, Antonin, ‘No More Masterpieces’, from idem, The Theatre and Its Double, in Collected Works, Vol. IV, trans. Corti, Victor (London: Calder, 1974), pp. 61–2.

39 The conceptual figure of vibration is recurrent in the discourses of sound within the vanguard arts (and beyond), as Kahn, Douglas observes in ‘Introduction: Histories of Sound Once Removed’, in Kahn, Douglas and Whitehead, Gregory, eds., Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 129. Will Goetze's percussive scores for Mary Wigman's expressionist dances of the 1920s (inspired by her work with Rudolf Laban), which used vibrational force to connote ritualistic fervour, serve as antecedents to the work of Artaud and Désormière in Les Cenci.

40 See Vincent Meelberg's concept of the ‘sonic stroke’, derived from Gilles Deleuze's designation of affect as a pre- or anti-cognitive reaction (consonant with Artaudian aesthetic cruelty) in ‘Touched by Music: The Sonic Strokes of Sur Incises’, in Birdsall, Carolyn and Enns, Anthony, eds., Sonic Mediations: Body, Sound, Technology (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), pp. 6176.

41 Artaud, ‘On the Balinese Theatre’, from idem, The Theatre and Its Double, in Collected Works, Vol. IV, pp. 39, 41.

42 Oohashi, Tsutomu et al. , ‘Inaudible High Frequency Sounds Affect Brain Activity: Hypersonic Effect’, Journal of Neurophysiology, 83 (2000), pp. 3548–58, paraphrased by Goodman in Sonic Warfare, p. 184.

43 I borrow the formulation of centripetal audiosocial radiation from Goodman, Sonic Warfare, p. 11

44 Becker, Judith, Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), pp. 71, 56.

45 Albright, Daniel, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 40.

46 Artaud, ‘An Affective Athleticism’, from idem, The Theatre and Its Double, in Collected Works, Vol. IV, p. 106.

1 A Graduate Research Grant from Northwestern University supported archival research for this project. I wish to thank Tracy Davis, Susan Manning, Kimberly Jannarone, Jon Sherman and Audrey Curtin for their comments and assistance.

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Cruel Vibrations: Sounding Out Antonin Artaud's Production of Les Cenci1



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