Drama Post 1: Cruelty

So, after a serious hiatus from posting, I’m going to start again. Not like that wasn’t already obvious, but I’m going to start posting drama-related, or should I say induced, posts that come out of a drama workshop I’m currently in. I think these posts are going to be more like journal entries, attempting to trace how I’m processing the (new for me) information. And today’s new information is Antonin Artaud’s linking of the theater and cruelty: “Everything that acts is a cruelty. It is upon this idea of extreme action, pushed beyond all limits, that theater must be rebuilt” (85).

Cruelty. I’d heard it before in my MFA program: “the secret to poetry is cruelty.” It seemed to be a mantra slung between student and professor, dating back to Jon Anderson’s “The Secret of Poetry.” And we quipped it in workshop or in bars or on each other’s couches or in each other’s manuscripts. And then, as sudden as it had started, my MFA was done. But cruelty remained relevant in my manuscript, at least the idea of being cruel—to people, on the page, and thus the reader, the audience. Ideally, I figured, there was/is a certain honesty in enacting cruelty on the page as one does in relationships. Only, I suppose, the creator of the cruelty has a bit more control—at least he/she can go back and edit some cruelty in or crank it up a few notches or even hold it back in certain moments. Artaud echoes this notion when he says, “In a word, we believe that there are living forces in what is called poetry and that the image of a crime presented in the requisite theatrical conditions is something infinitely more terrible for the spirit than that same crime when actually committed” (85).

It was a huge breakthrough for me when I realized my manuscript wasn’t necessarily just about being cruel, but about how cruelty was composed. My manuscript was an enactment of control. Cruelty is control. Jon Anderson starts his poem with regard to this: “When I was lonely, I thought of death. / When I thought of death I was lonely. / I suppose this error will continue” (1-3). He places the speaker in a position of pseudo-control, the illusion of control, suggesting that there is a way to stave off loneliness. For a while, I thought Anderson’s cruelty was towards the wife and child in the poem, that the speaker was being cruel—and he is—by approaching them as mono-dimensional subjects, or rather objects, as there’s a serious detachment from them. But upon rereading the poem over the past few weeks, I believe Anderson is the cruel one. He is the puppet master, the director, the author, the god. And though it’s quite easy to read his speaker as him (as one often does in poetry), there’s an inherent separation of speaker and author—solely because the author can eventually finish the poem, grab a cup of coffee, see friends and their new children, get rid of an old car, move into a nicer apartment, shower off the debris of loneliness, etc etc. The speaker, however, is confined to a singular ordering of 18 lines. And so, though Anderson may still think of death when lonely, he can also think of other things; he can even stop being lonely. There may be a cycle that takes place in his mind—let’s face it, Anderson wasn’t in a good place for a long time—but he probably had good days, days that didn’t feel quite so cyclic, quite so lonely. There are no good days for this speaker, and the cruelty is how Anderson chooses to have the speaker enact his loneliness. There is a singular quality to this—also a definite quality. So, Anderson’s “secret” is to show/enact a cruelty towards all subjects, especially the self. The error that he speaks of is the notion that we have some control in our lives—that we are convinced that we have this control. The author is cruel; god, in the same sense, is cruel.

I guess, in this sense, “cruelty” consists less of taking pleasure in being cruel and more the removal of care for the object/subject one is being cruel towards. Moreover, one can argue that it is crueler to have Anderson create this system, this poem, and then leave the speaker and “you” of the poem to ponder how a cold flower’s beauty could leave them inconsolable—that the cruelty of a creator is the creator’s apathy towards the events he/she has set in motion.

And so, it’s at this point that I revise my definition of cruely. Cruelty is still control, but the degree to which control is had and used alters the degree of cruelty. Essentially, it’s not cruel to write a character locked in a poem/story/drama (or a person locked in life); creators aren’t inherently cruel. The cruelty comes, though (and perhaps inherently), from there being a creation, from the distance between creator and creation. This is similar to the end of Albert Camus’ “The Misunderstand”—where The Old Man (god), always in the background, always tidying and manipulating the details of the set, refuses to help the grieving Maria (arguably innocent in the entirety of the play). This is the same to how Jon Anderson ends his poem. After his speaker asserts his desire to leave the cold flower on the you’s window sill to cause her/him/you to feel inconsolable (another act of control), Anderson abandons the scene, the speaker, you; and we are left with the secret to a question we didn’t know we asked: “The secret of poetry is cruelty.” So, given Anderson’s insight, the actual cruelty towards Maria is not from The Old Man’s apathy, but from Camus using Maria—the person, the character, the prop—as a means to enact emotion, drama. And it is the manipulation of this cruelty that creates the drama. We may be able to analyze characters and plot and lines and all the tangible details, but the manipulation of the cruelty is arguably what actually reminds us, ever so subtly, of reality, however cruel that reality may be.

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