The Theatre of Cruelty

Kate Hanzalik


“[Moral love] is nothing, it has no energy of its own, no spontaneous movement. It is a parasitic organism, an imagination or representation, which determines and orients the force of desire.”
-Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, 178

Author’s Statement. What is my video about? The question I am more concerned with, both in this Author’s Statement, and the video itself, is one that Roland Barthes asks in his essay, “The Third Meaning”: “How do you describe something that does not represent anything?” (61). In film, Barthes says, we can identify “The Obvious Meanings,” which are the informational meanings (character names, costumes, etc.) and symbolic meanings (the image of gold). But there may be something in an image that causes us to pause, something “evident, erratic, obstinate” (53). He names this “The Obtuse Meaning,” a term whose Latinate, obtusus, means an angle that is “blunted, rounded in form” (55). And perhaps spectators of my video will encounter their own obtuse meaning, but the video itself is a reaction to the obtuse meaning blunting the lines of letters, and, in particular, the word “love.” To interpret the video, therefore, is to put it in a box. Nevertheless, as I will go on to discuss, Derrida’s Of Grammatology and Ulmer’s Applied Grammatology do inform what could be read not as a representation, but rather as experimental art, a theatrical space for an engagement with obtuse meaning. Of Grammatology. In “Genesis and the Structure of the Essay on the Origin of Languages,” Derrida interrogates Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s articulations of “love.” Rousseau claims that natural virtue [la pitié naturelle] (another word for compassion [pitié]) is “universal” and “suitable to creatures so weak and subject to so many evils” (qtd. 173). Compassion, which has nothing to do with reason, sustains “the whole species” because it “hurries us without reflection to the relief of those who are in distress” (ibid.). As Derrida sees it, the “brutal and boundless rage” of our passions is “the absolutely primitive passion . . . the love of self” (qtd. 175; 174). To him, the notions of amorous passion (175), physical love (177), and natural desire (ibid.) all become the perversions of pity whose energies are arrested to become “moral love,” of which is not only “directed at a single [heterosexual] person” but also ensures, through the imagination, a “captor and destroyer” relationship between man and his necessarily refined wife (179-83). Where is the origin of pity, Derrida asks: “In fact, if pity is natural, if that which brings us to identify with others is an innate movement, love or the amorous passion is, on the contrary, not natural at all. It is a product of history and society” (174-75). He later concludes that “C. Rousseau thus comes to evoke the awakening of pity by the imagination—that is to say by the representation and reflection—in the double but actually single sense of those words” (187). All of these terms, Derrida adds, are at the very least part of a text whose origin is questionable (was it made in 1781, as some editors claim? Before 1781, according to others?) (171). In fact, he says, the text builds precariously upon an entire “history of love” and its “conventional meanings” (181; Rousseau qtd. 315). He insists that language has the power to “orient” us, to function as a “system of oppositions of places and values,” and, more relevant to my project, he uses the notion of love to demonstrate that it is no exception (215-216). Love is neither natural nor moral, as my video suggests—“The concept of origin or nature is nothing but the myth of addition, of supplementarity annulled by being purely additive” (OG 167). Any groping for obvious meaning is senseless. As such, neither Rousseau's interpretation nor Derrida’s satisfy me. Both are metaphorical, both are as obvious as the “clenched fist” of a character from Battleship Potemkin that, according to Barthes, symbolizes “indignation, anger mastered and channeled, the determination of the struggle” (55). Symbolic meaning is what Barthes calls “the obvious meaning,” but love is obtuse in so far as the obtuse is “theoretically locatable but not describable” (55, 64). The Theatre of Cruelty; or, Applied Grammatology. In another essay, “The Theatre of Cruelty,” Derrida draws from the surrealist playwright Antonin Artaud to suggest that the theatre, if done properly, can transcend the “theoretically locatable” to express what is indescribable. The Theatre of Cruelty, as Artaud calls it, is constituted by neither words nor traditional filmic or theatrical rules of production, but rather what Artaud calls “a unique language half-way between gesture and thought” (89) that necessarily dismisses its audience because the theatre is by definition “difficult and cruel for myself first of all” (79). Therefore, Derrida does not see The Theatre of Cruelty as a representation but rather “life itself, in the extent to which life is un-representable” (WD 234). The imaginative space of the theatre, or what Artaud calls “the internal world,” seems to be the space that, according to Rousseau, is supposedly a safe place within which we fabricate pity (Artaud 92). Derrida says in Genesis: “Without imagination, this pity does not awaken of itself in humanity, is not accessible to passion, language, and representation, does not produce identification with the other as with another me.” (185). How can this be applied to my video? Given Applied Grammatology, which concerns itself with the “electronic paradigm,” (Ulmer 301) the theatre’s physical space can be glued to the filmic while retaining the imaginative, “the internal world.” Heiroglyphs. Barthes senses the obtuse through costumes and makeup in film. “I can see clearly the traits, the signifying accidents of which this—consequently incomplete—sign is composed” (55). The accidents in film are much like what Derrida says of The Theatre of Cruelty’s “new theatrical writing”: “not only phonetic writing and the transcription of speech but also hieroglyphic writing, the writing in which phonetic elements are coordinate to visual, pictorial and plastic elements” (WD 240). In terms of Applied Grammatology, hieroglyphic writing is exemplified by what Ulmer sees as “filmic writing with respect to the question of the relation of words to images, of word-presentations to thing-presentations” (285). To those ends, the “hieroglyphic coordinates” that locate obtuse meaning in The Theatre of Cruelty include, but in no way are limited to, the following: The Phonetic. The voiceover is a scene from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. The symbolic meaning is the resonance of whatever Faulkner intended when he illustrated how a panic-stricken, half-dressed girl (Temple) locks herself in a crib set in a hallway beneath the trap door of a loft in a barn that she is all but held captive in. She wants to hide from a man (Goodwin) standing outside of the barn and an “old man with yellow clots for eyes” (Popeye), who later rapes her. The boy beside her, Tommy, a boy vowing to protect her, gropes her thighs, and eyes her with wheel-turned eyes that “glow” with the same “diffident, groping, hungry fire” of her rapist (99-102). To further the interpretation, we can recall Genesis to ask: Where is the natural compassion Rousseau speaks of? Who is hurrying to Temple “without reflection to the relief of her distress” (Rousseau qtd. in OG 173)? Faulkner suggests that compassion is not innate; even still, the obtuse meaning cannot be found in his writing alone (OG 171). We can see the voiceover going beyond words to become, as Ulmer says, “inner speech in montage imagery” (287). Instead of seeing that inner speech is a product of history and culture, “inner speech” according to Applied Grammatology “resembles in its operations the sensual logic of primitive language” (291). I would add that the primitive language of my video is directly related to primitive passion, only it is more contorted than constructed precisely because my voice, embodying Faulkner’s omniscient rendering of primitive passion, evokes the obtuse meaning I feel when contemplating what it means to love. The Sound. A lover’s whisper ends in a silence that opens into multiple registers. On audio track one, my narration is set to an echo-chamber sound effect, as if I were held captive not only within Temple but also within the somber mood construed on audio track two. Max Richter’s electronica presses into me with chronic ambient sadness. The two tracks enframe a Middle Voice mouthing flat words that may seem immoral, difficult, and cruel at least to me. They rise, they fall, then fade to the tune of a silence that is only audible to Temple as it becomes inverted with the thrashing sound of cottonseed-hulls and half-chewed corn-cobs upon which she sits (102). Finally, Richter’s “The Twins” initiates the reconstruction, the supplementation moving through a piano that sounds optimistically frantic. The Visual/Props. Red pieces of paper operate at a symbolic level to mean the flat substance of love (and words in general). A displaced corkboard is like the paper only it is harder, and covered over with substances that closely symbolize something along the lines of love including: tacks, notes from friends, a fake matted mirror torn out from an art magazine; construction paper cut-outs made by my niece and I; a kitsch Valentine’s day card that says “XOXO”; a postcard from my uncle “sending love” in 1944 from Trieste to my grandmother. All the props are enframed by a single prop, my iPhone set to Record. The Visual/Action. Frame 1 shows from an extreme high angle a disembodied hand, groping and tearing off the pieces of paper on the corkboard, which operates at a symbolic level to mean, for example, the disoriented perspective of an arrogant, reckless, and indifferent person taking away what constitutes the valuable and veritable meaning of another person’s life. Then there’s the throwing aside of the substances of love’s varieties, substances that, to the body doing the taking, are blurred, and unable to identify with. There’s the tedious taking apart of what matters: the sticky reprints (taken from galleries) that have been tacked onto the board and taped to each other. This includes the image of a surreal woman sitting in a chair beside a door, as if she were Temple, and the image of a door on the outside of a house, as if it were seen through the eyes of Popeye. Frame 2 shows the very easy, if not pitiless, cutting up of the substance of natural or unnatural love. Frame 3 zooms out to an impossibly safe distance to show the taking (not taking back) what’s been taken, taken apart, and thrown out of the way. The frame also shows the act of trying to piece the papers back together, of which is an act that alludes to the deconstruction and reconstruction of words and selves, and it is also symbolic of what we do because we keep on living. Undone. Artaud’s explains that the cruelty of the theatre “is not the cruelty we can exercise upon each other by hacking at each other’s bodies, carving up our personal anatomies, or, like Assyrian emperors, sending parcels of human ears, but much more terrible and necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us” (79). I believe this is the symbolic cruelty that my video implies, if we are to take paper to mean pieces of one’s self, or if we want to see that the “dangerous supplement” for love, moral love, is the product of history and society and the cause of the degradation of personal anatomies (OG 165). But the "terrible and necessary cruelty" I feel is, to echo Artaud, "cruelty that cements matter together, cruelty that molds the features of the created world" (104).


Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and Its Double. Trans. Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Press, 1958.

Barthes, Roland. “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills.” Image – Music – Text. Trans. Steven Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978. 45-68.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. 

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. New York: Vintage, 1958.

Richter, Max. “Landscape with Figure (1922).” Memoryhouse. London: Late Junction, 2002.

- - -. “The Twins (Prague).” Memoryhouse. London: Late Junction, 2002. 

- - -. “Vladimir’s Blues.” The Blue Notebooks. London: FatCat Records, 2004.

Ulmer, Gregory. Applied Grammatology: Post(e)-Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

Kate Hanzalik is a Ph.D. Candidate and Graduate Teacher of Record in the Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design program at Clemson University. A student of Victor Vitanza, her work explores not only the ways in which Electracy can be, and is already, integrated into composition classrooms and scholarship but also how such integrations might be politically and economically advantageous for marginalized groups. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Itineration, Computers and Composition Online, and Journal of Writing in Creative Practice. She is influenced by the scholarship of Gregory Ulmer, particularly with respect to his assumption “that teachers-scholars will not only perform the double inscription in the classroom but that they will turn to film/video as the means most adequate for a postmodernized academic essay” (AG 166).