Note: this is based off of some of the same material that appears in a chapter that I wrote for the Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater. It’s substantially different from that chapter, but if you’re interested in that book, you can check it out here.
Antonin Artaud was, to put it mildly, a weird dude. However, somewhere in between the experimentation with peyote, the stint in a mental hospital, and appearing in a number of classic French films, he also formulated some of the most influential theories of the modern theatre. To wildly oversimplify, he wanted a theatre that tossed out rationality, emphasized images over highfalutin’ language, and forced people to overcome societal taboos and confront the cruelty of existence (“so…he didn’t write happy plays, then?” you ask). People thought that he was bonkers while he was alive (and not without cause!), but his ideas inspired much of the most wildly experimental theatre of the 1960s and onwards.
One of the ideas that Artaud had involved the idea of creating a theatre that would spread like the plague. This wasn’t the same as some producer saying “We’ll have tweet seats, the show will go viral! I like saying meaningless buzzwords!” No, Artaud actually wanted to create something that would become a sort of artistic contagion, spreading throughout the populace. He was being fairly literal, since, among his other eccentricities, he wasn’t a big believer in the whole germ theory thing – he really thought that disease could spread by mystical, spiritual means (See Stanton Garner’s “Artaud, Germ Theory, and the Theatre of Contagion” in Theatre Journal, 2006).
The concept of theatre-as-plague was just one of Artaud’s many ideas that groups such as the Living Theatre incorporated into their work in the 1960s. Works like Paradise Now (which you can see a trailer for, in all of its 60s [and slightly NSFW] glory, here) aimed to help people break through societal restrictions – like, say, wearing clothes – through an infectious communal experience. This was a pretty positive view of the plague theatre, offering it as an irrational, exuberant experience that would lead to peaceful revolution and a better world.
But there’s a counter-example to this utopian vision, one based in medieval history, and it ain’t pretty.
On July 14, 1518, a Frau (Mrs.) Troffea began dancing uncontrollably in the streets of Strasbourg, in what’s now the far eastern part of France. She didn’t stop for six days. She also wasn’t alone for very long: the next month saw scores, possibly hundreds of people succumb to the same impulse (much of this comes from John Waller’s fascinating The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness, which is worth checking out for a more detailed version of the story). Nor was this a happy-go-lucky street party. People cried out in fear and pain, unable to stop dancing no matter how much they might want to. Many seemed convinced that they were possessed by demons or other evil spirits. A number of the dancers died, overcome by exhaustion, dehydration, or some combination of related factors.
This wasn’t the first time that something like this had happened. Throughout the Middle Ages, parts of modern-day France, Germany, and the Low Countries had seen outbreaks of spontaneous dancing. As in the case of the Strasbourg outbreak, it wasn’t fun, and it could often be deadly. Waller estimates in his history of the 1518 case that “there could certainly have been several dozen deaths” in Strasbourg before the outbreak ended (Waller 139).
How did this spontaneous dance party from hell get started? Waller points to the possibility that it was a mass state of trance – the dancers caught the bug, so to speak, from seeing others and then became convinced that they couldn’t snap out of it. In other cultures around the world, such as Bali, trance is a totally normal thing, and there are established rituals and procedures for helping people transition into and out of that state. But the dancers in Strasbourg, according to Waller, had no framework for understanding what was going on, and that led to confusion, fear, and oftentimes fatal consequences.
There’s an obvious connection with Artaud, but the implications might not be 100% clear. On the surface, we can see the dancing plague as an illustration of Artaud’s theatre-as-plague concept, albeit a version that went horribly wrong. “Well,” you may say, “it is called the Theatre of Cruelty.” However, it’s the underlying circumstances of the Strasbourg dancing plague that suggest some darker implications for Artaud’s theories.
The dancing plague of 1518, as well as many of the earlier instances of similar events, seems to have been preceded by hardship in the form of natural disasters, outbreaks of actual plague, and peasant rebellions in the countryside. The people of Strasbourg were stressed, and probably deeply frightened about their future well-being. Waller argues that this made for a perfect combination of factors that could convince people like Frau Troffea that there was something seriously wrong, on a spiritual level, with them and their community, leading to the outbreak of mass hysteria that culminated in so many dead dancers.
Accounts of earlier outbreaks of dancing plague often mention that the dancers threatened priests and other religious figures nearby. This makes a certain amount of sense if you consider that many dancers thought that they were possessed by demons, but it might also be read as cover for expressing revolutionary sentiments against the church and other institutions of authority. However, it’s worth noting that, in all recorded cases, the outbreaks calmed down when figures from the religious hierarchy asserted itself and “cured” the dancers. In the Strasbourg case, leading the dancers to a ritual at the nearby shrine of St. Vitus proved the decisive moment in ending the outbreak.
Given this, it seems to me that the dancers weren’t so much expressing an unconscious desire for revolution as they were calling upon more traditional power structures to reassert their efficacy. They don’t appear to have wanted something new; they wanted the old order, warts and all, to show that it was still capable and in charge, and the plague only ended when it stepped up and did just that. For all that we want an Artaudian outbreak of theatre-plague to up-end the establishment, I find it striking that the best historical example that we can find sought to do the exact opposite.
Nor do we need to look as far back as the 16th century to find examples of Artaud’s theories in action that don’t sit very comfortably with us. When he wrote his theories in the 1930s, he was calling for a powerful director to create mass theatrical spectacles that would cause people to overthrow their reason and become part of a big, emotional crowd. As scholars such as Kimberly Jannarone have pointed out, the 30s had plenty of spectacles like these: the problem was that they were all organized by fascist regimes in Germany and Italy.
So Artaud’s demand for spectacles of cruelty (side note: I call dibs on that phrase for my band’s new name) is potentially much more dangerous than we might initially think. Furthermore, it suggests that there are certain aspects of our nature that we probably shouldn’t unleash: it’s all well and good to fight against the tyranny of clothes, but that same impulse can lead you a much darker place.