Interrogating Torture and Finding Race
(introductory chapter to my book on 17th stagings of torture)
Antonin Artaud’s second manifesto for the Theatre of Cruelty cries out for a theatre that will depict “great social upheavals” and “conflicts between peoples and races.”1 Opposed to “disinterested” theatre, Artaud designed the Theatre of Cruelty to depict and affect not only the “tortured victims,” but also the “executioner-tormentor himself.” Artaud viewed both as trapped by “a kind of higher determinism” which he sought to alter through the Theatre of Cruelty (102). To usher in this new theatrical tradition, Artaud declared that the “first spectacle of the Theatre of Cruelty will be entitled: The Conquest of Mexico” (126). Explaining his choice for the inaugural event, Artaud wrote, “From the historical point of view, The Conquest of Mexico poses the question of colonization. It revives in a brutal and implacable way the ever active fatuousness of Europe. It permits her idea of her own superiority to be deflated” (126).
In his discussion of the Theatre of Cruelty, Artaud explicitly linked depictions of cruelty/torture with depictions of racialized subjects. The intersection of these events and depictions was chosen, Artaud explained, “because of its immediacy . . . for Europe and the world” (126). Writing in the 1930s and 1940s, Artaud experienced a Europe that was united by its colonial endeavors throughout much of the southern hemisphere. Consequently, Artaud was explicitly challenging the racist justifications for these colonial projects. “By broaching the alarmingly immediate question of colonization and the right one continent thinks it has to enslave another,” Artaud intoned, “this subject [of The Conquest of Mexico] questions the real superiority of certain races over others and shows the inmost filiation that binds” them (126-127).
In his first manifesto for the Theatre of Cruelty, Artaud explained his plans to stage an “adaptation of a work from the time of Shakespeare, a work entirely consistent with our present troubled state of mind,” a work “stripped of [its] text and retaining only the accouterments of period, characters, and action” (99, 100). Thus, Artaud’s decision to adapt John Dryden’s 1665 play, The Indian Emperour, or the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, for the Theatre of Cruelty had an intrinsic logic because it not only depicted “great social upheavals” and “conflicts between peoples and races,” but also was “consistent with our present troubled [i.e., colonial] state of mind.” The sequel to his popular play The Indian Queen, Dryden’s Indian Emperour contained exactly what Artaud desired to depict: an explicit scene of torture motivated by a sense of entitlement and racial superiority.
Pizarro: Thou hast not yet discover’d all thy store.
Montezuma: I neither can nor will discover more;
The gods will punish you, if they be just;
The gods will plague your sacrilegious lust.
Christian Priest: Mark how this impious heathen justifies
His own false gods, and our true God denies!
How wickedly he has refused his wealth,
And hid his gold from christian hands, by stealth.
Down with him, kill him, merit heaven thereby.
Indian High Priest: Can heaven be author of such cruelty?
Pizarro: Since neither threats nor kindness will prevail,
We must by other means your minds assail;
Fasten the engines; stretch ’em at their length,
And pull the straiten’d cords with all your strength.
[They fasten [Montezuma and the Indian Priest] to the rack, and then pull them.
Montezuma: The gods, who made me once a king, shall know
I still am worthy to continue so.
Though now the subject of your tyranny,
I’ll plague you worse than you can punish me.
Know, I have gold, which you shall never find;
No pains, no tortures shall unlock my mind.
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