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SURREALISM IN THE THEATRE

The following article by Jerome P. Crabb was originally published on this website on October 27, 2006.

A product of Dadaism, Surrealism (in French "super realism" or "greater than realism") can be traced back to Guillaume Apollinaire’s only play, The Breasts of Tiresias, which was performed in Paris in 1918. In the preface, Apollinaire himself refers to the play as “un drame surréliste.” The unique verbal associations of this unique comedy, along with its anything-goes dreamlike atmosphere and the theoretical implications of the author’s preface, became the foundation for the surrealist movement.

After Apollinaire’s untimely death (1918), Andre Breton emerged as the main spokesman for Surrealism. Although Dadaism had been primarily negative, its destructive force had cleared the air, making room for Surrealism which believed in the great positive, healing force of the subconscious mind. Breton declared the subconscious to be the real repository of truth and advocated automatic writing, dream logic, and other techniques to tap into this universal wellspring of veracity. During the 1920s and 1930s, surrealists such as Breton, Louis Aragon, Roger Vitrac, and Antonin Artaud experimented with various techniques to liberate themselves from the straitjacket of convention. They consciously abandoned order, clarity, and rational thought (for centuries the prerequisites of great art) for the spontaneity, originality, and anarchic humor of disjointed, dreamlike (and sometimes nightmarish) episodes which attempted to capture a different kind of truth. Their objective was to abolish art as a mere imitation of surface reality and replace it with visions that were, in essence, more real than reality—that dealt with inner truth rather than outward appearance. Some of the plays produced during this period were Artaud's Upset Stomach, or The Mad Mother, Vitrac's The Mysteries of Love, and Aragon's At the Foot of the Wall.

In his Second Manifesto, Breton described the surrealists as striving to attain a "mental vantage-point (point de l'esprit) from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, past and future, communicable and incommunicable, high and low, will no longer be perceived as contradictions." In a lecture given in Brussels on June 1, 1924, he elaborated: “We have attempted to present interior reality and exterior reality as two elements in process of unification, or finally becoming one. This final unification is the supreme aim of surrealism: interior reality and exterior reality being, in the present form of society, in contradiction (and in this contradiction we see the very cause of man's unhappiness, but also the source of his movement), we have assigned to ourselves the task of confronting these two realities with one another on every possible occasion, of refusing to allow the preeminence of the one over the other, yet not of acting on the one and on the other both at once, for that would be to suppose that they are less apart from one another than they are (and I believe that those who pretend that they are acting on both simultaneously are either deceiving us or are a prey to a disquieting illusion); of acting on these two realities not both at once, then, but one after the other, in a systematic manner, allowing us to observe their reciprocal attraction and interpenetration and to give to this interplay of forces all the extension necessary for the trend of these two adjoining realities to become one and the same thing.”

Surrealist theatre was not received with great enthusiasm by the critics. For the most part, they seemed to keep it at arms length, not wishing to condone such uncivilized displays on the stage and continually asserting that it must only be a passing phase in the dramatic development—a disquieting anomaly. They, like many audience members of the time, seemed almost frightened by the surrealists’ intuitive exploration of the nature of the subconscious. In The Surrealist Mind, John Herbert Matthews analyzes this instinctive reaction, writing, “Among those who do not comprehend surrealism are people who look upon the real as verifiable, as something to be checked against past experience or observation. These individuals fail to see that for the surrealist the dimensions of the real cannot be gauged by reference to the familiar. So far as the real appears to have limits, they are foisted upon it by the mental, emotional, and imaginative limitations of spectators accustomed to measure the possible by the already known. For this reason, surrealism and many of its contemporary opponents remained inevitably at loggerheads. The one group insisted on estimating the scope of reality by its possibilities. The other condemned the real to be repetitive of what the past had shown them.”

During World War II, Surrealism was gradually absorbed by more successful movements such as the Theatre of the Absurd. After the chaos and uncertainty of this catastrophic global war, most people became more willing to accept the inexplicable onstage, for they were familiar with the absurdity of the human condition, having experienced it first hand. Many of the surrealists’ ideals were also carried on by former members of the movement such as Antonin Artaud who wrote in The Theatre and Its Double: “The theatre will never find itself again … except by furnishing the spectator with the truthful precipitate of dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsessions, his savagery, his chimeras, his utopian sense of life and matter, even his cannibalism pour out on a level not counterfeit and illusory, but interior. In other terms, the theatre must pursue by all its means a reassertion not only of all the aspects of the objective and descriptive external world but of the internal world; that is, of man considered metaphorically.”

Today, the influence of Surrealism can be seen in the works of such dramatists as Caryl Churchill and Gao Xingjian.

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