Life is the striving for perfection in creativity – a pursuit that turns all activities, from the simplest to the most complex, into art. Everything humans create, all human fabrication, all that is not natural i.e. not found in nature but is the product of human hands and minds, constitutes art. And we take artistic pride in the creation of even the most practical objects that serve our daily needs – in baking the perfect loaf of bread, for example. But creative acts that contribute to the requirements of daily living, being practical, are differentiated from creative acts that cater to mental and spiritual needs. Everyday creativity is art; specialized creativity that is inspirational, is Art.

And Art – Music, Dance, Painting, Sculpture, Poetry, Novels, Playwriting, Acting, etc. – is not simply intuitive creation of beautiful things; it also represents conscious reflection on life. Though the Arts are not seen as essential services (especially by governments), they are, nevertheless, essential to the maintenance and the progress of a community. Abstracted from everyday living, the Arts are symbolic activities that examine our belief systems. They keep us striving for perfection in presenting the best and worst in human nature through the benign vehicle of entertainment (or, as in the visual arts, appreciation). The Arts offer a safe domain in which to examine the volatility of human nature.


Artistic creativity, in common with all forms of creativity, requires freedom from convention – the only freedom possible in society. And in a no-man’s land in which dichotomies of right and wrong, good and evil do not apply, that is where creativity burgeons. The only real freedom is in the creative act and it is euphoric; it leads to innovation which in turn leads to change. Though change is feared as it requires breaking out of habitual ways of thinking and believing – and embracing the unconventional, once accepted, however, it becomes the new convention. As conventions are forms of restraint, they invite restructuring. Thus the human search for freedom that underpins creativity, that makes possible continuous expansion of human understanding is, in Alvin Toffler’s terms, a wave-like progression.

The Mirror to Nature

Theatre, which brings all Art forms together in its storytelling, holds the mirror up to human nature and allows us to examine the human condition from an objective point of view. As a metaphorical representation of our striving for perfection, theatre shows good overcoming evil, humans overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, people confronting complex moral choices. It often shows us the achievement of perfection in the happy ending. In W.S. Gilbert’s words, “I'm really very sorry for you all, but it's an unjust world, and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.” (The Mikado) But seeing this triumph portrayed, stimulates us to reach for it in real life. Theatre, therefore, though an imitation of life, in presenting heroic achievements, encourages life to imitate art. And the distinction between Art and life is blurred as life and Art become mirror images, in a hall of mirrors.

    • In everyday life, ‘if’ is a fiction; in the theatre ‘if’ is an experiment. In everyday life, ‘if’ is an evasion; in the theatre ‘if’ is the truth. When we are persuaded to believe in this truth, then the theatre and life are one. (Peter Brook, The Empty Space, 175)

In its many forms – stage performances, radio, film, television, DVD – theatre has become an essential part of our lives and impacts powerfully on our ability to make sense of human existence.


Supreme man of the theatre, Shakespeare, working with the facts of the stories on which his plays are based and embellishing fact with the inventions of his mind, repeatedly confronts us with the factitious nature of both human existence and theatre. The creation of life on stage imitates the human creation of civilization and its exploration of the nature of being.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare presents his general view of theatre. Hamlet, as playwright, warns actors against overacting; they have to perform with energy but without exaggerated gestures, facial and vocal expressions. Overacting makes performance insincere, unbelievable, points to its fictitious nature and detracts from the play’s purpose of revealing to people the truths of their actions and their influence on the times in which they live.

  • ... let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance; that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.(Hamlet, III, ii, 16-24)

This is Hamlet, the director, creating a believable performance that will not detract from the message he is sending to the audience, in particular to Claudius. This intention is wrapped up in the notion of theatre as the mirror to human nature and its function to enlighten us about human existence.

But Shakespeare goes beyond the understanding of theatre as a means of providing insight into the meaning of community. We may infer from his many metaphors of life as theatre, that the act of creating life on the stage led him to contemplation of its similarities to the act of creation of life in the world.

In As You Like It: the character, Jaques, describes the stages of a human life as roles played by an actor.

  • ... All the world’s a stage,
  • And all the men and women merely players
  • They have their exits and their entrances
  • And one man in his time plays many parts
  • ( Act 2, scene 7, 139–143)

Is this a metaphor of the world as a stage or is it a declaration of the metaphoric nature of human existence in the world?

In, The Tempest, Prospero, having presented a theatrical vision, a magic show (the baseless fabric, this insubstantial pageant) which has vanished into thin air, declares that the world (the great globe) is also ephemeral.

    • And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
    • The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
    • The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
    • Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
    • And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    • Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
    • As dreams are made on, and our little life
    • Is rounded with a sleep. (Tempest, IV, i, 151-8)

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on” i.e. we ourselves are insubstantial so what we take as real is not; it is also a dream. Life, therefore, is as much a performance as a stage play. Life and theatre are almost interchangeable. Life is a play and theatre – a play within a play.

    • “... Out, out, brief candle.
    • Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
    • That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    • And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    • Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    • Signifying nothing.” (Macbeth V, iv, 22-7)

This is Macbeth’s despair at the ruin he has made of his life. He now sees life as artificial (a human creation). In his references to life as a ‘shadow’ and a ‘tale,’ the world as a ‘stage’, he presents the reality of life as a performance and sees it as meaningless – ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.’ He is blind to the fact that it is a tale that he has made of his life. He has been under the illusion that supernatural powers (the witches) were structuring his life. His blindness forces us to see we that we each shape our own destiny so we must take responsibility for what we make of our lives. Just as an actor shapes his role, so we shape our lives. The idiot who tells the tale of one’s life, is oneself.

    • Humans had built a world inside the world, which reflected it in pretty much the same way as a drop of water reflected the landscape. And yet ... and yet ...
      Inside this little world they had taken pains to put all the things you might think they would want to escape from — hatred, fear, tyranny, and so forth. Death was intrigued. They thought they wanted to be taken out of themselves, and every art humans dreamt up took them further in.” (Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters)

The freedom to create, the essence of being human, is taken a step further in the following quote:

    • “The stage is a magic circle where only the most real things happen, a neutral territory outside the jurisdiction of Fate where stars may be crossed with impunity. A truer and more real place does not exist in all the universe.” (P.S. Baber, Cassie Draws the Universe)

And here we have a reversal of the notion of art imitating life. In being able to act ‘outside the jurisdiction of Fate’ makes it possible for theatre to investigate new ways of thinking, doing and being. As in Science Fiction.

Being simultaneously conscious reflection on, as well as an expression of, human creativity, Art has a dual nature and this duality is made most obvious in theatre. Being the re-creation of life with real people in roles, a theatrical performance is the word made flesh.

And this brings us to Antonin Artaud and his understanding of theatre as reality not imitation.

Antonin Artaud

In his book, The Theatre and its Double, Antonin Artaud rejects the idea of Theatre as a mirror to nature – its reduction of theatre from Art to a form of therapy.

    • Its object is not to resolve social or psychological conflicts, to serve as battlefield for moral passions, but to express objectively certain secret truths, to bring into the light of day by means of active gestures certain aspects of truth that have been buried under forms in their encounters with Becoming. (Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, 69)

And for Artaud, the expression of truth is not primarily through the word. Artaud advocates the reduction of the use of spoken language in theatre in order to give access to vital, instinctual understanding. For him, language, the carrier of conventional meaning, is a mask, the mask of civilization, with which we cover over the reality of existence. And language in plays, is that mask; it hides from us the reality of the human condition.

    • ... the public is no longer shown anything but the mirror of itself.
    • Shakespeare himself is responsible for this aberration and decline, this disinterested idea of the theater which wishes a theatrical performance to leave the public intact, without setting off one image that will shake the organism to its foundations and leave an ineffaceable scar. (Ibid. 76-7)

For Artaud, the performance is not complete unless it awakens in the audience the awareness of the truth that is hidden under social convention. So the audience cannot be a passive, separate entity — merely observers. The audience must be made part of the performance; it has to be placed in the midst of the performance, surrounded by the actors who do not act before it but upon it. Theatre then becomes true theatre, the Theatre of Cruelty; “cruelty” means setting off images “that shake the organism to its foundations and leave an ineffaceable scar.”

    • Cruelty was not tacked onto my thinking; it has always been at home there: but I had to become conscious of it. I employ the word 'cruelty' in the sense of an appetite for life, a cosmic rigor and implacable necessity, in the gnostic sense of a living whirlwind that devours the darkness, in the sense of that pain apart from whose ineluctable necessity life could not continue; good is desired, it is the consequence of an act; evil is permanent. (Ibid. 102)

So for Artaud, theatre becomes a kind of religious ritual in which good is abstracted from entrapment in prevailing evil. This seems to be acceptance of finite, though mystical, meaning in existence. It is different from Shakespeare’s view of theatre which reflects the human search for finiteness in the meaning of existence.

In the Theatre of Cruelty, audience involvement has to be not only with the actors but with all elements of the performance and in particular with the mise en scene. For Artaud the mise en scene – sets, lighting, movement of actors, costumes, i.e. the physical presentation of the performance – is more effective in shaking the audience out of an artificial and perfunctory existence than the spoken word. Artaud deplores the fact that the mise en scene is seen only as context for the spoken word when it is more than mere accompaniment; when it is the purveyor of an intuitive understanding of reality that words cannot express.Â

    • ... it is not a question of whether the physical language of theater is capable of achieving the same psychological resolutions as the language of words, whether it is able to express feelings and passions as well as words, but whether there are not attitudes in the realm of thought and intelligence that words are incapable of grasping and that gestures and everything partaking of a spatial language attain with more precision than they. (Ibid. 70)
    • To do that, to link the theater to the expressive possibilities of forms, to everything in the domain of gestures, noises, colors, movements, etc., is to restore it to its original direction, to reinstate it in its religious and metaphysical aspect, is to reconcile it with the universe. (Ibid. 69)

For Artaud, the suppression of words, allows the theatre experience to become an epiphany; makes possible intuitive understanding of the reality of existence. Without excessive dependence on words, theatre becomes a mystical experience and is returned to the realm of the religious.

In his Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal takes the idea of bringing the audience into the performance further than Artaud. But he brings the audience in as conscious not intuitive beings as in the Theatre of Cruelty. The audience at a Boal-type theatre event is encouraged to make suggestions that change the course of events and to enter the performances to act out their understandings of and solutions to problems. Audiences are not allowed to be passive observers of performance; they have to become active creators of performance –i.e. playwrights and actors – working alongside the professional troupe to objectify the reality of their existence. In the Theatre of the Oppressed entertainment gives way to examination of real conditions; to exploration of ways to challenge existing states of affairs and bring about change. In the Theatre of the Oppressed life and Art are one.

In Berthold Brecht’s Theatre of Alienation (Epic Theatre), life and art are deliberately kept separate. So the stage has to be seen as a stage with lighting instruments and props, not a natural environment. This is to prevent the audience from empathising with performers and performance. Keeping the audience conscious of being separate, allows it to remain critically aware. In the presentation of theatrical images that disturb and outrage, audiences must see and acknowledge the horror and cruelty of oppression – the reality that is hidden under facades. The audience must be shocked into awareness of the necessity for change.

In Brecht’s Epic Theatre, alienation is the mirror in which the distorted images that we have made of life are reflected. It presents the necessity for change and depends on the objectivity of the audience to see that. In the Theatre of Cruelty, the performance has to evoke intuitive (mystical) understanding and it can only happen in the theatre; for Brecht and for Boal (the Theatre of the Oppressed), the performance has to raise consciousness in order to effect change outside the theatre – in the community.


Though Artaud gave theatre a real boost, especially in terms of its presentation – as was demonstrated in Peter Brook’s circus theatre production of A Midsummer Nights’ Dream – theatre maintains the division between performance and audience and continues to hold the mirror up to nature through its ability to entertain. But why is entertainment necessary? It is the means by which the meanings of the Arts are given objectivity. Entertainment or delight allows us to experience Art as outside of ourselves and in enjoying them, we are not coerced by the understandings of reality that they present; we are free to use our own judgment.

In Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty (aptly named, I think), the audience would not have that freedom of choice because Artaud wishes it to be subjectively involved in the performance – in a ritual that eliminates entertainment.

But having evolved from religious ritual, theatre is no longer confined by it. Its ability to entertain is what freed it from ritual, freed it from conformity, freed it to explore the human condition. Having a narcissistic interest in ourselves, it is the reflection of ourselves that we find most interesting and entertaining; that draws us to the theatre and to movies.

    • ... theatre is ... a public event, a spectacle or a show, attempting to please or amaze the audience by a display of exceptional stage achievements, ... In that sense, like sporting events or the circus, theatre serves what I shall call the performance function: it satisfies our natural desire to achieve or witness something extraordinary. (Jean Alter, A Socio-semiotic Theory of Theatre)

Theatre entertainment takes many forms -- from the highly spiritual and intellectual to the most nonsensical and ridiculous. All cater to the diversity of human experience. But for some, excessive dependence on the entertainment aspect of theatre diminishes it as Art.

    • When you come into the theater, you have to be willing to say, "We're all here to undergo a communion, to find out what the hell is going on in this world."ÂIf you're not willing to say that, what you get is entertainment instead of art, and poor entertainment at that. (DAVIDÂMAMET, Three Uses of the Knife)

There is a suggestion here that entertainment is separate from Art. But the entertainment aspect of Art is essential not only to our enjoyment but also to our appreciation and understanding. What we experience in the theatre is not simply the performance, it is also the medium itself in all its aspects – the script, the direction, the acting, music, dance, and the mise en scene. The medium is an expression of the essence of being human; it is the presentation, for all to see, hear and appreciate, of human creativity and endeavour. And our delight is as much in the creativity of the presentation as in the performance. The Art of the theatre, as all Art, is the affirmation of being human.

    • "I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being."— (Oscar Wilde)


Antonin Artaud. The Theater and Its Double. (Translated from the French by Mary Caroline Richards) 1958. New York: Grove Weidenfeld

The Complete Oxford Shakespeare. 1988. London: Guild Publishing.

Theatre Quotes. (www.