Evoking Emotions in the Sound Design of Theatre of Cruelty

Nadira Putri
4 min readMay 20, 2019


Taken from Chamber of Commerce

The Theatre of Cruelty, in a snippet, focuses on bringing the human subconsciousness to the audience’s attention. One practice that the main contributor — Antonin Artaud — supported was stripping the stage dialogue of words, thus reducing speech to “inarticulate sounds, cries, and gibbering screams” which was claimed to be able to express more meaning than actual ‘legible’ spoken words. Honestly, the first time I saw it, I wasn’t able to comprehend the significance of this practice so I never really explored it much during my Theatre days. But I thought about it again this morning and decided to tackle my understanding of it once more.

Ultimately, I believe that Artaud’s goal was to evoke emotions through the gibberish so I looked into the perception of sound. Perhaps he wanted the audience to tune into the performers’ pitch, loudness, timbre and character. If I’m going on the right path, then I can understand it a little bit better because words by themselves can be perceived many different ways. But when it comes to body language and how you actually say those words, there’s more truth in it. (E.g. Your S.O says they’re not mad, but they actually are, and their hidden agenda is betrayed by the increase of their pitch goes up at the end of their rant.) When you read the dialogue in a play, you may not understand the feelings that the playwright is trying to draw out unless you take note of the stage directions. By stripping away the dialogue on stage, Artaud may be trying to juxtapose the performance of the stage directions with the former’s absence.

Continuing down this path, I propose that the Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) is involved as well. The Theatre of Cruelty, to put it crudely, does do a lot to give the audience the greatest close-to-traumatic experience ever, pushing them away from societal expectations of norms and morality. A lot of plays inspired by this style of Theatre played on audience’s fears to push home messages of questioning the rules of society (You’d feel as if you’ve been watching a horror movie, but instead of being scared of ghosts, you walk out feeling dead inside for half a day).

From this idea, understanding the audience’s CER seems like a good place to start when experimenting with sound design. While everyone is different, I think some parts of life are universal. Here are some sounds I’ve experienced on stage and what I and some of my friends thought of and felt from it:

  • A high-pitch and elongated shriek resembled a screeching car that triggered the memory of fear experienced during a car accident
  • Layered whispering and prolonged periods of silences on stage evoked feelings of discomfort and distrust, especially having suffered from paranoia before
  • Clashing in the pitch of multiple people resembling the grating of fallen household items, caused wincing and automatic covering of ears → associated the sound with brokenness

While the audience’s CER to the sounds may not have a standardized impact, I think that it still plays a large part in driving home Artaud’s attack on the subconsciousness, especially when the sound design comes hand-in-hand with the mise-en-scene and performers’ movements. A little side-track here, if you ever heard of Foley sound effects, you’d know that even the most recognisable of sounds can be reproduced by the weirdest and most unimaginable items (e.g. the sound of horses is recreated by the use of coconuts). The realism of it is then added by the visuals of the film. Similarly, you have the sound design that works with the visuals of the performers and set.

Friedrich Marpurg’s Music Graph

Here’s a graph that I came across too, made by Friedrich Marpurg — a German music critic, music theorist and composer who lived and died in the 1700s, which links emotions to music, if it’s any help to whatever I’m spouting right now at 12 am. Going along with the proposed influences from this graph, it can be understood that many emotions can be brought across without relying on dialogue. As they say, music is a universal language.

[If you’re reading this, prof, yes, it’s me, I’ve posted something similar on our psych discussion page before.]