Mother’s Theater of Cruelty

Darren Aronofsky’s film, a sensory assault, fits into a grand tradition of art that hopes to shock its audiences out of complacency.

A still from Mother in which Jennifer Lawrence looks out in anguish from a crowd of people
Paramount Pictures

This story contains spoilers through the entirety of Mother.

The second act of Mother, Darren Aronofosky’s divisive new film, escalates quickly. In one scene, the character played by Jennifer Lawrence—identified only as “Mother”—is embodying domestic goddesshood, preparing a nursery for her unborn child and serving Pinterest-worthy small plates to her narcissist poet of a husband, simply called “Him” (Javier Bardem). Minutes later, she’s hyperventilating while looters tear her kitchen apart, a rave kicks off in her living room, a strange religious cult forms on the stairwell, refugees get trapped behind wire fences in her entryway, she’s pepper-sprayed in the face by riot police, explosions rattle the house, Kristen Wiig assassinates a group of hostages, and a cop who tries to help Mother has his head blown off by a rifle.

This cinematic segue from a Restoration Hardware catalog into a war zone in a matter of minutes is one of the elements of the film that’s perplexed audiences. The fact that (monumental spoiler ahead) Mother then gives birth to a baby which is killed and eaten in front of her by the aforementioned sinister cult, also seems to have offended some people. It’s just not what you’d necessarily expect from a major film released by Paramount Pictures starring Lawrence, America’s indubitable sweetheart. But there is a context within which Mother makes perfect sense, and a discipline to which it’s remarkably faithful: Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty.

Artaud, a French writer and dramatist, died in 1948. During his life, which was plagued by mental illness and drug addiction, he achieved relatively little artistic success: His one surviving theatrical play, Jet de Sang (Jet of Blood) wasn’t staged until decades after his death, and a radio play he wrote and recorded called Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu was shelved before it was broadcast because it largely consisted of unintelligible references to God and bodily functions, interspersed with random bursts of sound. But his manifesto for a “theater of cruelty” has endured, influencing some of the most innovative directors of the 20th century, from Peter Brook to Lars von Trier. Mother, with its immersive, all-encompassing chaos, its dream-like symbolism, and its determination to shock its audience out of complacency, is an experiment in Artaudian cinema—a narrative of creation and destruction that confronts viewers with the absurd violence of reality.

“Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible,” Artaud wrote in his 1938 book The Theatre and Its Double. “In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.” Published the year before the start of World War II, The Theatre and Its Double was responding to a world that Artaud saw as ravaged by “disorder, famine, blood, war, and epidemics,” and to a polite kind of theater that was unable to offer a true portrait of humanity. “There are too many signs that everything that used to sustain our lives no longer does so, that we are all mad, desperate, and sick,” he wrote. “And I call for us to react.”

This sense of fury and provocation underpins Mother, which Aronofsky has described as a movie he wanted to “howl at the moon.” Lawrence’s character is Gaia, mother nature; the house she lives in with Him is the Earth. It’s a quiet, peaceful (blandly decorated) paradise until it’s plagued by humans, in the form of Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, who fight, screw, spill, get sloppy drunk, make messes in the kitchen, and leave bloody tissues everywhere. Their sons arrive, prompting a vicious murder and a raging wake in which the metaphor becomes clear: Humans are ruining Mother’s world. Mother is a climate-change parable that uses horrific imagery, discomfiting sounds, and subconscious irritants to call attention to what Aronofsky sees as a profound crisis for humanity, one that we need to be jarred into noticing.

The main difference between Mother and most of Artaud’s work is that it isn’t surreal—the story has a clear and recognizable plot about an artist who craves recognition and his much-younger wife who feeds his ego. And yet it’s strangely similar to Jet de Sang, which also opens with a happy, simple world that the play proceeds to destroy. In the first scene, a young man and a young woman profess their love for each other. Then a hurricane ravages the stage, stars collide, and a storm of severed limbs, scorpions, frogs, beetles, and architectural elements rains upon the stage (Artaud resisted offering insight into how directors might stage this scene). The Young Man and Woman are chased away by degenerate sinners: a prostitute, a knight, a wet nurse, a priest, and God himself.

Jet de Sang was Artaud’s attempt to create “theater which events do not exceed, whose resonance is deep within us, dominating the instability of the times.” He wrote of wanting to emulate Hieronymus Bosch and Matthias Grünewald in representing the monstrous nature of human sin as spectacle. The riotous second act of Mother, a kind of 21st-century Dante’s Inferno, replicates this imagery, absorbing audiences in Mother’s point of view as she witnesses flashes of grotesque faces and frenzied rituals. The overall effect is, as Artaud wrote, “a theater in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theater as by a whirlwind of higher forces.”

Aronofsky specifically uses sound to add to the chaos, throwing in discordant, painful high-frequency notes to create tension, and layering fragments of obscene insults to illustrate rising disorder: After Mother rejects the advances of a male stranger at the end of the first half of the film, he spits, “You’re an arrogant cunt.” The film’s dialogue is almost tangential; at its best, it’s stilted and strange. (Bardem’s character, recalling how his house burnt down, oddly describes the trauma of losing everything, even “your dirty toothbrush.”) This is Artaudian, too: He considered language to be insufficient in communicating the pain of existence. He also complained that “no one ... knows how to scream anymore,” an assertion that finds fresh meaning with the news that Lawrence reportedly ruptured her diaphragm while filming some of her more intense vocal scenes.

Another, odd parallel is that Artaud, in the opening chapter of his book, describes the ravaging effects of a plague on a population, specifically “organs that grow heavy and turn to carbon.” This is the exact imagery Aronofsky uses to convey the increasing decay of Mother’s home—a beating heart she can sense through the walls, and that she observes blackening until it dies.

But the most provocative element of Mother occurs toward the very end, when a baby is murdered and subsequently eaten by a frenzied mob. While Artaud never included the death of a baby in any of his existing work, it’s a recurring trope in modern theater. In 1965, the producers of Edward Bond’s Saved were prosecuted after his play included a scene of a baby being tortured and stoned to death by a group of bored, disaffected teenagers. Bond, like Artaud, was trying to illustrate that violence is inherent in human nature, and that the worst atrocities of the 20th century—the Holocaust, Hiroshima—came from instincts that have never fully been neutered. In 1998, the playwright Sarah Kane tackled similar themes in her play Blasted, in which war erupts in a Leeds hotel room, and one of the characters—after being blinded and raped—eats a dead baby onstage.

As a symbol, a baby represents the most potent form of vulnerable human goodness, and so when it’s destroyed in art, it’s to truly emphasize a fundamental kind of evil. That doesn’t mean people won’t find it horrific or manipulative—and that’s usually the point. Mother is an attempt both to portray the darkness that exists within humankind, and to present it to audiences in so shocking and disturbing a fashion that they can’t ignore or reason away what they’ve seen. “Theater of cruelty” refers not just to the cruelty of life, but to cruelty inflicted on audience members to stir them out of their everyday torpor. As Artaud wrote, “the images and movements employed will not be there solely for the external pleasure of eye or ear, but for that more secret and profitable one of the spirit.”

It’s a noble purpose, maybe, but not one that’s commercially viable, even now. “In modern culture, powerful machinery has been set up whereby dissident work, after gaining an initial semi-official status as ‘avant-garde,’ is gradually absorbed and rendered acceptable,” Susan Sontag once wrote. “But Artaud’s practical activities in the theater barely qualified for this kind of cooptation.” Artists, particularly filmmakers, continue to weave his theories into their own work, but the end result is often failure. Mother, which has been given the rare and dubious honor of an F grade by CinemaScore, is not a commercial success. But the sheer volume of articles that attempt to analyze and unpack it (including this one) proves that people are thinking about it. Which is exactly what Artaud—and presumably Aronofsky—wanted.