The Theater of Cruelty of the Hiramic Drama, Part I

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Patrick Dey

“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.”

—Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double

In my previous essay on this blog, I admonished against interpreting the Third Degree, following the polemical essay by Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation.” Sontag was influenced by the French writer, actor, playwright, polemicist, and completely insane Antonin Artaud, who advocated for the experience of art over the interpretation of the content of the art itself. Sontag would publish a massive selection of writings by Artaud with what is by far one of the best introductions to Artaud I have ever read — one so good that it would inspire Jane Goodall (yes, that Jane Goodall) to write a large work on Artaud and Gnosticism.

For all that Artaud was absolutely insane — and he was seriously mentally ill and addicted to opium — he was brilliant nonetheless. In 1959 he would publish The Theater and Its Double. In this work he introduces a radical form of conducting theater arts: the Theater of Cruelty.

When Artaud advocates his idea of the Theater of Cruelty, he is not advocating for blood and gore, though certainly those elements may be used. When he says “cruelty” he means a theater that is “difficult and cruel.” In other words, the Theater of Life — life, which is difficult and cruel. It is meant to shock and awaken us to the truths of life, but also to put us in a sort of trance, and to let the theater be the crucible through which we transcend and transmute. The need for the theater to be a means of awakening our spirits is very much in line with the ideologies of George I. Gurdjieff, who advocated that most people spend their lives in a state of “waking sleep,” and required a spiritual awakening of their consciousness to realize their full potential. Artaud felt the only means to truly awaken a person was by shocking them, but not like “shock art,” which only serves to deliberately disturb and offend. No, Artaud advocates for shocking people awake by demonstrating the difficulties and cruelties of life.

The means to do so are multifaceted and multifarious. One instance, Artaud advocates that the Theater of Cruelty should be executed in the round: the abolition of all walls, especially the fourth wall, eliminate the distinction between the stage and the audience, let the world become the theater and allow the drama to unfold around the audience. In so many ways, this is exactly how the Hiramic Drama is conducted: in the round. The candidate begins as an active participant, an actual cast member, and then becomes an auditory spectator — or specter — as the drama unfolds all around him. At this time, the mise en scène transforms, becoming one that is auditory rather than visual. In The Theater and Its Double, the term mise en scène is untranslated, because it is difficult to translate, but is basically the props, the stage scenery, &c. In the Hiramic Drama, the mise en scène is almost totally auditory, and a bit tactile. The clanking of the rubbish of the Temple. The shoveling and chimes as something clandestine is conducted in the night. The pitter-patter of feet as characters move around. The sound of voices calling around the room. The sonorous chants of the funeral procession. These and more set the stage for the candidate in a literal audi-torium, heightening the first of the five senses: hearing.

Then there is the shock, the real cruelty: coercion, betrayal, violence, death, rot, and the most pessimistic ending in all of Masonry: no hope (“hope is lost in fruition”). The candidate, who up to this point in his Masonic journey has put absolute trust in his brothers, and then they betray him. He acts as a character in his own drama, but also as a prop: a corpse. Death, then he listens to the manhunt, trial, and execution of his betrayers, and all the while he is rotting in his lonely grave. A transformation occurs here for the candidate. Who can deny that? Then his rotten body is pulled out of his grave and given a proper burial.

I have said it before and I will say it again: of all the degrees in Masonry, the Master Mason degree is the most powerful, and by a long shot. All the other so-called “higher” degrees, go through mere pageantry meant to rival the Hiramic Drama, and add in some shocking moments such as threats of imprisonment and death, but the candidate is never in any immediate danger, and he knows it. There is a moment in the Third Degree that you actually feel endangered, that you may actually get hurt. In the “higher” degrees, all is well, and after much pomp and circumstance, the candidate is lauded, applauded, given great honors, and made a member of that degree. Yay… It is all very contrived and rather voyeuristic. The candidate is not a cast member; he is only ever a prop, a weak substance of the mise en scène of the degree; a peeping tom of a story that happens before him, but he is not really a part of. Don’t get me started on the Scottish Rite classes or York Rite festival classes.

The candidate for the Master Mason degree is absolutely a character, an essential cast member. Yes, the drama unfolds around him, but everything happens with him, to him, and for him, and emphatically so. And what is his reward? To be betrayed, murdered, left to rot, grieved for, then exhumed. Oh, and as a consequence he is now a Master Mason. The other degrees put far too much emphasis on honoring the candidate as a member of that degree, whereas the Master Mason Degree emphasizes the drama and the cruelties of life, and becoming a member of that degree is a byline.

If all this is to be realized and understood, we may fully realize the value of Artaud’s ideologies to recover the majesty of this drama.

I have only ever met one other Mason who was familiar with Artaud and the Theater of Cruelty, and he believed the Hiramic Drama was already a full embodiment of the Theater of Cruelty, whereas I would argue the Hiramic Drama has the potential to fulfill Artaud’s vision, but not quite there. That is, if one can even fully realize Artaud’s ambitions, because much of his theatrical philosophy and rhetoric is impossible. And it is the impossible, the impossible in the sense as Georges Bataille conceptualizes it in The Impossible: a journey toward and ever-receding object, like the quest for the Grail, in which the experience of truth is obtained in the failing of the quest.

In a way, this is exactly what the Hiramic Drama is: an enactment of the impossible. Hiram cannot escape. He cannot preserve his life. Nor can the secrets of a Master Mason be extorted from him. On both ends of the exchange, all fail and all die, yet there is an experience of truth, a revelation in the grave in that failure. It is shocking. It is cruel. Such is life. As much as the symbols of the Master Mason Degree focus on death, such are more so revelations of life.

If the cast of the Degree did their job right, no candidate should be asleep, literally and metaphorically. Sadly, I have seen candidates actually fall asleep, and in Part II, we will start to examine some issues I think exist in how the Hiramic Drama is usually conducted and how they might be remedied by taking cues from Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty.



Patrick M. Dey is a Past Master of Nevada Lodge No. 4 in the ghost town of Nevadaville, Colorado, and currently serves as their Secretary, and is also a Past Master of Research Lodge of Colorado. He is a Past High Priest of Keystone Chapter No. 8, Past Illustrious Master of Hiram Council No. 7, Past Commander of Flatirons Commandery No. 7, and serves as the Secretary-Recorder of all three. He currently serves as the Exponent (Suffragan) of Colorado College, SRICF of which he is VIII Grade (Magister), and is a member of Gofannin Council No. 315 AMD and Kincora Council No. 8 Knight Masons. He is a facilitator for the Masonic Legacy Society, is the Editor of the Rocky Mountain Mason magazine, serves on the Board of Directors of the Grand Lodge of Colorado’s Library and Museum Association, and is the Deputy Grand Bartender of the Grand Lodge of Colorado (an ad hoc, joke position he is very proud to hold). He holds a Masters of Architecture degree from the University of Colorado, Denver, and works in the field of architecture in Denver, where he resides with wife and son.

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