From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Antonin Artaud (born September 5, 1896, in Marseille; died March 4, 1948 in Paris) was a French playwright, poet, actor and director. Antonin worked in film (The Seashell and the Clergyman), radio (To Have Done With the Judgment of god) and theatre (The Cenci). He also wrote the theatrical theory book The Theatre and Its Double, and coined the terms body without organs and theatre of cruelty.
Artaud's parents were partly Levantine-Greek, and he was much affected by this background. Although his mother had many children, only Antoine and two siblings survived infancy.
At the age of four, Artaud had a severe attack of meningitis. The virus gave Artaud a nervous, irritable temperament throughout adolescence. He also suffered from neuralgia, stammering and severe bouts of depression. As a teenager, he was allegedly stabbed in the back by a pimp for apparently no reason, similar to the experience of playwright Samuel Beckett.
Artaud's parents arranged a long series of sanatorium stays for their disruptive son, which were both prolonged and expensive. They lasted five years, with a break of two months, June and July 1916, when Artaud was conscripted into the army. He was allegedly discharged due to his self-induced habit of sleepwalking. During Artaud's "rest cures" at the sanatorium, he read Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Poe. In May 1919, the director of the sanatorium, Dr. Dardel, prescribed laudanum for Artaud, precipitating a lifelong addiction to that and other opiates.
In March 1920, Artaud moved to Paris. At the age of 27, Artaud sent some of his poems to the journal "La Nouvelle Revue Française"; they were rejected, but the editor wrote back seeking to understand him, and a relationship in letters was born. This epistolary work, "Correspondence avec Jacques Rivière," is Artaud's first major publication. In November 1926, Artaud was expelled from the surrealist movement, in which he had participated briefly, for refusing to renounce theater as a bourgeois commercial art form, and for refusing to join the French Communist Party along with the other Surrealists.
Artaud cultivated a great interest in cinema as well, writing the scenario for the first Surrealist film, The Seashell and the Clergyman, directed by Germaine Dulac. He also acted in Abel Gance's Napoleon in the role of Jean-Paul Marat, and in Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc as the monk Massieu. Artaud's portrayal of Marat used exaggerated movements to convey the fire of Marat's personality.
In 1926-1928, Artaud ran the Théâtre Alfred Jarry, along with Roger Vitrac. He produced and directed original works by Vitrac, as well as pieces by Paul Claudel and August Strindberg. The Theater was extremely short-lived, but was attended by an enormous range of European artists, including André Gide, Arthur Adamov, and Paul Valéry.
The 1930s saw the publication of The Theatre and Its Double, his best-known work. This book contained the two manifestos of the Theater of Cruelty, essential texts in understanding his artistic project. 1935 saw the premiere of Artaud's production of his adaptation of Shelley's The Cenci . The Cenci was a commercial failure, although it employed innovative sound effects and had a set designed by Balthus.
After the production failed, Artaud received a grant to travel to Mexico where he gave lectures on the decadence of Western civilization. He also studied the Tarahumaran Indians and experimented with the drug peyote, recording his experiences which were later released in a volume called Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara. The content of this work closely resembles the poems of his later days, concerned primarily with the supernatural. Artaud also recorded his horrific withdrawal from heroin upon entering the land of the Tarahumaras; having deserted his last supply of the drug at a mountainside, he literally had to be hoisted onto his horse, and soon resembled, in his words, "a giant, inflamed gum". Having beaten his addiction, however, Artaud would return to opiates later in life.
In 1937, Artaud returned to France where he obtained a walking stick of knotted wood that he believed belonged to St. Patrick, but also Lucifer and Jesus Christ. Artaud traveled to Ireland in an effort to return the staff, though he spoke very little English and was unable to make himself understood. The majority of his trip was spent in a hotel room that he was unable to pay for. On his return trip, Artaud believed he was being attacked by two crew members and retaliated; he was arrested and put in a straitjacket.
The return from Ireland brought about the beginning of the final phase of Artaud's life, which was spent in different asylums. When France was occupied by the Nazis, friends of Artaud had him transferred to the Psychiatric hospital in Rodez, well inside Vichy territory, where he was put under the charge of Dr. Gaston Ferdière. Ferdière began administering electroshock treatments to eliminate Artaud's symptoms, which included various delusions and odd physical tics. The doctor believed that Artaud's habits of crafting magic spells, creating astrology charts, and drawing disturbing images, were symptoms of mental illness. The electro-shock treatments have created much controversy, although it was during these treatments--in conjunction with Ferdière's art therapy--that Artaud began writing and drawing again, after a long dormant period. In 1946, Ferdière released Artaud to his friends, who placed him in the psychiatric clinic at Ivry-sur-Seine.
Artaud was encouraged to write by his friends, and interest in his work was rekindled. He recorded Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu (To Have Done With the Judgment of god) in November, 1947. This work was shelved by Wladimir Porché, the director of the French Radio, the day before its scheduled airing in February 1948. The performance was prohibited partially as a result of its scatological, anti-American, and anti-religious references and pronouncements, but also because of its general randomness, with a cacophony of xylophonic sounds mixed with various percussive elements. While remaining true to his Theater of Cruelty and reducing powerful emotions and expressions into audible sounds, Artaud had utilized various, somewhat alarming cries, screams, grunts, onomatopoeia, and glossolalia.
In January 1948, Artaud was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. He died shortly afterwards on March 4, 1948. Artaud died alone in his pavilion, seated at the foot of his bed, allegedly holding his shoe. It was suspected that he died from a lethal dose of the drug chloral, although whether or not he was aware of its lethality is unknown. Thirty years later, French radio finally broadcast the performance of Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de Dieu.
Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty
Artaud believed that the Theatre should affect the audience as much as possible, therefore he used sounds to add drama and effect. In one performance that he did about the plague he used sounds so realistic that the audience were sick in the middle of the performance.
In his book The Theatre and Its Double, Artaud expressed his admiration for Eastern forms of theatre, particularly the Balinese. He admired Eastern theatre because of the codified, highly ritualized physicality of Balinese dance performance, and advocated what he called a "Theatre of Cruelty". By cruelty, he meant not exclusively sadism or causing pain, but just as often a violent, physical determination to shatter the false reality. He believed that text had been a tyrant over meaning, and advocated, instead, for a theatre made up of a unique language, halfway between thought and gesture. Artaud described the spiritual in physical terms, and believed that all expression is physical expression in space.
- The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood. This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid.
- – Antonin Artaud, The Theatre of Cruelty, in The Theory of the Modern Stage (ed. Eric Bentley), Penguin, 1968, p.66
Evidently, Artaud’s various uses of the term cruelty must be examined to fully understand his ideas. Lee Jamieson has identified four ways in which Artaud used the term cruelty. Firstly, it is employed metaphorically to describe the essence of human existence. Artaud believed that theatre should reflect his nihilistic view of the universe, creating an uncanny connection between his own thinking and Nietzsche’s:
[Nietzsche’s] definition of cruelty informs Artaud’s own, declaring that all art embodies and intensifies the underlying brutalities of life to recreate the thrill of experience … Although Artaud did not formally cite Nietzsche, [their writing] contains a familiar persuasive authority, a similar exuberant phraseology, and motifs in extremis …
- – Lee Jamieson, Antonin Artaud: From Theory to Practice, Greenwich Exchange, 2007, p.21-22
Artaud’s second use of the term (according to Jamieson), is as a form of discipline. Although Artaud wanted to “reject form and incite chaos” (Jamieson, p.22), he also promoted strict discipline and rigor in his performance techniques. A third use of the term was ‘cruelty as theatrical presentation’. The Theatre of Cruelty aimed to hurl the spectator into the centre of the action, forcing them to engage with the performance on an instinctive level. For Artaud, this was a cruel, yet necessary act upon the spectator designed to shock them out of their complacency:
Artaud sought to remove aesthetic distance, bringing the audience into direct contact with the dangers of life. By turning theatre into a place where the spectator is exposed rather than protected, Artaud was committing an act of cruelty upon them.
- – Lee Jamieson, Antonin Artaud: From Theory to Practice, Greenwich Exchange, 2007, p.23
Finally, Artaud used the term to describe his philosophical views, which will be outlined in the following section.
Imagination, to Artaud, is reality; dreams, thoughts and delusions are no less real than the "outside" world. Reality appears to be a consensus, the same consensus the audience accepts when they enter a theatre to see a play and, for a time, pretend that what they are seeing is real.
His later work presents his rejection of the idea of the spirit as separate from the body. His poems glorify flesh and excretion, but sex was always a horror for him. Incest, cannibalism and deicide were instead normal urges, proven by the activities of tribal cultures untainted by civilized Western man. Civilization was so pernicious that Europe was pulling once proud tribal nations like Mexico down with it into decadence and death, poisoning the innocence of the flesh with the evil of a God separate from it. The inevitable end result would be self-destruction and mental slavery. These were two evils Artaud opposed in his own life at great pain and imprisonment, as they could only be opposed personally and not on behalf of a collective or movement. He thus rejected politics and Marxism wholeheartedly, a stance which led to his expulsion by the Surrealists who had begun to embrace it.
Artaud saw suffering as essential to existence, and thus rejected all utopias as inevitable dystopia.
Artaud was heavily influenced by seeing a Colonial Exposition of Balinese Theatre in Marseille. He read eclectically, inspired by authors and artists such as Seneca, Shakespeare, Poe, Lautréamont, Alfred Jarry, André Masson, etc.
Artaud's theories in Theatre and Its Double influenced rock musician Jim Morrison. Motley Crüe named the Theater of Pain album after reading his proposal for a Theater of Cruelty, much like Christian Death had with their album Only Theatre of Pain. The band Bauhaus included a song about the playwright, called "Antonin Artaud", on their album Burning from the Inside. Charles Bukowski also claimed him as a major influence on his work.
Theatrical practitioner Peter Brook took inspiration from Artaud's "Theatre of cruelty" in a series of workshops that lead up to his well-known production of Marat/Sade. The Living Theatre was also heavily influenced by him, as was much English-language experimental theater and performance art--Karen Finley, Spalding Gray, Liz LeCompte, Richard Foreman, Charles Marowitz, Sam Shepard, Joseph Chaikin, and more all named Artaud as one of their influences.
Artaud also had a profound influence on the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who borrowed Artaud's phrase "body without organs" to describe their conception of the virtual dimension of the body and, ultimately, the basic substratum of reality.
Works by Artaud:
Artaud, Antonin. Oeuvres complètes d’Antonin Artaud, Paris: Gallimard, 1961 & 1976.
Artaud, Antonin. Collected Works of Antonin Artaud, Trans. Victor Corti. London: Calder and Boyars, 1971.
Artaud, Antonin. Selected Writings, Trans. Helen Weaver. Ed. and Intro. Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.
Artaud, Antonin. Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu, Original recording. Edited with an introduction by Marc Dachy. Compact Disc. Sub Rosa/aural documents, 1995.
Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and Its Double, Trans. Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958.
Artaud, Antonin. 50 Drawings to Murder Magic, Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Seagull Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1905422661
Barber, Stephen Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs (Faber and Faber: London, 1993) ISBN 0-571-17252-0
Esslin, Martin. Antonin Artaud. London: John Calder, 1976.
Rainer Friedrich, "The Deconstructed Self in Artaud and Brecht: Negation of Subject and Antitotalitarianism," Forum for Modern Language Studies, 26:3 (July 1990): 282-297.
Innes, Christopher Avant-Garde Theater 1892-1992 (London: Routledge, 1993).
Jamieson, Lee Antonin Artaud: From Theory to Practice (Greenwich Exchange: London, 2007) ISBN 978-1-871551-98-3
Kimberly Jannarone, "The Theater Before Its Double: Artaud Directs in the Alfred Jarry Theater," Theatre Survey 46.2, Nov. 2005: 247-273.
Koch, Stephen. "On Artaud." Tri-Quarterly, no. 6 (Spring 1966): 29-37.
Plunka, Gene A. (Ed). Antonin Artaud and the Modern Theater. Cranbury: Associated University Presses. 1994.
Roger Shattuck, "Artaud Possessed," The Innocent Eye (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984): 169-186.
Ward, Nigel "Fifty-one Shocks of Artaud", New Theatre Quarterly Vol.XV Part2 (NTQ58 May 1999): 123-128
Blanchot, Maurice. "Artaud." La Nouvelle Revue Française 4 (November 1956, no. 47): 873-881.
Brau, Jean-Louis. Antonin Artaud. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1971.
Virmaux, Alain. Antonin Artaud et le théâtre. Paris: Seghers, 1970.
Virmaux, Alain and Odette. Artaud: un bilan critique. Paris: Belfond, 1979.
Virmaux, Alain and Odette. Antonin Artaud: qui êtes-vous? Lyon: La Manufacture, 1986.
- Tric Trac du Ciel, illustré de gravures sur bois par Élie Lascaux, Paris, Simon, 1923
- L'Ombilic des limbes, Gallimard, NRF, Paris, 1925
- Le Pèse-nerfs, Leibovitz, Paris, 1925
- L'Art et la mort, Denoël, Paris, 1929
- Le Moine, de Lewis, traduction et adaptation, Denoël & Steele, Paris, 1931
- Héliogabale ou l'anarchiste couronné, Denoël & Steele, Paris, 1934
- Les Nouvelles révélations de l'être, Denoël, Paris, 1937
- Le Théâtre et son double », Gallimard, Paris, 1938
- D'un voyage au pays des Tarahumaras, Éditions de la revue Fontaine, Paris, 1945
- Van Gogh le suicidé de la société, K éditeur, Paris, 1947
- Artaud le Mômo, Bordas, Paris, 1947
- Ci-Gît précédé de La culture indienne, K éditeur, Paris, 1947
- Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu, K éditeur, Paris, 1948
- Les Cenci, in Œuvres complètes, Gallimard, 1964
- 50 dessins pour assassiner la magie, Gallimard, Paris, 2004
- Artaud Œuvres, choix de textes par Evelyne Grossman dans l'édition Thévenin des Œuvres complètes, Gallimard, Quarto, Paris, 2004
- Cahier d'Ivry, janvier 1948, fac-similé, Gallimard, Paris, 2006
- Nouveaux écrits de Rodez, Gallimard, L'Imaginaire, Paris, 2006