Probably the best way to review the works of Antonin Artaud would be simply to print as many fragments of these writings as space permits, leaving it to the reader to react to or experience them, since understanding or appreciation are almost meaningless terms when it comes to Artaud’s wild and visionary products. The second-best approach would probably be to quote nothing, largely ignore the writings themselves, and offer as precise a biography of the man as possible, since Artaud’s writings are, in a sense, much more profound than those of a conventional author, an extension of the person. But inasmuch as both approaches are clearly impractical for a research volume, one is left with the necessity to write a coherent, literate essay about the selected works of a man for whom coherence and literacy were both anathemas and impossibilities.
No author is more essential than Artaud for an understanding of the “modern sensibility.” If his works are “a broken self-mutilated corpus, a vast collection of fragments,” his career a sad, sometimes spectacular, record of failure, and his life a chronicle of aborted relationships, progressive drug addiction, physical pain, incarceration, and pathetic death, his influence and his legend have become dominant forces not only in the theater, his primary focus, but also, for better or worse, in the worldwide countercultural revolution of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Each of his roles—and he had more of them than almost any other modern cultural figure: alienated poet, playwright-director, film and stage actor, junky, madman, visionary, social rebel, Bohemian, and Gnostic mystic—present special difficulties, and reconciling them is almost impossible.
Nor is it possible to talk about Artaud’s writings without talking about the man because, from the beginning, he saw his work as an extension of himself. His strange, paradoxical life and career can be traced, with the help of Sontag’s excellent, succinct notes, in these selected writings, although a few preliminary facts (also provided in the appendix) are necessary. Artaud was the first of nine children (only three survived to adulthood) born to Antoine-Roi Artaud, a successful Marseilles shipping agent, and Euphrasie Artaud, née Nalpas, a woman of Greek extraction. Then, in 1901, he suffered a severe attack of meningitis that left him weakened and in pain through his entire life; indeed, pain—physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual—is the one constant in Artaud’s life and probably accounts for much in it, notably his obsession with, and destitution of, the body and all its functions, as well as, on a more practical level, his lifelong drug addiction. In 1915 emotional difficulties resulted in the first of many confinements in mental hospitals. In 1920, after a successful two-year stay in a Swiss clinic, Artaud left Marseilles for Paris, at which point, excepting for one item of juvenalia, the selected writings commence.
The correspondence between Artaud and Rivière, the editor of La Nouvelle Revue Française, suggests the ambivalent nature of Artaud’s relationship to the French literary establishment—too obviously talented, brilliant, even visionary to ignore, but too idiosyncratic to embrace. Rivière, a typical literary liberal, expresses his bafflement with paternal interest and trite advice; Artaud tries desperately to communicate, but, sharing none of the editor’s assumptions about art and life, flounders, exasperated and frustrated, talking to himself in print. Ultimately, unable to decide what to make of Artaud, but unwilling simply to send him away, Rivière printed the correspondence instead of the poetry.
The same kind of ambivalent relationship characterized the two major artistic institutions that Artaud devoted himself to in the 1920’s and early 1930’s—the literary left, especially Surrealism, and the theater. His extreme and volatile personality, his championing of the spontaneous and irrational, his willingness to expose his inner psychic torments and dreams publicly, drew him quickly to the center of the Surrealist movement (he was even made director of their “Research Bureau”), but his single-minded, even obsessive individualism almost as quickly forced him out. When the Surrealists embraced Marxism, Artaud quit (or was thrown out—the accounts differ).
But it was in the theater that Artaud experienced his most disastrous failures as a practitioner and had his most powerful effects as a theoretician. All blame for this failure as an actor-director cannot, however, be laid at the feet of the French theatrical establishment and public. In many ways Artaud’s active theatrical career is the oddest, or at least the most inconsistent, period of his life, since he was involved with the practical problems of theatrical production while directing the Alfred Jarry Theater (along with Roger Vitrac and Robert Aron), and even more so in putting together a presentation of his own adaptation of Shelley’s The Cenci. We see the businessman Artaud rationalizing a compromise with the theater-going public, even...