Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Antonin Artaud (ahr-toh), a poet, dramatist, and essayist, was a central figure in the European avant-garde movement. An inquisitive student and a voracious reader, he became so deeply depressed at age nineteen that he destroyed all of his early works. His parents committed him to a nearby sanatorium. During the next five years, he was sequestered in several clinics. In 1920 his parents finally sent him to Paris, where he began his career in the arts.
Artaud’s first collection of poems, Heavenly Backgammon, published in 1923, was a slim volume of eight poems written in a mixed style of gothic romanticism and Symbolism; it showed the influence of Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe. Artaud later dismissed this work because it followed an established literary tradition. More important during this time was Artaud’s preoccupation with the theater. Until 1924 he worked with Charles Dullin’s experimental Théâtre de l’Atelier, where he collaborated on set and costume design; he also acted in many of the productions and in the budding film industry.
Artaud’s precarious mental and physical states were exacerbated by the laudanum and opium which he had been taking since 1919. This caused him to be erratic and moody, making it impossible for him to sustain personal and professional relationships. Yet Artaud was able to document his experience with pain in the well-received Correspondence with Jacques Rivière, the first of his texts to attract wide attention. The year 1924 marked another important beginning for Artaud: his association with the newly formed Surrealist group, led by André Breton. Attracted by the group’s spirit of revolt against bourgeois standards, Artaud became an active contributor to La Revolution surréaliste, the official publication of the movement. Artaud’s first two important collections, Umbilical Limbo and The Nerve Scales, come from this period. The style was vastly...
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Biography (Magill's Literary Annual 1977)
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...
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Biography (Drama for Students)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Artaud, Antonin. Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings. Edited by Susan Sontag. Translated by Helen Weaver. Berkeley: University of Calfiornia Press, 1988. A good Artaud anthology.
Barber, Stephen. Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1993. A good study. Includes bibliography.
Costich, Julia F. Antonin Artaud. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A well-written overview and critique of Artaud’s works.
Greene, Naomi. Antonin Artaud: Poet Without Words. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970. A thorough study. One of the best introductions to Artaud in English....
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