The Theater and Its Double Essay - Critical Context

Antonin Artaud

Critical Context

Artaud lived in a time in which realism was under attack from a number of literary movements. One such movement was surrealism, which stressed dream visions and advocated striking juxtapositions of disparate images. Artaud was active in the surrealist movement but soon broke away from it for political reasons. Most of his critical writings focus on the experimentation with language and on the anarchical nature of poetry. The Theater and Its Double is the culmination of his thinking. In it, he sees theater as the ultimate art form, one that can totally escape language and logic. Unfortunately, Artaud was not able to realize his dreams; his own ventures in theater were dismal failures. His ideas were to come to fruition in the artistic revolution of the 1960’s. His book reads almost like a blueprint for the changes in the avant-garde theater that were to occur more than two decades later. Traditional theater spaces were abandoned, and theater moved into the streets, into churches, into abandoned warehouses, into rock quarries. Partially influenced by Artaud, American director Richard Schechner produced plays in a garage, put the audience in the center of the action, and created multilevel theater spaces. Julian Beck, another American influenced by Artaud, created ritual theater encouraging direct contact with audience members. British director Peter Brook helped organize a company called The Theatre of Cruelty. Its productions experimented with chants, ritual dance, symbolic props, and other techniques proposed by Artaud. During this period, enormous puppets replaced actors, classical plays were rewritten, performance pieces were created without using playwrights, and psychedelic light shows became the craze. Realistic productions gave way to a theater of fantastic and phantasmagoric images. Artaud was alive and well and his book became a best-seller among the leading theater practitioners of the avant-garde.

Dramatic criticism was also influenced by Artaud. Major theater journals abandoned literary criticism and began to focus on the science of performance studies as theater branched out into the fields of anthropology and structuralism. Everything from voodoo rituals to modern carnivals became the subject matter for this discipline. Artaud’s vision of a mystical theater thus radically changed the concept of theatrical performance. Whether one agrees with its theories, The Theater and Its Double has become required reading for any serious student of the theater. Artaud stands with Bertolt Brecht as one of the leading voices in modern theater.