Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806
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 different, reflecting the fragmented images of a mind in torment. Artaud’s association with the Surrealists continued until 1927. For Artaud, the metaphysical rather than the political transformation of the conditions of human existence was the only role for art. The essay “In the Dark: Or, The Surrealist Bluff” articulates these beliefs.
Artaud’s first attempt to form an independent theater grew out of his frustration with the theater of the 1920’s. The Alfred Jarry Theater provided a place for experimental drama to mix with music, poetry, and painting. Artaud’s revolutionary ideas about theater took written form during the 1930’s, after he had seen a production of a Balinese theatrical troupe. The experience confirmed his growing belief in the primary importance of physical gesture in the creation of a truly metaphysical theater. He wrote a series of essays on the principles of this new theater, which he called the Theater of Cruelty, and these were published in The Theatre and Its Double, one of the most important documents in modern theater. Artaud wanted a theater where “violent physical images [would] crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator,” where text would be eliminated or subjugated to theatrical language, such as lighting, movement, and scenery, and where the effect would be the release of subconscious and anarchic impulses in the spectators. He wanted a total theater. With Louis Jouvet, Artaud formed the Theater of Cruelty in 1935. Its only production was The Cenci, a tale of incest and murder based on Stendhal and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Including music, ritual chanting, and frenzied movement, the work was poorly received. Tired of rejection and poverty, Artaud decided to go to Mexico in 1936, where he studied the rites of the Tarahumara Indians.
In the late 1930’s, after returning from Mexico, Artaud suffered his most serious breakdown, and he was labeled an incurable schizophrenic. After chemotherapy and shock treatments, which Artaud deeply resented, he returned to productivity. He wrote incessantly during his last two years. After seeing a Vincent van Gogh exhibition, he wrote Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society, a violent, lyrical work. Struck by the similarities in their lives, he attacked modern society, which he believed reduces geniuses to suicide.
In discussing Artaud’s contributions, it is almost impossible to separate the man from the work, the madness and the genius from the art. He has been called a visionary and a prophet in his revolutionary view of theater and its relationship to the spectator. He wrote from the conviction that his physical and emotional pains were meaningful experiences with metaphysical repercussions, and he believed that conveying this anguish necessitated new forms of art. His Theater of Cruelty was a place where humanity’s precarious existence was to be portrayed through varied nonrepresentational dramatic techniques to shock and to awaken the brutalized consciousness of the audience, to make the audience aware of the primal forces operating in all people. These concepts paved the way for the Theater of the Absurd and other experimental theater.