Antonin Artaud

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

This slim but engaging volume on Antonin Artaud is the most recent addition to Martin Esslin’s essays on modern theater, which include his well-known treatise on The Theatre of the Absurd, as well as studies of Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, and Harold Pinter. In his approach to Artaud, Esslin leans heavily toward biography because of his stated intention of placing Artaud’s theatrical theories and activities “within the wider framework of his importance as a cult figure, a revolutionary force, and a unique psychological case history.” Generally, Esslin effectively relates Artaud’s life to his work and almost manages to convince the reader that this man, whose life was marked by failure and madness, was uniquely important precisely because of his ability to exploit his madness and turn his suffering and failure into a form of art.

Artaud’s enterprises, encompassing a broad range of activities and fields, leave a detailed picture of his life, mind, and soul. Esslin repeatedly speaks of the two most poignant visual images we have of Artaud: first, the young actor’s face as the sensitive monk in the film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, and then the much later self-portrait which shows the ravaged face of an aging and suffering Artaud. Having been largely dependent on acting for his means of support, Artaud played many minor roles in films which leave visual images of him for posterity. Besides these images, there are tape recordings, Artaud’s own play scripts, theoretical writings on theater and language, poetical texts, and voluminous correspondence; all combine to provide such a striking portrait and such an abundance of information about the man, that Artaud has become the perfect subject for various cults to adopt as their central theme or symbol. Esslin indicates that Artaud’s personality, more than his writings (which, moreover, tend to be contradictory), has been seized upon by diverse groups and movements, anxious to find a saint or hero-figure. Yet, whether his image is borrowed by Catholics or left-wing rebellious students, Artaud apparently strove consciously to develop his image, an incarnation of suffering. As he said to a fellow actor in 1948, “Tragedy on the stage is not enough for me, I am going to carry it over into my life.”

The longest and seemingly most important chapter of Esslin’s study is entitled “The Road to Rodez” because it traces the major outlines of Artaud’s troubled career and progressively weakening mental health up to his stay in the asylum at Rodez, the last of several asylums where he had been confined. The detailed accounts of Artaud’s more bizarre hallucinations, found in both this chapter and the chapter “Master or Madman,” paint a far more impressive picture of Artaud the madman than Artaud the genius. One tends to be so thoroughly convinced of Artaud’s insanity that certain of Esslin’s statements become difficult to accept. One of the most notable claims is:Seen in retrospect Artaud’s life falls into a pattern and becomes, as he himself so often proclaimed, his supreme work of art. There is an inner logic and consistency in his creation of his youthful image in films like La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc to provide a stunning and heartrending contrast with that of the wizened martyr of society’s rejection and contempt which became the image of his final epiphany.

One might wonder if a man like Artaud, who at times believed he was being poisoned by the sperm and excrement of the entire world (or who claimed to strike lightning from St. Patrick’s cane outside of the NRF offices in Paris) was capable of lucidly ordering his life in the logical fashion Esslin suggests. It seems a bit exaggerated to intimate that Artaud had the foresight to project an image in his youth that would contrast so nicely with his image in middle-age.

More likely, Artaud’s public image and notoriety were partially shaped by accident and the historical moment in which he lived. Because he was an artist and a troubled genius, his particular case became a cause célèbre and provoked much...

(The entire section is 1687 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Booklist. LXXIV, November 1, 1977, p. 459.

Library Journal. CII, April 15, 1977, p. 924.

New York Times Book Review. July 17, 1977, p. 20.