Antonin Artaud Essay - Critical Essays

Artaud, Antonin


Antonin Artaud 1896-1948

(Full name Antoine-Marie-Joseph Artaud; also wrote under the pseudonym Le Révélé) French essayist, dramatist, poet, novelist, screenwriter, and actor.

Poet and theorist of revolutionary theater, avant-garde novelist and surrealist screenwriter, actor, drug addict, and madman, Antonin Artaud is famous for the influence he exerted through his writings and performances—especially after death—on the way writers, directors, actors, and communal theater companies conceive of theater, its production, and its function. Progenitor of a form of theater whose aim is to unsettle and radically transform its audience and its culture, such as happenings, theater of the absurd, or experimental theater, Artaud called for an end to a drama of rationality, masterpieces, and psychological exploration. Artaud advocated a “theatre of cruelty”—a probing, goading, and provocative theater drawing on Symbolist sensory derangement, psychoanalytic theory, and the Balinese theater. Such a theater, according to Artaud, should employ expressive breathing, animal sounds, uninhibited gestures, huge masks, puppets, and an architecture that destroys the barrier between actors and audience in order to turn spectators into participants, and bring them to a level of visceral experience Artaud deemed more profound than any experience accessible through passive understanding or absorption of language, plot, or coherently structured action. Artaud's aim was to unblock repression and to purge violence, hypocrisy, and the malaise he saw as endemic to society.

Biographical Information

Born in Marseilles—his father a wealthy shipbuilder, his mother of Greek heritage—Artaud suffered a lifetime of ill-health, physically and mentally debilitated by a severe case of meningitis contracted when he was five. During his early teen years, while a student at a Marist Catholic school, he started a literary magazine in which he published his own poetry. Suffering from depression and sharp head pains, at the age of nineteen Artaud sought treatment at a local sanatorium. Drafted into the army the following year, he was given a medical discharge after only a few months. Artaud then spent two years in a Swiss hospital, where his literary inclinations were encouraged as part of his therapy. At twenty-two, upon release from a clinic in Switzerland, Artaud went to Paris where he remained under the care of Dr. Edouard Toulouse who was both editor of the literary magazine Demain and a psychiatrist. Toulouse published Artaud's poetry and employed him as an editorial assistant. In 1923, Jacques Riviére, editor of the Nouvelle revue française rejected several poems Artaud submitted to the magazine as incomprehensible, but published a series of letters by Artaud defending his work, advancing his theories about poetry, and discussing his mental distress. Around this time Artaud began taking laudanum—a solution of opium in alcohol—for his pains, and continued to use opium, heroin, and other drugs until his death. It was also at this time that Artaud allied himself with the surrealists, and began working in the theater and the cinema. He was featured in Carl Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) as Jean Massieu with Maria Falconetti, and wrote the screenplay for the surrealist film, La Coquille et le Clergyman (1927). Artaud broke with the surrealists when Andre Breton, the leader of the movement, joined the communist party. Communism seemed to Artaud to be more of the same debilitating European rationality he wanted to destroy. In 1926, Artaud formed the Theâtre Alfred Jarry with Roger Vitrac and Robert Aron. Soon after the failure of his adaptation of Les Cenci (1935), Artaud traveled to live with the Tarahumaras in Mexico, where he took peyote and studied their ceremonies. He then traveled to Ireland, where he suffered a mental collapse, and returned to France in a straight jacket to be hospitalized and subjected against his will to several rounds of electroshock treatments for the next nine years. Nevertheless, Artaud continued to write. Upon his release, he made a triumphant return to Paris and the limelight, receiving the Prix Sainte-Beuve for Van Gogh, le suicide de la societe (1947), lecturing to audiences that included Andre Gide, Albert Camus and Andre Breton, and writing a play for radio commissioned by the French government radio station. This work was recorded but never broadcast because of obscenity and anti-Americanism. In 1948, Artaud died of sphincteral cancer.

Major Works

Les Cenci, Artaud's play about a man who rapes his own daughter and is then murdered by men the girl hires to eliminate him, typifies Artaud's theater of cruelty. Les Cenci was produced in Paris in 1935 but was closed after seventeen dismal performances. Another illustration of Artaud's work is Le jet de sang or The Fountain of Blood (1925), a farce about the creation of the world and its destruction by humans, especially women. Like many of Artaud's other plays, scenarios, and prose, Les Cenci and The Fountain of Blood were designed to challenge conventional, civilized values and bring out the natural, barbaric instincts Artaud felt lurked beneath the refined, human facade. Of The Fountain of Blood, Albert Bermel wrote in Artaud's Theater of Cruelty: “All in all, The Fountain of Blood is a tragic, repulsive, impassioned farce, a marvelous wellspring for speculation, and a unique contribution to the history of the drama.” More than for any particular work, Artaud is remembered more for his tormented life, for having turned himself inside out in the attempt to discover a way to transform theater and society, and for the concepts he developed for effectuating transformation. Le Théâtre de la cruauté (1933) and Le Théâtre et son double (1938; The Theater and Its Double)—Artaud's most famous works—along with the novel Héliogabale (1934; Heliogabalus) and his blasphemous play Le jet de sang, rather than having an independent artistic existence, stand as manifestos and vehicles for approaching, if not achieving, the transformations Artaud proclaimed. According to author Susan Sontag: “Not until the great outburst of writing in the period between 1945 and 1948 … did Artaud, by then indifferent to the idea of poetry as a closed lyric statement, find a long-breathed voice that was adequate to the range of his imaginative needs—a voice that was free of established forms and open-ended, like the poetry of [Ezra] Pound.”

Critical Reception

In Antonin Artaud: Man of Vision, Bettina Knapp offered an explanation of Artaud's popularity long after his death: “In his time, he was a man alienated from his society, divided within himself, a victim of inner and outer forces beyond his control. … The tidal force of his imagination and the urgency of his therapeutic quest were disregarded and cast aside as the ravings of a madman. … Modern man can respond to Artaud now because they share so many psychological similarities and affinities.” Artaud's individual works, throughout his lifetime, were often received badly. However, the body of his work—seen as a call for the creation of a new theater—and his life—seen as the forge upon which his theories were fashioned—gained in the latter part of the twentieth century a numinous force, and a celebrated following.

Principal Works

Le jet de sang [The Blood Jet, The Fountain of Blood, and The Spurt of Blood] 1925

L'Ombilic des limbes [The Umbilicus of Limbo] (poetry, essays, and dramatic dialogues) 1925

Les Cenci 1935

Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu (radio play) 1947

Tric-trac du ciek (poetry) 1923

Le Pese-nerfs [published with Fragments d'un journal d'enfer, 1927; translated as The Nerve Meter and Fragments of a Diary of Hell] (poetry) 1925

La Coquille et le Clergyman [The Seashell and the Clergyman] (screenplay) 1927

Correspondance avev Jacques Riviére [Artaud-Riviere Correspondence] (letters) 1927

L'Art et la mort [Art and Death] (essays) 1929

Le Theatre Alfred Jarry et l'hostilite du publique [with Roger Vitrac] (essays) 1930

Le Théâtre de la cruauté (manifesto) 1933

Héliogabale; ou, l'anarchiste couronné [Heliogabalus or The Anarchist Crowned] (novel) 1934

Les Nouvelles révélations de l'être [The New Revelations of Being] (essays) 1937

Le Théâtre et son double [The Theater and Its Double] (essays) 1938

D'Un Voyage au pays de Tarahumaras [Concerning a Journey to the Land of the Tarahumaras] (essays and letters) 1945

Artaud le momo (poetry) 1947

Ce-git, precede de la culture indienne [Indian Culture or Here Lies] (poetry) 1947

“Tutuguri, the Rite of the Black Sun” (poetry) 1947

“Une note sur le peyot” (essay) 1947

Van Gogh, le suicidé de la société [Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society] (essays) 1947

Supplement aux Lettres de Rodez, suivi de Coleridge, le traitre (letters and essays) 1949

Les Tarahumaras [The Peyote Dance] (letters and essays) 1955

Oeuvres Complêtes [revised edition, 1970] 20 vols. (collection) 1956-1984

Artaud Anthology (collection) 1965

Collected Works [translated by Victor Corti, Calder and Boyars] 4 vols. (collection) 1968-1975

Love Is a Tree That Always Is High: An Artaud Anthology (collection) 1972

Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings (collection) 1976

The Peyote Dance (essays) 1976

Nouvelles escrits de Rodez (letters and essays) 1977

Artaud on Theatre (collection) 1991

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Wallace Fowlie (essay date October-December 1959)

“The New French Theatre: Artaud, Beckett, Genet, Ionesco,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXVII, No. 4, October-December, 1959, pp. 643-57.

[In the following essay, Fowlie outlines Artaud's theory of theatrical ritual and dramatic cruelty, and analyzes his influence on Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco.]

Jacques Copeau's Vieux Colombier was the most famous and most fecund of the little theatres of the 20th century. All subsequent little theatres have continued the example of Le Vieux Colombier in opposing what Copeau called the double pest of the theatre: industrialization and cabotinage. The meaning of the first word is obvious. But the second...

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Bettina Knapp (essay date 1964)

“Artaud: A New Type of Magic,” in Yale French Studies, No. 31, 1964, pp. 87-98.

[In the following essay, Knapp interprets several works of Artaud, arguing that they represent his medium for expressing and transforming the sick and sordid aspects of the human psyche.]

As actor, director, poet, scenario writer or art critic, in whatever field of endeavor Antonin Artaud1 chose to express himself, he sought to penetrate deep within man's unconscious into what became known as “the world of sur-reality.” He wanted to extract from it and materialize those painful and frightening thoughts and clusters of sensations which man wants to conceal from himself or...

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George E. Wellwarth (essay date 1964)

“Antonin Artaud: The Prophet of the Avant-Garde Theater,” in The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama, New York University Press, 1964, pp. 14-27.

[In the following essay, Wellwarth compares Artaud's dramatic theories to the work of Alfred Jarry.]

[This essay appeared in a slightly different form in Drama Survey, Vol. 2, Winter, 1963, pp. 276–87.]

One of the more curious and paradoxical aspects of modern theatrical history is that trends in the drama have been started not by the playwrights but by the critics. The dramatist presents the thesis, but it is the critical commentator who presents the...

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Naomi Greene (essay date 1967)

“Antonin Artaud: Metaphysical Revolutionary,” in Yale French Studies, No. 39, 1967, pp. 188-97.

[In the following essay, Greene traces Artaud's concept of language, his distinction between political and cultural revolution, and the changes in his thought regarding whether body or spirit has primacy.]

Albert Camus has written that there are fundamentally two types of revolution: one—characterized as revolt—is metaphysical; the other, political. A metaphysical revolutionary rebels against the limitations placed upon him by the very nature of human existence, against the laws governing life and death. Unlike a political revolutionary, involved with the problems of...

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Mary Ann Caws (essay date February 1968)

“Artaud's Myth of Motion,” in The French Review, Vol. 41, No. 4, February, 1968, pp. 532-38.

[In the following essay, Caws describes the illness which paralyzed Artaud's thought and movement in the context of his belief in a theater of myth created through the expressive language not of words but of mental and physical mnovement.]

J'estime avoir assez emmerdé les hommes par le comple-rendu de mon contingentement spirituel, de mon atroce disette psychique, et je pense qu'ils sont en droit d'attendre de moi autre chose que des cris d'impuissance et que le dénombrement de mes impossibilités, ou que je me taise. Mais le problème est justement...

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Charles Gattnig Jr. (essay date December 1968)

“Artaud and the Participatory Drama of the Now Generation,” in Educational Theater Journal, Vol. 20, No. 29, December, 1968, pp. 485-91.

[In the following essay, Gattnig shows Artaud's influence on the de-emphasis of text and the convention of a passive audience in the theater of the late 1960s.]

Some recent visitors to New York's theatres have been surprised and shocked by the kind of involvement required of them in the productions they merely came to view. The audience (which seems to dress less and less formally) is bedazzled by electric equipment: amplifiers scream; strobe lights flash; technicolor slides are projected on the walls and on the audience. The...

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Maurice M. Labelle (essay date March 1973)

“Artaud's Use of Language, Sound, and Tone,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 15, No. 4, March, 1973, pp. 383-90.

[In the following essay, Labelle discusses Artaud's use of sound, tone, pitch, and volume in his attempt to undermine conventional language and traditional theater.]

“Oh, for a language to write drama in,” Eugene O'Neill wrote in 1929. “I'm so strait-jacketed by writing in terms of talk! But where to find that language?”1 His cry of frustration reiterated the feelings of one of his French contemporaries, Antonin Artaud (1896-1948). Although O'Neill failed to answer his question, Artaud, in his plays and poems, undertook a long series of...

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Gilles Deleuze (essay date 1979)

“The Schizophrenic and Language: Surface and Depth in Lewis Carroll and Antonin Artaud,” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, edited by Josue V. Harari, Cornell University Press, 1979, pp. 277-95.

[In the following essay, Deleuze explores the differences between the languages constructed by Artaud, Lewis Carroll, and schizophrenics.]

The presence of esoteric words and portmanteau words has been pointed out in the rhyming chants of little girls, in poetry, and in the language of madness. Such an amalgamation is troubling, however. A great poet can write in a direct relation to the child that he was and the children that he loves; a...

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Jane Goodall (essay date Summer 1987)

“Artaud's Revision of Shelley's The Cenci: The Text and its Double,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 115-26.

[In the following essay, comparing Artaud's version of The Cenci to Shelley's, Goodall pays particular attention to showing how Artaud reframes a narrative dependent on language into a play of forces realized by the language of movement and gesture.]

The plague takes images that are dormant, a latent disorder, and suddenly extends them into the most extreme gestures; the theater also takes gestures and pushes them as far as they will go: like the plague it reforges the chain between what is and what is...

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Lawrence R. Schehr (essay date Winter 1992)

“Artaud's Revolution: Nowhere to Turn,” in Romance Notes, Vol. 33, No. 2, Winter, 1992, pp. 109-17.

[In the following essay, Schehr argues that Artaud did not consider the transfer of social, economic, and political power from one class to another revolutionary if there was not also a continual subversion of the self, and of the language and grammar which enable its expression.]

We owe Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva debts of gratitude for having made Artaud the focus of contemporary literary inquiry. As early as 1967 in “La Parole soufflée,” Derrida reflects on a corpus that extends from Artaud's early work on the theater to the letters written at Rodez;...

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Kathy Foley (essay date March 1992)

“Trading Art(s): Artaud, Spies, and Current Indonesian/American Artistic Exchange and Collaboration,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 35, No. 1, March, 1992, pp. 10-19.

[In the following excerpt, Foley analyzes the influence of Balanese theater on Artaud's ideas about the form, function, and possibilites of his own theater.]

In 1990-91 as part of the Festival of Indonesia, a government to government exchange of the arts, a wealth of Indonesian performance toured American cities. Over the same eighteen-month period there were an equivalent number of collaborative productions mounted by Indonesian directors, writers, choreographers, and U.S. groups (Keith Terry and I Wayan...

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Thomas Akstens (essay date 1994)

“Representation and De-realization: Artaud, Genet, and Sartre,” in Antonin Artaud and the Modern Theater, edited by Gene A. Plunka, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994, pp. 170-82.

[In the following essay, Akstens argues that there is a similar attempt in the work of Artaud and Jean Genet to “de-realize” accepted images and definitions of reality.]

This paper concerns two writers who have been highly mythologized: Antonin Artaud and Jean Genet. There is an idea of Artaud; there is an idea of Genet. It is profoundly ironic that Artaud, who complained bitterly of “a rupture between things and words, between things and the ideas and signs...

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Leonard R. Koos (essay date 1994)

“Comic Cruelty: Artaud and Jarry,” in Antonin Artaud and the Modern Theater, edited by Gene A. Plunka, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994, pp. 37-50.

[In the following essay, Koos argues that Alfred Jarry strongly influenced Artaud's concept of comedy and of its importance to the theater of cruelty.]

Our speaking on the theme of comedy will appear almost a libertine proceeding to one, while the other will think that the speaking of it seriously brings us into violent conflict with the subject.

—George Meredith, An Essay on Comedy

By providing us with the...

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Louis Sass (essay date May 1996)

“‘The Catastrophes of Heaven’: Modernism, Primitivism, and the Madness of Antonin Artaud,” in Modernism / Modernity, Vol. 3, No. 2, May, 1996, pp. 73-91.

[In the following essay, Sass presents a case history of Artaud as artist, primitivist, and madman, arguing that neither Artaud's art nor his madness led him out of the “malaise of modern existence,” characterized by the conflict between consciousness and instinctual being, but deeper into it.]

To heal the catastrophes of heaven, Voyage to the land of speaking blood.1


These words, with their suggestion of a hoped-for...

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Z. Bart Thornton (essay date March 1997)

“Linguistic Disenchantment and Architectural Solace in DeLillo and Artaud,” in Mosaic, Vol. 30, No. 1, March, 1997, pp. 97-112.

[In the following essay, Thornton argues that in their work both Artaud and the novelist Don DeLillo transform language into an architecture of sounds.]

Contemporary literary criticism and modern philosophy are rife with architectural metaphors: just as literary critics speak of surfaces and structures, foundations, frames, and fissures, so philosophers from Kant to Heidegger to Derrida have invoked structural concepts in their theorizing. Without the architectural figure, as Mark Wigley has claimed, much of...

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David Sterritt (essay date December 1998)

“Kerouac, Artaud, and the Baroque Period of the Three Stooges,” in Mosaic, Vol. 31, No. 4, December, 1998, pp. 83-98.

[In the following essay, Sterritt argues that the writings of Jack Kerouac, the comedy of the Three Stooges, Kerouac's riffs on the Stooges, Artaud's writings about the theater of cruelty, and his wish for a body without organs are all related attempts to transcend the constraints of everyday life by the spirit of carnival.]

American life in the 1950s era was famously marked by conservative discourses of consumerism, consensus, conformity, and cold war. Less frequently noted is the fact that these ideologies were challenged by a variety of...

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Further Reading


Arnold, Paul. “The Artaud Experiment.” Tulane Drama Review 8, No. 2 (Winter 1963): 15-29.

Although supporting Artaud's vision, argues that the liberation from destruction and evil through engaging in “a time of evil,” which Artaud espoused, failed in theatrical practice.

Brown, Erella. “Cruelty and Affirmation in the Postmodern Theater: Antonin Artaud and Hanoch Levin.”Modern Drama 35 (1992): 585-606.

Considers the devaluation of the verbal in postmodern drama within the context of Artaud's elevation of gesture over language.

Brustein, Robert. “Antonin Artaud and Jean...

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