(Drama Criticism)

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.