The Theater and Its Double Analysis
by Antonin Artaud

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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After he had completed his play Les Cenci (1935; The Cenci, 1969), Antonin Artaud conceived of the idea of collecting his writings on theater into a book that would outline his vision for a new kind of theater. Despite his failure to realize his vision in his production of The Cenci, Artaud continued to prepare new articles for his book and to crystallize his thinking on theater as he journeyed to Mexico to investigate the ritual performances of the Indians. In mid-voyage, Artaud settled on The Theater and Its Double as the title for his seminal work on theater, and he proofed the final copy upon his return to France. Artaud was an erratic genius plagued by a lifelong mental illness, to which he finally succumbed. By the time The Theater and Its Double was printed in 1938, Artaud had been institutionalized and remained so until 1946.

The Theater and Its Double is a collection of visionary essays, heated lectures, formal manifestos, defensive letters, and insightful reviews. All the works were written between 1931 and 1936. Some of them had already appeared in periodicals and pamphlets or had been delivered as lectures, while others were written specifically for publication in book form. Artaud himself arranged the order of the works, ignoring the chronological sequence in which they were written.

Although the book is by no means the work of a systematic thinker, it does have a loosely defined shape, moving from generalities to specifics. First, it discusses the metaphysical foundations for Artaud’s plans to reform theater; then it shows how those plans would be put into action. In his preface, “The Theater and Culture,” Artaud notes the demise of Western culture and its inability to confront the crucial needs of the modern individual. Because culture is impotent and ineffectual, Artaud calls for a new art form centered on a dynamic theater. Next, Artaud gives form to his revolutionary ideas by focusing on three metaphors: the plague, the metaphysics of action, and alchemy. In each of the first three essays in the book (“The Theater and the Plague,” “Metaphysics and the Mise en Scene,” and “The Alchemical Theater”), Artaud describes a violent upheaval, a process of transformation, and a rite of purification. In these essays, Artaud speaks with a voice of prophetic urgency, mixing graphic descriptions with deeply mystical pronouncements. He compares his theater to the plague. Both are violent and cataclysmic events which overturn the social order and purge the population. By reproducing the chaotic effects of the plague, theater can purify an audience through a “redeeming epidemic,” much like a vaccine. Second, Artaud compares the theater to “metaphysics in action.” Through the presentation of a series of signs and symbols, the theater becomes a transcendent experience which elevates the audience into a world of spiritual ecstasy. Finally, Artaud compares theater to alchemy. Both use essential ingredients and symbolic formulas to create a physical form and to distill it into a spiritual essence. By using these metaphors to explain his views on theater, Artaud sets the tone for the rest of his book: Theater is a powerful force that can work a magical transformation upon an audience. The next two essays in the book advance this theme as they contrast Western theater, which...

(The entire section is 807 words.)