Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud, better known as Antonin Artaud (French: [aʁto]; 4 September 1896 – 4 March 1948), was a French dramatist, poet, essayist, actor, and theatre director, widely recognized as one of the major figures of twentieth-century theatre and the European avant-garde.
Antoine Artaud was born 4 September 1896 in Marseille, France, to Euphrasie Nalpas and Antoine-Roi Artaud. Both his parents were natives of Smyrna (modern-day İzmir), and he was greatly affected by his Greek ancestry. His mother gave birth to nine children, four out of the nine were stillborn and two more died in childhood. He contracted spinal meningitis at the age of 4. This disease has no cure, but after a long struggle including a comatose period, a severely weakened Antonin survived.
Artaud's parents arranged a long series of sanatorium stays for their temperamental son, which were both prolonged and expensive. This lasted five years, with a break of two months in June and July 1916, when Artaud was conscripted into the French Army. He was allegedly discharged due to his self-induced habit of sleepwalking. During Artaud's "rest cures" at the sanatorium, he read Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, and Edgar Allan Poe. In May 1919, the director of the sanatorium prescribed laudanum for Artaud, precipitating a lifelong addiction to that and other opiates.
In March 1920, Artaud moved to Paris to pursue a career as a writer, and instead discovered he had a talent for avant-garde theatre. While training and performing with directors including Charles Dullin and Georges Pitoeff, he continued to write both poetry and essays. At the age of 27, he mailed some of his poems to the journal La Nouvelle Revue Française; they were rejected, but the editor, Jacques Rivière, wrote back seeking to understand him, and a relationship via letters developed. Their compilation into an epistolary work, Correspondance avec Jacques Rivière, was Artaud's first major publication.
Artaud cultivated a great interest in cinema as well, writing the scenario for the first surrealist film, The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), directed by Germaine Dulac. This film influenced Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, two key Spanish surrealists, when they made Un Chien Andalou (1929). Artaud's performance as Jean-Paul Marat in Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) used exaggerated movements to convey the fire of Marat's personality. He also played the monk Massieu in Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
In 1926–28, Artaud ran the Alfred Jarry Theatre, along with Roger Vitrac. He produced and directed original works by Vitrac, as well as pieces by Claudel and Strindberg. The theatre advertised that they would produce Artaud's play Jet de sang in their 1926–1927 season, but it was never mounted and was not premiered until 40 years later. The Theatre was extremely short-lived, but was attended by an enormous range of European artists, including André Gide, Arthur Adamov, and Paul Valéry.
In 1931, Artaud saw Balinese dance performed at the Paris Colonial Exposition. Although he did not fully understand the intentions and ideas behind traditional Balinese performance, it influenced many of his ideas for theatre. Also during this year, Artaud's "First Manifesto for a Theatre of Cruelty" was published in La Nouvelle Revue Française; it would later appear as a chapter in The Theatre and Its Double. In 1935, Artaud's production of his adaptation of Shelley's The Cenci premiered. Les Censi was a commercial failure, although it employed innovative sound effects-including the first theatrical use of the electronic instrument the Ondes Martenot—and had a set designed by Balthus.
After the production failed, Artaud received a grant to travel to Mexico, where in 1936 he met his first Mexican-Parisian friend, the painter Federico Cantú, when Cantú gave lectures on the decadence of Western civilization. Artaud also studied and lived with the Tarahumaran people and experimented with peyote, recording his experiences, which were later released in a volume called Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara. (In 1976, an English translation was published under the title The Peyote Dance.) The content of this work closely resembles the poems of his later days, concerned primarily with the supernatural. Artaud also recorded his horrific withdrawal from heroin upon entering the land of the Tarahumaras. Having deserted his last supply of the drug at a mountainside, he literally had to be hoisted onto his horse and soon resembled, in his words, "a giant, inflamed gum". Artaud would return to opiates later in life.
In 1937, Artaud returned to France, where he obtained a walking stick of knotted wood that he believed belonged not only to St. Patrick, but also Lucifer and Jesus Christ. Artaud traveled to Ireland, landing at Cobh and travelling to Galway, in an effort to return the staff, though he spoke very little English and was unable to make himself understood. He would not have been admitted at Cobh, according to Irish government documents, except that he carried a letter of introduction from the Paris embassy. The majority of his trip was spent in a hotel room he was unable to pay for. He was forcibly removed from the grounds of Milltown House, a Jesuit community, when he refused to leave. Before deportation he was briefly confined in the notorious Mountjoy Prison. According to Irish Government papers he was deported as "a destitute and undesirable alien". On his return trip by ship, Artaud believed he was being attacked by two crew members and retaliated. He was arrested and put in a straitjacket.
His best-known work, The Theatre and Its Double, was published in 1938. This book contained the two manifestos of the Theatre of Cruelty. There, "he proposed a theatre that was in effect a return to magic and ritual and he sought to create a new theatrical language of totem and gesture – a language of space devoid of dialogue that would appeal to all the senses." "Words say little to the mind," Artaud wrote, "compared to space thundering with images and crammed with sounds." He proposed "a theatre in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theatre as by a whirlwind of higher forces." He considered formal theatres with their proscenium arches and playwrights with their scripts "a hindrance to the magic of genuine ritual."
The return from Ireland brought about the beginning of the final phase of Artaud's life, which was spent in different asylums. When France was occupied by the Nazis, friends of Artaud had him transferred to the psychiatric hospital in Rodez, well inside Vichy territory, where he was put under the charge of Dr. Gaston Ferdière. Ferdière began administering electroshock treatments to eliminate Artaud's symptoms, which included various delusions and odd physical tics. The doctor believed that Artaud's habits of crafting magic spells, creating astrology charts, and drawing disturbing images were symptoms of mental illness. The electroshock treatments created much controversy, although it was during these treatments—in conjunction with Ferdière's art therapy—that Artaud began writing and drawing again, after a long dormant period. In 1946, Ferdière released Artaud to his friends, who placed him in the psychiatric clinic at Ivry-sur-Seine.
Artaud was encouraged to write by his friends, and interest in his work was rekindled. He visited an exhibition of works by Vincent van Gogh which resulted in a study Van Gogh le suicidé de la société [Van Gogh, The Man Suicided by Society], published by K éditeur, Paris, 1947 which won a critics' prize. He recorded Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu [To Have Done With the Judgment of God] between 22 and 29 November 1947. This work was shelved by Wladimir Porché, the director of the French Radio, the day before its scheduled airing on 2 February 1948. The performance was prohibited partially as a result of its scatological, anti-American, and anti-religious references and pronouncements, but also because of its general randomness, with a cacophony of xylophonic sounds mixed with various percussive elements. While remaining true to his Theatre of Cruelty and reducing powerful emotions and expressions into audible sounds, Artaud had utilized various, somewhat alarming cries, screams, grunts, onomatopoeia, and glossolalia.
As a result, Fernand Pouey, the director of dramatic and literary broadcasts for French radio, assembled a panel to consider the broadcast of Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu. Among the approximately 50 artists, writers, musicians, and journalists present for a private listening on 5 February 1948 were Jean Cocteau, Paul Éluard, Raymond Queneau, Jean-Louis Barrault, René Clair, Jean Paulhan, Maurice Nadeau, Georges Auric, Claude Mauriac, and René Char. Although the panel felt almost unanimously in favor of Artaud's work, Porché refused to allow the broadcast. Pouey left his job and the show was not heard again until 23 February 1948 at a private performance at the Théâtre Washington.
In January 1948, Artaud was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. He died shortly afterwards on 4 March 1948, alone in the psychiatric clinic, at the foot of his bed, clutching his shoe. It was suspected that he died from a lethal dose of the drug chloral hydrate, although it is unknown whether he was aware of its lethality. The clinic is located in Ivry-Sur-Seine, which is a commune in the southeastern suburbs of Paris. Thirty years later, French radio finally broadcast the performance of Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu.
Apprenticeship with Charles Dullin
Arguably one of Artaud’s most significant influences in shaping his radical ideas for the theater was Charles Dullin. Dullin, a cohort and collaborator of the celebrated French “teacher-directors” Jacques Copeau, André Antoine, and Firmin Gémier, founded in July 1921 what he referred to as a “laboratory theater” which he named “Théâtre de l'Atelier”, located in Néronville, France. Dullin’s goal when he created this theater, where he trained aspiring actors, was to create the “complete actor”, “to form actors with a general culture, which they so often lack; to inculcate them from the very beginning with solid principles of actors’ techniques: good diction, physical training; to expand their means of expression to include dance and pantomime; in one word, to form the complete actor.”
Artaud was taken on as an apprentice by Dullin in 1921, under whom he arduously trained for eighteen months, ten to twelve hours a day, with particular emphasis on mime, gymnastics, improvisation, voice production, and various exercises intended to heighten one’s sensory perception. By making contact with one’s surroundings, the actor was to get in tune with “La Voix du Monde” (the voice of the world), making way for “Voix de Soi-Même” (the voice of oneself), in order to be able to get the actor in tune with his true voice, with which he is to express himself on stage. Perhaps the most evident influence that Dullin had on Artaud’s 1935 stage production of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Cenci” were his improvisational exercises related to the five human senses, intended by Dullin as preparation, not for the stage. In his seminars, Dullin strongly emphasized that his actors must “see before describing, hear before answering...and feel before trying to express himself”, often using bells, the sound of footsteps, and masks as preparation.
The actors were encouraged to forget the weight of their bodies, while using them more than their faces to express themselves, often wearing a full or half mask. It was this internalization process that interested Artaud most, often focusing on man’s struggle against elemental forces, a significant theme in his “Theater of Cruelty” and the 1935 staging of “The Cenci”. Dullin recorded an exercise he gave to Artaud in which he was to mime his struggle against the currents of a river. Artaud was quoted as saying of Dullin, “Hearing Dullin teach I feel that I’m rediscovering ancient secrets and a whole forgotten mystique of production”.
In Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” he warned against the dangers of psychology in theater and strove to create a theater in which the mise-en-scène, everything present in the staging of a production, could be understood as a codified stage language, with minimal emphasis on spoken language. He voiced his concerns of the dangers relating to “psychological equilibrium” present in Dullin’s vocal improvisation exercises, “These exercises of improvisation reveal and sharpen true personality. Intonation is found within oneself and pushed out with the burning power of feeling, not achieved through imitation”. In his 1935 production of “The Cenci”, it was these raw elemental forces and his wishes for the audience to feel the character’s anguish that Artaud focused on.
The drama written by Percy Shelley contained themes of abuse, incest, violence, murder and betrayal. In Artaud’s stage directions, he described the opening scene as “suggestive of extreme atmospheric turbulence, with wind-blown drapes, waves of suddenly amplified sound, and crowds of figures engaged in ‘furious orgy’”, accompanied by “a chorus of church bells”, as well as the presence of numerous large mannequins. In this scene, which is often referred to as “the banquet scene”, Dullin’s influence on Artaud is very clear, as both the sounds of bells and the sounds of amplified footsteps were present, along with the strongly emphasized theme of elemental forces. While Percy Shelley’s version of “The Cenci” conveyed the motivations and anguish of Beatrice, the Cenci’s daughter, with her father through monologues, Artaud was much more concerned with conveying the menacing nature of the Cenci’s presence and the reverberations of their incest relationship though physical discordance, as if an invisible “force-field” surrounded them.
While Artaud implemented much of what he learned from his apprenticeship with Charles Dullin, the two butted heads towards the end of Artaud’s apprenticeship, citing differences in their goals for the theater. Lugné Poe, influential French theater director in the symbolist movement, described Artaud as “a painter lost in the midst of actors”. Artaud’s strong interest in oriental theater, specifically Balinese and Chinese, was in part shared by his mentor Dullin, but Dullin, unlike Artaud, did not think Western theater should be adopting oriental language and style. He was quoted as saying of Artaud’s influences from oriental theater, “To want to impose on our Western theater rules of a theatre of a long tradition which has its own symbolic language would be a great mistake.” Artaud’s wishes that Western theatre be much more resembling of Oriental theatre was a major source of conflict between the two French actors/directors. Artaud’s implementation of Dullin’s sensory awareness exercises into the stage production were clearly observable in “The Cenci,” Jane Goodall writes of the performance,
“The predominance of action over reflection accelerates the development of events...the monologues...are cut in favor of sudden, jarring transitions...so that a spasmodic effect is created. Extreme fluctuations in pace, pitch, and tone heighten sensory awareness intensify...the here and now of performance” -Goodall, Jane, Artaud’s Revision of Shelley’s, The Cenci’: The Text and its Double, Comparative Drama, Vol.2, N.2, 1987, pp. 119.
Artaud’s implementation of Dullins preparation techniques, not intended for the stage, in combination with the physical and symbolic language specific to oriental theater were Artaud’s strongest influences in both the shaping of “The Theater of Cruelty” and his staging of “The Cenci”.
Theater of Cruelty
Encyclopædia Britannica describe his Theater of Cruelty as "a primitive ceremonial experience intended to liberate the human subconscious and reveal man to himself", and go on to say that Manifeste du théâtre de la cruauté (1932; “Manifesto of the Theatre of Cruelty”) and Le Théâtre et son double (1938; The Theatre and Its Double) both called for "communion between actor and audience in a magic exorcism; gestures, sounds, unusual scenery, and lighting combine to form a language, superior to words, that can be used to subvert thought and logic and to shock the spectator into seeing the baseness of his world."
In his book The Theatre and Its Double, which contained the first and second manifesto for a "Theatre of Cruelty", Artaud expressed his admiration for Eastern forms of theatre, particularly the Balinese. He admired Eastern theatre because of the codified, highly ritualized and precise physicality of Balinese dance performance, and advocated what he called a "Theatre of Cruelty". At one point, he stated that by cruelty he meant not exclusively sadism or causing pain, but just as often a violent, physical determination to shatter the false reality. He believed that text had been a tyrant over meaning, and advocated, instead, for a theatre made up of a unique language, halfway between thought and gesture. Artaud described the spiritual in physical terms, and believed that all theatre is physical expression in space.
Evidently, Artaud's various uses of the term cruelty must be examined to fully understand his ideas. Lee Jamieson has identified four ways in which Artaud used the term cruelty. First, it is employed metaphorically to describe the essence of human existence.
[Nietzsche's] definition of cruelty informs Artaud's own, declaring that all art embodies and intensifies the underlying brutalities of life to recreate the thrill of experience ... Although Artaud did not formally cite Nietzsche, [their writing] contains a familiar persuasive authority, a similar exuberant phraseology, and motifs in extremis ...
Artaud's second use of the term (according to Jamieson), is as a form of discipline. Although Artaud wanted to "reject form and incite chaos" (Jamieson, p. 22), he also promoted strict discipline and rigor in his performance techniques. A third use of the term was ‘cruelty as theatrical presentation’. The Theatre of Cruelty aimed to hurl the spectator into the centre of the action, forcing them to engage with the performance on an instinctive level. For Artaud, this was a cruel, yet necessary act upon the spectator, designed to shock them out of their complacency:
Artaud sought to remove aesthetic distance, bringing the audience into direct contact with the dangers of life. By turning theatre into a place where the spectator is exposed rather than protected, Artaud was committing an act of cruelty upon them.
Artaud wanted to put the audience in the middle of the 'spectacle' (his term for the play), so they would be 'engulfed and physically affected by it'. He referred to this layout as being like a 'vortex' – a constantly shifting shape – 'to be trapped and powerless'. He also placed a great emphasis on sound rather than words or dialogue, by incorporating loud cries, screams, eerie sounds, or noises causing the audience to become uncomfortable. Words were an insufficient medium of expression.
Finally, Artaud used the term to describe his philosophical views, which will be outlined in the following section. In 1989 Norwegian actor-turned-director Lars Øyno made the performance of "Elagabal" with his colleagues at Trondelag Teatre in Trondheim, Norway. That led to the foundation of Grusomhetens Teater in Oslo in 1992. Using Artaud's manifestos as sources for a contemporary practice on stage, he made 23 plays in the theater of cruelty form. Øyno traveled in countries like India, Russia, Germany, Poland, UK, US, etc. A resurrection of the Theater of Cruelty attracted drama festivals in different countries. Yet Grusomhetens Teater is the one and only troupe in the world dedicated completely to Artaud's principles of theater.
To him, reality appeared to be a consensus, the same consensus the audience accepts when they enter a theatre to see a play and, for a time, pretend that what they are seeing is real.
Artaud saw suffering as essential to existence and thus rejected all utopias as inevitable dystopia. He denounced the degradation of civilization, yearned for cosmic purification, and called for an ecstatic loss of the self. Hence Jane Goodall considers Artaud to be a modern Gnostic while Ulli Seegers stresses the Hermetic elements in his works.
A very important study on the Artaud work comes from Jacques Derrida. According to the philosopher, as theatrical writer and actor, Artaud is the embodiment of both an aggressive and repairing gesture, which strikes, sounds out, is harsh in a dramatic way and with critical determination as well. Identifying life as art, he was critically focused on the western cultural social drama, to point out and deny the double-dealing on which the western theatrical tradition is based; he worked with the whirlpool of feelings and lunatic expressions, being subjugated to a counter-force which came from the act of gesture.
Artaud was heavily influenced by seeing a Colonial Exposition of Balinese Theatre in Marseille. He read eclectically, inspired by authors and artists such as Seneca, Shakespeare, Poe, Lautréamont, Alfred Jarry, and André Masson.
Artaud has been cited as a profoundly influential figure in the history of theater, avant-garde art, literature, and other disciplines. His work proved to be a significant influence on the Theater of the Absurd, particularly the works of Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett, and helped inspire a movement away from the dominant role of language and rationalism in contemporary theater. Artaud also had a significant influence on the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who borrowed Artaud's phrase "the body without organs" to describe their conception of the virtual dimension of the body and, ultimately, the basic substratum of reality in their Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Poet Allen Ginsberg claimed his introduction to Artaud, specifically "To Have Done with the Judgement of god", by Carl Solomon had a tremendous influence on his most famous poem "Howl".
Theatrical practitioner Peter Brook took inspiration from Artaud's "Theatre of Cruelty" in a series of workshops that led up to his Royal Shakespeare Company production of Marat/Sade in 1964, which was performed in New York and Paris as well as London. The Living Theatre was also heavily influenced by Artaud, as was much English-language experimental theatre and performance art; Karen Finley, Spalding Gray, Liz LeCompte, Richard Foreman, Charles Marowitz, Sam Shepard, Joseph Chaikin, and more all named Artaud as one of their influences. In the winter of 1968, Williams College offered a dedicated intersession class in Artaudian theater, resulting in a week-long "Festival of Cruelty," under the direction of Keith Fowler. The Festival included productions of The Jet of Blood, All Writing is Pig Shit, and several original ritualized performances, one based on the Texas Tower killings and another created as an ensemble catharsis called The Resurrection of Pig Man.
Charles Marowitz's play Artaud at Rodez is about the relationship between Artaud and Dr. Ferdière during Artaud's confinement at the psychiatric hospital in Rodez; the play was first performed in 1976 at the Teatro a Trastavere in Rome. The writer and actor Tim Dalgleish wrote and produced the play ‘The Life and Theatre of Antonin Artaud’ (originally called ‘Pigshit’) for the English physical theatre company Bare Bones in 1999. The play told Artaud’s story from his early years of aspiration when he wished to be part to the establishment, through to his final years as a suffering, iconoclastic outsider.In Canada, playwright Gary Botting created a series of Artaudian "happenings" from The Aeolian Stringer to Zen Rock Festival, and produced a dozen plays with an Artaudian theme, including Prometheus Re-Bound. The Latin American dramatic novel Yo-Yo Boing! by Giannina Braschi includes a debate between artists and poets concerning the merits of Artaud's "multiple talents" in comparison to the singular talents of other French writers. The band Bauhaus included a song about the playwright, called "Antonin Artaud", on their album Burning from the Inside. Influential Argentine hard rock band Pescado Rabioso recorded an album titled Artaud. Their leader Luis Alberto Spinetta wrote the lyrics partly basing them on Artaud's writings. Composer John Zorn has written many works inspired by and dedicated to Artaud, including seven cds: "Astronome", "Moonchild: Songs Without Words", "Six Litanies for Heliogabalus", "The Crucible", "Ipsissimus", "Templars: In Sacred Blood" and "The Last Judgment", a monodrama for voice and orchestra inspired by Artaud's late drawings "La Machine de l'être" (2000), "Le Momo" (1999) for violin and piano, and "Suppots et Suppliciations" (2012) for full orchestra. Filmmaker E. Elias Merhige, during an interview by writer Scott Nicolay, cited the writings of Artaud as a key influence for the experimental film Begotten.
Youth film company ACT 2 CAM work is inspired by the writings of Artaud. Their 2012 feature film is entitled Beggars' Teeth, after the Artaud quotation "All true language is incomprehensible, like the chatter of Beggars' Teeth".
- Graziella (1926)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
- Verdun: Visions of History (1928)
- La Femme d'une nuit (1931)
- Lucrezia Borgia (1935)
- Koenigsmark (1935)