Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) was one of the 20th century's most important theoreticians of the drama. He developed the theory of the Theater of Cruelty, which has influenced playwrights from Beckett to Genet, from Albee to Gelber.
Antonin-Marie-Joseph Artaud was born in Marseilles on September 4, 1896, the son of a wealthy shipfitter and a mother from a Greek background. At age five he suffered a near-fatal attack of meningitis, the results of which remained with him for the rest of his life.
He was educated at the Coll'e du Sacré Coeur in Marseilles and at 14 founded a literary magazine, which he kept going for almost four years. Still in his teens, he began to have sharp head pains, which continued throughout his life. In 1914 he was the victim of an attack of neurasthenia and was treated in a rest home; the following year he was given opium to alleviate his pain, and he became addicted within a few months.
He was inducted into the army in 1916, but was released in less than a year on grounds of both mental instability and drug addiction. In 1918 he committed himself to a clinic in Switzerland, where he remained until 1920.
On his release, he went immediately to Paris, still under medical supervision, and began to study with Charles Dullin, an actor and director. He soon began to find jobs as a stage and screen actor and as a set and costume designer. Within the next decade, he appeared on film in Fait Divers and Surcourt—le roi des corsairs (1924); Abel Gance's Na-poléon Boneparte (1925); La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928); Tarakanowa (1929); G. W. Pabst's Dreigroschenoper, made in Berlin (1930); and Les Croix des Bois, Faubourg Montmartre, and Femme d'une nuit (all 1930). On stage he had roles in He Who Gets Slapped (1923), Six Characters in Search of an Author (1924), and R.U.R. (1924).
At the same time, Artaud became seriously interested in the surrealist movement headed by André Breton and in 1923 published a volume of symbolist verse strongly influenced by Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud, Tric trac du ciel (Backgammon of the Sky). Two years later, at the height of his involvement with the surrealists, he published L'Ombilic des limbes (Umbilical Limbo), a collection of letters, poems in prose, and bits of dialogue; it contained one complete work, the five-minute playlet Le Jet de sang (The Jet of Blood), which was finally produced in 1964.
Artaud broke with the organized surrealist movement in 1926, when Breton became a Communist and attempted to take his fellow-members with him into the party. Yet Artaud continued to view himself as a surrealist and in 1927 wrote the filmscript for La Coquille et le clergyman, perhaps the most famous surrealist film, and Les P'e-nerfs (Nerve Scales), another collection containing various literary forms.
As A Producer
It was also in 1927 that he joined with Roger Vitrac and Robert Aron to found the Théâtre Alfred Jarry, named for the author of the 1896 play Ubu roi, which had so shocked the theatrical establishment of its time. Their theater had no permanent home, so they leased space in established theaters. In their first year they presented two programs, the first an evening of three one-act plays, one contributed by each of the founders, and Léon Poirier's Verdun, visions d'histoire. The following year they produced one evening which combined the film of Maxim Gorky's The Mother and the last act of Paul Claudel's Partage de midi, another of Strindberg's Dream Play, and their final effort, Vitrac's Victor ou les enfants du pouvoir.
Working as a theatrical producer gave Artaud an insight into the exigencies of the practical aspects of theater, with which he was not happy. Then, in 1931, he saw a Balinese drama at the French Colonial Exposition in Paris and found in this work, which stressed spectacle and dance, the ideal for which he had been searching.
As A Theoretician
In 1932-1933 he published his first work of dramatic theory, Manifestes du théâtre de la cruauté (Manifestos of the Theater of Cruelty), and in 1935 staged the first work based on his theories, an adaptation of Les Cenci, heavily dependent on the earlier works on that theme by the British poet Shelley and the French novelist Stendhal. Since one of Artaud's theories involved the breaking of the barrier between actors and audience, Les Cenci may be have been the first play ever staged in the round. In any event, it was a total failure.
Shattered, Artaud went to Mexico in 1930 and stayed there for the better part of a year, spending some time with the sun-worshipping Tarahumara Indians. On his return to France, he became engaged to a Belgian girl and tried to end his drug dependence. In May of 1937, giving a lecture in Brussels, he went completely out of control and began screaming at the audience. In the fall of that same year, on a visit to Ireland, he was declared mentally unfit, put in a straitjacket, and sent back to France. Ironically, it was shortly thereafter that his most important and influential work, Le Théâtre et son double (The Theater and Its Double), was published.
Diagnosed as schizophrenic, Artaud spent the next nine years in mental institutions, returning to Paris in triumph, acclaimed as a genius after his three-hour lecture-reading to an audience which included Nobel laureate Andre Gide, future Nobel laureate Albert Camus, and André Breton. Artaud died of cancer on March 4, 1948, in a rest home near Paris. Unlike his fellow theoretician of the drama, Bertolt Brecht, whose plays have been widely honored and frequently performed, Artaud had no success at all with his endeavors in drama, poetry, or fiction. His reputation rests entirely on his critical work.
In a word, Artaud called for a theater that is anti-intellectual. He believed that the drama of the past 400 years had become sterile and had no future. In the essay "No More Masterpieces" he laid the blame for the psychologically oriented drama on Shakespeare and elsewhere blamed Racine, but, wherever the responsibility lies, he asserted that the attempts "to reduce the unknown to the known, to the quotidian and ordinary" had brought the theater to the sorry state in which he found it.
Besides the psychological concerns, he also objected to the emphasis on the written word, the primacy of spoken poetry. In "The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto)" he said that "it is essential to put an end to the subjugation of the theater to the text and to recover the notion of a kind of unique language half-way between gesture and thought."
What Artaud offered as a substitute was the Theater of Cruelty. In the essays "Letters on Cruelty," Artaud said, "This cruelty is a matter of neither sadism nor bloodshed. …" He went on, "I do not systematically cultivate horror … cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination." He added, "It is a mistake to give the word 'cruelty' a meaning of merciless bloodshed and disinterested gratuitous pursuit of physical suffering. … Cruelty is above all lucid, a kind of rigid control and submission to necessity. There is no cruelty without consciousness. …"
Yet, at the same time, it must be remembered that in one of his staged works Artaud picked as the theme the Cencis, a tale of rape, incest, and murder; that another of his works concerned the warped and dissolute Roman emperor Heliogabalus, and that one of his favorite British plays was 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, also about incest and murder.
What Artaud's Theater of Cruelty had to offer instead of the conventional was a theater in which spectacle played the main role. Instead of poetic language, there would be a series of sounds and " … these intonations will constitute a kind of harmonic balance, a secondary deformation of speech. …"
There will be musical instruments, he said, which will be "treated as objects and as part of the set." The lighting will be calculated to produce "an element of thinness, density, and opaqueness, with a view to producing the sensations of heat, cold, anger, fear, etc." The dress should be "age-old costumes of ritualistic intent," while the stage should be "a single site, without partition or barrier of any kind." He adds: "Manikins, enormous masks, objects of strange proportions will appear." As to the set, "There will not be any set." Finally, there will be no script: "We shall not act a written play, but we shall make attempts at direct staging, around themes, facts, or known works."
While Artaud's theory was not successful in eradicating a theater based on texts, it made play-producers more conscious of elaborate sets, of movement (particularly the dance), and of an attention to myth, another of his concerns. Hence, his influence continued to be strong decades after his death in 1948.
Further Reading on Antonin Artaud
No understanding of Artaud would be possible without a reading of the The Theater and Its Double, translated by Mary C. Richards (1958). The best biography in English is Artaud and After by Ronald Hayman (1977). Another excellent appreciation is Artaud by Martin Esslin, and important contributions appear in The Theater of Revolt by Robert Brustein (1964) and Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag (1966). Any good history of 20th-century theater will contain a good analysis, e.g., History of the Modern Theater by Tom Driver (1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Esslin, Martin., Antonin Artaud, New York: Penguin Books, 1977, 1976.
Esslin, Martin., Artaud, London: J. Calder, 1976; Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1976.
Hayman, Ronald, Artaud and After, Oxford Eng.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.